It sure is heartening to know that I’m not the only Ruff and Reddy fan out there. That’s the lesson I learned from the responses to last month’s article on new DVD collections of 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoons, where I mentioned how my own Saturday morning memories skewed a bit older. Today’s younger generations–with 24-hour channels devoted to animation and other kids’ programming–may not recognize how good they’ve got it, because up until about 25 years ago such “sugar-charged supershow” fare was relegated on the three networks to weekend mornings (and, often on local UHF stations, to weekday afternoons after school). In spite of these limited hours–and some pretty limited animation, to boot–many of the shows of that era are still fondly remembered by Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers alike.
With that in mind, I thought the time had come to toss my Beanie copter into the endless ring of Internet lists, and offer up my picks for the 50 best animated cartoon series of all time, starting with the years 1949-1985 (Part two, covering 1986 to 2011, can be found here). Here are the relatively few restrictions I placed on myself: no shows comprised of older theatrical cartoons (The Bugs Bunny Show, Tom and Jerry), because it’s an unfair comparison; no live-action series (like the Krofft Brothers’ H.R. Pufnstuf), puppets (Kukla, Fran and Ollie) or marionettes (Gerry Anderson’s Supercar), or clay animation (Davey and Goliath); and no post-1975 Japanese animation, because frankly I’m just not that into giant animal-themed robots or schoolgirls battling tentacled monsters (Sorry, anime fans, that’s how I feel. Feel free to submit your own list). In ascending order, my choices are:
25. Schoolhouse Rock – Okay, this one wasn’t an actual series. Regardless, the educational shorts that used songs and animation to introduce kids to the basics of math (“Multiplication Rock”), language (“Grammar Rock”), the sciences (“Science Rock,” “Computer Rock”), history (“America Rock”) and other topics were so ubiquitous on ABC’s weekend programming in the ’70s and ’80s that they had to get a mention. Besides, who will ever forget such tunes as “Three Is a Magic Number,” “Interjections!” and “I’m Just a Bill”?
24. Journey to the Center of the Earth – One of two 1967 ABC shows based on 20th Century-Fox films and created by the less-than-stellar Filmation studio (the other was Fantastic Voyage), Journey to the Center of the Earth followed a group of subterranean explorers to…well, read the title. While there was little that Jules Verne would have recognized, Journey was a fairly entertaining sci-fi/adventure saga that boasted a nifty theme song. And yes, that’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Ted Knight doing the narration.
23. The Huckleberry Hound Show – The first Emmy for a cartoon series went in 1958 to this Hanna-Barbera syndicated show, with Daws Butler supplying the easy-going canine star’s Southern drawl. Can anyone now hear “Oh My Dealing Clementine” without thinking of Huck’s off-key rendition? Joining put-upon Jack-of-all-trades Huck in his first half-hour incarnation were Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks (“I hate meeces to pieces!”) and–before graduating to his own show in 1960–Yogi Bear.
22. Top Cat – Sure, it was Sgt. Bilko with animated felines. It was also a very amusing and very New York-flavored comedy that benefited from a voice cast that included Allen Jenkins as Sgt. Dibble, Bilko regular Maurice Gosfield as Benny the Ball, and Arnold Stang in the title role as the “leader of the gang.”
21. Thundarr the Barbarian – I talked up this 1980 sci-fi/action series from the Ruby/Spears studio in an article last year, so let me just say that, thanks to the sun sword-swinging title hero, I still find myself meeting surprising situations with an exclamation of “Lords of Light!”.
20. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero – Perhaps the quintessential Reagan-era cartoon, with the star-spangled paramilitary force facing down the scheming minions of an “evil empire,” this syndicated action series managed to overcome its toy line-promoting origins with some well-thought-out storylines and strove to give most of its gargantuan character line-up distinct personalities and their own individual spotlights. But you Joe fans out there already knew that, “and knowing is half the battle.”
19. Crusader Rabbit – Before gaining fame with Rocky and Bullwinkle (see below), Jay Ward teamed with Terrytoons vet Alex Anderson on this, the first animated series made for TV. In many ways it was an R & B precursor, with small and quick-witted bunny Crusader and not-too-bright pal Ragland T. Tiger taking on a gallery of comical villains in multi-part, cliffhanger storylines.
18. The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo – The 1962 holiday favorite Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol led to this short-lived 1964 prime-time entry on NBC. Myopic protagonist Quincy Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus) played such figures as Cyrano de Bergerac, Dr. Frankenstein, Gunga Din, Long John Silver and Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson in mostly-serious adaptations of noted literary works. Goofy? You bet, but it helped introduce me to stories I had never heard of before and even inspired me to read a couple. Take that, Classics Illustrated!
