In the late 1930's, the Walter Lantz animation studio was at a crossroads. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit had been the operation's staple star since its foundation in 1929, but now his welcome was quickly being worn out. Lantz sought to boost his studio, and even attempted to make a feature-length animated film. However, this proved to be "too costly and too much of a risk," according to Lantz. So, it quickly became clear that, in order for the studio to distinguish itself, it needed new cartoon stars.
1938-39 saw the studio experiment with various new characters and ideas. There were the 1890's Mello-Drama lampoons featuring Nell, the fair damsel, who always sought her handsome-yet-thick-headed Swedish boyfriend, Dan, to rescue her from the dastardly mustachioed villain. Then, Alex Lovy tried his hand at a series of Baby-Face Mouse cartoons. Decades before the mice of Don Bluth, the boyish Baby-Face was usually straying from home and coming face-to-face with an assortment of wise-guy rodents and rat gangsters from the "wrong side of the tracks." "Crime does not pay" was the mantra of both the character and the short-lived series.
Lantz also had Punchy, a character who appeared in a handful of the studio's spot-gag cartoons and who bore an uncanny resemblance to Tex Avery's Egghead at Warner Bros. There was also Lil' Eightball, an ingenious yet unfortunately stereotypical African-American boy created by Burt Gillett during his short stay at the studio. In addition to this, the Lantz roster of potential cartoon stars included Snuffy Skunk, Elmer Perkins' Charlie Cuckoo, Les Kline's Simple Simians (or "Simeons") Jock and Jill, and the Pan-esque Peterkin who appeared in the striking Willy Pogany-designed Scrambled Eggs. However, it soon became clear that none of these characters possessed enough star power to really put the Lantz studio on the map.
Then an epiphany struck Lantz. The donation of a giant panda cub to the Chicago Zoo by Ruth Harkness sparked national attention. Seizing the opportunity, Lantz flew to Chicago to visit the cub named Su-Lin and to draw sketches. His arrival coincided with that of a Universal newsreel cameraman, whose footage proved useful for Lantz's animation crew. With this, the character of Andy Panda was born. In September 1939, he made his first appearance in Life Begins for Andy Panda.
The premiere cartoon was directed by Alex Lovy, who did the bulk of the work in devising a character from the sketches, photos, and newsreel footage. The film concerns Andy's birth, an event that attracts all the animals of the jungle, including established Lantz characters Snuffy Skunk and the Rochester-esque turtle Mr. Whippletree. Over time, as Andy grows into childhood, his father warns him against going into the open where he can be captured "and put in a newsreel" by the pygmy panda hunters. Andy playfully disregards the advice, wanders out, inadvertently gets his father caught in a trap, and finds himself chased by the pygmies. With this, all the animals come to the rescue. Even Andy's mother, voiced by Sara Berner of the Jack Benny Show, gets into the act and assists in driving the pygmies away with her forceful frying pan whack.
The cartoon was a smash-hit with movie-goers and the Lantz staff began work on two more films. The second Andy short, Andy Panda Goes Fishing, was directed by Burt Gillett. It follows a formula that is similar to the first Andy cartoon and once again involves Mr. Whippletree and the pygmy panda hunters. The third Andy cartoon, 100 Pygmies and Andy Panda directed by Alex Lovy, also keeps with formula established in the debut short. It not only includes Mr. Whippletree and the pygmies, but also Poppa Panda. Notably, the similarity between the relationship of Andy and his father and Fanny Brice's Baby Snooks radio skits, which is already strong in the first Andy cartoon, becomes even more pronounced in 100 Pygmies.
Despite the moderate success of the early Andy shorts, the future looked less optimistic. Universal cut their weekly advance to the Lantz studio which had, since 1935 operated independently. The studio quickly found itself in an unenviable position. Though Lantz was able to gain the rights to the characters of his films (including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), his studio, unable to find alternative sources for funds, shut its doors for a brief period in early 1940. However, the Lantz staff, still loyal to both him and his studio, decided to return and make one cartoon anyway. Lantz approved of this plan and the finished film. The fourth Andy Panda short Crazy House, was used by Lantz as a final appeal to Universal – in the end, it worked. The company sent Lantz to Irving Trust in New York and acquiesced to cosign a ten thousand dollar loan. Lantz then paid back everyone who had worked on the film.
Crazy House signals a turning point in the Andy series. The conventions of the original Andy formula (the jungle setting, Mr. Whippletree, the pygmies, and the Baby Snooks similarities) were abandoned completely. Andy became less inquisitive and more innocent while his father became even more short-tempered. Still, while the film managed to save the Lantz studio, it still did not give Lantz the hit he was looking for. That came in the fifth Andy Panda short, Knock Knock, released in November 1940. In this film, Andy and Poppa Panda find themselves being pestered by a crazy woodpecker (voiced by Mel Blanc), who incessantly pecks holes in their roof. This short proved to be a major success with the public and finally gave Lantz his breakthrough star – Woody Woodpecker.
Woody's initial success, however, did not eclipse the Andy Panda series which continued to claim successes with audiences. Andy's father gradually assumed a W.C. Fields persona, adding more humor to zany entries like Mouse Trappers and Dizzy Kitty. He even appeared in his own solo cartoon in 1941 entitled (appropriately) Andy Panda's Pop. After this however, Andy's father would make one last appearance in 1942's Under the Spreading Blacksmith Shop, before Andy would be promoted to solo headline star status in Good-Bye Mr. Moth. These two shorts also marked the debut of Sara Berner, previously the voice of Andy's mother, as the voice of Andy himself. Following Mr. Moth, the ninth Andy cartoon, Nutty Pine Cabin, featured the panda as a full-fledged adult for the first time.
