Cambria Productions (1959), Brentwood Home Video/BCI (March 22, 2005), 3 discs, 520 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital Mono, Rated G, Retail: $14.98
A pilot, his boy buddy, and a dachshund travel the world aiding those in need in this classic television show that stretches the term “animated” to the max.
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Back in 1959 your viewing options for cartoons on television, especially new ones, were pretty limited. Gumby had started in 1957, and Ruff And Reddy was still playing along with a couple of other Hanna-Barbera shows (one with a slow-talking dog, as I recall), but there was not much else besides repeated airings of older theatrical shorts starring Mighty Mouse and Popeye. And more importantly, you will note, the cartoons available were all of the humorous variety. In stark contrast to the eclectic Sunday funnies in newspapers, television cartoons were deficient when it came to action and adventure.
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What TV needed in 1959 was a show that could compete with the derring-do of a newspaper strip like Terry And The Pirates (which had itself a live action show way back in 1952). Unfortunately, that would be expensive to do in animation, as Hanna-Barbera found out years later with Jonny Quest. This would mean that the animation would have to be more limited than that found in any Hanna-Barbera shows or even that other 1959 show, Rocky And His Friends. With minimal animation, though, something visual would need to be added to make the show memorable. What it needed was— real lips!!
Yes, I said lips. Real lips. But I digress… I’ll get back to the lips in a minute.
Hollywood’s Cambria Productions was the studio responsible for bringing cartoon adventure storytelling to television with 1959’s Clutch Cargo. The syndicated show was designed by cartoonist Clark Haas, who showed a similarity in style in some ways to Terry And The Pirates creator Milt Caniff (not that I’m suggesting that he had anywhere near Caniff’s talents overall, of course). Haas created a white-haired hero who was a pilot and adventurer that turned his exploits into best-selling books. His little pal Spinner always accompanied him, as well as a dachshund named Paddlefoot. Frequently, their adventure would begin as Clutch was summoned by an old friend, or he would get caught up in a local problem, potentially anywhere in the world. Even when it was not an acquaintance that contacted him, he always seemed to come across friends in the darndest places. No jungle was too dense, no ice cap too barren for Clutch to find an old pal. More often than not, that pal was a bushy-faced nature guy named Swampy.
Clutch Cargo was also a throwback to the movie serials that had ended their run in theaters just a few years earlier, and were enjoying some television airplay of their own. Clutch was serialized, with 4-minute episodes running every day during the week. Each chapter was numbered (from 1 to 260) and the first four episodes of each week ended in a cliffhanger to be resolved the following day. Friday’s show provided the finale for that week’s adventure. By the end of the show’s run, enough adventures had been created to air weekly for a year. These 52 stories have recently been compiled into two 3-disc DVD sets by Brentwood Home Video (and distributed by BCI).
Oh, right— You want to hear about the lips. Yes, dear readers, it is likely that more than anything else, Clutch Cargo is known for its use of “Synchro-Vox” technology. This questionable perk involved the juxtaposition of the voice actor’s lips over the drawings in order to create the illusion that the character was talking. It was originally developed by cameraman Ed Gillette for use in “talking animal” commercials, where it maybe should have stayed. Nonetheless, in some scenes it actually works surprisingly well, especially when care is given with the actor’s make-up to match the drawing, and when the lips are filmed at the correct angle. However, this often is not the case and even at its best, Synchro-Vox is just plain bizarre. It was also used in two other Cambria productions, Space Angel (1962) and Captain Fathom (1965). Incidentally, Cambria also produced the show The New Three Stooges, which had an unfortunate dearth of real lips.
Animation-wise, there is not much to discuss. Characters slide across the screen, the camera jiggles once in a while, and very occasionally there is an actual spurt of real animation to surprise you and make you remember you are not just looking at a picture book. Drawings are reused constantly, and special effects are limited to camera manipulation or even puffs of real smoke. The effect is… interesting. Often, they even skip the real lips, and the characters speak without any lip movement at all. The backgrounds are nicely done, though; some are line drawings but many are painted and help to give the show a classier look.
