Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No one you see is smarter than he!

This post is about nothing, which means it's about TV.

'60s TV in fact, so it's about less than nothing.

(You may also call this post, "I don't want to pay attention to the particularly awful real world at this moment." Should you feel likewise, escape with me for a bit.)

Admit it: If you're close to my age, you watched "Flipper," the "Lassie" of the seas.

Not the movie starring Chuck Connors and said cetacean, but the TV show the movie spawned.

This is the plot of the series' entire three-year run: "Dad, do you think Flipper senses Bud's in trouble? He's done that before!" (Actual quote from Sandy, Bud's older brother.)

Every show counted on Flipper the dolphin knowing more than his* owners — and saving one or various of their butts.

The movie, by contrast, was more about a boy and his dog dolphin — animated and seeming to laugh, but merely a dolphin.

(*Trivia: Stories vary about the gender and number of bottlenose dolphins that played Flipper. One says he was played by several female dolphins, thought to be less aggressive than males. Each dolphin was good at something different — though a male appears to have been used for the famous tail walk — so the Flipper we saw on TV was an edited amalgam of several animals.

(More trivia: Ric O'Barry trained those dolphins, inspired to the profession by a visit to a Sea World®™-type marine park as a sailor. Now he campaigns against the zoo captivity of marine mammals — and the industry he advanced — particularly the annual Japanese mass slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, chronicled in the documentary "The Cove."

(Maybe this isn't the antidote to real life that I thought.)

When I watch TV — not as much now that baseball's over — it's often the low-rent cable networks designed to indulge people my age — the same people who on facebook®™ "like" a picture of a rotary-dial phone or a 45-rpm record adapter and ask you to share if you're geezer enough to know what it is.

(Which I don't understand: Is it supposed to be some kind of putdown of younger people, or huffy resignation that facebook®© has been abandoned to old people?).

"Flipper" is a staple of the channel I watch.

Facets of "Flipper" that I noticed vaguely as a kid have now come clear. For example:
  • Though its creators purportedly helped pioneer underwater ocean cinematography, "Flipper" looks like most of it was shot on the cheap over a week or maybe a long weekend.

    One day, it looks like, the creators shot footage of a dolphin skimming over a shallow sunlit reef, crystalline blue. Maybe the same day they shot a lot of footage of dolphins swimming back and forth through shapeless blue water, like an marine park pool — right, left, coming, going, surfacing, diving.

    Next day, the producers showed dolphins jumping out of an actual ocean somewhere, and the day after that shot dolphins doing closeup work — nodding, laughing, squeaking, tail walking —in water as opaque and green as new motor oil, the studio lagoon where the Ricks family home and dock sat.

    These shots were then repeated dozens of times and spliced together to create story sequences involving Flipper saving its owners' butts. The stories varied, the human actors did their different bits each week, but the action scenes were largely the same.

    The result, time and again, is that Flipper would come to the rescue, swimming speedily over the reefs, then race, and race some more, then appear to rise to the surface, all in clear blue water — only to appear on the surface, nodding and laughing, in suddenly dark green weed-strewn murk.

    Then Flipper would dive again to lead his stupid humans to the umpteenth rescue, but the water would turn crystal clear and sunny again.

    Or Flipper would approach his hapless owners in a long shot approaching a sandy beach, and in closeup the humans would be standing in murky water in a clump of shrubbery that suddenly showed up.

    Continuity — making sure one shot flowed seamlessly to the next to maintain the illusion of story — was not the show's strong suit.

    A friend my age said maybe we as viewers didn't care as much for the details. Maybe he's right — we were so enthralled with the daily miracle of TV we didn't care that much what was on.
  • In the TV show, wildlife preserve ranger Porter Ricks is widowed with two sons. (In the movie, Porter is a married fisherman with one son, and he doesn't particularly like competing with Flipper for fish). Older son Sandy is played by Luke Halpin, just as in the movie. Younger son Bud is played by Tommy Norden.

    Both boy actors were born in New York City. In Tommy's case, you may be able to take the boy of the city, but you can't take the city out of the boy. Tommy always sounded like he was hailing a cab in the heart of Manhattan.

    "FlippUH! FlippUH! Wheah are ya, boy?" Bud would shout from the underwater cave in which he found himself trapped.

    "Gee, Sandy," Bud might say afterward, "Bein' stuck down deah in dat rusted hull of a frigate — until FlippUH rescued me, uv cahs — shuah gave me da shivuhs!"

    I'm surprised he didn't say, "youse guys."

    Had Bud maybe been adopted by the Ricks family? No such storyline, no such luck.
  • Porter Ricks' unrequited love interest was marine biologist Ulla Norstrand, played by actress Ulla Str√∂mstedt (so she wouldn't forget her character's name?), who tootled around Flipper's part of the ocean in a yellow submarine.

    Her primary role was to give the show plenty of opportunities to pad a thin story by showing a wild menagerie of sea life, all existing together in the TV ocean if they didn't in real life. We know, after all, Flipper lives in a world full of wonder! 

    Her secondary role was to get in trouble so Flipper could rescue her.

    In the evolving cultural zeitgeist, Ulla would get her sub stuck or lose it to a bad guy (including a young Burt Reynolds!) and wait helplessly for Porter to rescue her, who waited for Flipper to rescue them all.
A friend my age said maybe we as viewers didn't care as much for the details back then. Maybe he's right — we were so enthralled with the daily miracle of TV, with the few times the images weren't scrolling wildly up and down or side to side, we didn't really care what we were watching.

Pass me the popcorn.


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