In early 1940, the Walter Lantz studio was in trouble. Universal decided to cut its weekly advance to the operation, forcing it to scramble in search of alternative funds. The financial situation became so serious that the studio ended up closing for a brief period. Fortunately, it was saved after Lantz and his staff turned out the fourth Andy Panda cartoon, Crazy House. Lantz used the film as a final appeal to the heads of Universal and, in the end, was able to reach a satisfactory settlement with them.
By fall 1940, the studio was back in business again. However, Lantz still found himself with only one major character, Andy Panda, who starred in a series of moderately successful shorts. Moderate success was good but it was not enough for Lantz, especially after his recent experience with Universal. He needed a breakthrough cartoon character that would truly give his studio a name in the industry.
That breakthrough character arrived in Andy Panda's fifth outing, Knock Knock. Directed by Lantz himself, the short involved Andy and his father being pestered to no-end by the antics of a screwball, redheaded woodpecker. According to Lantz, the idea for a woodpecker was inspired by a real-life experience. As the story goes, he and his wife, Grace Stafford, were on their honeymoon at Sherwood Lake, California when a local woodpecker started pecking holes in their cottage. The bird was so disruptive that Lantz's wife suggested that he make him into a cartoon character. While this story certainly does add a touch of romanticism to the creation of Lantz's big name star, it seems unlikely, largely because Lantz's honeymoon occurred in 1941, one year after the release of Knock Knock.
Whatever the inspiration for the woodpecker, it was clear that the new film possessed a certain zaniness and vitality that the Lantz shorts had not seen since the early 1930s. It is not unreasonable to believe that storyman Ben Hardaway was responsible for most of this. Fresh from Termite Terrace, he had a special passion for screwball characters. In fact, it was Hardaway who developed the earliest, embryonic versions of Bugs Bunny in Warner Bros. shorts like Porky's Hare Hunt and Hare-Um Scare-Um. The rabbits in these films were completely insane and a far cry from the Bugs introduced by Tex Avery in A Wild Hare. Still, they were nonetheless successful with audiences and when Hardaway came to the Lantz studio, he sought to revive the insane persona of his Bugs prototypes in the woodpecker character of Knock Knock. Even the woodpecker's laugh sounded similar to the laugh of Hardaway's earlier hares, though this is hardly a surprise when one considers that the new character's voice was provided by the one-and-only, Mel Blanc.
Lantz and his staff loved Knock Knock and it seemed that the studio was headed in the right direction. However, not everyone agreed. The head of the Universal short subjects department Bernie Kreiser, disliked the film. "Are you out of your cotton-pickin' mind, Lantz?" he cried after screening it. "Who'd ever go for a woodpecker? We won't be able to give him away. He's terrible. He's rambunctious. He's got a crazy laugh. He'll drive 'em right out of the theater before the feature begins! He's boisterous, he's loud, he's ugly." Lantz responded by telling Kreiser that Universal was only distributing his films and not paying for them. "So release him," he said, "because I'm taking a chance." In the end, when the film was finally released, audiences responded enthusiastically. Kreiser promptly changed his tune and returned to Lantz asking for more cartoons featuring his crazy woodpecker.
The next woodpecker cartoon, Woody Woodpecker, gave the character his name. Again helmed by Lantz himself, this second short was even crazier than Knock Knock. The furry, cute, Disney-esque forest animals are frustrated with Woody's insanity. Trying to alleviate the situation, the woodpecker decides to visit a psychiatrist Dr. Horace N. Buggy. A fox by species, the doctor succumbs to Woody's wackiness and ends up going crazy himself. Meanwhile, Woody, who during the course of the film literally "falls out of the picture," discusses the doctor's zaniness with audience members!
Woody Woodpecker, in many ways, was a turning point for the Lantz studio. The cute, forest creatures represent the general style of the Lantz studio since 1935. They oppose the nuttiness of Woody and the doctor, both screwball characters who manifest the kind of humor that would dominate the Lantz universe throughout the 1940s. The energy of the cartoon was only enhanced by the jazzy musical score of Lantz's newly-acquired musical director Darrell Calker and the wacky voice characterizations of Mel Blanc. In theaters, the short proved to be a major hit with audiences and it cemented Woody Woodpecker as an established star at the Lantz studio.
Woody, as he appeared in his first few films, was a very rough character. In the late 1930s, the Lantz studio experimented with new, potential cartoon stars like Baby-Face Mouse and Snuffy Skunk. Woody was something completely new. In his earliest form, the woodpecker was aggressively insane and his early design was very grotesque. His beak was long, his feet were large, his face was goofy, and his feathers boasted bold Technicolor hues.
