The Kuklapolitan Players are back again with another two-disc set of classic Kukla, Fran, and Ollie shows! Those who picked up the first collection will need no encouragement to run out and buying a copy of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie: The First Episodes Vol. 2. Like the first release, this set includes a slew of rare shows from the early days of television, 22 full episodes along with several excerpts, which are still as amusing and slightly surreal as they were when they were first broadcast back in the 1950's. It's a great set, and if you missed the first release you can get them both at a discount. You can't beat that.
For those who aren't familiar with the trio, Kukla and Ollie are puppets, (Ollie is a dragon and Kukla is "a Kukla" as Ollie reveals in one of these shows) who interact with their human friend, Fran. The show also has a wide cast of other puppets including the wanna-be opera diva Madame Ooglepuss, the friendly (more or less) Buelah Witch, and southern blowhard Colonel Crackie among others. The thing that makes the show so special, and causes it to stand head and shoulders above other kids shows of the era, is the slightly bizarre, off-kilter sense of humor that permeates the program. Though it's a program aimed at kids, they don't talk down to their audience and even assume that they're more cultured than they really are. One episode features the troupe performing the opera Carmen for example. How many kids would even know who Bizet was, much less want to see one of his operas? It takes a few episodes to really get the hang of what they're doing, but it's surprisingly amusing even now.
This collection has a few standout shows, but my favorite was when they did a parody of the classic film Destination Moon. After having seen the film, Kukla and Ollie decide that they want to make a movie about going to the moon. The come up with a plot, such as it is, where they're two inventors and Fran is a rich heiress who is bankrolling their research. The pair take off, leaving Fran behind since she's a woman, and start to explore the solar system. Fran is worried about them so she visits Buelah Witch who has just picked up a radio message from the two explorers: they've reached the moon but run out of gas and can't make it back. Buelah has a great idea on how to rescue the pair: The 1950 Ford is comfortable, spacious, and roomy as well as being the perfect car to take anywhere (you'll never guess who sponsored the show at this time). Since it can go anywhere, why doesn't Fran drive one to the moon? This she does, showing that women can travel in space too.
Another great bit is when they read a review of the show that appeared in The New Yorker Magazine. It's a favorable review, describing the show as "high brow" but the reviewer runs into trouble when he describes the cast:
Ollie reading the review: "There are a pair of..." what does P-U-P-P-E-T-S spell?
Kukla: Oh skip it, just go on.
Ollie: "...called Kukla and Ollie. One is a dragon, the other a pin... (softly) pinhead."
Kukla (hurt): Why'd he call me a pinhead?
That's the running gag for the rest of that bit... why would a reviewer call Kukla a 'pinhead?'
One of the neat things about these show is that they were ad-libbed and live. That's right, they went on live television without a script, just some vague ideas of what they were going to do and let the show unfold as it would. You can hear the piano player and stage hands laughing at times, but even more amusing is when Fran isn't sure what Burr (operating the puppets) is going for. There were a couple of times where Fran excuses herself only to have Kukla say something to the effect of 'no stay here Fran." This gives the show a free wheeling and spontaneous feel that is totally lacking in shows of today.
The 22 episodes, are presented on a pair of DVDs that come in a single-width double case.
All of these episodes were broadcast live, but these were saved thanks to Kinescope copies. In these days before videotape the only way to preserve a live show was to point a camera at a monitor showing the broadcast and film it. Needless to say there was some loss of quality inherent in this method. All of the shows in this set are Kinescopes but they've been cleaned up and look and sound better than I was expecting.
The mono soundtrack does have some hiss and pops and the dynamic range is very limited, but these DVDs reproduce the show better than the small screen and scratchy single paper cone speaker would back when they were first broadcast. The dialog does get a bit muddled in a couple of parts, but in general it's easy to hear the dialog and follow the show. I never had to strain to follow the shows, so I was very happy with the audio on these.
Recorded between 1949 and 1954, the image quality is very good for Kinescopes. Yes, the picture is soft and the contrast isn't as strong as it could be, but the shows are generally clear and easy on the eyes. It's easy to tell that these have had work done on them since they look better than most Kinescopes from this time frame.
There are more bonus features included with this set than with the previous one, which is great. There are a few extended excerpts from shows, all of which are very funny, as well as three complete episodes from the 1961 incarnation of the show. Granted these later shows only ran five-minutes a piece, but they were short and sweet.
There is also a short 'wiki' on the show, a series of text pages that gives interesting background on the show and people who worked on it. (You should read this if only for the Tallulah Bankhead story.) The wiki concludes with some celebrity fan letters including missives from Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, and Marlon Brando. The photo gallery includes behind-the-scenes pictures as well as some early shots of creator Burr Tillstrom. The extras are wrapped up with a one-page story on the origin of Kukla.
This is a great set that will hopefully find its way into a lot of DVD collections. A highlight in early television, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie are woefully ignored today, and hopefully this set will expose a new generation of viewers to the amusing comedy of this fantastic show. Highly recommended.