Hanna-Barbera (1979), Warner Archive (October 19, 2010), 1 disc, 95 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, Not Rated, Retail: $19.95
The Justice League matches powers with a small army of supervillains in a challenge to save the world, then find themselves subjected to a celebrity roast hosted by Ed McMahon.
The Sweatbox Review:
File this one under: “I never thought I’d see the day…” I never imagined that Warner would ever release this show on DVD. It never occurred to me that they would even consider it. Talk about obscure. Talk about bizarre. Talk about bad! But, with the advent of Warner Archive, their manufacture-on-demand program that offers DVD-R discs for those interested in owning what most would not, it seems that all things are possible. I guess they figured they may as well get a piece of this pie, seeing as how bootlegs of this show have been getting sold at comic conventions for many years, alongside Corman’s Fantastic Four and episodes of Mr. Terrific.
For those who haven’t seen it, though, you can now own your very own authorized copy of one of the cheesiest comic book adaptations of all time. This was actually a rare, live action show done by famed animation studio Hanna-Barbera, back in the days when they were making cool-for-kids (but really kind of lousy) Super Friends cartoons. I don’t know how on earth this live action version came to be, but legendary comic book artist Shelly Moldoff does get recognized for having at least part of the idea in the end credits. The idea seems to have been to create a real-life version of Challenge Of The Superfriends, creating a superhero/supervillain clash on a budget, utilizing state-of-the-art el cheapo effects, and costumes largely consisting of polyester and foam. Two one-hour episodes were produced, aired on separate nights in January of 1979.
The biggest draw was undoubtedly to see Adam West and Burt Ward again as Batman and Robin, as well as Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. The reunion of these television greats seems like a golden idea, but keep in mind that this is now ten years after their hit Batman show, looking a little pudgier and a little sillier in the tights. And Ward is even less convincing at this point in playing a teenage boy! Their casting also points to the tone in the show; though, as it goes, it runs right past camp into outright comedy, particularly the second episode.
And how could it not? The heroes are mostly a bunch of unknowns, but the villains are a who’s who of journeyman comedic actors. Just look at The Weather Wizard himself, Jeff Altman. You may not recognize the name, but you’ve seen him all over the place. He was Hughie Hogg on The Dukes Of Hazard, and had appearances on everything from Mork And Mindy to Archie Bunker’s Place. Charlie Callas, who plays Green Lantern’s nemesis Sinestro, has a career that dates back to Jackie Gleason and The Munsters, not to mention Mel Brooks movies. Howard Morris got the plum role of mad scientist Dr. Sivana, but he’s been seen in everything from Your Show Of Shows to Fantasy Island, and also appeared in Mel Brooks comedies, not to mention voicing characters for Hanna-Barbera cartoons and other studios. Giant-sized Mickey Morton plays Solomon Grundy, making him the only one in the cast to be in both this and the similarly legendarily awful Star Wars Holiday Special (where he played Chewbacca’s wife!). Gabriel Dell had been in TV since the 1950s, and here plays Mordru the wizard (even though he pesters the Legion Of Superheroes a thousand years in the future in the comics). Laugh-In’s Ruth Buzzi even appears as Aunt Minerva in the second episode.
The heroes include much of the Justice League, but there’s no Superman or Wonder Woman, who had other projects that year. Still, this show did give audiences their first live view of Hawkman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Hawkman, Black Canary, and The Huntress; and Captain Marvel appears for the first time since his Filmation series. For the most part, their combined filmography adds up to this show, plus episodes of Supertrain and Dallas, with only Rod Haase (The Flash) having had much of a Hollywood career to speak of.
I will give some credit to the costume department, at least. They had to work with a shoestring budget, but they at least kept things authentic. Our heroes look pretty much just like what they’re supposed to, even if someone forgot to tuck in Batman’s cowl, Hawkman’s helmet looks somewhat ridiculous, and the Flash’s lightning bolt points the wrong way. All things considered, they did pretty well. At least Hawkman’s wings look good, and Black Canary is indeed wearing fishnets. Yes!
