Recently a friend of mine turned over some really beautiful condition original Star Wars action figures, which were to be auctioned on eBay. Seeing these figures, my own editions of which have long since ceased to be part of my personal collection, brought back some substantial memories of when I first owned them. And I figured it was worth a look back to the time, and the toys.
The action figure world of the mid-1970's was a very different place than it is today, or even that it would be during the heyday of the 1980's. The original G.I.Joe had run its course. There was a 9" figure on the shelves called Super Joe, which lasted a couple of years before fading into obscurity. The Real American Hero wasn't even an idea yet. Neither were Masters of the Universe or Transformers. The king of the action figure world was still pretty much Mego, who had come out with a really nice line of 8" super-hero figures in 1972, representing both DC and Marvel, and had branched out into the likes of Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Wizard of Oz, and more. All certainly proven properties.
The only other significant contenders at the time were Mattel's Big Jim, who after trading in his sports equipment for a crime-fighting team called the P.A.C.K. was on his way out -- to Europe, actually, where he'd continue into the 1980's in a variety of motifs, and Kenner's Six Million Dollar Man, a 12" action figure line based on what was arguably one of the most popular TV shows on the air at the time.
Science-fiction in the popular culture wasn't very prevalent at the time. The original Star Trek had run its course in both live and animated fashion. Planet of the Apes had managed one season on television. Space:1999 had pulled in two distinctly different seasons before fading away. The only science-fiction movie of note had been "Logan's Run", in 1976, which had been notable for what were then some very advanced special effects.
In the midst of these dark times, a little-known movie producer named George Lucas came along, with something called "Star Wars". It was enough of a curiosity to rate an article in Time Magazine. But could this movie really succeed? Sci-fi wasn't a popular genre, and Lucas was pulling things out of his hat that no one had ever heard of. Jedi Knights? Lightsabers? Wookiees? Jawas? Droids? Okay, so the designs of everything looked cool, but what the heck was going on here, anyway?
Then the unimaginable happened in late May of 1977 when crowds lines up at movie theaters around the country in masses normally reserved for sporting events and rock concerts. The pop culture world would, categorically, never be the same.
Neither would the toy world. Mego had a shot at Star Wars, but their top man was actually in Japan at the time, according to an article in Tomart's Action Figure Digest, securing the rights to Takara's recently developed Microman toy line, which would do a very healthy business for Mego over the next several years, generally running second to Star Wars the entire time.
Star Wars finally went to Kenner, at that time not associated with Hasbro in any way whatsoever. The company saw potential for the concept, even unproven as it was, but they were faced with a problem. To do a really decent toy line would mean doing vehicles as well as figures. The standard action figure size of the day was 8". You just didn't go smaller. G.I.Joe had been 12". So was the Six Million Dollar Man. Big Jim was 10". And they all had cloth costumes.
There was categorically no way to produce a line based on Star Wars at that size range and still get away with vehicles. Not in the 1970's. Even today, the only 12" Star Wars vehicle of any note has been the Speeder Bike. A 8" or 12" scale X-Wing Fighter, TIE Fighter, or , perish the thought, Millennium Falcon, would be impossible.
According to legend, someone during a Kenner meeting raised his hand, spread his thumb and forefinger, and remarked, "What if we made the figures only this big?" Someone pulled out a ruler and took a measurement. 3-3/4". And the action figure world was about to be turned on its ear.
Obviously, the new Star Wars figures would have to be an entirely different sort of creation than had been generally seen in the action figure world. The standard at the time, or as close to one as existed, was Mego. They produced 8" figures with a common body mold and a cloth costume. There had actually been two different Mego bodies, a rather pathetic speciment with metal rivets held together inside by an elastic string, and a later, more advanced version with vastly better sculpting and detail, plastic joints, and held together by metal hooks and thick rubber bands. The body had a generous 14 points of articulation - head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles.
