Cartoon fans who were young in the late 1960s and early '70s will recall one of the most famous songs from an opening sequence. Stop the Pigeon is forever ingrained in their memory.
In fact, the chirpy theme song for Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines was so well-known that a lot of viewers thought it was the actual name of the show. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera had written the theme song based on the "Tiger Rag" jazz standard.
The title sequence featured Dick Dastardly, his sidekick dog Muttley and a host of other weird and wonderful characters in airplanes trying to catch a carrier pigeon… who always outwitted them!
Years after it was first broadcast in the late '60s, viewers admitted they had little idea why everyone was trying to catch the pigeon, but they enjoyed the show anyway!
How it started
The cartoon was originally produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions in the United States, for the CBS network. It was then broadcast in the UK by the BBC and was a popular Saturday morning kids' show. The first episode was shown on 13th September 1969.
It followed on from Hanna-Barbera's previous cartoon series, Wacky Races, in which Dick Dastardly and Muttley were the villains of a car race. The concept of Wacky Races, which was a 1968 animated TV series, was based on the 1965 film, The Great Race, starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The cartoon contestants in Wacky Races were competing to win the title, The World's Wackiest Racer.
While the film, The Great Race, was about a spectacular motor car race from New York to Paris in the early 20th century, the character of Dick Dastardly wasn't based on the film's bad guy, Professor Fate - the melodramatic villain played by Lemmon. Instead, Dastardly's character was based on English actor Terry Thomas's famous "cad" persona.
Some of the characters from Wacky Races went on to appear in Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, which was loosely based on Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines - the 1965 British film starring Terry Thomas and James Fox, about the early pioneers of aviation.
Stop the pigeon!
Lots of young viewers were left wondering why the pigeon had to be stopped, although they loved the cartoon anyway, thanks to its array of crazy characters and non-stop slapstick action.
In fact, Dick Dastardly and Muttley were World War I flying aces who were members of a crew of aviators called the Vulture Squadron. Their mission was to stop a homing pigeon called Yankee Doodle Pigeon from delivering messages from the Front Line to headquarters - a common practice in real life.
Dick Dastardly was a bit of a "bounder" and he shouted, "Stop the pigeon!" so frequently that many viewers thought that was the name of the show. He is also famed for saying, "Drat, drat and double drat!" many times when his cunning plans went wrong.
Muttley doesn't speak much but has a sniggering laugh that has often been imitated. Needless to say, they never succeed in stopping the pigeon, who always stays one step ahead.
As well as Dastardly and Muttley, there were many other characters in the show who were all pilots of the various aircraft in the squadron. Their planes were the biplanes of the early 20th century.
They included Klunk, who developed new aircraft or weapons designed to catch the pigeon - but of course, none of them ever succeeded. His weapons included a missile that mistakenly homed in on a person sneezing.
Vulture Squadron member Zilly understands it's his duty to fly the aircraft and stop Yankee Doodle Pigeon, but Zilly isn't well equipped for his role as a pilot, since he is a self-confessed "chicken" and a coward who is afraid of flying!
All of the characters were voiced by just two actors, with Paul Winchell providing the voice of Dick Dastardly and a number of other squadron members and Don Messick voicing Yankee Doodle Pigeon, Muttley, Klunk, Zilly, the narrator and the remaining pilots.
Although there were only 34 episodes of Dastardly and Muttley, with the series finishing in early 1970, the characters left a lasting impression. However, a correspondence in the Guardian newspaper some four decades later revealed that many viewers remained puzzled.
In answer to the question, "What was the pigeon carrying that had to be stopped?", some respondents thought his bag was full of bird seed, while others believed Dastardly had simply set Muttley a random challenge to "stop the pigeon" to prove himself. Not everyone had grasped the significance of Yankee Doodle being a wartime carrier pigeon.
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