After two more cartoons directed by Lantz in 1941, Alex Lovy gradually began to assume control of the Woody series. He began to redesign Woody, making him more round and cute. 1942's Ace in the Hole is the first short to feature a more streamlined woodpecker while the shorts to follow would perfect this design. In addition to this, while the tone of the shorts remained crazy, Woody, under Lovy's direction, became a more sympathetic character. By this time, Mel Blanc was under an exclusive contract with Warner Bros. His immediate replacement as Woody's voice was Danny Webb, followed by Kent Rogers. After Rogers went into the service due to World War II, Ben Hardaway stepped in as the woodpecker's new voice. Meanwhile, Blanc's laugh and "Guess Who" would continue to appear in the films.
In 1943, Lovy departed from the Lantz studio, leaving his former boss in search of fresh, new talent. At first, Lantz attempted pairing animator Emery Hawkins with storymen Ben Hardaway and Milt Schaffer on directing teams. Ration Bored was one of two cartoons that emerged from these pairings. Co-directed by Hawkins and Schaffer, it was significant as the first short to feature Woody wearing white, rubber gloves, yet another phase in the character's gradual refinement.
Meanwhile, Lantz finally managed to secure the talented James "Shamus" Culhane. As evidenced by his earliest directorial efforts at the studio, Culhane was a very action-oriented director. His jazzy Swing Symphonies like Boogie Woogie Man and The Greatest Man in Siam as well as his Andy Panda short Meatless Tuesday exercised a rapid pace and energy that the studio had never seen before. It seemed that the character of Woody Woodpecker was made for Culhane, and Culhane not only realized this but took full advantage of it.
1944's The Barber of Seville, his debut Woody short, is widely regarded by animation and film critics as not only his best cartoon but also as the best short ever produced by the Lantz studio and one of the greatest cartoons of all time. The most expensive Lantz production of 1944, the film involves Woody taking over the barber shop of Tony Figaro and treating a client to a wild shave to the tune of Rossini's Barber of Seville. Lantz loved the idea and contacted Universal's musical director Joe Gershenson to bring in a top opera singer to provide Woody's singing voice. According to Lantz's wife, the tenor was "horrified" when he saw the resulting cartoon. "We paid him to come out and sing it for the cartoon," she told historian Joe Adamson. "He didn't know he was going to do it for Woody Woodpecker."
Key to The Barber of Seville was its timing and editing. Culhane opens the film on a calm, relaxed tone as Woody checks out the shop. Gradually, the tempo increases, culminating in Woody's zany Rossini-inspired shave. For this particular sequence, Culhane employed rapid-fire jump-cuts to increase the energy and action, an entire sixteen years before the release of Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave film ΐ bout de souffle (Breathless). He also completely eliminated detailed backgrounds in certain shots, favoring instead solid or plain-color settings. The animation, the music, and the total action of the sequence would alone be enough to mesmerize audiences.
Culhane had extensively studied the film theories of the great Soviet filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Specifically, Culhane took direct inspiration from Pudovkin's book Film Techniques. The concept of rapid editing, among other ideas discussed in the work, eventually found their way into Culhane's films. Such daring cinematic experiments enjoyed full support from the open and easygoing Lantz. Had Culhane worked for Fred Quimby of MGM or any other cartoon producer in Hollywood, such broad strokes of creative experimentation might have been frowned upon. Only at the Lantz studio could he get away with films like his.
The Barber of Seville was the first Woody Woodpecker cartoon to feature a more refined version of Woody, designed by Emery Hawkins and layout artist Art Heinemann. By now, his red belly had been changed to white and the character was beginning to come into his own. The next Woody cartoon, The Beach Nut, introduced a new costar, Wally Walrus. Big, round, and quick-tempered, with a thick Swedish accent, the bumbling Wally proved to be the ideal foil for Woody.
The Beach Nut was Shamus Culhane's second Woody Woodpecker cartoon. In this and his subsequent Woody shorts, he would continue to utilize avant-garde techniques. Ski for Two, Culhane's third Woody film, is yet another example of the director's skillful mastery of timing and action. The sequences involving Woody skiing through the woods while singing the Richard Kountz/Ivor Tchervanow melody The Sleigh (a la Russe) and performing Cossack dances again feature quick editing. As in the shaving sequence of The Barber of Seville, the use of this technique increased the pace of the film and emphasized the energy of the action. The entire short itself is regarded as one of the best Woody Woodpecker cartoons of the 1940s, with Woody trying to grab a bite of the smorgasbord prepared at the ski lodge of Wally Walrus. When Wally accuses Woody of being too impulsive, the woodpecker simply responds "IM-pulsive? No! I'm RE-pulsive!"
1945 saw the rise of Dick Lundy to the director's chair. A former employee of Walt Disney, Lundy had strong Disney sensibilities. Although some of his jazz-oriented films like The Sliphorn King of Polaroo and Apple Andy have a very energetic, Culhane-esque feel to them, he ultimately settled on a calmer, more relaxed approach. This translated into the Woody Woodpecker cartoons he directed.