Andy's coming-of-age coincided with the entry of the United States into World War II. So, just as his personality was being hammered out as a solo character, he began to appear in a series of war-related shorts. During the course of 1942-43, the patriotic panda would grow his own Victory Garden, serve as an Air Raid Warden, and train potential Canine Commandos as a soldier in the American army. Victory Garden as well as another war-related film Meatless Tuesday both featured Charlie Chicken, a costar of Andy's who maintained a greater presence in the Andy Panda comics than in the actual cartoons.
Meatless Tuesday was also significant as the first Andy cartoon directed by James "Shamus" Culhane. Alex Lovy, the signature director of the Andy series departed, and Lantz needed talented directors. Culhane arrived at the right time. His next Andy cartoon, 1944's Fish Fry was one the best Andy Panda cartoons, if not one of the best Walter Lantz cartoons, ever made. The plot involves a cat attempting to seize and devour Andy's newly-purchased goldfish. The speed, energy, and agility of the film, achieved through rapid crosscuts and generally strong animation, are a testament to Culhane's skills as a master director at Lantz. Culhane was the sort of director who placed great emphasis on action, so much so that, in his own words, "it should take you on a roller coaster ride, really give it to you." The action of this cartoon was, of course, accentuated by Darrell Calker's highly-effective musical score. In the end, it was such a hit with audiences that it earned the Lantz studio its sixth Academy Award nomination.
However successful Fish Fry was, Culhane evidently felt unsatisfied with Andy's good-natured personality. His subsequent Andy Panda cartoon, The Painter and the Pointer, casts Andy as the oppressive owner of Butch the dog. Culhane also gave Andy a newer, rougher design that apparently did not gain favor with audiences. Dick Lundy had a better handle of Andy and it was under his supervision that the character truly developed. Best known for creating Donald Duck at Disney, Lundy started out as an animator at Lantz under Culhane. Once promoted to the director's chair in 1945, he saw great potential in Andy for the panda was, in the words of animation and film historian Leonard Maltin, "a truly Disneyesque character."
Lundy's musical cartoons with Andy were perhaps the most successful. In The Poet and Peasant, Andy conducts a barnyard orchestra to the Franz von Suppé overture of the same name. The first in the Musical Miniatures series, this entry proved to be another major success for both Andy and the Walter Lantz studio, earning it a seventh Academy Award nomination. The following Lundy Andy Panda short takes a different musical path. The surreal Apple Andy derives its energy from swing jazz, particularly the song Up Jumped the Devil (With the White Nightgown). The energy of Shamus Culhane apparently influenced Lundy, who was able to channel the same sense of action into this cartoon. The influence must have been mutual because Culhane was able to get a better grasp of Andy's personality for 1946's Mouise Come Home. In all cases, however, one cannot overlook the major musical contribution of Darrell Calker, who consistently delivered powerful scores to further emphasize the energy and style of the Lantz shorts produced in the 1940s.
The following year saw the release of another Lundy Musical Miniature with Andy Panda, Musical Moments from Chopin. Costarring Woody Woodpecker, this short earned Lantz an eighth Academy Award nomination. By this time, Culhane had departed and the tone of the cartoons had become less zany and more in tune with Lundy's traditional, relaxed approach. When Lantz shifted distribution to United Artists in 1947, the first cartoon released was yet another Andy Panda Musical Miniature directed by Dick Lundy entitled The Bandmaster. Featuring the Overture to Zampa, this short not only proved to be another major success with theatergoers but also ushered in a golden age for the Walter Lantz studio. Throughout this period, the cartoons became more polished, the animation more refined, and the backgrounds more beautiful. Lundy continued to develop Andy and strengthen his personality in such films as Dog Tax Dodgers, Playful Pelican, and Scrappy Birthday, which featured the first and only appearance of Andy's girlfriend Miranda Panda.
Unfortunately, Scrappy Birthday was one of the last Walter Lantz cartoons produced before the studio temporarily closed in 1949 due to serious financial trouble. When it reopened in 1950 and new Lantz cartoons were released through Universal again in 1951, Andy Panda was nowhere to be seen. It is believed that more Andy cartoons were planned to be produced before the United Artists closure, but with the departure of Dick Lundy, it appeared that nobody could handle Andy as well as he.
Following his retirement, Andy, like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit before him, enjoyed a successful existence in Walter Lantz comics. Andy would later have his own comic book series that featured his long-retired costar Charlie Chicken. He continued to be a part of Lantz comics into the early 1990s. Andy also made occasional appearances on The Woody Woodpecker Show, appeared in a handful of 1951-52 Lantz-produced Auto-Lite commercials (sometimes alongside Miranda Panda and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), and made a cameo in 1951's Woody Woodpecker Polka.
After the Lantz studio ceased production of animated films in 1972, Lantz still made an effort to keep Andy alive through character promotion and even worked with Universal to put out a VHS video cassette featuring the character in 1985. Unfortunately, after Lantz's death in 1994, Universal decided to retire Andy completely. However, this changed during the 2000s when Electric Tiki issued a limited edition Andy Panda maquette in 2006 and Universal released a handful of Andy cartoons on the Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection DVD series in 2007-2008. Such moves are hopeful for one of the Lantz studio's most important and memorable cartoon creations.
Filmography:1939: Life Begins for Andy Panda
Cameo Appearances:1941: $21 a Day (Once a Month)