Anyone who knows me knows three things:
1.) I love cartoons with sexy women.
2.) I love old plays and movies with frantic piano music and dastardly villains that the audience is invited to boo at.
3.) I do a FABULOUS Paul Lynde impression.
So it stands to reason that I would love the 70s cartoon The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. However, I don’t like it for its content. The animation is typical of Hanna-Barbera’s corner-cutting chintz — characters “shoot” out of sight instead of visibly running, explosions are represented using the same stock clouds of smoke over and over, and dramatic crashes are implied off-screen with camera shakes — and the stories are too long and repetitive. This is a babysitter show to be sure. Still, I’m a sucker for its premise. I know it’s nothing original. It’s a parody of the serial cliffhangers The Perils of Pauline, and it’s a mishmash of silent film cliches, but it’s a looney, cartoony twist on the concept, and seeing it come together just makes me smile. Its makers may not have had a lot of money, but they sure had a lot of fun.
Penelope Pitstop originally appeared in the cartoon Wacky Races, as part of an ensemble of crazy characters, any one of whom could have had his or her own series. Penelope is a stereotypical southern belle: naive, sweet, trusting, and speaking with an exaggerated accent. Every other minute she’s tangled in some overblown trap, calling “hay-ulp.” Janet Waldo nails the “little ol’ me” role, and I’m sure that many little boys growing up in the 70s dreamed of being her hero.
Her protectors, The Anthill Mob, also featured in Wacky Races, but there they had malevolent personalities and a different vehicle. Here they behave less like sneaky criminals and more like a twisted version of the Seven Dwarfs. The mobsters are voiced by Paul Winchell, Don Messick, and Mel Blanc, and I’m impressed that they were able to keep the voices of all those similar-looking characters sorted out in their heads. They always come driving to Penelope’s rescue, but they often screw things up, so it falls on the ostensibly helpless racing gal to save the day.
The real heart of Perils, though, is that no-goodnik The Hooded Claw, voiced to the hilt by the immortal Paul Lynde. Strangely, he is uncredited on the show. I wonder if he was embarrassed about starring in a cartoon. That doesn’t seem plausible to me, though; not for the man who donned a golden wig and makeup on Hollywood Squares.
The Hooded Claw, who neither wears a hood nor has a claw, is a delightfully evil guy. As the alter ego of Penelope’s legal guardian (I don’t know exactly how old she must be), the Claw wants to kill Penelope so her family fortune will pass to him. Instead of simply shooting her in the head, though, he comes up with the most ridiculous plans anyone can think of. They usually involve tying Penelope in place somewhere while something explosive, heavy, or sharp hangs over her. She’s always allowed plenty of time for someone to save her, even if that someone is herself. Of course, Claw is always foiled, shaking his fists and yelling “Blast, blast, blast,” but he’s never discouraged, and every episode ends with him smiling as he prepares a new plot.
I watch these nutty, low-budget cartoons and tilt my head in awe and admiration. What wild writing sessions must have gone down to bring these characters together? At some point, somebody said, “Hey, let’s give the chick from the racing cartoon her own backstory, and then stuff her in an old-school damsel-in-distress scenario! We’ll make Paul Lynde the bad guy, and her saviors will drive a talking car!”
Then somebody else said, “I love it!”
Today’s cartoons are pretty weird, and some of them are quite clever, but Perils is on a different level than all of them. It’s made by people that watched movies while movies were still young, and who have a deep and abiding love for that big, boisterous, and yet painfully awkward stage of the great medium. Only South Park comes this close to re-capturing that spirit, a spirit that I hope never moves on to the next world.