17. Sinbad Jr. – Produced first by Sam Singer for American-International Pictures in 1965, then continued by Hanna-Barbera, this syndicated show followed the exploits of the young sailor and his parrot pal Salty. Sinbad Jr.–one of the few heroes to wear Capri pants–got super-strength whenever he gave a tug on his Magic Belt. Make of it what you will, but there didn’t seem to be anything odd about it when you were a kid.
16. Roger Ramjet – Whenever I hear “Yankee Doodle,” I start singing “Roger Ramjet and his Eagles, fighting for our freedom,” thanks to this 1965 syndicated superhero spoof. Gary Owens (more serious a year later as Space Ghost) was dim-witted aviator Roger, whose Proton Energy Pills gave him “the strength of 20 atom bombs for a period of 20 seconds,” and who fought enemy spies and other foes with the help of the young members (Yank, Doodle, Dan and Dee) of his American Eagle Squadron.
15. The Fantastic Four – Marvel Comics’ flagship superhero title first came to the small screen, courtesy of Hanna-Barbera, in 1967. Because the art design was based on Jack Kirby’s original comic book illustrations, this was undoubtedly the best-looking animated F.F. translation to date (not counting The Incredibles). They even managed to depict the Galactus Trilogy better than a certain live-action film did…and in just 30 minutes. Oh, and that was future M*A*S*H actress Jo Ann Pflug voicing the Invisible Girl.
14. The Ruff & Reddy Show – “They sometimes have their little spats, even fight like dogs and cats,” but feisty feline Ruff and his easy-going canine pal Reddy would always overcome their differences in time to defeat bad guys like Harry Safari, Captain Greedy and Salt Water Daffy in their own 1957 series, Hanna-Barbera’s very first made-for-the-small-screen cartoon.
13. Space Ghost and Dino Boy – Long before he was played for laughs as an Adult Swim talk show host, Space Ghost was H-B’s first serious superhero, sharing a 1966 Saturday timeslot with Dino Boy and his caveman pal Ugh. By the way, just how many rays did Space Ghost have on his power bands? (Fun Fact: the actor voicing Dino Boy was Johnny Carson…but not the talk show host.)
12. 8th Man – “Faster than a rocket, quicker than a jet,” this Japanese cyborg crimefighter reached U.S. shores in 1965. The brainwaves and personality of a lawman gunned down in the line of duty are transferred by a scientist into a super-strong and super-fast robot body. Similar to the DC Comics hero Robotman, 8th Man at times lamented his lack of humanity, which added a unique touch of drama to the goings-on. Oh, and in those bygone days before Surgeon General warnings, 8th Man could get away with carrying special “energy cigarettes” in his belt buckle than he would “smoke” to recharge!
11. Here Comes the Grump – There was a fun Alice in Wonderland-like quality to this 1969 fantasy from the De Patie-Freleng company, creators of the Pink Panther cartoons and co-founded by Warner Bros. veteran Friz Freleng. None other than the inimitable Rip Taylor gave voice to the short-tempered, Yosemite Sam-ish Grump, who rode his allergy-prone Jolly Green Dragon in pursuit of Princess Dawn, trying to free her kingdom from the Grump’s curse of gloom, and Terry Dexter, a boy from the “real world” who accidentally landed in this magical realm. Confession time: as a 10-year-old, I did have a bit of a crush on Princess Dawn.
10. Star Trek – The entire cast of the original ’60s series–save for Walter Koenig, who did script an episode–returned to the Enterprise to reprise their roles in this 1973 animated continuation of the show. Even Filmation’s limited resources didn’t totally detract from the entertaining stories (which included appearances by Harry Mudd, the Tribbles, and other ’60s series elements). And I for one would like to see the tri-limbed Lt. Arex and cat-like Lt. M’Ress worked into the next live-action Trek film.
9. The Mighty Heroes – Next year’s big-screen rendition of The Avengers is all well and good, but how about a live-action movie based on the slapstick super-team of Strong Man, Cuckoo Man, Tornado Man, Rope Man and Diaper Man? Future Fritz the Cat director Ralph Bakshi created the kooky quintet, who debuted alongside Mighty Mouse on CBS in 1966, for Terrytoons. Know what Diaper Man, the Jolly Green Giant, and Charlie the Tuna have in common? All were voiced by actor Herschel Bernardi.
