The Best Thing Since Trash Day: The Flintstones and “The Hot Piano” (1961)

29 Aug

Review by Rachel Newstead

The Flintstones: “The Hot Piano”

Season 1, Episode 19

Original Airdate Feb. 3, 1961

Directors: Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera

Writer: Mike Maltese

In Short: Stuck for an anniversary present for Wilma, Fred learns a valuable lesson in economics–don’t buy a piano out of the back of a van. Especially if the seller is a guy named “88 Fingers Louie…”

(Minor edit, to correct a phrase that annoyed me. Changed the phrase  “one of the things that endeared this cartoon to me” to “one of the things that made this cartoon endearing. “8/22/12–Rachel)

With any great TV show–even some that weren’t so great–one episode is often enough to make a viewer into a fan forever.

For Trekkies, it’s “City On The Edge Of Forever”–or perhaps “Space Seed” (the episode that introduced us to Khan, Captain Kirk’s greatest nemesis.) For “I Love Lucy” fans, it might be the “Vitameatavegamin” episode, or the one in which she finds herself submerged in a vat of grapes.

For fans of Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones, however, it’s usually this episode: “The Hot Piano,” from the show’s often brilliant (though critically panned) first season. It certainly was for me.

Looking at the show’s 166 episodes today can seem a bit like watching two different series. There’s the caustic adult sitcom of its first couple of seasons, “inspired” by The Honeymooners but more a sendup of every TV comedy ever known–I Love Lucy, Donna Reed and Ozzie and Harriet turned sideways and transported to the Stone Age.

If the original sponsor–Winston cigarettes–didn’t clue you in, the plots and dialogue told you this was not a kiddie show. The stories were often “battle of the sexes” fare long familiar to adult viewers–Fred and Barney trying to trick the wives in order to go bowling; the respective couples going to elaborate means to hide the petty cash from each other; Fred’s Ralph Kramden-like “get rich quick” schemes and his efforts to conceal them from Wilma. They spoke in short, snappy vaudeville-style one-liners and put-downs that zoomed over the head of the average five-year old. Lines like “Droll, very droll!” competed with Fred’s “Yabba-dabba-doo” for the honor of the show’s most memorable catchphrase. Even Ed Benedict’s angular character designs hinted at a certain literal and figurative “edginess” (to use a now-overworked term).

Then there’s the other “Flintstones,” that of the post-Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm years. The target audience shifted to the younger set, and the stories and characterizations followed suit (as did the sponsor–Winston was out, replaced by Welch’s grape juice). It still emulated live-action sitcoms, but those that appealed to kids (such as The Munsters and My Favorite Martian.) Wilma became less of a stereotypical nagging shrew and one got the idea she actually loved her big lug of a husband. Fred was still loud and blustery, but now realized the error of his ways (making him, ironically, more like Ralph Kramden–the very character he was created to imitate–than he ever had been). The one-line zingers were less frequent. The characters grew cuddlier in appearance, with smoother, more rounded forms. Even the backgrounds seemed cheerier somehow.

Which “Flintstones” is better depends on one’s age and point of view, I suppose, but one thing is clear–“The Hot Piano” is an outstanding episode by any standard. The elements that made the early seasons so much fun are all there, and honed to perfection. Many wonderful episodes would follow, but “The Flintstones” would never be quite this funny again.

THE CARTOON
Fred and Wilma’s tenth anniversary is just 24 hours away, and Wilma’s on the prowl for a gift from Fred. When we first see her, she’s rummaging through cabinets, rifling through cupboards, and peeking under furniture, all the while humming the “Happy Anniversary” song, sung to the tune of the “William Tell Overture” (remember this, as it’s going to figure in a bit later).

Fred, being Fred, hasn’t remembered an anniversary yet, usually resorting to a quick bouquet of flowers at the last minute. But Wilma searches anyway, with the optimism of the proverbial little boy digging through a pile of horse manure, figuring there has to be a pony under there somewhere.

