Lidsville and Land of the Lost). Today I can’t watch H. R. Pufnstuf anymore. The lightning-quick takes, psychedelic colors, lame wise-cracks, and aggressive laugh-track are annoying. But in 1969 I looked forward to it all week.
In the opening segment, a cute, androgynous sixteen-year old named Jimmy (Jack Wild, fomerly of Oliver), with a Beatles moptop and a cowboy hat, is prancing through a bucolic mountain countryside, playing with his golden flute (it is not really gold in color but dark bronze, thicker and blockier than real flutes, and extremely phallic later, as it peeps out of Jimmy’s pocket).
A “kooky old witch” named Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), passing by on her supersonic Vroom-Broom, spies Jimmy and decides that her drafty old castle could use his youthful vitality – and his ten inches of flute. She instructs a sentient boat to lure Jimmy aboard with the promise of a pleasant journey to Living Island. But when the trip commences, the boat develops arms and claws to hold Jimmy securely in place, while the witch laughs maniacally, and:
The sky grew dark
The sea grew rough
And the boat sailed on and on and on and on
In a scene that is still frightening today, Jimmy manages to free himself from the grasping claws, and dives into the dark, choppy sea. He crawls onto a distant, desolate beach and collapses, half-drowned and exhausted. Then – somewhat too late – help arrives. A tall green-and-yellow dragon named H. R. Pufnstuf resuscitates Jimmy, moves him into his cave, and dresses him in a garish Fab Four outfit (one wonders where the dragon got human clothes. Have there been other Jimmies, lost boys washing up on the beach over and over forever?). Then Pufnstuf introduces Jimmy to the citizens of Living Island, various animals, plants, and inanimate objects, all sentient and wise-cracking, almost all male.
Since Jimmy is well protected, Witchiepoo turns her attention to the flute, now sentient and named Freddy. Most episodes involve Witchiepoo’s grandiose, impractical schemes to steal Freddy, or, when she succeeds, Jimmy and company’s equally grandiose, impractical schemes to retrieve him. Jimmy also mounts a few half-hearted escape attempts, but it is obvious that he has no real desire to leave Living Island. Witchiepoo is more cranky than evil, promising excitement more than threat, and Jimmy is having the time of his life, dancing, singing, putting on plays with a group of caring, attentive friends who tolerate all of his many gender transgressions.
The feature film Pufnstuf appeared in July 1970. In a new back story, Jimmy has recently moved from England to a resort town (Big Bear Lake, California), where he plays the flute in the school band (rather a fairy choice of instrument, I thought). During a practice session on the front lawn of a gaudy, baroque junior high school, the other boys insult him, mock his accent, and finally trip him, and he knocks over some music stands. True to junior high form, the teacher concludes that Jimmy is the troublemaker, and kicks him out of the band. Jimmy runs away, through a town of small brown cabins and autumn-orange trees that, for all its beauty, promises nothing but brutality and viciousness. Eventually he stops by the lake to rest. Suddenly his flute grows longer and thicker, changes from gold to brown, and starts to move of its own accord – an awkward moment for Jimmy to enter puberty!
Witchiepoo happens to be flying overhead, and the plot proceeds as in the series. But now she has a homosocial motive for her designs. She believes that Freddy the Flute will be a perfect trinket to impress the other witches, especially Witch Hazel (Mama Cass Eliot of The Mamas and the Papas), with whom she has a sort of Auntie Mame/Vera Charles rivalry.
All of the many witches we meet in the film are female, and all are aggressively heterosexual. Witchiepoo tries to sneak into Pufnstuf’s cave by flirting with him as vampish dance instructor Benita Bugaloo, and when she telephones Witch Hazel, their conversation consists mostly of gossip about which female witch is dating which man. The film makes Living Island, conversely, a veritable Fire Island, inhabited by ten men (or male beings) and only two women, Pufnstuf’s sister and Judy the Frog (a parody of gay icon Judy Garland).
None of them is married or involved with the other sex, nor do any of the male residents “boing” with lust over Witchiepoo in her bodacious disguise. It was not unusual for children’s films a generation ago to omit heterosexual content, but quite unusual to place it squarely in the laps of evil witches while infusing the hero and his friends with a blatantly gay sensibility.