8. Astro Boy – Japan’s “god of comics,” Osamu Tezuka, created the robotic lad for a 1952 manga series under the title “Mighty Atom” (which seemes sadly ironic given the country’s current crises). Equipped with super-strength, rocket feet, night-vision eyes, and machine guns built into his butt (!), Astro Boy patrolled the futuristic skies of “the year 2000” in this 1963 cartoon series. The first toon from Japan to make it across the Pacific to America, the show mixed humorous dialogue and animation with a theme of harmony between humans and robots that (deliberately?) spoke to overcoming racial prejudices.
7. Wacky Races – Why was it when Dick Dastardly and Muttley tried to sneak ahead of everyone it was called cheating, but when the other racers did it (Rufus Ruffcut sawing through Peter Perfect’s Turbo Terrific, for example) it wasn’t? By the way, you can tell a lot about a person by their favorite Wacky Racer; mine was “ingenious inventor Professor Pat Pending and his Convert-a-Car.”
6. George of the Jungle – If it only featured the adventures of klutzy, tree-colliding dim-bulb George and his ape sidekick Ape, Jay Ward’s Tarzan send-up would still make my top 10. But add to the mix the sublime superhero spoof Super Chicken–and, to a lesser degree, racing fool Tom Slick–and this 1967 Saturday morning classic easily swings its way into sixth place.
5. Challenge of the SuperFriends – After years of annoying kid sidekicks (sorry, Wendy, Marvin and Wonder Twins) and no antagonists save for lost aliens and well-meaning scientists, Justice League members Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman–bolstered by Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and the multiculti troika of Apache Chief, Black Vulcan and Samurai–finally got some worthy and truly evil foes to (non-violently) battle in the form of the Legion of Doom, 13 deadly super-villains. Well, maybe the Riddler wasn’t really that deadly.
4. Beany and Cecil – How can you not like a ’60s kids cartoon that made reference to Lenny Bruce and The Kingston Trio in one episode? Veteran Warner Bros. animator Bob Clampett turned his acclaimed ’50s puppet series about the crew of the Leakin’ Lena and Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent, Time for Beany (which counted Albert Einstein and Groucho Marx among its fans) into a cartoon in 1962–even working his own name into the theme song, twice! All of the marvelous, pun-filled wordplay was left intact, with characters ranging from Slopalong Catskill (voiced by the one and only Mickey Katz!) and Tear-A-Long the Dotted Lion to everyone’s favorite bad guy, Dishonest John (“Nya-ha-ha!”).
3. The Flintstones – A half-century after their debut (the first made-for-TV toon to air in prime time), there’s little more to say about Fred, Barney, Wilma, Betty and company, except that they’ve beloved pop culture icons. It started out as The Honeymooners in bearskins, but went on to become a very funny sitcom in its own right (“Pebbles’ Birthday Party,” with the dancing girls sent to Fred’s house by mistake, still makes me laugh). Did you know that Hanna-Barbera was originally going to call the show and its “modern stone-age family” The Flagstones, but that surname had been claimed by the comic strip Hi and Lois?
2. Jonny Quest – With all the deathtraps and monsters he had to escape from before he even reached puberty, I’d be amazed if Jonny didn’t grow up to be a paranoid pill-popper, as satirically depicted on The Venture Bros. (more about that next time). But come on…lizard-suited scuba-men with a laser cannon, giant spider-like robot spies, living mummies and pteranodons, and mutant, man-eating monitor lizards led on a leash by a fat guy in a loincloth? What’s not to like? There was nothing like Jonny Quest when it hit the Friday night airwaves in 1964, and H-B’s first “realistic” cartoon–created by comic book artist Doug Wildey–remains a Baby Boomer classic.
And the winner is…
1. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle – What, you were expecting maybe Baggy Pants and the Nitwits? For sheer comedic brilliance and a non-stop array of jokes, topical references (Rocky: “You know who we haven’t seen in the game today?” Bullwinkle: “Well, among others, Prince Suvana Phuma.”) and puns that often went young its young audience’s heads (It wasn’t until college that I heard of the opera Boris Gudonov and finally learned where bad guy Boris Badenov got his name from), nothing compares to Jay Ward’s heroic moose and squirrel duo. As if Rocky and Bullwinkle’s escapades weren’t enough, the show also featured such co-stars as mutton-headed Mountie Dudley Do-Right and the time-travelling team of Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, among others.
So, which favorites of yours didn’t make my cut? Scooby-Doo? Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids? Pac-Man (Lord, I hope not!)? Write and let me know.