Thursday, April 19, 2007

Spirits and demons beware

Before Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (oh, and Ernie Hudson) began investigating something strange in your neighborhood, Saturday morning kidvid aficionados knew who the real Ghost Busters were: a pair of bumbling paranormal investigators and their pet gorilla who answered to Spenser, Tracy and Kong.  (For the record…Tracy was the gorilla.)  I mentioned back in February that BCI-Navarre was bringing this Saturday morning perennial to DVD, and since it arrived in the mail this week (along with my Criterion copy of Brute Force)…well, let’s just say curiosity did the rest.

Premiering on CBS in the fall of 1975, The Ghost Busters was part of a Saturday morning tradition of live action shows produced especially for kids and adults with no discriminating taste (I used to belong to the former group—now I’m in the latter).  It reunited former F Troop co-stars Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch and allowed them to do their patented vaudeville burlesque in a series that honestly hasn’t changed all that much from what I remember.  (I will issue a caveat here: if you’re unlike me and you look upon F Troop as a television travesty, you will not want to order this DVD set.)  Though the humor is unabashedly corny and kid-oriented (many of the jokes are the sort that even Abbott and Costello would have taken a pass on) it is still amusing once I go to my “silly place.”  The running gags (Storch’s weekly struggle with a mind-of-its-own file cabinet, plus the fact that all the ghosts choose “the old castle near the cemetery” as their hideout), Bob Burns’ wonderful gorilla-suited turn as Tracy and the one-of-a-kind chemistry between Tucker and Storch still brings a smile to my jaded face (the fact that both actors unabashedly give their all to material that neither Oscar Wilde nor Noel Coward contributed to is inspiring, to say the least).  Burns observes in an interview on the DVD set that he was in such awe of his two co-stars that it affected his performance; he held back as the “gorilla” fearing he would upstage their antics.  When he finally summed up the nerve to discuss it with Tucker, the actor shrugged it off and told him not to worry about it because “I’m too old to care and Larry is too dumb.”  (Burns also reveals that Storch would refer to his pal as “Sarge,” something that as an F Troop fan I find oddly endearing.)

But the best thing about Ghost Busters is that the series attracted an impressive wattage of character talent that felt the same way Tucker and Storch did: they were there to entertain people and only too happy to get the work.  That’s why you find performers like Ted Knight as “The Canterville Ghost,” an outing that also co-stars Family Affair’s Kathy Garver and Len “Uncle Leo” Lesser.  Knight had a long association with Filmation, the producers of Busters, having done voice work on their animated shows like Fantastic Voyage and Journey to the Center of the Earth.  (Knight even posed as an animation editor on one occasion in an effort to convince a visiting businessman to invest in the company.)  Other character greats to appear on the show include Bernie Kopell (channeling KAOS’ Siegfried as Dr. Frankenstein), Lennie Weinrib, Marty Ingels, Severn Darden (as Dr. Henry Jekyll), Joe E. Ross (as Mr. Hyde—though he appears to be wearing his caveman get-up from It’s About Time), Howard Morris, Jim Backus and Ronny Graham.

Fifteen episodes of Busters were produced at breakneck speed (I believe they mentioned that it was done in about three months in one of the interviews) and of those fifteen my favorites are “The Maltese Monkey” (the plot is too stupid for words but I like Good Times’ Johnny Brown’s impression of Sydney Greenstreet and Billy Barty’s take on Peter Lorre) and “Which Witch is Which?”  This last one is a real hoot: The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Ann Morgan Guilbert is a Salem witch who comes back to take revenge on the ancestor of the man who burned her at the stake (if you guessed that it’s Storch, then you can skip this one) and Bowery Boy Huntz Hall plays her incredibly dense sidekick (and yes, he does the “Motorlips” bit).  Hall’s character (an amiable dunce named Gronk) must have been well received because he turned up in another episode, this time stooging for “Merlin the Magician”—with the titular sorcerer played by Carl Ballantine of McHale’s Navy fame.  (How Gronk met up with Merlin is left unexplained.)

This two-disc set features some generous extras, including interviews with Burns and producer Lou Scheimer, photo galleries and some trailers for Filmation series either already out on DVD or due to come (including Ark II, Space Academy, Jason of Star Command and The Secrets of Isis).  Curiously, there’s also an episode of the animated Ghost Busters, which followed the exploits of Spenser, Tracy and Kong’s descendants.  This show was so terrible that I didn’t even mind when a rival cartoon—using the characters from the Murray-Aykroyd-Ramis film—called itself The Real Ghostbusters.  (Because I know who the real originals are:  “With us on the job/troubles will fade/the Ghost Busters do it againnnnn…”)

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