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“She was a pretty little thing, what with her golden hair and beautiful smile and all. She was also kinda, well…spunky.”
– Ranger Johnson introducing our plucky protagonist
You know, as someone breaking into the children’s book world I surprisingly don’t often get the chance to talk about kidlit itself here. One of my favorite authors and illustrators whose works I’ve studied in pursuit of my craft is James Marshall. You might remember him from such classics as Miss Nelson is Missing! and the George and Martha books. In 1988 he wrote and illustrated his version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears which reminds readers of a very important fact that other editions gloss over:
Goldilocks is an ASS.
She walks into someone’s home uninvited while they’re out, eats their food, destroys their furniture and jumps into bed like she owns the place, and when she’s confronted over her lack of respect for others’ property, she runs away without facing any consequences. Marshall had the guts to say “Are we really supposed to sympathize with this girl? She’s the worst.” So he recrafted the story to show how nasty she is beforehand, resulting in her ursine encounter properly scaring her into changing her ways.
Looking into Goldilocks’ origins, however, her being a terrible person may have been the point of the story after all. Fairy tales were used to impart lessons of kindness and obedience from the eighteenth century onward, and who better to set as an example for improper behavior than a destructive child…
…is what I would have said until I discovered the character was originally an old woman. Typical, even in fairytales the female parts are always remade to be younger and hotter.
In the version of the tale first recorded by English poet laureate Robert Southey in 1834, the three bears (who are all bachelors of varying size) are visited by a haggard crone shunned by her family for being an embarrassment and, in Southey’s own words, deserved to be put in a correctional facility. In 1894, folklorist Joseph Jacobs uncovered “Scrapefoot”, an long-lost oral story that, ahem, bears some striking similarities to Southey’s. Scrapefoot, the titular fox, investigates a castle belonging to three bears and causes some havoc involving chairs, beds and bowls of milk before the inhabitants kick him out. It’s widely accepted that Southey learned the story of Scrapefoot from his uncle when he was a boy and may have confused the “vixen” character with its less flattering alternate definition, that of a wild woman.
Only twelve years after Southey published his tale, Joseph Cundall released his version where he aged down the protagonist but kept her hair silver. His belief was that young readers would rather follow an attractive character closer to their age than read about an old lady. From there “Silver-Hair” would cycle through a number of names and hair colors in different iterations before settling on “Goldilocks” in the early 1900s. During that time the trio of ursine bachelors also evolved into a traditional two-parent one-child family. Even more alterations to the text resulted in what was once a menacing fable becoming a rather cozy family story that heavily relies on the Rule of Three because…
So now we have a tale with fairly low stakes but enough repetition and iconography within to be referenced and lampooned a multitude of times over one hundred years later. I will admit, though, between the first time I watched Faerie Tale Theatre’s retelling and revisiting it for the blog, I remembered virtually nothing about it. So how does it hold up on rewatch?
Despite this being an English fairy tale, this is one of only two episodes in the series to have a distinctly American setting (the second comes a bit later in the show’s run). Our narrator, Ranger Johnson (Hoyt Axton), introduces himself and how he’s been tasked with relating this story.
It all starts at springtime, when the Three Bears, Bill, Betty, and their son Cubby, awake from their hibernation. They dust themselves off, playfully wrestle…go to the bathroom…
The bears get to spring cleaning, though we mainly spend time with Bill as he repairs the roof, collects honey, attempts to build a ladder and so on, with varying degrees of success.
In between these shenanigans we meet Goldilocks (Tatum O’Neal), a spirited girl prone to acting out all kinds of mischief. On this particular day she’s telling little white lies about her homework so she can go play in the forest. Her father sees right through her tales, however, and he forbids her from leaving the house until she’s finished her assignments – not that it stops her from sneaking out anyway.
