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Cartoon Intro Cavalcade: Hong Kong Phooey

by on May 4, 2010

There are a select few cartoon theme songs that have entered the public zeitgeist: tunes that are easily recalled even by people who have not seen the original cartoon.  Many of them originate from cartoons or characters that everyone knows: the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Spider-Man, Speed Racer.  But one rather curious Hanna-Barbera effort from the 1970s has become nearly as well known: the theme to Hong Kong Phooey.

Hong Kong Phooey was something unique for the Hanna-Barbera studio in the 1970s.  That’s not exactly high praise, as the words “Scooby-Doo, but instead of the dog we have something else” probably describe 80% of the studio’s output.  Instead of teenagers solving mysteries, it’s a straight humor show with some light superheroic touches.  It’s about a kung fu-wielding superhero who, although highly respected by the city, is a bit of a dolt who keeps forgetting what he’s supposed to do and needs help to do it.  The basic template was reused in Inspector Gadget and can be seen to an extent in more recent efforts such as Metalocalypse. 

The opening begins on a rather unique note, with an AUTHORITATIVE VOICE (and I know Don Messick when I hear him) teasing the identity of the main character.  You can see the 1970s touches right away – the scratchy backgrounds, the abstract question mark.  The announcer gets it right on the third guess – Hong Kong Phooey is secretly the police station janitor, Henry – and we launch into the theme song, accompanied by bits of Hong Kong Phooey in action.

The animation in this open is pedestrian at best.  Cartoon opening sequences in the 1970s typically were, as the show-stopping open mentality really didn’t come into play until the 1980s.  Most of the animation is stock, including the filing cabinet “change” sequence and the transformation of Hong Kong Phooey’s gong car.  Even the colors and composition are plain, though the former is likely by design (and the latter is due to the budget issues common to 1970s cartoons).

But then this series and opening isn’t about the animation.  Instead, the theme song and series is about one of animation’s most distinctive voices – Scatman Crothers.  Crothers was a scat singer who parlayed this skill into roles in several television series and feature films – he was the elderly chef who possessed The Shining in that classic Kubrick film.  With a distinctive voice, he naturally ended up doing extensive cartoon work, with his most notable role being Hong Kong Phooey.  He’s one of those voices that doesn’t have an extensive range, and is mostly confined to a specific role – but it’s such a good voice, an unmistakable voice, that gives a lot of personality to the character.

That personality is evident in the wonderful theme song, also performed by Scatman Crothers.  In fact, that’s the reason it succeeds – the rough voice and the scat singing lend a vibrant air that couldn’t be captured with any other voice.  It also makes sense storywise, because Hong Kong Phooey proves to be the exact opposite of what the song proclaims – yet it works because it’s Hong Kong Phooey that’s singing the song.  Oriental gongs and instruments help to give the piece a distinctive flair, but it’s Crothers carrying the load.

In fact, so crucial is Crothers to the mix that remixes and re-recordings of the song lose something.  Yes, they may be more layered, but they lack the scat-singing, jive-talking vibe that Crothers so vividly brought to this voice, this role.  Perhaps that’s why the theme is so well-remembered; not just for its catchy lyrics, but its infectuous performance.

Now if you excuse me, I’m going to hum the theme song now. 


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