A Clutch Cargo promotional sticker.


Original medium: Television animation
Produced by: Cambria Productions
First Appeared: 1959
Creator: Clark Haas
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Some old-time animated TV characters, like Winky Dink, are remembered for their historical importance. Some, like Tom Terrific, are remembered for being great despite …

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… limited budgets. Some, like Yogi Bear, are remembered for their long-lasting appeal. And some, like The Flintstones, are remembered because they're still around.

Then there's Clutch Cargo, who debuted on March 9, 1959, and is remembered for exploring depth of meaning in the phrase "limited animation". Even in an era of low production values, he stood out from the crowd. 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.

Cambria Productions, which produced Clutch, had some clever ways of getting around the lack of budget for making the characters move. If an explosion rocked the scene, they'd shake the camera. If there was a fire, they'd blow real smoke across the drawing. Best-remembered of all is the technique they used to simulate lip movement — they'd film real lips speaking the lines, then superimpose them on the drawings using a process called Synchro-Vox. This was a patented technique invented by cameraman Edwin Gillette (possibly inspired by Tex Avery's Speaking of Animals, where animated lips were added to live-action creatures), and is still in use, most notably in Conan O'Brien's late-night TV show and the opening of Spongebob Squarepants.

The series was created by cartoonist Clark Haas, whose only other animation credits are Space Angel and Captain Fathom, also from Cambria. In comics, he served stints ghosting Tim Tyler's Luck and the Sunday version of Buz Sawyer. He also had a short-lived strip of his own, Sunnyside, which Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc., distributed from 1949-51.

Clutch had more in common with the heroes of newspaper comics than just the cartoonist behind him. Like Kerry Drake, he was a white-haired adventurer. Like Barney Baxter and Tailspin Tommy, he was a two-fisted aviator. Like Brenda Starr, he was a writer. Like Red Ryder, he was an adult hero who had a kid tagging along.

Clutch's voice, and presumably lips, were provided by Richard Cotting, who has no other known credits in animation. Clutch's young sidekick, Spinner, was voiced by Margaret Kerry. Her cartoon credits are also fairly sparse, consisting mostly of a later Cambria Productions character, one of the mermaids in Walt Disney's Peter Pan, and another Clutch Cargo character, the dog Paddlefoot. The most famous actor to work on the series was Hal Smith, who did Clutch's unkempt pal, Swampy. His much more extensive voice credits include Goliath (in Davey & Goliath), Owl (in Winnie the Pooh) and Gyro Gearloose (in DuckTales).

Clutch's five-minute episodes were syndicated to TV stations for use in locally-produced shows where a host would introduce cartoons and sometimes do skits between them. A whopping 52 episodes were made, representing a triumph of budget over production values. They ran for a few years, repeated over and over like most cartoons on TV, but after a while, programmers seem to have forgotten they ever existed.

But nobody who saw it will ever forget the bizarre juxtaposition of still drawings with real, moving human lips.


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Text ©2002-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Cambria Productions.