Back in 1964 a lot of people still thought dolphins were fish, but by the time this TV show was finished, we all knew that our happy undersea friend was smarter than the average bear and lives in a world full of wonder. Ivan Tors’ grandly successful Florida-shot family show kept a lot of seagoing movie veterans in green seaweed, including both original ‘Creature’ Gill Men.
Flipper, Season One
1964-65 / Color / 1:33 flat TV / 780 min. / Street Date August 29, 2017 / available through the Olive Films website / 39.95
Starring: Brian Kelly, Luke Halpin, Tommy Norden.
Cinematography: Clifford H. Poland Jr., Lamar Boren
Original Music: Henry Vars, song by
Written by: Jack Cowden, Ricou Browning, Peter L. Dixon, Laird Koenig, Stanley H. Silverman, Orville H. Hampton, Lee Erwin, Art Arthur, Jess Carneol, Key Lenard, Ivan Tors, Alan Caillou, Arthur Richards, Robert Sabaroff.
Produced by Ivan Tors, Ricou Browning, Leon Benson, Andrew Marton
Directed by: Ricou Browning, Hollingsworth Morse, Leon Benson, Frank McDonald, Herman Hoffman, Marshall Thompson, Andrew Marton.
Created by: Jack Cowden, Ricou Browning
Executive Producer: Ivan Tors
Most of us now know what a ‘shook up shopping cart’ movie is, thanks to Joe Dante, who once told me that his idea of a time-wasting mid-’60s movie experience was That Darn Cat! But when Joe was little, he was probably taken to his share of kid-friendly matinees. For some reason, when I was a pre-teen, my parents’ attempts to find a suitable, wholesome ‘animal’ often backfired. There was a late ’50s picture about a stray dog (?) that sounded like ‘The Little Fugitive’ but wasn’t – the German Shepherd was trying to protect another animal or something and the whole thing had an aura of tragedy. I should have known better than to see a show called The Sad Horse, in which everybody cried and the main takeaway was misery. The biggest trauma wasn’t an animal movie but an excellent adult drama called Whistle Down the Wind. Based on the misleading ads and the presence of Hayley Mills, I found myself in a theater full of kids, all of whom were stricken by a downbeat tale of working class misery and impending doom. Good stuff, but not for kids.
My Saturday shows were attended by mostly un-chaperoned kids, not as crazy as the ones in Matinee but rowdy just the same. It was a great communal experience. We cheered Tarzan movies and Hercules movies, and the slightest cue that someone was coming to the rescue was cause to clap and yell. I’ve written that we responded to the opening of any Disney picture (the color was usually superior) with the same kind of cheers that we gave cartoons.
There were good movies about dogs, and horses were popular with girls. I remember liking one show called Misty. But the first feature film of Flipper was its own sensation. When summer came in San Bernardino in 1963, all of us kids unable to go to the beach went to see movies like Flipper. It had the ocean, boats, kids with bleached blonde hair who lived in perpetual summer, and a pet who was Lassie and a torpedo rolled into one. The movie made us think that dolphins are much more than just intelligent. This one follows vocal commands. If the slick cetacean didn’t respond to the little boy’s request to retrieve something, all he had to do was say it again, and off Flipper would go to rescue a dog, or attack a shark, or whatever.
The smartest thing that veteran movie and TV producer Ivan Tors ever did was ditch the science-fiction craze (The Magnetic Monster, GOG, TV’s Science Fiction Theater) and start turning out shows about the water. Tors’ major 1958 TV hit Sea Hunt revitalized the career of gray-listed Lloyd Bridges. The actor’s dramatic narration and a lot of bubbles helped pad each episode to fill a weekly half-hour; the show must have the most repetitious soundtrack in TV history.
In 1963 more pay dirt was struck with a beautifully planned dolphin movie. The first and second Flipper movies, and the TV series, were conceived by Jack Cowden and underwater expert (and former Creature from the Black Lagoon) Ricou Browning. Browning’s expertise in underwater photography and direction made him the go-to specialist for underwater sequences; he would later direct uncredited the spectacular, stressful underwater scenes in Thunderball.
