Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
If Mickey Mouse rates archive editions showing his creation and genesis, the privilege should also be accorded to Gumby, the humble clay-boy who has been around on kiddie TV for over fifty years now. Gumby's home company Premavision has allied with Classic Media and Genius Entertainment to release Gumby Essentials, Volume 1, a collection that, with a little web research, allows one to see where Gumby came from. The fifteen full shorts on the compilation have their original soundtracks, a choice mentioned right on the disc package.
The show offers five well-chosen episodes each from the 1950s, 60s and the green clay man's comeback in the 1980s. But the place to go first is the extras menu. Gumbasia is Art Clokey's 1953 theatrical short subject that animates basic clay shapes in interesting patterns, backed by a jazz tune. It displays an okay sense of design and apes various experimental films without aspiring to a larger statement; it's just amusing to see clay spheres, snakes and triangles flit across the screen and morph into different shapes. A clay face winks at the audience near the conclusion, letting us know that it's all just for fun.
We're told that Gumby had his debut on the Howdy Doody Show and then was given his own network spot in 1956, called The Gumby Show. Comic Pinky Lee was the host. The second pilot for the show, Trip to the Moon is a forerunner of the over 200 short films to come. The short begins with Gumby already on the moon, being chased by little pyramid creatures with arms. He wears a weight belt to offset the low gravity. Gumby's dad spots him on the moon (through a telescope) and uses a fire truck's extendable ladder to get him down. End of tale.
The fifteen shorts are more than adequate to show the depth and breadth of the world of Gumby. Gumby is a pleasant fellow who has unchallenging, sometimes amusing little adventures; he lives at home with his parents but merges into various fantasy worlds at will. Leaping into a storybook is a common trick to put Gumby in a new environment. Beyond a good-natured attitude, Gumby's personality isn't strongly defined. The first cartoon up, Robot Rumpus shows him arranging robots to do his chores, but laziness isn't the issue. Pokey the Horse usually pipes up with some doubts ("I don't know if this is a good idea ...") but any moralizing will have to be supplied by the audience.
Frankly, even when we were tiny kids Gumby was more of a curiosity than a favorite show. I don't think it even pretended to be funny. The lack of real character personalities was compensated somewhat by the atmosphere of toys coming alive; it wasn't unusual to see Gumby ride in a toy car that was available for sale down at the Five 'n' Dime store. Those robots were certainly interesting, even when one was 11 or 12. Beyond that age I can remember trying to figure out how the animation was done.
The miniature sets in the 50s titles are quaint and some of the stories quite complicated. The Racing Game is a rather tiresome set of gags but In the Dough is about a weird trip into a 'baking dimension' accessed by crawling through Mom's oven (don't try this at home). After some bizarre adventures, Gumby has to revive Pokey with water. The two are eventually surrounded and trapped by threatening pastries (?) and the whole thing turns into an Alice in Wonderland essay in weirdness.
It's obvious that the films were written without concern for psychological aspects. The line between what's alive and what's not is never clear. Except for Pokey's occasional misgivings, Gumby is free to do whatever strikes his fancy. For instance, the robots in Robot Rumpus don't seem to like being put to work; they start trashing the yard and even write "Robot" on the wall in red paint. After they're deactivated, Gumby displays a decapitated robot head mounted over his garage door. Poor robots!
The animation is wildly variable. Sometimes it's very cheap, but individual shots will show several characters in motion at the same time. Gumby often slides on one foot rather than walk, making things easy for the animator. In these first years he also changes shape and gets dirty as we watch, and the animator's fingerprints can sometimes be seen dancing on Gumby's green 'skin'. One clever trick used frequently to make things magically appear, or to show Gumby and Pokey walking 'into' a book, is to cut away pieces of the clay model frame by frame, and then run the film in reverse.
The shows in the 1960s category take a leap forward in technical quality. Gumby's shape and texture are more consistent and his environment becomes much more elaborate, with sets representing entire streets, etc. The Groobee has a pet salesman modeled after W.C Fields, and Gumby Crosses the Delaware sends Gumby and Pokey to spy for George Washington when he fights the Hessians in New Jersey. Hidden Valley has Gumby escaping from dinosaurs in a flying Model T.
The 80s shows are more complicated but less stylish. Goo's Pies has at least six or seven speaking roles and perhaps 30 animated models. An entire western bar scene is packed with cowboys in addition to other historical personalities like Abraham Lincoln. Several of Gumby's peripheral repeating characters are there, such as Goo the 'flying mermaid' and Prickle, who is described as part dinosaur and part dragon. What's lacking in the new shows is of course the nostalgia factor. Several of the cartoons make Gumby the leader of a rock band, a move that nullifies whatever personality Gumby has. He can't be simple and innocent, ambitious and 'cool' all at the same time.
Gumby Essentials, Volume 1 is a colorful transfer of a flat show, with most of the short subjects looking fine. The Wild Horse looks as if it has been subjected to some digital processing, which gives the clay characters slightly fuzzy edges. The menus and informational character bios tell us cute facts about Gumby and his pals but no further insights into his major success as a franchise survivor. Nobody else besides Art Clokey is credited on the shows or in the disc extras, although we know that several name stop-motion animators apprenticed with Gumby, like the respected Peter Kleinow.
The extras also include a clean copy of the Gumby Show's opening sequence with the Gumby song. It always sounded a little grim to me, with the rather nice lyric, "If you've got a heart then Gumby's a part of you" either flat or off-key or something - Clokey may have used a real grade-school choir for that one. The disc includes a promo for The Gumby Movie that's difficult to avoid on start-up.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gumby Essentials, Volume 1 rates:
Short subjects: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Early Clokey films and pilots, title sequence and bumpers from The Gumby Show, character bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 7, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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