Animation shortcomings aside, Clutch Cargo can be a nifty little adventure show, given its limitations. With each story running only 20 minutes (including openings, recaps, and closings) there is not much room to tell an involving story. And, given that the show was aimed at kids, there is nothing in the way of in-depth characterization. What the show does do well, though, is supply the viewer with a terrific variety of settings and plotlines (simple though they may be). The artwork is fairly nice, showing why Haas was chosen to ghost Tim Tyler’s Luck and Buzz Sawyer during his career. Haas obviously did some research when designing the show too, as he made Clutch’s plane a rare and unique 1929 Bellanca C-27 Airbus.
The 26 stories in the Volume One DVD set feature an impressive array of titles, such as The Friendly Headhunters, The Pearl Pirates, The Rocket Riot, Pipeline To Danger, Operation Moon Beam, and The Midget Submarine. I cannot recommend watching too many in a row, but a few at a time can be fun. The show has an indescribable charm, although I’m certain it will be lost on many. Although we have to tolerate not only a boy sidekick but a dog sidekick too, they do not become overly cutesy and things get played relatively straight. Clutch, meanwhile, is in the broad-shouldered hero mold but manages to come off as a pretty regular guy nonetheless. Too bad he’s also pretty bland.
The exotic locales vary from jungles to the Arctic, the Middle East, the Far East, and all points in-between. This is really globe-spanning action. On the way, we meet quite a variety of characters, both good and nefarious. It’s all in good old pulpy fun, with stories designed to enthrall a young audience with tales of exotic adventure, close escapes, and heroic ideals. So, although the show is best remembered for its lips, there is a nugget of coolness present. But one just can’t help staring at those darn lips!
Is This Thing Loaded?
I had to chuckle that the menus are practically more animated than the shows themselves. Regardless, it was nice to see some effort put into them.
As far as Special Features, Disc 1 has The Story Of Clutch Cargo (2:45), which is just scrolling text but does offer some information on the history of the show. Disc 2, Side A has Clutch & Company, “mini-biographies and details of the cast and characters”; they’re “mini”, all right— so brief that you may feel free to skip ‘em. Disc 2, Side B has 1959 Facts And Trivia (1:29), another text scroll; it is fun to hear about what else was happening that year, but has nothing really to do with the show. The first side of Disc 3 has Clutch Memorabilia on Side A, a remote-operated slide show of ten images; and the second side has the most substantial extra, a full episode of another Synchro-Vox program from Cambria, Space Angel: “The Ghost And Crystal Mace” (25:04).
Even lesser shows need a little love, and Clutch Cargo gets well loved in this handsome set. A sturdy slipcase fits over a foldout digipack containing three discs. Considering the low price for this set, the packaging design is really quite attractive despite using earth tones in its color scheme. The digipack details the complete contents for each disc and has artwork from the show. Of the three discs, the first one in one-sided with disc art, but the other two are double-sided, so each side of each disc carries 5 or 6 stories.
Ink And Paint:
I was a bit surprised to find out that Clutch Cargo was filmed in color, given its low budget and that it came out just the same year that color came to television. The DVD transfers are nice, but far from pristine. I was quite satisfied with the presentation, but there is a lot of grain and physical artifacts to be seen, both due to the prints as well as the rushed production of the original shows. Print damage is minor compared to what I was expecting. Overall, the presentation is quite good for a release of this type (i.e. the economical type).
The two-channel mono is appropriately scratchy, with frequent hissing. Again, I had low expectations and in this case they were met or perhaps slightly exceeded. One has no problem listening to the shows at all, and I noticed no breaks in the audio tracks. The audio is just “fine”; don’t expect a total clean-up.
Clutch’s voice, Richard Cotting, has no other notable credits, but there are a couple of interesting names among the voice actors. Margaret Kerry voiced both Spinner and Paddlefoot, and also modeled for Tinkerbell and was the uncredited vice of a mermaid in Disney’s Peter Pan. Hal Smith, who provided various voices on the show, was also Owl in Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” featurettes, and had numerous credits on The Flintstones and a few other shows.
It really is amazing that such a nice collection has been prepared for this series. Likely only the truly curious or those interested in owning a piece of television history will want to take a chance on this Clutch Cargo set. To call this an animated series is really being charitable, and even the DVD box instead labels Clutch Cargo as “television’s first comic strip.” Nevertheless, Brentwood and BCI have done a commendable job in bringing the series to DVD, and those who are brave enough to venture forth will at least be treated to a reasonably nice presentation at a great price. You may note that the second volume, containing the balance of the series, is also available now.