A few weeks ago, after my G.I. Joe review, someone clued me in on The Toys That Made Us, a Netflix documentary series about the hottest toys of the last century, including (of course) Kenner’s Star Wars line, Barbie, He-Man, and G.I. Joe. (The series claims it’s 8 episodes long, but only 4 are online. I assume the other 4 are in-progress, and I further assume one covers the Transformers, which should be a hoot.)
The episodes are good, well made and interesting, if unaccountably tilted to the Left. They get in several digs at Reagan and patriotism, He-Man and harmful masculinity, and the Barbie episode features a bitter feminist who sneers at Barbie and her effect on society.
That said, the show is solid and informative. They went to the trouble of interviewing the actual people who made the toys or designed the characters (when possible). This was a must, as most of them are getting on up on there in years. In fact, one of the subjects—Stan Weston, the man who sparked the revitalized G.I. Joe line—died just weeks after doing a telephone interview for the series. I’m glad this series was made now, so we could get all of the creators on camera discussing the behind-the-scenes on these landmark toys.
What strikes you, when watching, is how much like a soap opera it all is: Every major toy company, including Hasbro, passed on Star Wars because they didn’t think it could sell toys. Kenner, a tiny company, took a big risk and rushed the Star Wars toys into production (cutting the normal lead time for a toy line from 2 years to less than a year) but didn’t even get the action figures into stores for Christmas. Instead they sold an empty box, with a promissory note for the dolls, which people would get when they shipped in a few months. The CEO (a former employee of Mattel) bet the company on the maneuver and at the time, they didn’t even have an actual signed contract. (More on the contract later.)
Hasbro, which passed on Star Wars, found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. Stan pitched the idea for G.I. Joe (just like the Star Wars figures, but articulated), and the CEO said no, and left for two weeks. During this time, they worked like mad to kit-bash the figures and plan the line (even composing the jingle), to sell the toys to the CEO. He greenlit the line, so they called Marvel to make a comic, who ended up suggesting and then designing Cobra, as well as a lot of the other Joes. (In fact, Larry Hama was the reason the Drednoks became obnoxious bikers and not talking bears. True story, though it’s not in the G.I. Joe episode.) G.I. Joe sold like mad.
Ages ago, Mattel had launched the Barbie line. The man who engineered them—and continued adding new features and refining the figures for decades—became a drugged out sex addict living in a literal castle in Southern California. Promised 1% of the gross, he eventually broke ties with the company over non-payment of royalties. The court case dragged on for years, and he nearly went bankrupt during it, being forced to sell the castle and nearly everything else. He eventually won.
One of the co-founders of Mattel, Ruth Handler, was inspired by—or outright copied—a German doll (based on a prostitute in a comic strip) to create Barbie, but was turned down several times by the company she herself founded. She eventually found a market researcher to sell her idea to her own company, and the doll sold like mad. Until it didn’t, and she cooked the books to hide the company’s losses. She was charged with fraud, and ejected from her company.
Mattel, going broke, took a flyer on several toy lines based on movies, all aimed at the boy’s market (hoping to catch the next Star Wars), including Clash of the Titans, Flash Gordon, and Battlestar Galactica. All failed. He-Man, designed as a bigger, more muscular, and more expressive alternative to the competition, became a hit, primarily because of a TV series the creator came up with off the top of his head in a meeting aimed at getting Toys “R” Us on board. The He-Man series was a big hit (for good reason, I explain why here), and the He-Man toys were a big hit, until She-Ra (his sister) came along and Barbie-ized the concept and the line collapsed. One year, $400 million, the next $7 million.
Kenner experienced its own collapse, after the excitement over Return of the Jedi faded, and the company was snapped up by Hasbro. Which is where the Star Wars contract I mentioned earlier came in. Under the terms, Kenner kept 95% of the profit from the line, with Lucas and Fox splitting the rest. This was—literally—an exclusive license good anywhere in the galaxy (again, I have to emphasize that the clause making it intergalactic was actually in the contract) in perpetuity, so long as Lucas was paid $10,000 every single year. Hasbro didn’t make the payment, the contract evaporated, and they had to give Lucas an arm and a leg, as well as a kidney, a lung, and several vertebrae, to get it back, just so they could license the next hot Star Wars property: The Phantom Menace.
Last is this: the above doesn’t fully cover all the insanity of the toy industry soap opera. Frank Frazetta’s role in inspiring He-Man, Snake Eyes accidentally becoming a hit (him being dressed all in black was a cost-cutting measure), and Skeletor’s origin as an actual corpse in an amusement park house of horror: all that and more are in the series.
The Toys That Made Us is a great 4 hours (despite the occasional political interjection), and it’s a unique look at what goes into making a toy line and a toy company. Highly recommended.