Reviews: The Perils of Penelope Pitstop
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DVD Review: The Perils of Penelope Pitstop: The Complete Series

Poor, Poor Penelope
By Mike Thompson

It's a commonly held belief among animation lovers that the mid-to-late 1960s was not the best time period, creatively, for Hanna-Barbera. Sure, the studio's shows dominated the Saturday morning airwaves, but the cartoons were no longer anywhere near the standards Bill and Joe set when they created some of the first made-for-TV cartoons, such as Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and what in my opinion were the studio's two crown jewels: The Flintstones and The Jetsons. When people think of the late-60s H-B shorts, they probably think of the generic action cartoons the studio was unfortunately churning out at that time (Scooby-Doo launched in 1969, but it wasn't until the '70s that the show took off and became The Cartoon That Refused to Die). But the studio also put out a few forgettable comedies too. And among them was The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, which was recently released on DVD, and is pretty darn dreadful.

The cartoon, which ran from 1969-71 on CBS, was a spinoff of Wacky Races. In this spinoff, which was meant to be a spoof of old-time movie serials, Penelope, who is the heiress to a large fortune (though we never learn what exactly she's an heiress of), is chased by evil villain The Hooded Claw, who wants her money. A group of lame-brained gangsters known as The Ant Hill Mob follows Penelope around, to try to help her get out of the predicaments The Hooded Claw gets her into. And the Claw (which is a stupid name, by the way; shouldn't he have some type of claw as a hand if he's going to be named that?) tries about four or five different, elaborate ways to kill Penelope in each half-hour episode. All of them fail, of course, or else then we wouldn't have much of a show.

Unfortunately, we don't have much of a show anyway. Yes, the show is meant to be a spoof of all those classic serials. That explains the narrator, constantly explaining what's going on. Only thing is: the narrator explains it, Penelope explains it, the Hooded Claw explains it and the members of the Ant Hill Mob explain it. There's so much danged exposition going on that you could be drifting in and out of a coma for the half hour and still know every detail of the plot.

The Rube Goldberg-esque schemes of the Claw (oh, who also acts as Penelope's guardian, Sylvester Sneekly; of course, Penelope never figures out the two are one and the same) also grow tiresome. The methods in which he tries to off her are ridiculously detailed (such as tying Penelope to a pole which a piece of string is tied around; the string is connected to a kite, and as the kite blows in the wind, the string turns, causing the pole to be unscrewed from the building wall its connected to, leading ultimately to Penelope falling to her death. I don't think I'll be spoiling anything here if I reveal that Penelope doesn't actually die), and they quickly became simply boring. Only 17 episodes of the show were produced, and yet the show ran for two seasons (lots and lots of repeats!), meaning kids from 1969 through 1971 had many, many chances to grow just as bored with the Claw's schemes as I did.

The dull, repetitive plots in this show could be forgiven if there were some good gags. After all, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop is meant to be a comedy. Alas, however, this is not the case. The Ant Hill Mob is incredibly inept, and much of any given episode is taken up with the mob's various pratfalls, none of which are really all that funny.

Also, some of the alleged laugh lines, such as Penelope's line, when tied to a trolley, "This isn't the trolley ride I had in mind," are just painful, and hurt even more when one views the end credits. Three writers are credited at the end of each episode: Joe Ruby and Ken Spears (who would later team up and produce several hit cartoons of the 80s, such as Alvin and the Chipmunks), and a little man named Mike Maltese. Some of you reading this might be familiar with Mr. Maltese. Working for Warner Bros. and mostly under Chuck Jones, he wrote some of the funniest cartoons ever made in the '40s and '50s. He joined H-B in the late '50s, and contributed to early Flintstones episodes, but it seems that by the time Penelope rolled around in 1969, dear Mike might have just been phoning it in. Whatever the cause, though, it's a darn shame.

There are moments, however brief, when the writing shines. One particularly memorable exchange comes when Penelope exclaims "Oh no! It's my archnemesis, The Hooded Claw!" The Claw then looks at the camera and says "Who did you expect? Dick Dastardly?" (Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines being another H-B cartoon, and also a spinoff of Wacky Races.) Another good line is when the Claw says, "I love submarines; they're so sneaky."

What makes those lines memorable (particularly the latter one, which, typed, really isn't that great) is the delivery. The one and only Paul Lynde, famous as Samantha's Uncle Arthur on Bewitched and the penultimate Hollywood Square, voices The Hooded Claw, and he does a very nice job. It's especially great when the Claw fiendishly laughs; you hear Lynde laugh, and you can't help but chuckle along yourself. Interestingly, Lynde's name is not mentioned in the end credits, even though all the other voice actors (which include H-B staples like Mel Blanc and Don Messick) are mentioned. It's not clear as to why Lynde didn't have his name listed. Perhaps he was embarrassed to be connected with the show.

All 17 episodes of Penelope Pitstop are on this DVD set. Also, in what's somewhat surprising considering how forgettable this show was, there are some pretty nice bonus features. Those include commentary tracks on two episodes, which feature voice actors Janet Waldo and Gary Owens (who voiced Penelope and the narrator, respectively), Iwo Takamoto (who designed the characters for the series), and two Warner Bros. Animation employees, Scott Awley and Scott Jacobs, two self-confessed fans of the show.

The commentary tracks, not surprisingly, are more entertaining than the episodes themselves. There are a few instances of lengthy silence, and Janet Waldo repeatedly says "I loved this show" (please tell me you were just being diplomatic, Janet), but there are some real interesting nuggets to be found. I won't spoil things by listing them all, but there are some real nice tales about, among others, Mel Blanc and Joe Barbera. At one point, Janet relays a particularly amusing anecdote wherein Joe Barbera (who directed the recording sessions for the show) told Paul Lynde that he wasn't sounding enough like Paul Lynde!

There's also a brief extra which consists of three separate sixty-second montages featuring the greatest moments of, respectively, Penelope, the Ant Hill Mob and The Hooded Claw. The clips are short, and actually make the show seem entertaining. If only the full-length episodes didn't dispel that myth.

Also included among the bonus features is a nice making-of documentary about the show, which features interviews with Janet, Iwo, and a few current WB animation execs who, frankly, seem a tad too young to have actually worked on the show. Would've been nice to hear from more of the people involved with the show, but given its age, it's understandable that it might be tough getting people together. Janet talked again about how nice it was to be a part of the show. The making-of wasn't as enjoyable as the commentaries, but fairly interesting nonetheless.

The remaining extras are trailers for other Hanna-Barbera shows on DVD, such as Wacky Races, Top Cat, The Flintstones and the misleadingly-titled The Best of the New Scooby Doo Movies (if those are the best, I'd hate to see the worst). Strangely, a trailer for Samurai Jack is also included. Yes, it's another Warner Home Video product, but among trailers for other 1960s H-B products, this trailer stands out like a sore thumb.

There are French and Spanish dubbed versions of all the episodes on this set, and French and Spanish subtitles also available. Interestingly, the opening theme music for the episodes is different on the Spanish version than on the French and English versions. It's not new music altogether; in fact, it's identical to the end theme music heard on all three versions of the episodes. I don't really see why the Spanish version would have different opening theme music, though.

Overall, nice extras aside, I really can't recommend this set. Perhaps those who have fond memories of lying on their rug watching it Saturday mornings might feel differently, but for those coming in fresh, I'd suggest taking the $34.98 you'd spend on this set and apply it towards season sets of either Flintstones or Jetsons. Those are when H-B TV really shone. Not with Penelope Pitstop.

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