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Review of BEDTIME FOR BONZO (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) is one of those legendary movies that I hadn’t gotten around to seeing until Kino Lorber came out with this sparkling new 2K Master Blu-ray release.

As it turns out, Ronald Reagan was a better actor in the political arena than he was in movies. He’s out-acted in this one by a chimpanzee named Peggy, whose performance earned her a PATSY Award (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) from the American Humane Society. But it’s fun to watch a comedy starring the future 40th president of the United States, and this film was so much a part of the public consciousness that Reagan used a “Bonzo” campaign to help him win the White House in 1980.

The history of animals forced to perform in Hollywood movies is not a happy one that often involved beatings and other abuses. But according to numerous accounts, Peggy was a real pro who enjoyed working and was therefore not subject to some of the cruel treatments that befell other simian performers. PETA tells us that even as recent as a decade ago there were “at least a dozen” chimpanzees working in Hollywood.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, though, chimpanzees were extremely popular and appeared in such live-action films as Monkey Business (with Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe), Disney’s The Monkey’s Uncle (with Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello), the early Planet of the Apes films, all of the Tarzan features, every episode of the Jungle Jim TV series, and a 1961 series called The Hathaways, which was about a realtor and his wife, who happened to be the manager-owner of three chimps working in Hollywood.

Now there are none, thanks to the efforts of PETA and other groups, and CGI has forever removed the need to train animals for motion picture performances. That said, there is something fascinating about watching Peggy, who, as Bonzo, gets way more screen time than any of the human actors. We watch her climb up trees and buildings, steal and return jewelry, ride a tricycle, walk “like a person,” and act like a couple’s child throughout the film—as in a real, wholesome family.

That’s actually the premise of this film, the plot of which might remind viewers of My Fair Lady without the music or an academic version of Trading Places. Reagan plays psychology professor Peter Boyd, who sets out to prove the nature vs. nurture debate by hiring a woman named Jane (Diana Lynn) to move into his house and pose as the chimp’s “mother” while he plays the part of the father . . . albeit an absentee one much of the time, because he also happens to be engaged. He conveniently fails to tell that to his fiancée (Lucille Barkley) or Jane, who, like Bonzo, becomes enamored with the thought of being part of a family.

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Review of FANCY PANTS (1950) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B/B-
Western comedy
Not rated (would be G)

Families that watch I Love Lucy reruns on TV will enjoy seeing Lucille Ball in this Western comedy—the fourth film to be based on Harry Leon Wilson’s popular 1915 novel Ruggles of Red Gap, and the second feature film Ball made with comedian Bob Hope.The humor in this film is certainly a cousin to the antics home audiences loved about that classic TV series, which began airing in 1951.

Fancy Pants(1950) is the costumed follow-up to Sorrowful Jones (1949), and both films are pleasant diversions. Hope and Ball click together with a natural ease. Maybe that’s why the fast friends co-starred in four feature films and a made-for-TV movie, and also hosted each other on their TV series and specials. Their first film is still their best, but Fancy Pants isn’t far behind. And children will undoubtedly prefer Hope and Ball in Western getup and giddy-up to the duo’s earlier Damon Runyon racetrack comedy.

In this one, Ball is brassy and uncultured, but not to the point of annoyance (I’m thinking here of Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown or Shelley Winters in Pete’s Dragon). And Hope is Hope, his vaudevillian shtick honed to perfection over a series of “Road” pictures with Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby. Director George Marshall (Destry Rides Again, The Ghost Breakers) gives them the reins, too, so they can create comic moments reflective of their strengths.

In 1950, only John Wayne was earning more money at the box office than Hope. Here Hope plays a bad American actor working in London as a butler in a play, and when the whole mediocre cast is hired to pose as upper-crust Brits for an event, he’s mistaken for a real Butler and sees the opportunity as the role of a lifetime . . . and a way to pay the bills.

The film opens in England, where the matron of a newly rich Western family (Lea Penman) has taken her tomboyish daughter Agatha (Ball) to learn how to be more cultured and refined. The starter pistol for an often-used plot of mistaken identity is the telegram Mrs. Floud sends home that she is bringing a “gentleman’s gentleman”—which the whole town interprets as British royalty. Suddenly, Hope is an actor named Arthur Tyler playing the part of a butler named Humphrey who’s also playing the part of the Earl of Brimstead. And the complication?  The town uses the Earl’s visit as a way to entice Pres. Theodore Roosevelt to make Big Squaw one of his very few stops on a tour of the West. Throw in a slow-building attraction between Agatha and Humphrey and a jealous cowboy (Bruce Cabot) who thinks Agatha is his “girl,” and the Western farce plays out better than anything Arthur Tyler had been a part of.