While Culhane sought to portray Woody as a crazy bird with little method to his madness, Lundy chose to make the character more sympathetic. He would give Woody a motivation for his actions. In Bathing Buddies, he destroys Wally Walrus' rooming house to recover a lost dime and in Wacky-Bye Baby, he poses as an orphan to get food and shelter from Wally. Lundy was also not afraid to portray Woody as being fallible. For example, he was not afraid to show Woody getting his beak stuck in an inkwell (Woody the Giant Killer), having Wally Walrus squirt motor oil in his face (Well Oiled), or putting him through a Rube Goldberg-esque Tit For Tat machine (Smoked Hams). He also placed the character in situations where he would pursue a single object of desire, whether it be a billiard ball in Solid Ivory, a top-hat in The Mad Hatter, an ice-cream soda in Drooler's Delight, or sleep in The Coo Coo Bird.
Lundy also paired Woody with Andy Panda for two beautifully executed musical cartoons, Musical Moments from Chopin and Banquet Busters. Both films largely rely on pantomime and allow the music to guide the characters and their actions. Chopin features some of the best moments of this, with Woody possessing both the comic essence of Harpo Marx and the seemingly effortless piano playing skills of Chico. This particular musical masterpiece was an instant hit with audiences and earned the Lantz studio its eighth Academy Award nomination.
Following Culhane's departure in 1946, Lundy's style dominated the studio's output for the rest of the 1940s. In 1947's Woody the Giant Killer, Lundy introduced yet another streamlined design of Woody, this time by accomplished Disney artist Fred Moore, better known for his innocently sexy renderings of women. The character became thinner and more expressive, the perfect combination for one of Lundy's top animators, Ed Love, a former employee of Disney and MGM with an industry-wide reputation.
Giant Killer, however, was to be the last new Walter Lantz cartoon released through Universal until 1951. Disagreements between Lantz and Universal Vice-president Matty Fox led to Lantz seeking distribution of his films through United Artists. By this time, Woody had become a prominent icon in American popular culture, a standing secured by the Woody Woodpecker Song, a tune written by two former Lantz studio musicians George Tibbles and Ramey Idriss in 1947.
After getting the song published, Tibbles and Idriss sought to have it recorded and went to Kay Kyser (best known for his swing "Kollege of Musical Knowledge"). They approached the famous radio star on New Year's Eve, at a time when a strike by the American Federation of Musicians loomed large. The strike, called by union leader James Caesar Petrillo, would literally begin on January 1, 1948. It was under these circumstances that Kyser agreed to record the tune, if he was able to get his other numbers finished first. Fortunately, at ten minutes to midnight, Kyser was able to squeeze the song in and managed to pull off a solid recording with Gloria Wood and Harry Babbitt.
In a rather anticlimactic turn of events, the strike ended only a few weeks later. The tune, however, became a nationwide hit. In June 1948, over two-hundred and fifty thousand records were sold within ten days of release. Soon, Woody's famous laugh would be heard everywhere from Los Angeles to Addis Ababa.
Needless to say, this was a huge boost for Lantz and his studio. To help cash in on the popular tune, Lantz rushed the song onto the soundtrack of Wet Blanket Policy, the latest Woody Woodpecker cartoon directed by Dick Lundy. Blanket Policy was already unique for introducing Buzz Buzzard, a gruff, new adversary for Woody. The addition of the song only boosted the stature of the film, and it also earned it the unique distinction of being the only animated short to ever be nominated for an Oscar for Best Song.
Despite the success, not everybody was happy with the song. Mel Blanc, who had invented the famous Woody laugh, felt slighted. He not only recorded an equally successful version of the song but also initiated a lawsuit. In the end, Blanc lost the case on the grounds that he never copyrighted the laugh. However, before he and his attorneys could take the decision to the California Court of Appeals, Lantz personally contacted the voice actor and reached an out-of-court settlement that ultimately satisfied both sides.
Woody appeared to be at the zenith of his popularity and the Lantz studio was in top form, producing some of the best cartoons in its entire history. Unfortunately, this would not last. Lantz was receiving little from United Artists' feature revenues and exceeded his standing loan from the Bank of America. At the urging of BAC president Joe Rosenberg, Lantz temporarily closed his studio in 1949 until the loan was reduced.
In 1950, the Lantz studio reopened and immediately set to work on a brief sequence featuring Woody Woodpecker for the George Pal feature, Destination Moon released on June 27. Unfortunately, the 1949 closure had left Lantz without key staffers. He no longer had the talents of Dick Lundy, Pat Matthews, Fred Moore, Ed Love, Heck Allen, or Ben Hardaway. Hardaway's loss was the most complicated because he had previously served as Woody's voice.
