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"Gumby Essentials": Return of the Lean, Green, Mirth Machine

I remember watching Gumby’s eternally syndicated adventures in the afternoons during summer vacation, and soon became a lifelong fan of the unique textural appeal of Claymation. Yet I hadn’t seen the series in more than a decade due to its recent absence from TV. Thankfully that drought has been brought to an end by the release of the superb Gumby Essentials collection, which beautifully brings some of the very best episodes to DVD for the first time.

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The 50s episodes are presented in their original 11-minute length for the first time in decades, as from the 60s onwards they were cut in half to match the length of the newer shorts. If you’re looking for outright random weirdness, this is the period for you. One almost wonders if the writers had a little chemical help, but it’s a decade early for that. Gumby himself is at his most innocent and childlike here. The charming score somewhat resembles Looney Tunes‘, as do the terrific sound effects.

“Well, yes, it takes quarters, but, gulp, I don’t think this is the laundromat, Pokey.”

Many viewers are likely to recognize “Robot Rumpus,” which was lovingly mocked to hilarious effect on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 series. In this episode Gumby and his trusty equine pal Pokey employ some robots to do their yard work. Now that the first half of the episode has been restored, we are able to watch the two round up the robots at the Tardis-like extra dimensional toy room that supplies all of Gumby’s vehicle and gadget needs. Unsurprisingly the robots go haywire and start tearing the house apart, so Gumby’s fireman father Gumbo must rush home to the rescue.

As frequently happens, it’s amazing the length Gumby will go to for a very modest goal, in this case programming a team of robots just so he can play a little longer. One might think that with that sort of talent his parents might excuse him from something so pedestrian as mowing the lawn, especially since the amount of work they want done would tax half-a-dozen Guatemalans. In any event the struggle with the robots results in a great deal of excellent Bugs Bunny-ish slapstick. Notably, Gumbo hurls a wrench at an offscreen robot, only to have it fly right back and leave a wrench-shaped hole in his torso.

In “Rain Spirits” Gumby shows his educational side as he travels back in time to the American Southwest to help an Indian boy find spirits to end the deadly drought destroying his crops. Various aspects of Hopi Indian culture and geology are explained. I don’t know how accurately the spirits are portrayed, but it seems a bit odd that they only consent to help the boy once they’ve confirmed he obeys his parents. I guess kids on the naughty list were left to starve.

Gumbo nervously calculated he had only seconds to get the truck started before the PETA mob consumed him.

The 60s episodes are very similar, although the character animation is somewhat more polished and the backgrounds more elaborate. Also, Gumby’s pupils change from the beady Pokey style to large circles, and the signature “Gumby Heart Song” opens the show. The biggest change isin Gumby’s personality shift toward a teenager with a bit of attitude. The series’ creativity and humor remain just as strong.

Gumby again gets scholarly for “Gumby Crosses the Delaware,” in which he helps George Washington make his famous crossing. Or perhaps I should say Pokey helps by going on a dangerous spy mission while Gumby almost sabotages the operation by blabbing Washington’s plans to the enemy. My favorite moment comes when a wounded Colonial soldier shows up at Pokey’s hamburger stand pleading for supplies, and Pokey dismisses him as a “beat-up looking beatnik pestering me for free food.” Gumby promptly arrives to try to run him off, leading one to wonder if he’s operating some kind of protection racket.

I had somehow never seen the 80s episodes before, and I’m sorry to say that appears to have been no great loss. As witty and creative as the earlier episodes are, these are terribly dull and childish. Clearly the all ages approach was jettisoned in favor of exclusively targeting small children. The dialog is lifeless and nearly drowned out by a wretched and relentless synthesizer score. Maybe worst of all there are so many supporting characters that Gumby and Pokey are often reduced to cameos. At least the animation is nice, if not much evolved from the 60s episodes.

“Wait, if your body is the car, that means you’re holding….”

The pro-environment “To Bee or Not to Bee” narrowly comes within throwing distance of classic Gumby. Our hero travels to the land of his carpenter insect friend Groobee, whose bee cousins are falling prey to a mysterious illness. It turns out Gumby’s old enemies the Blockheads and dangerous pesticides are to blame, and Gumby has to enlist the aid of Groobee’s macho brother IronBee, looking every bit like the biker guy from the Village People.

The eye-catching DVD packaging is also conservation-minded, made from recycled material. The extras include a remastered version of the theme song and extremely brief character profiles, but far more interesting is the collection of ten-second bumpers used between segments on TV broadcasts. The older ones employ a variety of amusing Looney Tunes-ish sight gags, such as a WWI dogfight in which Gumby peppers the traitorous Pokey’s German biplane with Gumby-shaped bullet holes.

Also intriguing is Gumbasia, the 1953 three-minute art film that was instrumental in getting the first Gumby TV series green lit at NBC. The film is a character and plot-free psychedelic parade of ever-changing clay shapes and patterns set to jazz. It’s visually engaging, and no doubt quite a feat for its time, but naturally basic compared to the series.

The humble beginnings thereof are on display in “Gumby on the Moon,” the first-season pilot. This shaky first step for claykind is far removed from the usual happy go lucky adventures. For reasons unknown Gumby is marooned alone on the frigid moon, and doggedly pursued by sinister aliens derived from Gumbasia‘s simple geometric shapes. The combination of these creepy foes and the eerie 50s sci-fi thriller score make for an unsettling atmosphere, not to mention the fact that Gumby nearly dies. In the series’ first major “What th-?!” moment, Gumbo comes to the rescue by extending his fire truck ladder all the way to the moon (a meager 200,000 miles)!

For anyone feeling even remotely nostalgic for the little green slab of clay, Gumby Essentials really hits the spot. With any luck the timeless charm of these episodes will hook the younger household members as well. After all, everything Spongebob does Gumby did decades earlier. Except get a piggyback ride from the Hoff. He did purchase a mutant bumblebee from W.C. Fields though.

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