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Review of THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA (2021) (BLU-RAY)

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Grade:  B
Family
Not rated (would be G)

These days everyone thinks Disney when they hear the word “Cinderella,” but the folk tale dates back to 7 B.C. and has spawned thousands of variations. The most common in western culture has been Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon (1697), which added the pumpkin, fairy godmother, and those uncomfortable glass slippers.

The Cinderella of this 2021 Norwegian film has been tweaked to reflect 21st-century values, though maybe something was lost in translation, because I couldn’t figure out what the three wishes might be—unless she wishes she could have a pet owl, like Hermoine Granger; wishes she could ride a horse and successfully pose as a man, like Mulan; and wishes she could shoot a bow and arrow as deftly as Katniss Everdeen.

I have to admit, it’s refreshing to revisit the Cinderella story from a non-Disney perspective. Yes, this Cinderella is kind to animals and people, and as a result, everyone loves her. She’s down to earth and always willing to help, but also feisty and far from submissive. Three Wishes for Cinderella is still a romance, but this princess doesn’t really need a prince, and she’s perfectly capable of rescuing herself. The happy ending is the result of two people being attracted to each other and mutually agreeing to be together. And in this century, that’s the happiest and healthiest ending.

The Internet Movie Database lists more than 400 filmed variants of the Cinderella story, and descriptions suggest this version may be closely related to a Czech/East German 1973 production that I haven’t seen, so I can’t offer any comparisons. I did notice that the 1973 film was shot in winter, and this Norwegian production followed suit. That alone adds an element of interest to a tale that should make Three Wishes for Cinderella stand out.

The other major selling point, especially for young viewers, is that charismatic pop star Astrid S is the lead actress and makes for a warm and extremely likable Cinderella. Astrid does it all when it comes to the songs that have over 2.3 billion streams—performing, writing, and producing her music and directing her music videos—and she manages to do it all, range-wise, in her acting debut. She shifts gears effortlessly, whether it’s playing the victim opposite a cruel stepmother, taking the blame for a servant’s blunder, chastising a hunter with a snowball to the back of the head, wielding a bow with precision, or trying her hand at guy-talk when she’s disguised. Astrid and the gorgeous Norwegian winter cinematography absolutely carry this picture, but there’s also added interest with the familiar fairytale plot getting tweaked a bit.

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Review of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Maybe the kids aren’t old enough for Donnie Darko and that old slasher pic Halloween, or they’re still unsettled after you broke your own rule and let them watch it . . . or It.

Maybe they’re too old for Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin, and maybe Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, like retail stores these days, lumps Christmas and Halloween a bit too uncomfortably together in one tidy package.

Or maybe everyone has had their fill of Hocus Pocus, Hocus Pocus 2, and Monster House and you’re all Halloweentowned and Beetlejuiced and Sleepy Hollowed out.   

If so, you might turn your attention this trick-or-treat season to the most benign (and still funny) serial killer film ever made.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) begins, “This is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen—and it usually does.” We see all sorts of Halloween decorations before the cameras zoom in on the old gabled Brewster house, which is located next to a cemetery—the next best thing to an isolated haunted house. But there aren’t any ghosts here, and the only “monsters” are two sweet, misguided little old ladies . . . who flavor the elderberry wine they offer lonely older gentlemen with arsenic and strychnine. 

Criterion released a Blu-ray of this classic black-and-white dark comedy just in time for Halloween, and it’s going to be one of those films that sticks with you because of the situation, those little old ladies, and star Cary Grant. Even more than His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby it reinforces what a wonderful comic actor Grant was. Though Bob Hope was the first choice of director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), Grant so totally made this role uniquely his that you can’t imagine anyone else as the star.

Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a recently married writer who returns to the home where he was raised by two elderly aunts so he can tell them the good news and introduce them to his wife (Priscilla Lane). But very early in the film he learns that Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) and Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) have taken to offing the men who respond to their ad for a boarding house room. Why? Well, it all makes perfect sense in their sweet, twisted minds. And while it comes as a surprise, it’s not a complete surprise to Mortimer, who knows that insanity has haunted the Brewster family for generations. A brother still living with the aunts (John Alexander) thinks he’s President Teddy Roosevelt and yells “Charge” every time he runs up the main staircase, while an older brother had been institutionalized for being criminally insane (Raymond Massey as a Boris Karloff lookalike). That brother shows up with classic horror actor Peter Lorre in tow as Dr. Einstein, while the familiar-voiced Edward Everett Horton (Fractured Fairy Tales) appears as Mr. Witherspoon.

