Cambria Productions was a small independent animation house in West Hollywood established by cartoonist Clark Haas, Jr. and cameraman Edwin Gillette in 1957. The studio’s work is notable for its extremely limited animation and its use of Gillette’s Synchro-Vox technique, which enables animators to superimpose film of moving human lips onto a static image. Between 1959 and 1965 Cambria produced four animated television shows for children, one after another: Clutch Cargo, Space Angel, Captain Fathom and The New Three Stooges. None of them are very good, but the first two have interesting connections to Hanna-Barbera’s later, much-better-known Space Ghost and Jonny Quest.
The invaluable Don Markstein says that Clutch Cargo debuted on American television in March 1959. The title character is a tough-guy adventurer with white hair who jaunts around the world with a young boy and an insufferable dog. From Markstein’s Toonpedia entry:
The animation, if you’re generous enough to call it that, was so limited, that for many, the amazing spectacle of it seems to have blotted out every other aspect of the show. Quite a few young viewers watched it less for whatever thrills it may have offered, than so they could get together with their friends the next day and ridicule it.
And yet, like Nancy’s Ernie Bushmiller, it has its admirers, who cite good stories and art (even if the latter didn’t move very much), and are willing to overlook its obvious faults. In any case, its place in animation history is secured by the fact that, long anticipating The Mighty Mightor, Jonny Quest et al., it may have been the first cartoon in American television to emphasize adventure over humor.
Haas serialized the stories in five-minute episodes. Each story consisted of five episodes. Local TV stations ran one episode each day as part of their cartoon anthology shows, which usually featured second-quality independent programming. On Saturday, the five episodes could be shown back-to-back to fill a 30-minute slot.
In some of the studio’s later animation Synchro-Vox works pretty well, and it was going strong for Conan O’Brian decades later, but it isn’t especially successful in Clutch Cargo, which is as crudely animated as anything I ever saw on ‘60s television. Much of it is just filmstrip-like sequences of simple static panels in which the only moving elements are the characters’ too-realistic mouths. The producers filmed the actors’ mouths in such a way that the animated characters sometimes have human lips, teeth and tongues, which is a weirdly unsettling effect. Despite the extremely limited animation and the freaky mouths, Clutch Cargo ran in syndication in some markets for years and now has a certain camp immortality; my friend Tom remembers it airing daily in Houston in the mid-1970s and can still hum the theme song.
Haas came up in the comics world and in the late 1940s ghosted the Buz Sawyer Sunday strip for Roy Crane. Haas wanted a comics sensibility in his shows, and hired several comics artists new to television animation for his small staff; one of them was Alex Toth, who helped with layouts on a few of Clutch Cargo’s final episodes. There’s a faint echo of the great newspaper adventure strips in the way Haas draws vehicles and aircraft in Clutch Cargo, a touch of realism in an otherwise blank, inanimate visual environment. The “realistic” tech is another reminder of that famous subsequent show in which a tough-guy adventurer with white hair jaunts around the world with a young boy and an insufferable dog. All that’s missing from Clutch Cargo is the ginger-haired scientist father and the adopted brother from India.
Cambria wrapped Clutch Cargo after 52 episodes and in 1961 launched Space Angel, an animated adventure series about a hero astronaut in a bright white spacesuit adventuring about the galaxy with two sidekicks. Like Clutch Cargo, Space Angel is aimed straight at kids and offers little more than static panels and Synchro-Vox lips, but it looks vastly better than Cambria’s first show. The lips are much less intrusive—no small thing—and Haas assigned Toth as Space Angel’s art director, which immediately upped the visual ante. Space Angel was Toth’s first chance to show his design skills in animation, and the show is a clear forerunner of the iconic work he later did at Hanna-Barbera.
Toth’s character design and static panels for Space Angel burst with the insistent line and vivid colors of Silver Age comics. There aren’t very many of them, and the animation is almost as limited as that in Clutch Cargo, but these drawings are more realistic, more detailed and more colorful, good enough that the best of them could fit into anything then being printed by DC or Marvel. And like nearly all great comics art, the drawings are saturated in blacks. Characters, costumes and settings are sculpted by inky shadows, and most of the action occurs in the vast blackness of space. The vivid colors, fraught shadows and black backgrounds, all common in comics, were unusual for 1960s TV animation and are still striking today.