At the time, this sort of articulation in a 3-3/4" action figure wasn't considered practical. Nor was the notion of cloth outfits. Kenner sculpted the Star Wars figures individually. No common body parts. They had five points of articulation - head, arms, legs. The clothes (those that wore them) were sculpted as part of the figure. There were exceptions to this. Princess Leia and Obi-Wan Kenobi had simple plastic capes, and the Jawa had a tiny fabric robe (after trading in his plastic cape).
It was all a grand experiment. No one knew if the movie would be a success. No one knew if such small action figures would be popular. If only they knew...
That the movie was a sensation beyond anything ever experienced in the history of cinema is a fact of history at this point. That the toys blew off the shelves faster than you could say "May the Force be with you" is just as well established. In fact, Kenner had to issue what amounted to a promissory note when demand vastly exceeded the supply of figures. A lot of kids found an "empty box" under their Christmas trees that year, promising a supply of Star Wars figures just as soon as the overworked factories could catch up.
And, of course, there were vehicles. X-Wing Fighters. TIE Fighters. a Millennium Falcon. Large boxed vehicular toys of this nature hadn't been seen in some time. Mego had produced some cars and playsets for some of their toys, but few of them reached the scale of the Millennium Falcon, even taking the different size of the figures into consideration. And the days of G.I.Joe's 12" scaled motor pool were several years in the past at this point. But the vehicles performed just as ably as the figures. Kids certainly wanted to fly Luke Skywalker around in his X- Wing, and have Han Solo come to the rescue at the last moment in his Millennium Falcon against the TIE Fighters.
So -- how WERE the toys? A modern jaded observer would see them as rather primitive these days. Limited sculpting on the faces and clothing, minimal articulation. One interesting note is that Han Solo went through a fairly noticable alteration early on. His original headsculpt, which the figure shown here represents, was altered to a somewhat smaller, and more neatly groomed version, early on.*
*(MC Staff - Actually, it was the other way as the large head was meant to "improve" the sculpt.)
But as for the figures on the whole, there's something about the legend that these figures established that surpasses how relatively primitive they look by modern standards. Anyone who's been around long enough to remember going to the original movies, especially if you were a kid at the time, will have a certain fondness for these toys.
The group that I received included most of the core characters. There's Luke Skywalker in his farmboy outfit with the retractable lightsaber permanently in his right hand. There's Princess Leia, the only female figure in the line to speak of. Han Solo, the dashing rogue, and his Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca. And of course it wouldn't be Star Wars without the popular droids, C-3PO in his gleaming gold chrome, and R2-D2 with that primitive even for the time printed sticker wrapped around his cylindrical body, showing his robotic details. And, naturally, Darth Vader, the immense, black-garbed villain with his red lightsaber mounted in his arm. There was even a Stormtrooper in this assortment, perhaps one of the earliest "army builders" of the action figure world.
There were some other characters in this group I received. Kenner obviously wanted to do some of the stranger characters, which at the time meant looking into the Mos Eisley Cantina. Hammerhead is here. So is Snaggletooth, the properly short, red-garbed version, not the long- legged blue-uniformed one. There's also Greedo, with his extremely noticable neon green costume. Rounding out those I received were a Death Star Droid, a Power Droid, Walrus Man, and a Jawa.
Obviously, the collection was much more massive than that. And two sequel movies certainly helped it along. The original Star Wars toy line survived well into the introduction of G.I.Joe: A Real American Hero, Transformers, Masters of the Universe, and other staples of the 80's that made for the most exciting period of action figure collecting of all time.
And it survives today. Now produced by Hasbro, which acquired Kenner in the mid-90's, the figures are, by almost every measure, superior to their ancestors. They're better detailed, and better articulated. There's still some aspects that I could do without. The occasional sloppy paint job, generally hand-painted, for which I find no excuse, or ridiculous spring-loaded action feature that hinders articulation, or some needless pre-posed stance that looks like the character could use a good chiropractor.
But there's still something about those original Star Wars figures, especially if they're in such excellent condition as this assortment was, that for many of us, can bring back a flood of memories to generally a happier time, certainly a simpler one, when for the first time we saw those words on a movie screen, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." And we knew that whatever was going to come next, it was going to be extremely cool. And we were right. And it still is...
May the Force be with you... always!