In the first episode, we find that the villains are planning to blow up the world, using a device invented by Dr. Sivana. The Riddler plants clues for our heroes just to give them a fighting chance, while the other villains join in the fun as they distract and delay the superheroes by disguising themselves and generally engaging in shenanigans. See Solomon Grundy pump gas, The Weather Wizard sell Batman a used motorbike (after Batman simply walks away from a fight with Grundy because Grundy’s too tough!), The Riddler psychoanalyze Captain Marvel, Dr. Sivana sell lemonade at a street stand, and Sinestro tell Green Lantern’s fortune while playing cute as a (female) gypsy fortune teller. And wait until you see Batman chase Mordru on watercraft! It’s all very silly, but the comedy chops of the actors involved almost manages to make it acceptable. Marsha Warfield, later to appear on Night Court, has a non-credited role as a lady at a public phone who provides a fun running commentary on the ludicrous events.
With disaster averted, the heroes go back to their secret hideout (which looks suspiciously like a re-lit and re-dressed version of the villain’s lair), where Ed McMahon (yes, Johnny Carson’s second banana) hosts a celebrity-style roast. Dean Martin and Don Rickles may be missing, but fortunately Ed has lined up a number of friends, family, and foes to give it to the superheroes. Also in attendance as a special guest is The Scarlet Cyclone, now known as the aged Retired Man, played by TV veteran William Schallert (Nancy Drew’s dad, among many other roles). Familiar actress Pat Carroll (Ursula from The Little Mermaid) appears as Hawkman’s hard-done-by mother. Brad Sanders takes on the most notorious role in the show, the cringe worthy Ghetto Man, who berates the heroes for their lack of color (Green Lantern, he says, doesn’t count). The villains all get their say, too, to varying degrees of comedy success. Howard Morris seems to be having the most fun, hamming it up to a delightfully massive degree as Dr. Sivana. We also see an interview with the odd couple of The Atom and Giganta, who seem oblivious to the problems inherent in following through on marital commitments.
This is one of those “just-can’t-look-away” train wrecks that must be seen to be believed. If you’ve ever loved the Adam West Batman, DC comic books, or 1970s TV comedians, you may very well be interested in seeing this. Taken as a comedy, it does actually have plenty of funny moments, particularly in The Roast. If you try to take it at all seriously (though the laugh track should give it away!), then it’s ludicrously horrible, yet might still survive in the category of “so bad it’s good.” You know now what you’re getting yourself in for. Personally, I think it makes for a great curiosity to show your friends when they’re in the mood for a laugh, especially if they know the characters.
Is This Thing Loaded?
Surprisingly, this is one of the very few Warner Archive releases to have bonus material! I know, I can’t believe it either. It even gets it’s own menu screen, not one of those yucky Warner Archive standard ones that they used to use.
Deleted Scenes And Outtakes (8:25) offers nothing too exciting, but it’s neat that they found anything to give us at all. Dr. Sivana conducts physicals at the Roast, Green Lantern waits for the director to shout “Action!”, and Solomon Grundy notes that a car horn ruined a shot. Half of the runtime is actually just alternate audio for Mordu’s big, evil rendition of That’s Entertainment, which comes at the end of The Roast.
The DVD-R comes in a standard keepcase. The photos on the case come out a little fuzzy, owing to the source material. The package makes no mention of the bonus material within.
Ink And Paint:
I suspect that the source material for this disc was a videotape master, or perhaps the show was only shot in 16mm or an otherwise poor film stock— or all of the above. Whatever the reason, the video here is anything but refined, as we see colors bloom and we lose detail. It’s not as blurry as the bootlegs I’ve seen, certainly, but it’s far from what one normally expects from DVD. The DVD mastering seems to have been done well, otherwise, with other video artifacts being minimal.
The audio is not really hissy, but it does sound pretty flat and hollow. Considering what we’re watching, and what the source material must have been like, it’s really quite decent, though.
Those of you harbouring bootlegs can pitch those old VHS tapes out and revel in the official DVD release. Those of you that have never seen this show will be amazed at what passed for entertainment in 1979. By now, you should know if this one’s for you. Kitschy fun or disco era debacle? You decide!
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?
Legends Of The Superheroes may also be ordered directly from Warner Archive.