Chilly Willy the penguin is one of the Walter Lantz studio's most recognized and beloved stars, and seemed to flourish in the late 50s, a period when most people feel the Lantz cartoons were in decline. In 1949, Walter Lantz retired his second biggest star, Andy Panda, leaving only one major character to star in his new cartoons: Woody Woodpecker. In 1953, Lantz wanted a new character, and one of his directors, Paul Smith, began work on a cartoon entitled Chilly Willy. This cartoon features a little penguin, more similar in design to the ones found in 1945's Sliphorn King of Polaroo than the Chilly Willy we think of today, voiced by Sara Berner. This cartoon set up the general formula of Chilly wanting to find warmth that most future Chilly Willy cartoons would adhere to, and it introduced an early version of the familar Chilly Willy theme song.
Unfortunately, Chilly Willy was not a huge success, but Walter Lantz was set on having a penguin character, and when Tex Avery returned to the studio in 1954, Lantz asked him to make another attempt at getting the character to work. Avery didn't feel a "little fuzzy wuzzy penguin" would be particularly funny, so he decided to pair Chilly Willy with funny co-stars. The first of these cartoons, I'm Cold (re-titled Some Like It Not by Castle Films) introduces Smedley the dog, Chilly's long time co-star. Smedley's most distinct characteristics were his voice and deadpan personality, which had previously been used by Tex Avery for a southern wolf character in a few of his MGM Droopy cartoons. The voice came from Daws Butler, and a similar voice would later be used for Hanna-Barbera's Huckleberry Hound as well. I'm Cold was a success with audiences, and it was soon followed by another cartoon called The Legend of Rockabye Point (re-titled The Rock-a-Bye Legend by Castle Films). This cartoon featured Chilly Willy and a polar bear (who is NOT Smedley) attempting to steal fish from a ship. Avery's second Chilly cartoon was nominated for Academy Award, and this pretty much ensured Chilly Willy's place as a star.
The Legend of Rockabye Point was Tex Avery's last Chilly Willy cartoon, and his second to last cartoon for Lantz. After Avery's departure, Alex Lovy, who had directed many of Walter Lantz films in the early 40s, returned to continue the Chilly Willy series. Avery had storyboarded three new Chilly Willy cartoons before leaving, and it is believed that Alex Lovy used some, if not all, of the gags and ideas left behind. In fact, many of the early Alex Lovy cartoons have the feel of Tex Avery cartoons, especially Hot and Cold Penguin, Room and Wrath, and Hold That Rock. Lovy served as Chilly's only director until 1959 because he would leave the studio less than a year later.
Beginning with 1960's Fish Hooked, Chilly would be shared by several directors, including Paul Smith, Jack Hannah, and Sid Marcus. It was during the 60s that Sid Marcus directed Half Baked Alaska, a cult favorite in which Chilly Willy tries to get a job so that he can buy pancakes from Smedley. Chilly Willy cartoons were produced every year until the Lantz studio closed, and as budgets lowered, the character became more articulate and chatty. New characters, such as the Looney Gooney and Maxie the Polar Bear were added to keep the series interesting.
On a final note, several sources, including Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Magic and the official Woody Woodpecker website, have identified Smedley as a polar bear even though this is obviously not true. Smedley is a dog, and played the role of a dog in several cartoons, such as A Chilly Reception, I'm Cold, Hot and Cold Penguin, and Fish Hooked. Why anyone, let alone the company that owns the character, would think Smedley is a polar bear is a mystery to me. Chilly Willy did have a polar bear friend in later cartoons named Maxie, and this may be where the confusion comes from.
Filmography:1953: Chilly Willy