"Illustrated radio?" Hardly. On "The Flintstones," funny drawings accompanied funny dialogue

“Illustrated radio?” Hardly. On “The Flintstones,” funny drawings accompanied funny dialogue

Figuring she’ll have to “jiggle this boy’s memory” (one of many great Mike Maltese lines in this cartoon) she pulls out the heavy artillery: heart-shaped toast for breakfast, served while wearing a bridal veil. Fred’s clueless as always, figuring she’s either dressed for dusting or she has a headache. When asked what day tomorrow is, he’s even more maddeningly dense: “Tomorrow’s Thursday, followed by Friday as usual–and to elaborate further on the subject, today is Wednesday, preceded by Tuesday, as usual…” leaving Wilma frustrated (as usual).

On the way out the door to work, Fred has a “revelation’: “I remembered! How could I forget such an important day! Tomorrow’s the day they collect the trash!” Wilma’s vacant-eyed “take” is priceless here–this and subsequent scenes prove that even limited animation can have funny drawings.

For once, however, Fred’s being moronic on purpose–he remembered their anniversary after all, he tells Barney–precisely because it falls on trash day (ah, Fred, you incurable romantic, you…) Chuckling, he remarks how Wilma tried everything but “rice and old shoes” to get him to remember (a line repeated by Wilma in her conversation to Betty: repetition plays a very important role in this cartoon, an element I’ll comment on further in my concluding thoughts).

The guys duck into a local music store, where we get a now-familiar aside from one of the Stone Age creatures posing as a xylophone: “I can’t stand amateurs!” The store’s run by a Frank Nelson-like clerk (voiced–appropriately enough–by Frank Nelson, a comedian known both for playing the eternal foil to Jack Benny on radio, and his squeaky-voiced, slightly fey greeting: “YYYYEEEESSSSS!”)

Fred, it turns out, has his heart set on buying a piano for Wilma, and is prepared to blow his entire roll of cash (all fifty bucks of it). It might be worth noting the clerk’s warning to “the anniversary boy”: “Remember, tomorrow is trash day!”

Barney–not a bad musician, judging from his turn on the “xylophone”–tries out a “genuine Stoneway” (if you’re watching The Flintstones, you have to get used to these puns, folks) and goes through Ed Norton-like machinations to warm up. To Fred’s irritation, naturally.

He plunks out a few notes of “In The Merry Month Of May” (also known as “Strolling Through The Park One Day”) which gets the clerk interested. Soon, they’ve both launched into an increasingly elaborate pseudo-classical version of the piece–while Fred gets increasingly annoyed. Fred’s slow burn–the best this side of Edgar Kennedy–is one of the things that for me, made this cartoon endearing. It’s perfectly timed, growing incrementally as Barney and the store clerk get more and more carried away–it never fails to send me into hysterics.

After Fred screams for the two of them to “knock it off”, everybody gets back to business. Unfortunately, Fred’s a bit short of cash–quite a bit, as the piano costs $1500. The clerk’s parting words, when Fred asks what he’s going to do for his anniversary, are “Why don’t you forget it, like you do every year?” Fred’s reputation precedes him, apparently.

Fred's "slow burn" (above and below)

More funny drawings: Fred’s infamous “slow burn” (above and below)

While commiserating with Barney out in the alley, Fred hears a voice from off-camera, belonging to a short, shady-looking character with the highly suspicious name of “88 Fingers Louie”. Suspicious to everyone but Fred and Barney, that is. “88 Fingers” asks them if they’re interested in a “hot” piano (a lot “hotter” than they realize, actually).

“88 Fingers” is another Hanna-Barbera “swipe” from radio, incidentally, based on a Sheldon Leonard character on (what else?) the Jack Benny radio show. Called “The Tout,” he was a racetrack bookie type who’d give odds on literally anything: train arrivals, kids’ marble games–it didn’t matter. It’s a rather loose imitation here, admittedly, with Daws Butler doing a “sort of” Sheldon Leonard. But adults in 1961–their memories of classic radio still fresh–would have easily spotted the reference.