Finally, at the fifteen-minute mark, we get to the part where the Bears find their morning porridge too hot and they go for a walk until it cools. No sooner do they leave than Goldilocks stumbles across the place. She helps herself to the porridge: Bill’s is too hot, Betty’s too cold, and Cubby’s is just right, but since the porridge was cooked at the same time, how is it that Betty’s is the only one stone cold? Next she tries the chairs, breaks Cubby’s and gets a sore bottom out of it. Then she goes to sleep upstairs just as the Bears return. They’re reasonably startled as they recognize the signs of a break-in. Each bear reacts differently to the discovery of Goldilocks in Cubby’s bed: Cubby wants to keep her as a pet, Betty wants to go easy on her since she’s a child, and Bill just wants some answers. He wakes her up with a growl and she’s so terrified that she escapes through the window before they can question her. By the time Goldilocks reaches home it’s night, and her father is too angry at her for disobeying him to listen to her story.
And that would normally be the end of it, except we still have half an hour left. That’s right, we’re getting an extended version of this story, an “after happily ever after” if you will. So if you’ve always wanted to know how Goldilocks and the Three Bears could have ended, read on.
The next day, Goldilocks’ dad makes her pull up all the weeds in the yard as punishment despite her complaints that she could die from heat exhaustion or a poison thorn.
As Goldilocks toils away, along comes Ranger Johnson out on his rounds. He questions her about a cow painted green the next farm over; a girl was seen running away from the scene of the crime. Goldilocks plays the innocent and tricks him into completing her chores while she runs off to the woods again. Cubby discovers her playing in her favorite hiding spot. Though he recognizes who she is, he assures her his father has no intention of eating her. The two become friends over a game of make-believe and some berry-picking.
Not wanting to return home to face her family’s wrath, Goldilocks tells Cubby she’s an orphan who wandered into his house having not eaten in days. He brings her to his parents and they take her in after he explains the situation. Though the bears’ lifestyle takes a bit of adjustment, Goldilocks quickly becomes part of the family. It’s much more lively and fun than back at home where her mother and father are all but glued to the front porch with their eyes fixed on the newspaper. Speaking of, they are a mite concerned about Goldilocks after she’s vanished, and Ranger Johnson takes it upon himself to look for her.
While Goldilocks teaches the bears one of her games, the ranger drops in on them. It looks like the jig is up. Goldilocks claims the bears kidnapped her, but is overcome with guilt and comes clean. The bears forgive her, and Goldilocks is reunited with her parents. She still visits the bears to play with Cubby and even gives them gifts to make up for her past carelessness. Ranger Johnson finishes his yarn saying Goldilocks grew up to be a kind, wise woman with a daughter of her own who shares her beautiful golden curls – and her knack for trouble.
I apologize for this being an especially short review but there’s little about this episode to discuss in depth. Goldilocks and the Three Bears falls into the “just exists” portion of the Faerie Tale Theatre spectrum. You watch it, you say “that was decent”, then instantly forget about it and move on to the next episode. I appreciate that writers Mark Curtiss and Rod Ash were able to turn Goldilocks into a somewhat more likeable character and make the plot work for a forty-five minute runtime considering what little foundation they had, but it’s still not without its issues, like the mountains of filler and inane dialogue. For example, there’s a subplot with the bears trying to run a roadside honey stand that goes nowhere. Also, the episode can’t decide where the bears fall on the scale of anthropomorphism. One minute the ranger will be addressing them like ordinary people, the next tourists are driving up to their stand and throwing snacks at them like they’re dumb animals. They keep house, cook and dress like humans, but human inventions like ladders, observation decks, fireplaces and capitalism elude their grasp. If this is supposed to be one of those stories where animals are considered minorities in the human world, it raises too many concerning questions. The production captures the charming look of the 1910s, though the bears’ costumes give me Wee Sing/Zoobilee Zoo vibes – and seeing how the poster for this episode features realistic-looking bears, it seems we were lied to. The one thing that’s consistent across the board is the acting. Everyone in front of the camera understood the assignment and leaned into the material’s inherent cheesiness. O’Neal has melodramatic preadolescence down to a T, and Axton, Lithgow and Karras’ deadpan serious deliveries underline the humor of the situations they’re entangled in. I’d say give this episode a watch if you’re curious, but otherwise you’re not missing much.
