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"Hong Kong Phooey": Kanine Kung-Fu

Rummaging through the 1970s for good Saturday morning cartoons is like rummaging through a plague-rat-infested garbage heap for old Twinkies: Even if you don’t get bitten and infected by something disgusting; even if you don’t come out needing a tetanus shot; and even if you actually find what you’re looking for, well … The thing you’re looking for was never actually that good, and is definitely not good for you.

The best you can say about Hong Kong Phooey is that it is one of the better-preserved Twinkies from the era of ultra-cheap, low-concept television. By 1974 the culture’s aesthetic sense had more or less collapsed; we were, at best, only a year away from denim leisure suits for kids. Hanna-Barbera, the series’ producer, wasn’t even trying anymore, and the show’s visuals are so minimalist they barely register. The stories are hokey and the dialogue is boring and there isn’t any excitement to speak of. But it has a certain amount of personality, and even a little shag-carpeted charm. It and Scooby Doo are probably the only shows from that benighted era that are still watchable. I dunno. Maybe it’s because the title characters are both dogs.

This was the period when Bruce Lee was becoming a break-out hit, so Hanna-Barbera naturally hit on the idea of a canine kung-fu crime-fighter—though as is typical in these kinds of comedy shows he isn’t the most competent crime-fighter on the beat. In his guise as the mild-mannered janitor Henry he hangs around the local police station; when he hears of a crime wave he slips away and changes into his masked, robe-clad alter ego. He always gets his man, though it is almost always an accident when he does.

The series isn’t really made up of stories or even of running gags, just recycled bits of business. To change into costume, he leaps into the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, bangs around a bit … and then gets stuck. Usually it’s his faithful sidekick—a silent, striped cat incongruously named “Spot”—who gets him out by banging on the side. After exiting the top drawer in his crime-fighting togs, Hong Kong jumps off an ironing board into a wall chute, ricochets off an old couch, and lands in a garbage dumpster, inside of which he has hidden his pagoda-shaped car. This car, in turn, can transform into airplanes, helicopters, boats and hydrofoils when Hong Kong bangs on a gong. In the midst of a battle he almost always has to consult his little book of kung fu moves; those moves, though, typically go awry, causing slapstick mayhem that rebounds in a way that incapacitates the crooks.

It goes on this way for thirty 11-minute episodes.

Much like the hero, the villains themselves are just creeps with gimmicks. They use remote-controlled contraptions, or disguises, or gorillas, or earth-moving equipment, or something to rob banks, steal cars, burgle jewels, kidnap cats … Hong Kong usually catches them in the act but thinks they are going about some odd but legal business and helps them out; then Spot has to somehow set Hong Kong straight and put him back on the trail. It’s all very boring, and if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. (Except for the series final, 16th episode, which was used to showcase a bunch of characters the studio was trying out for some potential new series.)

There are a few odd aspects to the series structure. Each episode is divided into two unrelated adventures, but they are tied together by some small element that gives the full episode a wee bit of cohesiveness. In practice, the short running times for each episode mean that each story doesn’t outstay its welcome. At the same time, the binding plot thread means that if you watch each half-episode in isolation you will trip over some bit of business that has nothing to do with the story you’re watching. It would be disconcerting—if you actually cared.

How is the fighting, you ask? Please, this was the golden age of television censorship; it’s astonishing that the concept got past Peggy Charren and her coven of scolds. Mostly Hong Kong hops up and down while waving his arms in karate/kung-fu-like motions and chanting nonsense words ending in “-ing” or “-ong.” (Don’t worry, it’s far less mortifying than anything the Chan Clan got up to.) What little violence there is comes in the form of very tame pratfalls.

But like I said, the series has a surprising amount of charm that makes it pretty easy to watch. Almost all of that charm can be credited to the great Scatman Crothers, who gives Hong Kong a raffish, laid-back tenor. This personality was probably latent in the designs, but Crothers really brings it out. As Henry, his long, floppy ears trail out of a backwards-turned cap, and he regards the world out of half-closed eyes. But Henry/Hong Kong isn’t a stoner or a surf-dude or a bum. He’s just a cheerful, good-natured, soul; a little dim, maybe, but he makes up for it with his sweetness and his chipper sense of determination. Crothers’ charisma can sustain any scene that has him in it, and since he is in almost all the scenes he carries the series.

He gets able support from the usual Hanna-Barbera stable, but the best voices on the soundtrack belong to Kathy Gori as the curvaceous, Brooklyn-voiced police dispatcher, and Joe Ross, who expertly reprises his Officer Toody character from Car 54, Where Are You? They don’t have any funny lines, particularly, but they deliver them with more energy and belief than they deserve.

Warner Bros. released Hong Kong Phooey: The Complete Series to DVD almost four years ago, and you can still easily get it through Amazon. The set is a lot like the show: It is far from plush and suffers some embarrassing lapses. (The back cover, for instance, lists two episodes as being on Disc 1 when they are actually on Disc 2.) It comes with two commentary tracks featuring Scott Jeralds, Willie Ito, and the late Iwao Takamoto; neither track is very informative, but then there’s not a lot to say about the show. There is also a short, documentary featurette with the same gentlemen that adds nothing to the commentaries. Finally there is a full storyboard (set to the recorded soundtrack) for one episode. Mostly this is interesting for seeing how much more cuddly the characters look in rough doodle form than they do in the final product.

The commentators get this much at least right: Hong Kong Phooey is in many ways an attractive series, and it deserves to have a low-key cult following. It isn’t smart or clever or subversive, but that also sets it in attractive contrast to many cartoon series made today. Even at Amazon’s $23.49 list price it’s not worth buying for its owns sake. But I’m glad it’s out there, and I’m glad that Warners has offered it up for preservation. It is one of the few kid series from that era that hasn’t dated horribly and can be watched with some small, non-ironic pleasure today.

Related: Cartoon Intro Cavalcade: “Hong Kong Phooey”


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