The concept for the Flipper movies was basically TV’s The Rifleman, but on a Florida dock. Aqua park ranger Porter Ricks is even played by ex-rifleman Chuck Connors, and his main activity is relating to his son Sandy (Luke Halpin). The next year proved the bonanza for Ivan Tors and his underwater specialists — a single sequel (Flipper’s New Adventure) did almost as well, and it set the stage for a highly successful TV show. Just as more people were looking for ‘wholesome’ family fare for their new color TVs, this beautifully shot half-hour became a prime demo item in suburbia. Yes, that’s how it was. I remember a neighbor, a real braggart, calling us over to show off his new color TV with The Dean Martin Show. I watched a lot of Flipper on TV without paying that much attention to it; it might have led into some other show we wanted to see. It may be nostalgia but the dippy theme song makes me smile — as a reminder of carefree kid days when we sheltered white-bread American brats didn’t have a care in the world beyond our entertainments:
They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No-one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there-under, under the sea!
Olive Films has released two full seasons of Flipper TV shows; I’ve received Flipper, Season One for review. The writers put together a one-problem per episode show structure, with few recurring supporting characters. In my opinion the writers accomplish quite a lot just by avoiding repetition — they find new mild conflicts to keep the show going. Flipper rescues people and thwarts crimes, but not every week. A lot of shows ape The Rifleman by having one of Ranger Ricks’ kids (he now has two) learn a lesson. The show is really like a permanent vacation. Porter Ricks has a boat and drives a pickup with a camper shell. The house is a bungalow right on the sand, a stone’s throw from a dock. Flipper slots right in with 1960s demographic. Even in relative backwaters like San Bernardino, people were able to buy boats and haul them to the ocean or the Colorado River, for weekends with a case of beer. Every career cop and fireman was out on the road with a trailer, breaking the speed & open-container laws. I imagine that steel workers up North would watch the sunny skies and balmy climate on Flipper, and become more determined to retire and go South.
Ranger Ricks is now played by Brian Kelly as a likable, easygoing ordinary guy. Kelly has a less serious face than Chuck Connors, who often looked as if he were angry. Ace teen actor Luke Halpin was retained from the movies. An actor from the age of eight, Halpin has a great attitude, being helpful to his dad but staying an independent thinker. The show builds up good feelings about Dads, because Sandy is included in all the action — driving the boat, looking through binoculars, doing things instead of just asking Dad what’s happening. I envied Sandy when he got to fire the flare gun. The only actions in the film that seem silly are the moments when boats or people are ‘spotted’ far away on the water. Sandy will invariably peer through his binoculars, point and shout, and then the first cutaway will show the sought-after boat or person just a few feet away, not a dot in the distance. Luke Halpin became a Florida film expert on his own, continuing to act and also working the crews of water-set movies. We horror fans noted his participation in the rather good Florida- shot ‘Nazi zombie’ movie Shock Waves.
The biggest surprise is Sandy’s ease with older women. Halpin looks perfectly comfortable, neither intimidated nor acting put out that he’s not ‘eligible’ for beauties in their twenties. When paired up with another teen, little awkwardness results (and no necking behind the palm trees). None of these characters have depth, but the actors playing them hint at some just the same. This Luke Halpin is cooler than I remember.
The TV show gives Sandy a little brother, Bud, played by Tommy Norden, who at age ten had a plum role opposite Sophia Loren and Anthony Perkins in Five Miles to Midnight. Norden’s an expressive little kid with a face splattered with freckles; he’s a pal to the dolphin but also goes through problems of jealousy, etc. He’s the first one to talk to Flipper and does a lot of stunt work (I assume it’s him) being towed through the water hanging onto Flipper’s fin, etc. The Ricks family chemistry is not bad at all, with less pain and anguish than The Rifleman, and little if any gushy stuff. I don’t remember the kids ever crying. No ‘generation gap.’ Bud might get miffed if Flipper or dad likes a guest star actress, or somebody else monopolizes Flipper, but that’s about it.
A season of shows now might be only ten or fifteen episodes, but season one of Flipper has thirty. The kids are on screen in almost every shot, and although every show has scenes of boats zooming and the dolphin swimming, there is less padding than one would think. I have a feeling that the production didn’t have to observe Hollywood-style laws and limitations on hours for minors — or minors doing stunts. I’m sure the filmmakers were responsible, but I bet everyone was worked half to death, including the kids.
I don’t know if the first episode 300 Feet Below was the pilot. It’s more serious than the rest, with our heroes helping to rescue a shark bite victim and his distraught wife, a young Jessica Walter (Just above). Flipper battles the shark and retrieves a box of blood plasma from the briny deep, just in time to keep hubby from slipping into a coma.
