FRED FREES: RINGTONES, THE LEGACY AND LAUGHTER
Paul Frees died in 1986. His voice survives.
Summarizing the familiar incarnations of of Mr. Frees’ audio talent would deservedly require a book (fortunately, his career has been profusely chronicled in a Bear Manor biography, “Welcome Foolish Mortals: The Life and Voices of Paul Frees” written by company founder, Ben Ohmart). A past generation may recount Frees’ vocalizations of the Pillsbury Doughboy, Toucan Sam, Boo-Berry and a legion of other iconic pitchmen. Frees’ omnipresent voice reverberated all through the entire adolescence and young adulthood of baby boomers...yours truly included. But it wasn’t until later in life that I was enlightened that the verbal characterizations all belonged to the same talent.
A few decades ago, I was introduced to f/x craftsman and boyhood idol, Ray Harryhausen, at a Washington, D.C. retro. Flipping through some CLASH OF THE TITANS action figures that I submitted for his signature (“Are these things doing any business?”), Harryhausen excused himself to narrate a “clip show” of his achievements. Clip #1 was from EARTH VS. FLYING SAUCERS, a montage of Harryhausen’s flying saucers blowing-up D.C, institutions, 40 years before INDEPENDENCE DAY’s aliens torched the same territory. An intimidating Martian tenor was vocalized by Paul Frees. Right on cue, Harryhausen grinned (“Cheeky-sounding fellow, right? It’s so ironic to be invited to the city which I destroyed.”).
Back in the 1970s, my search for movie memorabilia included the elusive soundtrack album from THE ABOMINABLE DOCTOR PHIBES. After a futile scavenger hunt in three states, I finally purchased the LP direct from the film’s distributor, American International Pictures. Mr. Frees’ voice pretty much dominated the content of the album; he warbled “The Darktown Stutters Ball” and a couple of other nostalgic tunes excluded from the film, including “All I Do Is Dream of You” (perennially linked to genial ham, Jack Oakie) and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Frees concluded the song by appending a tribute–“Goodbye, Little Princess”–to Judy Garland who died two years before PHIBES debuted).
And he’s quite a significant player in one of my favorite sci-fi films. Frees actually played the title role in COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970), literally giving voice to a “supercomputer” deployed to promote disarmament. Quite paradoxically, Colossus turns autocratic, discharging nuclear missiles if its authority or “peaceful” convictions are circumvented. Frees negotiates the computer’s calculating timbre into an outspoken God complex (“In time, you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe but with love.”). It’s a triumph that nearly eclipses the sterling performances of Eric Braeden (as Colossus’ creator) and Susan Clark (whose own acting is as natural as her sex appeal; anyone remember her Playboy pictorial? She hardly deserved the slow fade-out from film). The movie’s downbeat ending prompted Universal Pictures to postpone its release; deflecting laudatory reviews by Time and New York Times critics, COLOSSUS finally debuted with a nondescript, cut-and-paste ad campaign that omitted any allusion to its sci-fi premise. The film, predictably, died at the box office but Universal added one more insult to injury: Frees was uncredited for his work. The cult adulation, however, has kindled rumors of a remake so Frees’ characterization may inevitably be unsilenced for comparative purposes.
Even more significantly, Frees still resonates with generations of Americans who annually tune into the Rankin/Bass Yuletide specials; he literally gave voice to Santa Claus, Jack Frost, the Ghost of Christmas Past, etc. He was also a tradition in Jay Ward’s satiric cartoons, manifest as Boris Badenov and Captain Peachfuzz (ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE), Inspector Fenwick (DUDLEY DO-RIGHT) and Ape (GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE). Hanna-Barbera hired Frees to perform with its ensemble of character actors in the weekly, animated TOP CAT (the talent included Arnold Stang, Maurice Gosfield [SERGEANT BILKO], Allen Jenkins and Marvin Kaplan); he was also active in A MAN CALLED FLINTSTONE, a movie spin-off of another Hanna-Barbera series. Walt Disney engaged Frees as the voice of TV host, Ludwig Von Drake (during one of his earliest appearances on THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR–circa 1961–the erudite duck leafed through a sci-fi/pulp magazine illustrated with hot, screaming babes locked in the pincers of crustacean monsters. “This is a lotta junk...but I like this junk,” admitted Von Drake. Score!).
Frees dubbed for Toshiro Mifune and an ailing Humphrey Bogart; his voice is indelibly linked to films directed by George Pal, Billy Wilder, John Frankenheimer, Roger Corman, Jerry Lewis, John Huston, Richard Brooks, Mario Bava and William Castle. The list of credits appear to go on–and on–indefinitely. As a result of space constrictions, I sincerely regret the exemptions (I’m offering only a very abridged chronicle).
Though he passed away over 25 years ago, Frees’ voice is perpetually rekindled by reruns and retrospects of “the classics” (animated and live action). And he has an heir; son Fred Frees who is applying his own vocal talent to the multi-media, including the Cartoon Network and Disney Interactive. In collaboration with Bear Manor, Fred’s disembodied voice is not attached to visible ‘toons nor live-action embodiment. Regressing to a pre-technocratic era (think radio), his listeners are invited to wield some imagination and mentally match characters with Frees’ vocalizations. The forum is your home phone and/or computer, i.e. ringtones that enlighten you to an incoming call. Opting to channel his father’s legacy rather than slight it, Fred ‘s characterizations invoke his late Dad’s vocal hubris. “Fred Frees as Paul Frees, Volume I” includes quips by a sneering, accented Boris (“Bah, is Moose calling Squirrel. Let ring!”) and a certain “narrator” whose cliffhanger rhetoric is a Jay Ward staple (“In our last episode, the phone was ringing, ringing, RINGING!”). Then there’s “Ape”, whose own ringtones are articulated with a familiar Ronald Colman flair (“Ah, if I were king, I’d answer that!”).
Negotiating homage to Frees Sr. in Volume II, Fred yields to an in-joke that will appeal to die-hard fans. Paul Frees’ voice was a fixture at Disney theme parks though his most popular character was, quite indisputably, the Haunted Mansion’s Ghost Host. Fred proves equally communicative as “The Ghost”, whose own bon mottes are laced with calculated irony and an eerie organ recital (“You’re not at Disneyland anymore. So answer your phone!”). Paul Frees aficionados will definitely get the message. Buttressing a Disney communion, the venue includes cracks delivered by an outspoken but exasperated “Ludwig” (“This phone call contains no nudity”).
You don’t have to be a trivia enthusiast to appreciate the humor; but if you have previously bonded with the ‘toon burlesque of Ward/Frees, Fred’s vocal renderings are sweetly nostalgic yet poignant. Unencumbered by a half century of tag lines that could have been lifted from the audio tracks, Boris & Co.--loaded with new one-liners written by Ben Ohmart and Fred--have seamlessly crossed into the new millennium. We’re not listening to shadows but rejuvenated characters to whom Fred has offered an extenuated existence. Paul Frees' son appears prompted by as much inspiration as impersonation. The legend continues.
Final footnote: Ringtones (both volumes) function as my preferred gifts to family and friends. The allegiance to Ward & Co. draw smiles from devotees; apprenticing listeners are encouraged to sample the original cartoons for reference. That's a beautiful compromise.