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Review of A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (1949) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Fantasy musical comedy romance
Not rated (would be G)

Disney didn’t invent family movies. As early as the 1930s, studios were adapting literary classics by Stevenson, Verne, Kipling, Dickens, and Twain with the intent that they might appeal to whole families. Disney’s philosophy was to make films for children that adults could also enjoy; those early family films were made for adults, but with content that might also keep children entertained. So many of these films were pleasant entertainment, which is to say a kind of middle-of-the-road offering meant to please a lot of people a little.

When The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther reviewed A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court(1949), he called it “that good time to be had by all.” Like many costumed adventures the studio system produced, this Twain adaptation featured a fantasy common to children (being transported to another time and place) and musical numbers that were a staple back then. While the adults were enjoying the romance and music, children were engaged by the escapist adventure and comedy, with everyone appreciating crooner Bing Crosby (The Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, Holiday Inn) as Hank Martin, an easy-going blacksmith/mechanic from 1912 who awakens from a bonk on the head to find himself in medieval England, where he falls for King Arthur’s niece (Rhonda Fleming), becomes a knight, and has to out-wizard Merlin (Murvyn Vye) in order to survive.    

But that was then, and this is now. Despite the engaging premise, A Connecticut Yankee doesn’t have quite the same crackling energy and spitfire gags as Bob Hope’s costumed pirate romp The Princess and the Pirate (1944), nor does it have the intricacy of plot and memorable scenes that still make Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester (1955) a great film. Both of those costumed adventures are stronger than A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which may have been more restrained because director Tay Garnett had a better track record with dramas and war movies than he did musicals or comedies. In fact, his last comedy prior to this one was seven years earlier: the bomb My Favorite Spy, with Kay Kyser. Everything in A Connecticut Yankee seems as mellow as Crosby’s character, when a more accomplished comedic director might have varied the pacing and contrasted Crosby’s mellowness with more madcap situations or manic characters.

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Review of WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Rated G

Coming-of-age juvenile novels, especially ones documenting life below the poverty line, have spawned an awful lot of films. Where the Lilies Bloomis part of that informal tradition, adapted for the big screen in 1974 after the success of another poor sharecropper story, Sounder (1972).

Where the Lilies Bloom is based on a book by Vera and Bill Cleaver and tells the story of a dirt-poor family living pretty much off the grid in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The mother of the family, still known in the area as the best root and herb doctor there ever was, died four years before the action of this film begins, and the father has that telltale cough and the kind of “spells” that suggest poor Roy Luther (Vance Howard), isn’t far behind.

That puts the focus on the children—in particular, on the second oldest daughter, Mary Call (Julie Gholson), because the oldest is a bit of a dreamer like her father and not the take-charge doer that their mother had been. With the father more and more out of the picture, Mary Call takes on the responsibility of leading the family . . . at the age of 14. That includes following her father’s wish that she keep neighbor Kiser Pease (Harry Dean Stanton) away from her older sister Devola, because Kiser is living in the family’s old house that he got “legal like” by paying the taxes that Roy had allowed to lapse—presumably because of grief following the death of his wife. Although Kiser is a persistent suitor, Mary Call is a bulldog that won’t let him near the place, even though he legally owns the sharecropper’s shack they now call home. Mary Call also has to raise younger brother Romey (Matthew Burril) and baby sister Ima Dean (Helen Harmon).

The story is narrated from Mary Call’s point of view, and like her more famous rural counterpart, John Boy Walton, she is good at writing and encouraged by a teacher to make something “more” of herself by leaving the hill country. But that’s the future. Mary Call is more concerned with the present. To earn a living, the children trudge up the mountain as generations of Luthers before them had done, pulling and pushing their wagon. Using their mother’s notebook as a guide, they pick all sorts of mountain herbs and roots to sell to the local pharmacist in a town far from their shack. And the focus of this film is as much on the family’s daily lifestyle as it is on plot.

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Review of THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET: COMPLETE SEASONS ONE & TWO (DVD)

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Grade:  B-/B
TV Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

Until It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pushed past them in 2021, with its 14 seasons The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet held the record for longest-running live-action television sitcom. And it still holds the record for most live-action sitcom episodes, with 435 filmed between October 1952 and April 1966. 

