Monday, September 6, 2010

Howdy Doody: Gunslinger, Warmonger, Imperialist

Reading the obit of Edward Kean, the creator of The Howdy Doody Show, one can’t help thinking how much the show was influenced by many of the Westerns that preceded it, like The Lone Ranger during the Golden Age of Radio, and how much the show would go on to influence television Westerns like Gunsmoke, Have Gun-Will Travel, Bonanza—shows that would be watched a decade later by the same generation that had grown up with the experience of Howdy as their first cowboy. If you talk to women who grew up in the ‘50s and loyally watched Howdy Doody, it becomes apparent that many of them still have a crush on the puppet, and even harbor sexual fantasies about what must have been, for a young child, a swashbuckling male figure. But in terms of genre art, where would Gunsmoke’s Chester, Matt and Miss Kitty be without Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, Flub-a-Dub and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, who was indubitably the model for a number of barroom gals who would appear in the burgeoning genre of adult westerns? We think of Howdy Doody as a program epitomizing the innocence of early television, with its Edenic setting freed of horror and consequence. But Howdy Doody was first and foremost a Wild West show introduced by one Buffalo Bob—a hegemonist if ever there was one—who, if we were to research his backstory, probably got his soubriquet and earned his stripes by murdering bison and colonizing Indian lands. In this regard, Howdy Doody was a piece of indoctrination. Its subliminal message was Manifest Destiny. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Create a feeling of harmlessness and innocence to camouflage the aggressive desires that are holding sway. Would it be a stretch to see Howdy, the brave puppet on a string, as the model for the Raymond Shaw character played by Lawrence Harvey in the John Frankenheimer adaptation of Richard Condon’s Manchurian Candidate?

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