The other episodes remain mostly light, until thieves get involved or a kid is missing. Jeopardy isn’t the key factor in all that many shows. Diana Van Der Vlis, fresh from Roger Corman’s “X”, is a potential dad girlfriend who foolishly thinks she can compete with a dolphin. Tough Michael Conrad is a treacherous criminal — he ditches Sandy in deep water — but something of a softie, too. Another bright-faced young actress is Lynda Day George as a crippled water skier. Barbara Feldon is in a two-part show, although the future Agent 99 barely gets a dialogue line or two to say. For us older fans, there’s Betsy Jones-Moreland (Just below), the Last Woman on Earth. Cheryl Miller of the soon-to-be Ivan Tors Daktari show comes back for an extra episode, as a hip chick who shares a houseboat with a menagerie of wild animals.
If you really want to get deep into fandom, one of the leading ladies is Aline Towne, from the Republic Serials.
A bunch of episodes just stay focused the family, skipping a guest star and saving money. In for two, maybe three shows is Andy Divine, as a crotchety old salt who confuses Bud with tall tales. Divine would amble onward until 1977 but he looks ready to croak here, huffing and puffing just to row a boat, and whining about the dolphin: “Come back with that you overstuffed sardine!” He’s something of a pain.
Marshall Thompson would become part of the Tors ‘animal world’ of TV shows with Daktari/. He doesn’t act here, but he did direct four shows.
The series never gets very political but the expected ’60s attitudes do poke out now and then. When a congresswoman shows up (Margaret Hayes), either Sandy or Bud says, “A lady congressman? Is that legal?”
The show looks great, with crystal clear underwater scenes and handsome above-water lighting; people aren’t standing in the bald sunlight yet they’re not obviously being blasted with 10K fill lights. Plenty of rear projection is used for dialogue scenes on boats, and with actresses that are doubled in long shots. But the quality is quite high and the matching good.
The editing is particularly smooth, too. Ricou Browning had a good eye for underwater angles, and the footage looks great. I assume that there must be re-cycled footage, but I didn’t notice much on the ten episodes I watched. With 12 directors for 30 episodes, I bet that multiple shows were being made at the same time (if they were smart). Unless it’s really easy to tell individual dolphins apart (I can’t) you can bet that ‘Flipper’ had a double or two for concurrent filming.
The final show of Season One seems something of a personal effort for Ricou Browning. “The Monster’ is about the filming of a ‘Creature’- like monster movie; beautiful Wende Wagner is the female lead. The old Universal connections return. To obtain a monster the show surely tapped old Jack Kevan, for the rubber ugly-mug we see has the head and claws of The Monster of Piedras Blancas. A grumpy producer is the show’s villain, and Ricou Browning has a fat bit as the actor playing the monster.
An interesting mini-sub shows up in one episode. Although environmental awareness hadn’t yet become a major issue in films, another episode (Teamwork) is about pollution, with a toxic chemical spill. Animal rights activists weren’t all that organized back then either; I imagine PETA would now have a say in how the dolphins are filmed, etc. If Dolphin Liberation became an issue, they could have released a second sequel where our hero animal flexes his newly- won rights: “They call me MISTER Flipper.”
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Flipper, Season One carries all thirty episodes on three discs. The encoding looks more than adequate and the images really pop. This was long before Ivan Tors O.D.’d on animal shows and they started looking sloppy. At least in this first season, everything looks good.
There are no extras, and I had to go online to even find a list of episodes. But it’s a full fifteen hours of programming. Maybe after seeing them all we will be able to tell individual dolphins apart.
Back in college Randy Cook had his own theory about Ivan Tors’ animal-centric TV shows — Flipper, Gentle Ben, etc. Every show resolves its story, and then after a commercial returned for a 45-second epilogue moment, just to show that everything’s back to normal and to give the guest star an opportunity to effectively sign off. Randy observed that the patter for these end bumpers was cast in concrete: 1) People talk. 2) Someone makes a joke, usually at the kid’s expense. 3) Everybody laughs, and then Flipper chatters and dances on his tail, or Ben waves a paw, etc. 4) Someone says, “Flipper/Ben is laughing too!” 5. Everybody laughs and Fade Out.
Not every ending is like that, but they’re all in the general ballpark.
Flipper, Season One Blu-ray rates:
TV Shows: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 3, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson