Saturday, November 07, 2015

Taking a Trip Through a Tollbooth

Milo (Butch Patrick): That's my speech! I didn't know I was going to eat my words.

King Azaz (Hans Conried): Of course you didn't. That's what we're all doing. You should have made a tastier speech.

I don't remember when I first saw "The Phantom Tollbooth," which made its debut on this day in 1970 — but I can tell you where I saw it.

As I have mentioned in this blog before, the merchants in my hometown used to sponsor free movies for kids on Wednesday afternoons in the summer (it's been a long time since I was in my hometown in the summer so I have no idea whether that is still done. Probably not.). My hometown was small and only had one single–screen theater downtown (and a drive–in on the outskirts of town) when I was growing up.

The free movies that were shown were hardly first–run movies. Most were two or three years old, if not older, so my guess would be that "The Phantom Tollbooth" was probably shown in my hometown in the summer of 1972 or 1973. But I could be wrong about that.

I went to a lot of those free summer movies when I was a boy, and my memory is that the kids who went to them — and that was probably most of the people I knew — rarely watched the movies. They were too busy throwing popcorn at each other. Come to think of it, I didn't usually pay much attention to the movies that were shown, either.

But I paid attention to "The Phantom Tollbooth."

I don't know why. I mean, I never read the book on which it was based, and the people I know who have read the book have told me it is superior to the movie — which wouldn't surprise me. I've known for a long time that books are almost always better than the movies they inspire.

But, as I say, I never read the book so I wasn't watching the movie to compare the two.

I guess I was initially drawn to it by the fact that a child actor named Butch Patrick was cast as Milo, a boy who was bored with his life and came home from school one day to find a tollbooth in his room. Who was Butch Patrick? you ask. Well, shoot, back in those days everyone knew who Butch Patrick was — but perhaps not by name. I know I didn't know his name until many years later, but I knew who he was on television — Eddie Munster.

He looked a lot different without the wolfman makeup.

Anyhow, it turned out this tollbooth had magical properties. Milo had nothing better to do so he got into a toy car and drove through the tollbooth into a world of puns and idioms.

Milo found himself on a road to Expectations, got mired in the Doldrums and was rescued by Tock, a watchdog with an honest–to–God pocketwatch in his belly. The two set off on their journey through the Kingdom of Wisdom. They had to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason and restore order to the kingdom.

On this journey they encountered all sorts of oddballs whose voices were supplied by actors most of my contemporaries would have recognized from their TV work, not the least of which was the voice of Hans Conried, whose face was known from his many TV appearances and whose distinctive voice was easily as recognizable as his face.

I doubt that most of my friends were familiar with Mel Blanc's face — and most of us probably didn't know what his real voice sounded like. After all, he created the voices of cartoon characters we all watched on Saturday mornings — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam. Blanc was known as "The Man of a Thousand Voices," a figure that must have included the three characters he voiced in "The Phantom Tollbooth."

There are many people who believe — and justifiably so — that Blanc was the most influential voice actor who ever lived.

There were times when Patrick did some voice acting, too. Most of the movie, in fact. Once he crossed through the tollbooth, his character was an animation. This was 1970, after all. Oh, sure, there had been some live action combined with animation in some Walt Disney movies, but not much else. "The Phantom Tollbooth" shifted from live action to animation and back again rather seamlessly but didn't combine the two.

Well, it might have. It's been a long time since I have seen the movie, and it may be that I have forgotten something — but I don't recall anything like what was seen in "Mary Poppins" several years earlier — or "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" nearly two decades later.

It seems to me that I would have remembered if "The Phantom Tollbooth" had merged live action with animation. I think I would have made a mental note of that, as unusual as it was. Perhaps the process was so expensive at that time that you had to be a Walt Disney to afford it. Come to think of it, Disney was behind "Roger Rabbit," too.

Well, anyway.

I guess my greatest issue with "The Phantom Tollbooth" was its music. Sometimes it could be shrewd and inventive, I'll grant you that, but it could also be tedious. Might have been effective to use the tedious music in the tedious places in the story — like the Doldrums.

And I would have to say that, while I always liked The Munsters, I really found it hard to empathize with Patrick's character, which he played so churlishly that it was difficult for me to imagine anyone really having much sympathy for him — in the beginning, anyway. My memory is that his character got better as the movie went on. But you know the old saying — you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and I think Patrick lost a lot of the audience early.

Still, my memory is that, overall, the movie was clever, a good children's flick. Unfortunately, Patrick was a teenager when he made it, a bit old for his part even if he was short for his age.