Louie has a van parked around the corner; he doesn’t have a store, because as he says, “I don’t need a store…no big overhead…no smart-alecky salesmen–I even parked the truck in the low-rent district and passed the savings on to you!” (Remember what I said about wonderful Maltese lines?) Barney, cautious consumer that he is, asks if it the piano has a guarantee. Louie says, “Certainly…I guarantee it’s a piano!” And it just happens, by a lucky coincidence, to be worth fifty bucks. Sold–for now.

Of course, they have to get it home, since piano “entrepreneurs” like Louie don’t make deliveries (“With me it’s strictly cash and carry–I take the cash, and you carry!”) Fred accomplishes this with the help of his “muscular little friend” Barney, trailing along behind Fred’s car while holding up one end of the unweildy instrument. (Barney does seem to get roped into doing a lot of the dirty work, doesn’t he?)

Wilma, meanwhile, is still on the prowl for the elusive gift–it’s all part of the game, she says to Betty–she can’t actually come out and ask him what he got, just make him miserable if he doesn’t get it. Aside from being manipulative, she’s about as subtle as a pile driver to the head, going so far as to frisk Fred at the door.

Cut to midnight: Barney wakes Fred (with the help of a well-placed rock to the head) and we’re now treated to a bit of a Laurel and Hardy routine-mixed with a little Tex Avery–as they try various ways of getting the piano in the house. Barney attempts to push it, which only succeeds in Fred being hit in the stomach. Barney plunks a few notes to see if the piano’s been harmed–Fred quickly slams the lid down on Barney’s hands to silence the dope. Before Barney can yelp in pain, Fred sticks Barney’s head inside a nearby mailbox, where Barney lets out a blood-curdling yell. They go through the process a second time when Barney–trying to lift the piano this time–drops it on his foot.

The topper to the gag comes when the mailman comes by to pick up the mail, only to be greeted with an eardrum-shattering “YEEEEOUUUCH!” (“I gotta stop eatin’ in those cheap restaurants!” the mailman remarks.) This was a gag Avery used frequently, most notably in Deputy Droopy. There, the outlaws’ “ouches” are not only bottled up, but have to be coaxed out like a bottle of ketchup.

They nearly wake Wilma in an unsuccessful attempt to raise it up to the bedroom window (Fred, jumping back in bed and abandoning poor Barney, reassures her she’s just having a “loud nightmare.”) Having failed with all other methods of entry, they try pushing it through the front door–but it’s, as Barney says, “too fat.” Fred remedies the situation by putting some of his fat into the effort to shove it through–he succeeds a little too well, sending the piano through the house and right past Wilma.

When the awakened Wilma remarks she just saw a piano go by, Fred–who’s just jumped back into bed at lightning speed–reassures her with classic Mike Maltese double-talk: “Why, it’s merely a manifestation of your subconscious clashing with your conscious…coupled with the cucumbers you had for lunch…” As this seems business as usual for Fred, Wilma shrugs it off.

Meanwhile, the piano’s heading out the back gate (it would have to have been moving awfully slow, considering how much time it took Fred to get back there–continuity error, anyone?) Fred’s in hot pursuit, finally catching up to the runaway instrument just in time for it to run a red light–and for Fred to get “pulled over” by the cops.

At the police station, it turns out poor Fred is not only charged with “driving” a piano with “no taillights, no headlights, and no license”, he’s mistaken for 88 Fingers Louie. After Fred’s heart-rending explanation that he just wanted to surprise his wife for their anniversary, the police sergeant remembers he has to get an anniversary gift for his own “little bride.” He wonders how he could have forgotten it–when it falls on trash day.

