Frame by Frame
Published: January 6, 2011
When the animated short aired during an episode of The Howdy Doody Show, Clokey became a pioneer of TV animation as well, leading to The Gumby Show in 1957.
Gumby was a decent character who struggled to do right in the face of strange adversaries and wild antics, but Clokey still dreamed of using film to promote a Christian ethos. Then, in the late 1950s, Lutheran churches suggested such a series: the somewhat hokey puppet animation show Davey and Goliath, in which Davey wrestles with ethical and moral dilemmas, assisted by his talking dog Goliath. The show dealt with complicated issues, including racism, religious intolerance and mortality. Even in today’s ironic age, it harks back to when children were more innocent and religion was somehow less shrill. What’s more, the techniques pioneered by the show were later adopted by the technicians of Rankin-Bass, creators of the TV special Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.
In addition to The Gumby Show and Davey and Goliath, animation jobs kept coming Clokey’s way, ranging from stop-motion commercials to animated title sequences for major films (1965’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, among others). Meanwhile, Gumby had become an enormously popular flexible toy. Still, by the late 1960s, it seemed Clokey’s glory days had passed, his television work seen mostly in reruns at odd hours.
Then, in the early 1980s, Eddie Murphy’s sketches on SNL brought Gumby back into the spotlight. Casting the kindly green naïf as a cigar-chomping, foul-mouthed rascal, Murphy roared, “I’m Gumby, damnit!” Though Clokey didn’t completely approve, the cultural reference resonated, bringing newfound attention for the little green man. Soon, Gumby dolls were back on shelves, and Clokey found backing for fresh ventures.
Starting in 1988, Clokey directed almost 100 episodes of Gumby Adventures for TV over the next 14 years, and made Gumby: The Movie in 1995. Clokey broke no new ground artistically or thematically, but – much like his adoptive father and his old USC film teacher – he seized the chance to take a new generation of animators under his wing. More than half the animators who worked on Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) had labored on Gumby productions under Clokey’s guidance. His disciples worked on classic stop-motion productions, including James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone, and many would go on to work for Pixar, Disney and other computer animation studios for projects such as Toy Story, The Incredibles, Corpse Bride and Coraline. Onetime Clokey animator Timothy Hittle, for instance, created the animated sequences for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Although he was an innovator when it came to using camera tricks to create imaginary worlds on film, Clokey was no virtuoso of animation. If anything, his knack was for telling a story using rudimentary props and limited special effects, using character and story to rope you in and make you care about a green clay person or a puppet of a talking dog. Perhaps it came from wanting to make viewers sympathize, to better drink in the humanistic and – yes – sacred messages he hoped to convey. Clokey’s own spirituality was benign, never incurious, sharp or moralizing; a lifelong adventurer, he’d even visit India and experiment with LSD in later years. Call it religion, call it secular humanism, call it what you will, but a certain civility, dignity and decorum come through loud and clear in Clokey’s creations.
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