The prissy voice

A little while ago, Terry Tenette asked me about the character The Great Gazoo (voiced by the comic actor Harvey Korman) in the animated tv series The Flintstones — because the character’s voice suggested gay to him. I’d stopped watching the tv series by the time this character appeared (in 1965), but I then watched a clip with Terry and heard what he was picking up on, which was not the famous gay voice, but something I’ll call the prissy voice. We were then both struck by the similarity of the Great Gazoo’s voice to that of the character Dr. Zachary Smith (played by Jonathan Harris) in the tv series Lost in Space (which, probably not coincidentally, premiered in 1965). And I was reminded of the famous film sissies (film sissies — the name conveying effeminacy, weakness, or cowardice — has become a widely used term in film history and criticism) and their deployment of the prissy voice.

Stills from the two tv shows, plus one showing Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore together in the 1937 Astaire-Rogers movie Shall We Dance:


Barney Rubble, Fred Flintstone, the Great Gazoo


Cast photo, left to right: Penny Robinson (Angela Cartwright), the middle child; Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams); Judy Robinson (Marta Kristen), the oldest child; The Robot (performed by Bob May in a prop costume, voice dubbed by Dick Tufeld); Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris); Dr. Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart); Major Don West (Mark Goddard); Will Robinson (Billy Mumy), the youngest child


Horton and Blore

Film clips (so you can experience the prissy voices)

for The Great Gazoo, can be viewed here

for Dr. Zachary Smith (from season 3 episode 11, 11/22/67), can be viewed here

for Blore and Horton, can be viewed here

I’ve posted earlier about The Flintstones. Now about the space alien character, from Wikipedia:

The Great Gazoo is a character from The Flintstones animated series. He first appeared on the show on October 29, 1965. The Great Gazoo was voiced by actor Harvey Korman.

The image in #1 is signed by the animators Hanna and Barbera and by Korman.

And on Harvey Korman, again from Wikipedia:

Harvey Herschel Korman (February 15, 1927 – May 29, 2008) was an American comedic actor who performed in television and movie productions and was also a voice artist. His big break was being a featured performer on CBS’ The Danny Kaye Show, but he is best remembered for his performances on the sketch comedy series The Carol Burnett Show and in several films by Mel Brooks, playing Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles.

On Lost in Space, from Wikipedia:

Lost in Space is an American science fiction television series, following the adventures of a family of pioneering space colonists whose ship goes off course. It was created and produced by Irwin Allen, filmed by 20th Century Fox Television, and broadcast on CBS. The show ran for three seasons, with 83 episodes airing between September 15, 1965, and March 6, 1968. The first television season was filmed in black and white, with the second and third seasons filmed in color.

Though the original television series concept centered on the Robinson family, many later story lines focused primarily on Dr. Zachary Smith, played by Jonathan Harris. Smith, along with the Robot, was absent from the pilot, as the addition of their characters was decided once the series had been commissioned for production. Originally written as an utterly evil but careless saboteur, Smith gradually becomes the troublesome, self-centered, incompetent foil who provides the comic relief for the show and causes most of the episodic conflict and misadventures.

Finally, the classic film sissies, whose heyday as comic characters was in the 30s: Grady Sutton, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Clifton Webb, and Eric Blore; plus Ernest Truex playing ‘milquetoast’ characters; plus actors specializing in English butler roles (including Blore and also William Austin, who defined the Alfred the Butler character in the 40s Batman serials (and who never married); plus William Haines, who was actually and, eventually, openly gay.

The classic film sissy is supercilious and prissy, speaks precisely, even ostentatiously correctly, and has at least a hint of generic British accent – all characteristics that suggest femininity, hence effeminacy, hence gayness, at least to some people, especially American working-class men. (The classic film sissy usually served as a foil to truly masculine men, like Fred Astaire.) This presentation of self, with the accompanying prissy voice, was replicated in the Great Gazoo and Dr. Zachary Smith.

It was probably not a coincidence that the Great Gazoo and Dr. Smith appeared in 1965 in American tv shows aimed at an audience that included many kids. The period was a high point of the American space exploration program and of kids’ enthusiasm for the idea of exploring space. From the Wikipedia page on the Apollo space program:

The Apollo program, also known as Project Apollo, was the third United States human spaceflight program carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which accomplished landing the first humans on the Moon from 1969 to 1972. First conceived during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration as a three-man spacecraft to follow the one-man Project Mercury [1958-63] which put the first Americans in space, Apollo was later dedicated to President John F. Kennedy’s national goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s, which he proposed in a May 25, 1961, address to Congress. Project Mercury was followed by the two-man Project Gemini (1962–66). The first manned flight of Apollo was in 1968.

One Response to “The prissy voice”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    The classic film sissy usually served as a foil to truly masculine men, like Fred Astaire.

    Unless, liike Sutton and Pangborn, he was serving as a foil to the not-so-easily-classified W. C. Fields.

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