Beach Party Blogathon: Flipper’s Good Ol’ Retcon!
Note: There is within a discussion of plot points, which can be considered spoilers.
I must say when I offered to cover Flipper (1963) and Flipper’s New Adventure (1964) for the Beach Party Blogathon (co-hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings) I believed that it would only fit the premise in a very superficial way. Neither are a literal beach party movie after all. Yes, there’s water, sand, even a boy named Sandy; but it’s not really about 1960s beach culture. However, there was something that caught me by surprise that does fit very well in the come as you are nature of this blogathon with no assigned days and things like that.
What came to mind to write about was not something one can really only notice by going from the first film to the next film and then into the series. That surprise is the bit of a retcon that occurs in the stories. For the uninitiated this is a phrase that is short for retroactive continuity. What this refers to are story changes in a follow-up that not only add a new wrinkle, but in many ways imply that the current state of affairs has always been true. While either the main term or the abbreviation were vernacular in the 1960s there are citations of this having happened in fiction dating back to the late 19th century with the death, and subsequent return of Sherlock Holmes. More specifically about the term can be found here.
I’m sure at this point you’re saying “That’s fine but what does that have to do with Flipper of all things?” Well, I kind of had to introduce the term in general simply because it seems like something so silly to have happen with as straight-forward a tale as family and their smarter-than-your-average dolphin friend/helper that I kept waiting for simpler explanations for certain things, and usually they didn’t come in overly-diegetic (story-based) ways.
To be clearer I’ll provide some context both with regards to myself, these films, and the show. I’ll begin with a bit of a personal history.
Flipper and Me
I saw the TV show first. It was one of many shows I discovered on Nick at Night when young, this fact makes it ideally suited to a true cinematic episodes treatment. Later on, I went to see the movie in the mid-‘90s. Being a fan of both the old show and Elijah Wood, I wasn’t too thrilled with how that movie went down. As cheesy as it can be, with too much filler at times, I do enjoy it taking it for what it is. Clearly, it’s a concept well-suited for TV and also for kids. You’re living vicariously through Sandy and Bud indulging in what adventures you’d likely have with a dolphin as best friend/pet living on a marine preserve. It has its place and serves its purpose. I say this because I don’t want this piece’s tone misconstrued. I believe in treating all titles seriously but not too seriously. What that means is: sure I’ll talk about narrative liberties taken, while I’m not excusing them entirely, I’m also not yelling “HOW DARE YOU!?” either. The point of demarcation between those two is debatable, and can be discussed elsewhere. Here, I’m just pointing out some interesting things I noticed, this is a beach party after all.
Clearly, the time period accounts for some of these liberties in part. In the 1960s movies and TV were still very much in competition so a network may not have cared to keep continuity, and it could be assumed that you’d never have exactly the same audience for your film and television show. Even if you did, and though things started to go from movies to TV, there wasn’t the interplay then that the two enjoy now, such as when Marvel weaves its universe on big and small screen alike and projects are discussed as having both feature and miniseries components. So there was a clear line of delineation These things may have happened in a movie, but now this is a TV show. Usually these were treated as very different things, not as much here, you’ll see how so soon.
Another example not too long after this is that Maya was a film starring Jay North that was followed up by a one-season series. The series rebooted the story though. In the series Jay’s character in constantly searching for his presumed-dead father, in the movie they are together then separated.
So what are the changes in between these movies, and then leading to the series?
What Flipper ends up being is a boy-and-his-dolphin movie, as opposed to a boy and his dog.
The synopsis as seen on the IMDb appears as follows:
Sandy is distraught when, having saved Flipper by pulling out a spear, his father insists the dolphin be released. A grateful Flipper, however, returns the favor when Sandy is threatened by Sharks.
There’s some left out, some glossed over, but that’s the bones of it. It starts with a storm rolling in, a struggle to bear the brunt, then in recovery Flipper acts as the impetus for Act II. Flipper distracts Sandy and keeps him from his chores as his father’s away seeking a neighbor set adrift during the storm. There’s the classic father-son struggle about responsibilities. Needless to say its a little surprising to see Chuck Connors in this film lending name recognition as well as being a stern, but not overly-stoic when it matters, father.
In one regard it acts as the origin of how Sandy and Flipper meet, how Flipper becomes his de facto despite the fact in most regards Flipper is not really held captive. In a rather forward-thinking way he’s only really penned when injured and a short while after that. Beyond that her stays fairly free-roaming and seems to seek human companionship almost more than they seek him.
