Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 14, 2009

Skylab, Sputnik & the Resurrection of Bullwinkle


It turned into Space Week here at Marking Time, without me even planning it.

Yesterday, I featured a celebration of the Hubble Telescope, which is presently “in the shop” (the bay of the space shuttle) for repairs. Today, as I look at our family’s Hubble Telescope-themed calendar, I see it’s the anniversary of the 1973 launch of Skylab.

The long-term usefulness of Skylab’s research is questioned by some, perhaps because of the satellite/laboratory’s ignominious fall from grace (literally… it broke up and fell to Earth, I think in the early Nineties). But I still trust that we learned a lot from experiments conducted on Skylab. Not as much as we’re learning now through the International Space Station, but you gotta start somewhere, right?

I also see that tomorrow is the anniversary of the 1958 launch of Sputnik 3 by the USSR. Ah, yes. Remember the Space Race? All of America was in a slight tizzy when we learned that the Russkies had put an artificial satellite in space before we did. And then when they put a dog, a monkey, and a man up there before us, we got real worried. Our schools started pressing kids more on math and science than ever before. Politicians stirred up concerns about spying and the weaponization of space technology. And human scientific progress lurched onward, in a bizarre sort of competition that was self-sustaining through paranoia and jingoistic nationalism for both nations.

Now, of course, we have Google Earth, so that even the Average Joe (or Josef) can get fairly detailed satellite pictures on his laptop, as he beams up to a different satellite an email for his wife discussing their dinner plans. But in 1958… hoo boy, things were tense.

Thus it was with great amusement that I discovered yesterday how another flying ace, Rocky the Flying Squirrel and his lovably dumb pal Bullwinkle, premiered on afternoon TV in 1959. The original show was named for Rocky, but the more uniquely-named Bullwinkle eventually got top billing by the time the boys moved into prime time, and then Saturday morning. All in all, this very smart show ran for five years, featuring clever jokes and satire that pulled in adult viewers, even as the pratfalls and deliciously silly adventures kept the kids rapt.

{in this clip, the opening sets the tense Cold War tone quite ridiculously and accurately}

Jay Ward, creator of the show, also provided the once-in-a-lifetime voice of Bullwinkle. Anyone who’s ever seen the show even once remembers that great voice. Go ahead, try to imitate it. Nobody’s watching you. (Except that spy satellite…)

I learned these little Bullwinkle factoids by watching the bonus DVD materials on the little remembered but fairly funny 2000 live-action/animation film The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, starring none other than our favorite intense, Method-acting, Oscar-winning Robert DeNiro (as Fearless Leader). He also co-produced this gem of a film, which is even more smartly written than the original cartoon, though dragged down considerably by the saccharine and downright bad acting of Piper Perabo as an idealistic FBI agent. Between Perabo and Jason Alexander (brilliant as Boris Badenov, and playing well off of Rene Russo as Natasha), I think the two of them have been in about twenty box-office flops combined. Jason deserves better, he’s a genuine talent. But I kept wondering who Perabo (star of the dreck Coyote Ugly) slept with in order to get cast in a film with so many other better talents.

Highlight of the film, for me, was Alexander and DeNiro on a videophone, when DeNiro, in his campy Fearless Leader accent, starts repeating his famous “Are you talkin’ to me?” line from Taxi Driver. Brilliant! Just classic.

The Cold War between Russia and the U.S. seems to be ramping up again slightly, in case you have not noticed. But it was never so funny as when Jay Ward, screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan, Bullwinkle and Robert DeNiro exposed it for the silly sham that it really is.


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