BOOTLEG FILES 448: “Calvin and the Colonel” (1961-62 animated TV series).
LAST SEEN: Some episodes are on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A half-forgotten endeavor that fell through the proverbial cracks.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not for a long, long time.
A word to our green-thinking friends in the audience: recycling is a wonderful concept when it comes to old tin cans and empty bottles, but it is almost always a terrible idea when it comes to the entertainment industry. This week’s column offers a lesson on why certain old productions should sometimes be left on the shelf and not reconfigured into inappropriate new endeavors.
In this case, the classic source material being recycled was “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” the long-running radio comedy series created by and starring Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” first appeared on radio in the late 1920s and remained (in various incarnations) on the air until 1960. The fact that the series ran for so long was no mean feat, but Gosden and Correll found themselves puzzled on how to continue their successful franchise once their series finally signed off.
“Amos ‘n’ Andy” centered on the adventures of a circle of African-Americans, and Gosden and Correll were white actors playing black characters. They were able to get away with their racial masquerade in the radio medium – and, indeed, the radio show generated relatively little in the way of protests from major civil rights organizations, thanks in large part to well-written scripts that plumbed universal themes while avoiding racial denigration.
But things became problematic when Gosden and Correll ventured into in visual media. The duo donned blackface to play their characters for the 1930 film “Check and Double Check,” but the resulting work was an embarrassment and the stars wisely chose to avoid further film adventures. When Gosden and Correll transferred “Amos ‘n’ Andy” to television, they cast African-American actors. However, the resulting episodes – with an emphasis on broad slapstick and overplayed performances – seemed more buffoonish than the carefully crafted radio show, and the civil rights groups that had no qualms with the radio series were extremely angry with the small-screen version.
By the early 1960s, Gosden and Correll believed they could milk the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” concept by recycling some of their old scripts for an animated TV series. This was not the first time they ventured into animation – the low-rent Van Beuren Studios made a pair of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” cartoons in the 1930s featuring a minstrel show-style depiction of the African-American characters. However, the duo realized that the changing social environment of the early 1960s would not welcome any cartoons that were perceived as being racially insensitive.
Thus, a compromise was reached to create new zoomorphic creatures that carried a variation of the speech patterns and personalities of the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” cast. The Andy character was reconfigured as Calvin Burnside, a pleasant-but-dim bear who smoked cigars. The shady and irascible Kingfish character of the series became Col. Montgomery J. Klaxon, a windbag fox that bloviated about his importance as a Southern gentleman. Sapphire, Kingfish’s wife, became the vixen Maggie Belle, while Sapphire’s mother was reinvented as Maggie Belle’s virago sister Sue. The lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun became the weasel attorney Oliver Wendell Clutch. The Amos character, which had become peripheral during the latter stretch of the radio series, was dropped completely.
The resulting show was “Calvin and the Colonel,” animated by Creston Studios and produced by Kayro Productions. And the result was a total mess.
What went wrong? For starters, Gosden and Correll made the same mistake with “Calvin and the Colonel” that they made with their previous film and TV efforts: the strength of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” came in the dialogue and voice performances. Radio audiences happily imagined the various misadventures that befell the characters, and they laughed heartily at memorable dialogue exchanges.
But the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” scripts that were adapted for “Calvin and the Colonel” did not lend themselves for cartoon slapstick. The scripts were heavily verbose, and Gosden and Correll seemed challenged by having to incorporate witty sight gags into the action. The inclusion of a mild laugh track only emphasized the genuine lack of steady humor.
In coordinating the adaptation, the characters were dumbed-down to the point of stridency. Col. Claxton came across as petty and obnoxious, while Calvin was just plain stupid and not the least bit lovable. The female characters were either shrewish or shallow, and only the droll weasel attorney (voiced by the legendary Paul Frees) brought any personality to the proceedings.
In each episode, the bumbling bear and his conniving fox friend wound up in one unfunny situation after another. They attempt to rip-off an appliance store offering a free food promotion with the purchase of an icebox; they get the wrong address for a television repair pick-up and destroy an unsuspecting lady’s TV; they wind up in a trailer that gets disconnected from a car and lands on a railroad track; they try to cheat an insurance company on a phony auto accident claim; they try to cheat another insurance company with a phony workman’s compensation claim; and so forth.
None of this was even close to being amusing. The only fascinating thing about “Calvin and the Colonel” is its sheer awfulness. Watching the episodes, it is hard to imagine that the various talents behind this effort thought they were creating something of value – and it is equally difficult to comprehend how Gosden and Correll could unleash reverse alchemy by recycling their golden radio show into this leaden mess.
ABC picked up “Calvin and the Colonel” for the 1961-62 season. The network had already struck gold by running another animated series, “The Flintstones,” in prime time, so “Calvin and the Colonel” was slated to run Tuesday nights at 8:30 p.m. Alas, the series was up against two of the more popular shows of the season, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Dobie Gillis.” The first episode of “Calvin and the Colonel” aired on October 3, 1961, and the network pulled the plug on the series after its November 7 broadcast, with only six episodes aired. However, ABC was contractually obligated to run the entire 26-episode series, so the show returned in early 1962 as a Saturday morning offering.
“Calvin and the Colonel” was rerun on Saturday mornings the following season and was later sold in syndication to local stations in the U.S. and to foreign markets. Some half-hearted merchandising efforts were made to sell the characters, including a Dell comic book, and 16mm prints of the episodes circulated in the pre-VHS days, but audiences never warmed to the series. Gosden and Correll retired after the show’s failure.
To date, there has never been any official home entertainment release of the series. A few episodes are on YouTube (some are in the original color versions, others are from black-and-white 16mm prints), and some bootleggers sell unauthorized anthology collections online.
“Calvin and the Colonel” is a small, sorry coda to one of the most successful comedy partnerships in entertainment history. Quite frankly, its obscurity is well deserved.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!