- Remember how Rumpelstiltskin had a scene cut from the DVD version? Well this episode does also, one where Betty and Bill try to figure out how to repair Cubby’s chair. I have no idea why it was cut since it’s so short, clocking in at less than a minute.
- The alarm clock that marks the end of the bears’ hibernation is split into four seasons instead of twelve hours; that’s cute.
- I’m not sure what to make of Cubby’s actor, Donovan Scott, playing him as Lou Costello. It’s an almost uncanny impersonation. When played against his father I suppose that makes Bill Bud Abbott in their scenes?
- There’s a fun little reference made when the ranger comes to call: Bill insists that he had nothing to do with some previously stolen picnic baskets. Hmm, what other bear is infamous for getting in trouble with rangers over picnic basket theft…
- Goldilock’s mother is introduced doing some needlepoint spelling out “My Life is a Tapestry”, a nod to Carole King’s best-selling album Tapestry. Knowing who plays her, I doubt it’s a mere coincidence.
- This marks the second episode directed by Gilbert Cates, who previously directed Rapunzel. It’s a marked improvement over that outing, but not by a wide margin.
- One more word about James Marshall’s Goldilocks: his biting spin on this fairytale standard made him a runner-up for the venerable Caldecott Medal in 1989 (that’s the Medal of Honor for children’s book illustrators). If you see a copy of the book floating around with a silver sticker on it, just know that it’s the seal of approval from some of the most recognized people in the business.
Hey, Was That…: Youngest Oscar-winner Tatum O’Neal is Goldilocks, of course. Mongo himself, Alex Karras, is Bill Bear. Brandis Kemp of AfterMASH plays Betty Bear. John Lithgow and Carole King are Goldilocks’ parents. Donovan Scott makes his second Faerie Tale Theatre appearance here; he was previously in The Tale of the Frog Prince as the French Chef. Also, his IMDB lists him playing Santa a lot. And finally, Hoyt Axton is probably best remembered as the dad from Gremlins, but apparently he also wrote a number of hit songs through the 60s and 70s, most notably Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”. Like I said, doing research for these reviews is fun.
Who’s The Artist?: Iconic American illustrator Norman Rockwell.
Better Or Worse Than…?: Goldilocks and the Three Bears is another one of those fairytales that’s simple yet memorable enough that it lends itself to a number of parodies; like with Little Red Riding Hood, many Looney Tunes shorts come to mind. In fact, “Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears” was popular enough that the bears from that short got a few spin-offs courtesy of Chuck Jones. On a similar note, anyone who’s followed YouTube memes in 2017 might remember a certain line about spaghetti from Paul Terry’s Three Bears cartoon making the rounds online. While racking my brain for other versions I may have seen, I was reminded of an odd stop-motion special I saw once on the Disney Channel called “Goldilocks and the Three Bears Sing Their Itty Bitty Hearts Out”. It’s worth a watch if you’re into obscure animation. Other than that, there’s the Happily Ever After episode that gives our titular troublemaker golden dreadlocks and the voice of Raven-Symone, and changes the setting to a musical Jamaica (“We R Da Bearz” is a total jam, I will not lie). Again, Faerie Tale Theatre’s version isn’t bad, but there are plenty of others out there that I personally like more.
Ranking: On the one hand, I enjoyed this more than Hansel and Gretel (though frankly I’ll take almost anything over last month’s episode). On the other, it’s not a particularly strong entry or one I’m in a rush to return to. What say you, o mighty Emperor Caesar?
Mighty Caesar has spoken. It gets the new number 6 spot between Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin.
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre, we have another tale of finding a comfy resting spot, except there’s a royal marriage on the line: The Princess and the Pea.
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th each month. Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, TylerFG, and Sam Flemming. for their support. Patreon supporters can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!