Space Angel has little going for it aside from Toth’s art. The writing is all over the place, even by the standards of animation for kids. Some of it is syrup, as when Space Angel rescues a chimpanzee trapped for years in a space capsule. Some of it is remarkably violent, as when Space Angel disintegrates an enemy soldier on-camera. Little effort is made to exploit Toth’s character design, or to develop the notion of “Space Angel” as the hero identity of the show’s astronaut. By 1961 limited animation was common on television—Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones debuted in September 1960—and nearly all of it was better work than Space Angel. The show never attracted a national audience. Cambria produced only two seasons, and Space Angel sank into obscurity.
Toth left Cambria and went on to great success at Hanna-Barbera, where he designed many of the studio’s iconic characters of the 1960s and 1970s—most obviously Space Ghost, his first work for H-B, which is a Space Angel do-over. Like Cambria Productions, Hanna-Barbera melded comics-style art with limited animation to produce cartoon series for kids, but spent more time and money on their shows, which became Saturday-morning staples. Toth contributed to some of the the studio’s best-remembered series, including Birdman, Shazzan, Fantastic 4, The Herculoids, Super Friends, Josie and the Pussycats, and Thundarr the Barbarian. None of this work is as distinguished as Toth’s work in Golden Age DC comics like The Flash and Green Lantern, or his later work in Warren comics like Eerie—none of it, in fact, contains any art as well-drawn as the best panels in Space Angel—but all of it left an indelible impression on American kids of the 1960s and 1970s.
Toth was not the only member of the Cambria Productions animation staff hired away by Hanna-Barbera. Doug Wildey, another comics artist introduced to television animation by his work on Space Angel, went to Hanna-Barbera in 1964. Joe Barbera was looking for an artist to create a boy’s adventure show when he hired Wildey, and his original concept was for an animated adaptation of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, a popular radio series about a globe-trotting high school athlete and his pals that aired nationally from 1933 to 1951. Hanna-Barbera was unable to reach an agreement with the rights-holders for the Jack Armstrong character, so Wildey revised the concept—and pitched a series that included a tough-guy adventurer with white hair who jaunts around the world with a young boy and an insufferable dog.
The revised concept was developed as The Saga of Chip Baloo. Fortuitously retitled, the resulting show found a national audience far beyond the dreams of Cambria Productions, and became one of the most influential animated shows in the history of television. Jonny Quest lasted only 26 episodes, but those episodes ran week after week for years, ultimately airing on all three major broadcast networks. Given that Clutch Cargo was airing in syndication at the time Toth hired Wildey to work on Space Angel, it’s safe to assume that some small part of the Jonny Quest mytharc can be traced back to Clark Haas and Cambria Productions. The similarities are too obvious to be overlooked.
After wrapping production on Space Angel, Cambria produced Captain Fathom, an animated submarine adventure series (there’s that “realistic” tech again) based on a failed live-action TV pilot from Curt Siodmak. The show looks a lot like an underwater Space Angel, and went nowhere. Cambria found a bit more success with their final show, The New Three Stooges, which mixed animated shorts with live-action bumpers of the aging comedy titans. (By this time the lineup consisted of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Joe DeRita.) Cambria dispensed with the Synchro-Vox mouths for this show, which ran in syndication in some markets into the 1990s.
So spare a moment to think of Clark Haas, Edwin Gillette and their odd, pioneering little TV shows the next time you settle down to enjoy “The Web” or “The Mystery of the Lizard Men.” Cambria Productions was a small player in the burgeoning television animation market of the 1960s, one that relied overmuch on occasionally imaginative writing and the Synchro-Vox gimmick to carry its undistinguished, low-budget animation. The studio nonetheless deserves to be better-remembered, for it served as the television incubator for Alex Toth and Doug Wildey, for Space Ghost and Jonny Quest, and that’s quite a bit more than can be said about most indie animation houses of the period.
- JOAN DARK
- Sagebrush Trail (1933)
- Guns: The Great Train Robbery (1903)
- I Love Lucy: the “Lost Pilot” (March 2, 1951)
- The Superman serials (1948/1950)
- The Tree of Life (2011)
- Rats. Russell Crowe is Jor-El in Zack Snyder’s Superman movie.
- Star-crossed visionaries and real-life Mad Men
- Der magische Gürtel/ The Log of the U-35 (1917/1920)
- early television
- Ed Wood
- film news
- May 2012
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
- A Series Man
- Cartoon Brew
- Don Markstein’s Toonopedia
- DVD Savant
- Film Reference
- Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers
- Lovecraft is Missing
- Silent Volume
- The Bioscope
- The Church of Ed Wood
- The Lady Eve's REEL LIFE
- The Metropolis Times
- The Silent Era
- The Silent Movie Blog