In the vast wasteland of Saturday morning kids' shows, Filmation Associates was in the 1970s more ambitious than most production companies. Where Hanna-Barbera dominated the field with singularly bland formula cartoons that were a far cry from the team's superior theatrical shorts, Filmation frequently aimed much higher. The company's The New Adventures of Superman and Flash Gordon were more faithful to the spirit of those comic books and strips than superhero cartoons produced by others. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was groundbreaking in many ways, not the least of which was its stereotype-breaking cast of African-American kids, while the company's animated Star Trek not only retained the look and feel of the original live-action series, but it surprised many with intelligent, adult teleplays that didn't play down to its audience.
From a production standpoint, Filmation often bit off more than it could chew, audaciously aiming for Star Wars-type sci-fi adventure with original programs like Space Academy and Jason of Star Command on paltry Saturday morning budgets. And yet, audiences didn't seem to mind; budgetary shortcomings aside, they were tickled to see so much creative energy invested in such cheap shows.
For these reasons, many of Filmation's programs attracted a teenage audience and even some adults when they were new, and more than 30 years later many are still fun to watch. Such is the case with The Ghost Busters (1975-76), a modest yet endearing and enduring children's sitcom modeled after the horror-comedies of the 1940s and '50s.
The series was probably inspired by the popularity of Abbott & Costello's horror spoofs - Hold that Ghost, Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein, etc. - which had been packaged and nationally syndicated to local station across the country in the early-1970s. Children embraced these old movies, which usually ran Saturday or Sunday mornings, and on weekends similar horror comedies starring Bob Hope, the Bowery Boys and the like were also airing frequently.
The Ghost Busters reunited Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch, the stars of TV's F Troop (1965-67), who like Hope and Crosby were pals off-screen as well as on and enjoyed working together. Besides F Troop and The Ghost Busters Tucker and Storch occasionally teamed up for other projects (Incredible Rocky Mountain Race, etc.) until Tucker's death in 1986, and like Hope and Crosby they had a natural chemistry than transcended the sometimes weak material they were given.
In The Ghost Busters Tucker and Storch play Kong and Spencer (sometimes "Spenser"), professional ghostbusters, each week tracking down various witches, vampires, Frankenstein monsters and other spooks, dispatching them with their trusted "ghost dematerializer." Aiding them - and, arguably, the smartest of the bunch - is Tracy (Bob Burns), a beanie-wearing Gorilla. Tracy may be mute, but can drive a car and type an impressive 75 words a minute. (Burns shrewdly suggested that his credit read "'Tracy' trained by Bob Burns." Many children and even some adults assumed Tracy was a real gorilla, not a guy in a suit.)
The show was created and written by Filmation scribe Marc Richards who, according to producer Lou Scheimer, could crank out a 30-minute episode in a single day, though the cast ad-libbed or worked out a lot of additional material on their own during production. The humor is the broadest of slapstick with a lot of Vaudeville-era wordplay and sight gags, and the shows generally follow an established formula. The week's monsters are introduced in the opening scene, which is followed by some comedy at the Ghost Busters' dilapidated downtown office, which is like something out of a '40s era private eye movie. Then Spencer and Tracy leave to pick up their next "ghost-busting assignment," which comes in the form of Mission: Impossible-style self-destructing recorded messages. After that, there's more comedy in the office, then the trio head for the nearest graveyard and castle (which seems to be the same cramped sets redressed over-and-over) for the big showdown with the monsters.
The budget-driven decision to shoot the series on videotape rather than 35mm film made it appear even cheaper than it already was, though alternating directors Norman Abbott and Larry Pearce (whose unusual list of credits include Goodbye, Columbus, Two-Minute Warning and The Bell Jar) do their best to give it the feel of classic '60s sitcom: Abbott had helmed numerous episodes of The Munsters and Get Smart!, while Pearce had done a batch of Batmans.
Some of the comedy is labored, emphasized by an incessant laugh track, and the production values are occasionally pretty threadbare (the cramped graveyard and castle sets aren't far removed from what one might expect in an Ed Wood movie), but Tucker, Storch, and Burns hold it all together. To their credit the two film and TV veterans give it all they got, never walking through their roles and injecting them with the same energy that they brought to F Troop. They also generously give Burns' Tracy the plurality of laughs, scene-stealing "rim-shots," as Burns calls them. Burns is a delight to watch; though his gorilla head's movements were limited to a mouth that could open and close, his animated snorts and pantomiming make it come alive.
The show attracted a surprisingly diverse line-up of name guest talent playing various monsters. Many were working steadily in prime-time television but were eager to appear on the show anyway, maybe because many of these actors had kids of their own. Guests include Bernie Kopell, Ted Knight, Len Lesser, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Severn Darden, Joe E. Ross (more or less in his It's About Time persona), Howard Morris, Jim Backus, Barbara Rhodes, Ina Balin, and The Bowery Boys' Huntz Hall.
Video & Audio
The Ghost Busters shows its age, looking exactly like a mid-'70s sitcom shot on videotape. The full frame presentation is about as good as it probably ever will, which is perfectly adequate. There are no subtitle options, though an alternate Spanish language track is included. The fifteen episodes and extra features are presented over two double-sided discs; five episodes on each of the first three sides, with all the supplements on side four.
The primary supplements are the set's detailed booklet and interviews with producer Lou Scheimer and Bob Burns. The booklet is quite nice, offering writer, director, and guest cast information for each episode, along with a plot summary and trivia. Also included are the show's theme song lyrics, sung with charming tunelessness by Tucker and Storch over the opening credits.
The interviews, with Scheimer and Burns, running nine and fourteen minutes respectively, are problematic. The comments of both, especially Burns', are warm, informative, and amusing, but badly put together. For some reason director/editor Tom Suzuki opted to present them in non-anamorphic widescreen, with the subjects trapped in a picture-within-a-picture that's gotta be pretty small on standard monitors. In the background the show's themes are played over-and-over ad nauseum to the point where you'll want to scream. There are no cutaways to clips; that's odd, considering that Burns points to specific episodes that he especially likes.
Also included are brief Bumpers from when the show first aired on CBS, scripts for all 15 shows in DVD-ROM format, lots of "trailers" (main titles, mostly) from other Filmation shows and theatrical features, and an excellent photo & art gallery.
Finally, an episode from a 1986 animated Ghostbusters series, featuring the "sons" of Kong and Spencer, is included. It's nothing special, but the show is in excellent condition.
The Ghost Busters is no lost classic of television comedy, but it is a fun show that's pretty much been MIA for the past three decades. BCI's presentation and extras are nice, and if you're like this reviewer, watching it again after so many years makes for a neat little trip down memory lane.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is due out in June.