Flipper’s New Adventure (1964)
With a second film is where things either become established parts of mythology or start to shift almost uncontrollably. The theme song, which debuted in the first film, here returns. (it was altered for season two). More original songs, that are about as forgettable and maybe worse, than the additional tunes in the first film come along for the fun too.
The next few changes are a combination or writing and casting concerns.
Kathleen Maguire, who played Martha Ricks, does not return. Instead of recasting her, as they did with Porter Ricks replacing Chuck Connors with Brian Kelly, who would proceed to the television show in in the role; she was written out of the story having tragically and inexplicably died (at least at this point) between the end of the first film and beginning of this one.
Granted recasting will never be addressed with dialogue like “My father what strange plastic surgery you’ve had,” unless the intent is highly farcical. Deaths of parents were intimated, but not as often seen or discussed in children’s fare in earlier eras. This is just one reason Bambi stands out. However, it’s fairly rare for such a thing to occur between films.
Usually the writing accommodates a higher focus on one character through casting concerns by having that focus be integral. Both films in essence represent a coming-of-age or milestone for Sandy. In the first film he’s finding a pet and learning to care for it and balance his responsibilities. In the next film his father is again away through much of it; this time studying to be a Ranger, feeling a change is needed to be able to support his son. This allows the focus to be more on Sandy again as well as to distract the audience from the new actor playing Porter Ricks and making the change easier since it’s a small dosage. Sandy’s maturation here comes in helping a stranded family who are separated from their father, who was taken hostage on his own boat by escaped convicts. This allows him to see a family come together in real crisis and he copes with balancing wanting to help them and wanting not to be found himself. Clearly, he makes mistakes along the way but eventually does what he can to help with Flipper’s help.
All’s well that ends well here…
Television Series (1964-1967)
Now, as of the last film things are set perfectly in place for an episodic run: Porter Ricks (still Brian Kelly) is now a full-fledged ranger assigned to Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve, he’s going to live there with his son Sandy (still Luke Halpin), Flipper is going there too after getting a clean bill of health. A single-father, a kid, an animal usually quicker on the uptake than human characters, all kinds of nefarious types doing who knows what on the waterways, threats to Flipper, threats to the main characters; plenty of fodder for show, sure. With frequent quests, guests, and usually minimal cutting to a B-plot from the A-Plot, or at the very least the B-plot wasn’t usually as detached from the A- as it is say on some sitcoms. So what’s missing?
Well, what if Sandy had a brother? Where’s Bud you say? Well, that’s what I was wondering as I had never seen these movies. I quickly got the feeling that Bud was quickly going to be the biggest, truest retcon in the series going from films to TV.
Any show will add supporting characters later that make their presence known. The beginning of season two establishes that Ulla (Ulla Störmstedt) will be “around all summer,” but a second sibling invariably adds potential conflict and plot-lines: differing ages and interests, sibling rivalry, different interactions, etc. That’s all well and good, especially considering that each episode of Flipper has a tendency to be so self-contained such that their order rarely matters; in fact, the episode shot as the pilot aired third after the show was picked up. However, you must accept that Bud (Tommy Norden) just exists there as Sandy’s younger brother with no precedent whatsoever. He was always there, he lost his mother too, he was just never seen before.
As I mention above this is only really a concern if you’re going from one to another to another expecting seamless continuity. Being such a simple story I have to say, why wouldn’t I? However, I do say that for as much stasis as the show seemed to thrive on, being far more interested in situations for its characters to be in than in developing them; the films proved a pleasant surprise in those regards. Each had a sort of evolution from an unexpected kinds of adventure tale, to a quieter conflict and narrative demands. Sure, there are escaped convicts and a kidnapping plot and your usual action beats, but both have their smaller times as well as bigger character moments, which are an interesting contrast. It’s the movies that make Halpin’s theatre background and his appearance in Waiting for Godot on Play of the Week in 1961, which surprised me when I saw it on the IMDb, seem like less of an outlier.
Retcons aren’t new, nor are they necessarily going away, though they are certainly less than desirable. The invention of a character from one project to the next, especially when they were shot so close to one another that even some of the costuming is the same, is kind of crazy. Having said that the show would’ve had more struggles with fewer main characters, I just wish more thought had been give to how to introduce Bud. Regardless, it contributes a final odd chapter to the way these tales morphed from the silver to small screen that I thought was noteworthy.