Under the circumstances, the cops allow Fred his surprise, sneaking the piano into his house. They greet Wilma with a reprise of the “Happy Anniversary” song; Fred’s legendary temper gets an encore, too, as they go on and on–and on. It’s slow-burn time again as he tells them all to “knock it off!” Oddly, he does it a little more gently than in the music store, but they still use the earlier animation, in which he looks like he’s going to blow a gasket.

But they still think Fred is 88 Fingers, and are prepared to haul him off to the pokey–until, that is, word gets in that the real thief has been caught. (Note the terse, Jack Webb-imitation cop about to haul poor Fred away). All ends happily, as Fred hitches a ride with the cops to (naturally) the flower shop. Or it will end happily, as soon as Wilma starts speaking to Fred again.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Chuck Jones–derision dripping from every word–would often refer to cartoons such as this as “illustrated radio” for its emphasis on dialogue over animation, but in the case of “The Hot Piano”, that’s a compliment. It does come off as being like a well-written radio play, and as we’ve already seen, borrows liberally from that medium.

But it owes just as much to classic Warner’s cartoons, with its wiseass tone and slam-bang, joke-joke-joke framework, due in no small measure to the contribution of Termite Terrace alum Mike Maltese.

It’s a perfectly constructed story, on par with Maltese’s best at Warner’s. Maltese could take any basic situation (even one as shopworn as this cartoon’s) and build on it, topping one gag with another to build to a hilarious conclusion. His Road Runner cartoons would sometimes come full circle, referring back to a gag we might have forgotten (one of Wile E. Coyote’s traps might not backfire right away, but two or three scenes later when he least expects it).

“The Hot Piano” is similarly self-referential, repeating the same phrases and gags throughout (as in the ubiquitous “trash day” references, giving the episode kind of an ironic quality) while coming full circle with the use of the “Happy Anniversary” song–and poor Fred heading back to the flower shop, as he does every year.

The first-time viewer would probably be surprised by the verbal sophistication of this cartoon, putting it almost on a level with Jones and Maltese’s “Bugs/Daffy/Elmer” trilogy. (Who can forget Daffy’s immortal “pronoun trouble” line?). Maltese loved to play with language, and early episodes of The Flintstones show this in abundance, as when Fred refers to Barney as an “ungrateful ingrate” in “The Swimming Pool,” the show’s debut episode, or Fred’s double-talk references to the “canafrazz” and the “fornisteen” (every pool needs them, you know). When aging animation fans say “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” cartoons like this are what they mean.

This episode–and the aforementioned “Happy Anniversary” song–have achieved a kind of cult status over the years. For those curious about the Joe Barbera-penned lyrics, I’ve embedded a video “tribute” courtesy of YouTube.

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3 Responses to “The Best Thing Since Trash Day: The Flintstones and “The Hot Piano” (1961)”

  1. Josh M. August 22, 2012 at 7:53 am #

    Hi – just came across this entry while searching for something else, and really enjoyed the breakdown of this Flintstones episode. Having grown up with the series and preferring the earlier, clunkier, funnier, grouchier first and second season but not knowing why, this entry clarified a lot of it for me. I also noticed, even as a little kid, that Fred’s face is apoplectic the second time he says “Knock it off!” but his voice is gentle. Funny regardless. My brothers and I are now all in our 50s and we still say “Hiya, Flintstone,” first thing on the phone.

    And just remember – if you play with a hot piana, you’ll get your fingers burned.

    Cheers and thanks for a great read.

    Josh M.

  2. Marsha September 27, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    I used the “Droll. Very droll” line just today. Haven’t seen an episode in probably 20 years or more. Ingrained.

  3. Marvin Xol June 23, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    @Marsha: Seriously, that line is the first time I heard the word “droll”. I remember as a young kid looking up the word in Webster’s Dictionary – no, the “rock”-net had not been invented yet. Used the line just last week myself. People always look at me funny when I do. I’m old. 😛

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