You little private dick. Warner Bros.' own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Archive Collection, continues to mine their Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection, a vast storage vault of vintage H-B material, with the release of Inch High Private Eye: The Complete Series, a 2-disc, 13-episode gathering of the one season cartoon that originally aired on NBC's 1973 Saturday morning line-up. Voiced by H.R. Pufnstuf's Lennie Weinrib, with able support from pros John Stephenson, Don Messick, and Kathy Gori, Inch High Private Eye may not be "classic" H-B, but it holds up fairly well 40 years later, with a solid (if derivative) premise that yields some fun visual gags that nostalgic fans and their small fry should enjoy. No extras for this sharp, good-looking transfer.
The Finkerton Detective Agency, 1973. Diminutive detective Inch High (voice talent of Lennie Weinrib) is "the world's biggest little detective." Measuring only one inch tall, he's aided in his outsized investigations by his niece, sorta-hippie Lori (voice talent of Kathy Gori), his assistant Gator (voice talent of Bob Lutell), a hulking good 'ol boy and master of a 1001 disguises, and Inch's loyal-but-sleepy Saint Bernard, Braveheart (voice talent of Don Messick). Inch's boss, hothead Mr. Finkerton (voice talent of John Stephenson), wants anyone on the job other than Inch...but with a perpetual lack of detectives, Finkerton is forced to re-hire the constantly fired Inch, who can't help but solve the latest dastardly crime.
Maybe it's unscientific, but a pretty good barometer of how popular an old Hanna-Barbera toon was (or at least how popular the studio thought it might become) can be found right on EbayŽ: just punch in the title and see how much vintage crap comes up. For Inch High Private Eye, the only items I found last night were a lunch box (importantly: it shared one half with Goober and the Ghost Chasers) and a Gold Key comic book (again: not a solo effort, but an anthology). So much for marketing Inch High Private Eye back in '73: no puzzles, no plushes, no board games, no cereal bowls, no night lights, no pjs, no nothing. Inch High Private Eye only played one year on NBC's Saturday morning schedule, with just 13 episodes produced, and as far as I remember, it wasn't a presence in syndication, either. Followers of all things H-B will no doubt spark at the mention of the title (I had vague flashes of it), but I would imagine the average kid who grew up in the 70s―and who therefore watched way too much Saturday morning television)―still might be hard-pressed to remember the specifics of the show...or the show itself, for that matter.
Really, though...it's not a bad little vintage H-B toon. True, it's not nearly as amusing as it could have been, had it been produced before the do-gooder parent groups and government agencies put their pointy heads together and decided to ruin all the fun for kids' cartoons by eliminating what made them watchable in the first place: violence. And sure, it's derivative as hell―so many of these H-B efforts were, at least in origin. Its most obvious influence was Rankin/Bass/Videocraft's Tom of T.H.U.M.B., a Toei Animation production from 1966 that was used as filler for their beloved The King Kong Show on ABC. Tom, with his sidekick Swinging Jack, were 4-inch superspys for the Tiny Human Underground Military Bureau, complete with an angry boss, Chief Chief. It's not hard to spot Get Smart's Maxwell Smart in Inch High's make-up, either, with over-confident incompetent Inch High often falling ass-backwards into success on his missions, while nasally intoning Smart-isms, a la Don Adams, like, "Well, how about if I...?" when confronted with his doom. Inch's visual design, with the trench coat and fedora, as well as his tough talk, are obviously taken from all those Hollywood/Bogie noir thrillers (and you can even throw in Irwin Allen's Land of the Giants and The Incredible Shrinking Man while you're at it, for all the Lilliputian gags). Inch's crime-solving team isn't any more original than he, with Lori and Gator and Braveheart merely standard H-B plug-ins for "sexy hippie chick," "handsome, hulking, goober comedy relief," and "humorous anthropomorphic animal sidekick" that you can find in various permutations and combinations, in countless other H-B efforts.
But...a good set-up is a good set-up, and Inch High Private Eye's works on a couple of levels. Kids like Inch (I tried the show out on my youngest kids and they laughed) because they often see themselves as small bumblers, too, always getting in the way of bigger adults (Finkerton yelling at Inch and firing him every episode is just another loud-mouthed, frustrated parent to them). And kids can see him like one of their little toys; he's tiny and compact and cute like a miniscule action figure (my youngest daughter said she wanted an Inch toy when she saw him running around on a gerbil wheel). As for Inch High Private Eye's humor, it's not Noel Coward (the dialogue is often lame), but visually, the set-up of pipsqueak Inch yields a surprising number of solid gags. We're always wondering how's he's going to get from one scene to the next; somehow he's always on a too-high desk or shelf, and we wonder how he's going to get down. That tension―will he get squished this time, or stomped?―may be pretty basic...but it works every time. Along with funny throwaways like Inch's amusing little film noir private eye office mock-up (a three-sided cardboard box sitting on a huge desk), or his luxurious apartment contained in Braveheart's neck keg, or Inch running along the top of a tumbler to open a safe, we get a one clever little action scene after another: Inch almost killed by typewriter keys, or going down the tub drain, or getting caught in a pinball machine and arcade shooting gallery. Adults won't laugh out loud at this simple stuff, but at least the writers have a framework that lends itself naturally to visually interesting gags that should (and did, at least for my kids) entertain the little tots. And that's not bad for a 40-year-old "failed" H-B TV toon.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.