CAPSULE: PUFNSTUF (1970)

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DIRECTED BY: Hollingsworth Morse

FEATURING: Jack Wild, Billie Hayes, , ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot,

PLOT: Stranded with his magic flute on Living Island, young Jimmy must team up with the isle’s magical minions to defeat a witch who will do anything to get the instrument.

Still from Pufnstuf (1970)

COMMENTS: Beloved and recognized by millions, the characters of ‘s signature TV series H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-1970) get their proper due in this feature film. Not only do we have many of the same core cast members from the series, but the TV series director helms the film; it was even shot on some of the same sets from the series. So we would expect this film to just be an extended episode, and it sort of is. It’s more of an encapsulation of the series, complete with beginning backstory and with several songs crammed in. This film’s release date (June 1969) is only a few months older than your humble author (September). It is therefore fitting that a Generation X native is here to guide you through the wild wacky Krofft universe, filled with sapient sea monsters, flying saucers, talking hats, mad scientists, and families lost in the Jurassic Era. In Pufnstuf‘s case, we get a whole magical island called “Living Island” populated by the titular Mayor dragon (voiced by Roberto Gamonet, a departure from series regular Lennie Weinrib) and besieged by a wicked witch named Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes). The primary departure from the series the introduction of members of Witchiepoo’s, ah, coven, the “Witch’s Council,” with the flabbergasting casting combo of Cass Elliot and Martha Raye. Apparently witches have an authoritarian political structure, which might well have been a nod to Samantha Stephens’ supernatural lodge in the TV series Bewitched.

But leaving aside the matter of occult sorority organization, the plot is still formulaic, within its universe. Jimmy (the late Jack Wild) is kicked out of his school band in the first few minutes of the movie, which is the only interaction we see him have with the normal world. Next thing you know, his flute talks, a boat talks, and Jimmy sails to Living Island where everything else talks too. Suddenly Witchiepoo, cruising on a curiously steampunk broom that is prone to run out of gas and stall in the sky, appears, wanting Jimmy’s magic flute in the worst way. She attacks, Mayor Pufnstuf valiantly comes to the rescue despite never having seen this kid before in his life, and the whole plot becomes talking-flute MacGuffin. The Boss Witch calls on the “hot line,” a phone stored within a pot-belly stove so that it fries the hands of whoever answers it, to announce that the annual witches’ convention is to be hosted by our gal. So Witchiepoo is under pressure to do her union proud.

Show-stopper moments include: Team Living Island raiding Team Witchiepoo’s castle dressed as sham firefighters on pretense of extinguishing a fire (because that’s the first idea that popped into their heads). Witchiepoo’s 4th-wall-breaking line “Oh why didn’t I listen to mother and marry a nice, reliable werewolf?” The West Wind portrayed as a cowboy head floating in the sky, complete with John Wayne cadence. Witchiepoo shapeshifting into a giant flower to spy on the Living Island council, before shrinking the entire assembly and flying home with them prisoner in her hat, prompting a minion to inquire about her “squeaky dandruff.” And this is all before we get to the witch’s convention proper. The Boss Witch is heralded by her consort—I swear this really happens—a heiling faux-“Nazi” rat in military leather and a red armband.

Special shout-outs to the talents of Jack Wild and Billie Hayes, who throw their hearts and souls into their respective performances. Wild, singing and dancing as well as acting, shows how he just missed being Britpop’s answer to Michael Jackson. Hayes’ Witchiepoo electrifies the screen with manic energy, performing an impressive number of pratfalls while also selling the hammy character as a truly Eldritch lunatic, with one wild Macbeth-ian cackle after another. Meanwhile, Cass Elliot plays Witch Hazel like a giant drag pumpkin. “You look different!” “Well I do have a new rat in my hair.” The Boss Witch dismisses Witchiepoo’s party food with the timeless line: “Barbeque dragon? I had it for lunch.” More movies should have a third act taking place at a witches’ convention. The sheer amount of witchery in this production makes it Halloween viewing fit for a double bill with Hocus Pocus (1983), one guaranteed to carve a smile in your Jack-o-lantern. Mama Cass’ anthem “Different” is even enough of an alt-lifestyle tribute to underline the intersection of Halloween and, well, alt-lifestylers.

So perhaps you might have met an occasional member of Generation X and were subsequently provoked to wonder how they got that way. Well, a catalog of Sid and Marty Krofft shows practically ran on a loop on network TV throughout the 70s and into the 80s. There we would be, happily watching Saturday morning cartoons over a day-glo bowl of milk-soddened sugar lumps, minding our own business, and then when the cartoons ended they would be replaced by one of Krofft’s wigged-out live-action shows. It was like somebody handed out blotter acid at school. The whimsical works of Krofft were equal parts children’s fairy and and psychedelic hippie culture, even daring to cross over into adult humor for some gags. You could go straight from a cereal bowl to smoking another kind of bowl without missing a beat. When we ask if Pufnstuf belongs on the Weird Apocrypha, we might consider it based on the same criterion as we would include other works by a notoriously bent producer. Krofft’s flavor of bonkers live-action production would not be offered again on American screens until the importation of East Asian tokusatsu TV shows.

Compared to other Krofft works, nothing in Pufnstuf stands out as especially weirder than their usual fare. Modern kids shows like Yo Gaba Gaba and Teletubbies emulate much of H.R. Pufnstuf‘s general formula of Three Stooges comedy in furry fantasy costumes. But the brothers Krofft did it all first. Compared to the rest of popular culture at their time, even at the heart of the boogaloo disco ’70s, Sid and Marty Krofft were off in a galaxy by themselves.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…if you loved how bizarre the show was, then you will probably enjoy [the movie]… I got a kick out of the 70’s hippie-like tone and strangeness of the film…. If you are curious by cinematic oddities, this certainly classifies as one. I probably would have enjoyed this more seeing it with a Midnight crowd, laughing at how outrageous the whole film was.”–Austin Kennedy, The One and Only Film Geek (DVD)

4 thoughts on “CAPSULE: PUFNSTUF (1970)”

  1. I was never a big fan of the Mamas and the Papas but after watching this I realized just how talented Cass Elliot was. Too bad she left us so young. And of course Jack Wild fell into the drugs and alcohol trap that ensnares so many in that business. He was washed up at 21. Crazy.

  2. I did an extensive scene-by-scene review/analysis of this film for Million Monkey Theater in January of 2020, part of a 1970 musical matinee double bill with the justly forgotten Olivia Newton-John stinker “Toomorrow” (the official release date for both films was August 27th 1970, though Pufnstuff did have a 1969 premier screening). For those of us of a certain age Sid and Marty Krofft were formative influences. If anyone is interested: http://www.millionmonkeytheater.com/Pufnstuf.html

  3. I see that I forgot to suggest a “musical” tag on this post.

    Noticed it didn’t pop up when I’m searching for five Halloween musicals that Rocky Horror fans will like.

  4. Can’t believe I left this off, but H.R. Pufnstuf was also the famous subject of a lawsuit between brothers Kroftt and McDonald’s. Producers Sid and Marty Krofft alleged that the copyright in their H.R. Pufnstuf children’s television program had been infringed by a series of McDonald’s “McDonaldland” advertisements.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sid_%26_Marty_Krofft_Television_Productions_Inc._v._McDonald%27s_Corp.

    The peak of these commercials, we report, you decide: https://youtu.be/kyroQL3cS-k

    Kroftt brothers won. McD’s tossed most of their McD’land universe.

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