That’s pretty amazing, considering that the rival family sitcom I Love Lucy got all the love back in the day. Lucy earned 25 Primetime Emmy nominations and eight wins, while Ozzie and Harriet got justthree nominations and no wins. Lucy became the most watched TV show in America for four out of its six seasons, while Ozzie and Harriet managed to crack the Nielsen Top 30 just once (in 1963-64).

Call it another case of slow-and-steady wins the race. Lucy relied on manic, slapstick situations and comedy of character, while Ozzie and Harriet offered the kind of gentle everyday situational family-life comedy that made The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet a popular radio show from 1944-54. Looking back, it was as close as early classic TV programming came to the kind of loosely scripted reality shows that are popular now. Almost all of the episodes were scripted variations of real incidents from the lives of the Nelson family:  father Ozzie, mother Harriet, and sons David and Ricky. The opening title shot of a home exterior was actually the Nelsons’ home, and though interior shots had to be filmed on a soundstage, producers meticulously recreated the look of the interior of the Nelsons’ home. Ozzie was a stickler for realism, and the plots that viewers watched were often reenactments of family incidents or situations, with Ozzie directing 382 episodes and also writing 261 of the show’s scripts. The boys were 16 and 12 years old when the TV show began, so America watched David and Ricky grow up.

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Review of FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE 7 FILM COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

If you’re receptive to older black-and-white movies, this wonderful new Francis the Talking Mule 7 Film Collection from Kino Lorber will strike you as surprisingly entertaining. The three-disc set features all of the Francis movies that were popular in the ‘50s, with an audio commentary for each film. I’ve reviewed thousands of films since 2000, and it says something that I could binge-watch the first five of these light comedies without wanting to skip ahead or quit.

There’s a formula at work here, but it’s still fun seeing it play out:  Francis only talks to Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor), unless Peter is really in a jam. Then Francis will speak to others, reminding them that if they say anything about it to anyone he’ll remain quiet and they’ll end up in the “psych” ward with Peter, who is such a gosh-darned honest guy that he has to give credit where credit is due. Which is to say, Francis doesn’t just talk. He’s a know-it-all, whether it’s the location of the enemy, the time of a planned raid, which horses will win at the racetrack, or who killed Cock Robin. 

Francis

Like the Smithsonian Institution, “America’s attic,” there’s a surprise to be found at almost every turn. Maybe the biggest surprise is O’Connor, who’s most famous for being the third wheel to Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. As the likable Peter he plays everybody’s best friend, modeling character traits like honesty (to a fault), earnestness, humor, loyalty, decency, and dependability. He also displays a refreshing naiveté that makes him sometimes innocent or clueless but never stupid. “Did they take x-rays of your head?” “Yes Sir.” “And what did they show?” “Nothing.” O’Connor stars in all but the seventh film, which features Mickey Rooney—Universal’s first choice for the lead. But seeing them both in the role, I think Universal was fortunate that things turned out as they did. As much as the mule, O’Connor is responsible for the series’ success.

People who served in the military, fans of classic television, and children young enough to be tickled by the situations a talking mule can get into (and out of) will be especially delighted by the Francis films.

Four of the seven films have a military backdrop and were filmed with the cooperation of the Army, Navy, and Women’s Army Corps. Veterans and military enthusiasts will appreciate seeing vintage shots of military academies, bases, training, and mishaps. The word “SNAFU” is an acronym for “situation normal all f***ed up,” a description and attitude that has been used by generations of service men and women to describe the military. Veterans will smile at some of the subtle jokes about military protocols and officers, because Francis was based on a book of stories written by David Stern while he was at Officer Candidate School in Hawaii. In these stories, which were published in Esquire, he created a talking mule—a “jackass” that allowed him to use the pejorative to satirize the people in the Army who were running things. “Francis is afraid to talk. He’s worried if the Army finds out they’ll send him to officer’s candidate school.”

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Review of DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (Disney Movie Club Exclusive Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Fantasy
Rated G

Nine years after Disney got into live-action filmmaking with their 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island, the House of Mouse scored a modest success with their 17th live-action entry, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It wasn’t the box-office hit that The Shaggy Dog was that year, but solid enough now to appear on an IMDB.com list of “25 greatest films of 1959”—a list that The Shaggy Dog failed to make.

When Darby O’Gill was released, the selling point for this family fantasy-adventure was the film’s depiction of leprechauns. Now the big attraction is a very young pre-Bond Sean Connery in his first starring role in a feature film. And he sings. How’s that for a pot of gold?

