Johnny Marks is a rare example of a songwriter who was typecast. Marks wrote literally thousands of songs that went absolutely nowhere, and one song that is a beloved evergreen: 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'. For decades afterwards, record companies planning to make a quick buck on Christmas albums would offer money to Marks for a single-time use of this song. Hoping to get another of his songs recorded, Marks would invariably reply that if they wanted to use 'Rudolph', they would have to buy (and record) *another* of his songs too. The record promoters (eager to get 'Rudolph') would always agree ... but, because these were Christmas-themed albums, the promoters always insisted on the additional song having a holiday theme. Consequently, Johnny Marks always had a ready market for his Christmas songs (even though only two of them were ever hits: 'Rudolph' and 'Have a Holly Jolly Christmas'), but very few of his thousands of other songs have ever seen daylight.
'The Ballad of Smokey the Bear' has a complete musical score by Johnny Marks, and the songs are very impressive: nothing immortal here, but nice tunes and clever lyrics. I especially liked 'Curiosity', a song performed by an intellectual tortoise (to an appropriately slow tempo) and 'Delilah', the song that Smokey sings to his girlfriend.
This is one of the many, many children's TV specials produced by Rankin/Bass using stop-action animated puppets. Rankin/Bass are not popular among animation enthusiasts, due to the very low quality of most of their productions. I'm pleased to report that 'The Ballad of Smokey the Bear' is well above Rankin/Bass's usually low standard. This is a delightful musical show, which young children and intelligent adults will enjoy.
The story is narrated by James Cagney, although that great actor really brings nothing in particular to the material. This purports to be the story of Smokey the Bear when he was still a young cub, before he became the U.S. Forestry Service's fire-prevention mascot. (Trivia Note: back in the days of 5-figure zip codes, Smokey the Bear was the *only* individual who had his own personal zip code, due to the huge volume of mail he received from children. Even the President didn't have his own personal zip code.)
In this show, Smokey is a talking bear cub who lives in the woods with his talking-animal friends, including a she-bear cub named Delilah. (All the animals are stop-action puppets with human voice-overs: Smokey and Delilah walk on two legs like humans.) Delilah is apparently Smokey's girlfriend, but it's all very innocent and kid-appropriate. One day, though, brush fires break out in the woods. Several animals tell Smokey that the fires were started by an intruder in the forest: a strange and ugly beast with an unpleasant odour. At this point, I expected that the 'beast' would turn out to be a *human*, prompting a socially-significant ending with an 'only-man-is-vile' lecture. Fortunately, this didn't happen. Smokey finds the footprints of the fire-making animal; as soon as I saw these footprints in close-up, I knew which species the intruder would turn out to be. Your kids might figure it out, too.
SPOILERS COMING NOW. After a few pleasant musical numbers, Smokey and Delilah corner the mysterious beast in an old shack, then force the creature to emerge. The monster turns out to be an escaped circus gorilla, wearing a shackle on one arm and smoking a cigar ... the source of the fires. At the end of the story, Smokey realises that his mission in life is to prevent forest fires. (But what happens to Delilah?)
'The Ballad of Smokey the Bear' is an above-average children's musical, intelligent and with a strong point to make, but it never condescends nor sermonises. I enjoyed this show and would like to see it again, and I strongly recommend it with a rating of 9 out of 10.
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