Connery plays a dashing young Dublin man who finds himself in an awkward position when he is assigned by Lord Fitzpatrick to replace an old man named Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) as the caretaker for his country estate in the tiny town of Rathcullen. O’Gill is a popular man in town, even though everyone laughs at his earnest stories of leprechauns and his claim to have met their king, Brian Connors (Jimmy O’Dea).

A “city” fellow is a natural disruption to local rural life, but Michael McBride finds other challenges. For one thing, there’s Pony Sugrue (Kieron Moore), a boisterous town bully who could be the prototype for Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. A big strong man who tends to brag and mock others, Pony thinks he’s the natural choice to replace O’Gill and marry Katie, the old man’s daughter. In fact, he feels entitled. Then there’s Katie (Janet Munro), a charming young woman that Michael quickly falls for, creating a classic romantic triangle. Finally there’s O’Gill himself—a charismatic and likable old man that Michael grows fond of and would prefer not to hurt. Conflicts like these create a narrative structure that manages to entertain the adults who watch with children.

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Review of THE FLINTSTONES: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Animated TV Series
Rated G

Crab lawn mowers, a dinner of roast pterodactyl leg, triceratops wheelbarrows, birds using their wings to cover red and green stoplights to coordinate traffic—it’s all part of an average day in Bedrock, the pre-historic community where one of TV’s most famous animated families lived from 1960-66. Fred Flintstone was a blue-collar working stiff, the operator of a dinosaur-powered crane at the Rock Head & Quarry Cave Construction Co. Like everyone else, when the end-of-day whistle blew, he hurried home in a foot-powered car so he could be with his wife, their pet “dog” that was really a small dinosaur, and later, a baby girl named Pebbles who would inspire a fruity breakfast cereal.

As the first prime-time animated TV series, The Flintstones was both beloved and wildly profitable through six seasons and two spin-off full-length movies. All six seasons, both films, and the original pilot and bonus features are included in this Complete Series set that really has a lot of visual pop because of the high-def transfer to Blu-ray. It makes all the small details even more pleasurable—like the paintings hanging in the home that are in the style of cave drawings.

Fans of the all-time most popular cartoon, The Simpsons, will recognize that the show about America’s “nuclear family” owes a debt to The Flintstones, which TV Guide named the second all-time most popular cartoon—one that earned a primetime Emmy nomination in 1961 for outstanding TV comedy. Simpsons fans will get déjà vu from the beginning as they watch a work-to-home title sequence that ends with a garage door closing and a character heading for the furniture in front of the TV. The Flintstones was also big on pop-culture allusions and celebrity guest stars—all staples of the later Matt Groening series. Instead of Cary Grant, Ann-Margret, Tony Curtis, and James Darren, audiences encountered Cary Granite, Ann-Margrock, Stony Curtis, and Jimmy Darrock. TV’s Bewitched stars make an appearance, and the Hanna-Barbera writers had fun spinning versions of shows like My Favorite Martian (with the appearance of a little spaceman called The Great Gazoo) and The Munsters and The Addams Family (with their bizarre family The Gruesomes).

The Flintstones also trailblazed the half-hour animated cartoon that took its format from TV sitcoms and would be the lifeblood of The Simpsons years later. The stone-age gadgets were fun for the kids, but adults also enjoyed seeing the Rube Goldberg contraptions that were a part of daily life for this “modern Stone Age family.” Even more fun for adults was the but even more fun was Hanna-Barbera’s riff on the classic ‘50s sitcom The Honeymooners.

The Honeymooners starred Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as the Cramdens, a New York City couple who palled around with their neighbors, the Nortons (Art Carney and Joyce Randolph). Here we get Fred and Wilma Flintstone, whose neighbors and best friends are Barney and Betty Rubble. As with The Honeymooners, many an episode revolves around a mild battle of the sexes and mishaps that Ralph Cramden and Fred Flintstone get themselves into. Like Ralph, Fred is a bully and a loudmouth, but he’s easily put in his place. In the #MeToo era it’s probably important to mention that the beefy and blustery Ralph, a bus driver by trade, was forever shouting and often threatened to sock his wife. He never did, of course, because Alice knew, as Wilma Flintstone did, that her husband was all bark and no bite. If there’s any hitting that happens, it’s more often the wife or someone else that administers the blow, all for comic effect, of course. The Flintstones softened the gender sparring of The Honeymooners for family audiences, but the sitcom formula was still apparent in every half-hour episode. More

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