With Hardaway gone, Lantz now needed a new voice for his star character. It was also an opportunity to get someone with clearer and more precise diction for the character. "I'd wanted to do Woody so badly," recalled Lantz's wife Grace Stafford in an interview with historian Joe Adamson. "I'd been doing the voices of crazy characters and all the women, but I wanted to do Woody. I asked Walter about it, and he said, 'Woody's a boy, you can't do Woody.' So I skipped it."
Lantz had six voice actors lined-up. Instead of watching them perform, he opted to listen to their tapes. Meanwhile, Stafford persuaded the director to make a recording of her rendition of Woody. Upon hearing the finished tapes, Lantz picked the seventh voice actor, only later to discover that it was his own wife!
For the Destination Moon sequence, Woody was not only given a new voice but also a new design. The new Woody, devised by Lantz veteran La Verne Harding, was cuter, slightly shorter, and changed the position of his top knot so that it would face forward as opposed to backward.
The sequence in the Pal film proved successful and Lantz returned to Universal (now Universal-International) to renegotiate terms. U-I President, Nate Blumberg, apologized for the demands put forward by his nephew, Matty Fox, three years earlier and agreed to distribute seven cartoons produced by Lantz in 1951. However, he stipulated that, due to the wave of popularity in the wake of the Woody Woodpecker Song, all the shorts had to feature Woody Woodpecker. Lantz agreed and his studio went to work to produce the new films.
In the early 1950s, Lantz had a very thin crew and had to direct the seven new Woody cartoons himself. Two of the new Woody shorts Puny Express and Sleep Happy had been storyboarded by Ben Hardaway and Heck Allen before the studio closed. Lantz utilized these Hardaway-Allen storyboards as well as exposure sheets leftover by Dick Lundy. He still had layout artist Fred Brunish and four key animators: Don Patterson, Ray Abrams, La Verne Harding, and Paul J. Smith.
In addition to his other talented staffers who had departed since the 1949 closure, music director Darrell Calker was now gone as well. In his place, Lantz hired the less-inspired Clarence Wheeler. Grace Stafford, meanwhile, was still not yet fully established as Woody's new voice. Though she provided the character's trademark laugh (perhaps due to the legacy of the Mel Blanc lawsuit), Woody would largely appear in pantomime in the new films. This lack of language barrier, in turn, allowed Woody to gain new popularity overseas.
The seven Woody cartoons from 1951 are enjoyable and clever shorts with strong gags and stories. Yet they lack the effortless beauty, charm, and grace of the Dick Lundy shorts and the high energy and edgy experimentation of the Shamus Culhane efforts. The animation in these films, less fluid and naturalistic than the Woody shorts of the 1940s, seems to be the real shortcoming. Still, when viewed today, these cartoons hold their own especially when one considers Lantz's budget restraints and staff limitations at the time. Furthermore, they proved to be successful with contemporary audiences, giving Lantz a mandate to produce additional shorts.
After personally heading four more films, Lantz passed on the directorial duties to animator Don Patterson. A talented animation artist, Patterson directed some of the best Lantz cartoons of the 1950s. His second film, Termites from Mars, was also his best. Visually impressive, this short involves Woody's home being invaded by intergalactic termites whose hunger knows no bounds. Ingeniously, Woody finds a solution with Scotch tape, a tactic so successful that he eventually opens his own termite-control business!
Patterson continued to direct solid cartoons including the adventure spoofs Socko in Morocco and Alley to Bali, the Dragnet lampoon Under the Counter Spy, and the musical classic Convict Concerto. In the latter short, Woody is a piano player held hostage by a fugitive bank robber. Set to Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, this short flows almost as well as one of Dick Lundy's earlier Lantz cartoons. By this time, Grace Stafford was providing extensive dialogue for Woody and for Concerto, she was accompanied by the talents of Dal McKennon and Daws Butler. Unfortunately, this short was the last Woody Woodpecker that Patterson directed at Lantz before he returned to animating under Tex Avery when he arrived at the studio.
Upon Avery's arrival, Paul J. Smith, who was previously tasked with heading up Lantz's non-Woody cartoons, now assumed Patterson's unit and directorship of the Woody Woodpecker series. Unfortunately, Smith's films varied in quality. His earliest Woodys emerged as successful cartoons less because of his directorship and more because of talented and creative storymen like Michael Maltese, Milt Schaffer, Dick Kinney, and Jack Cosgriff. Helter Shelter, Square Shootin' Square, Bunco Busters, Get Lost, and Niagara Fools are good cartoons and rank among the best Walter Lantz products of the 1950s. Yet, they could have been even better had they been directed by Shamus Culhane, Dick Lundy, Don Patterson, or Lantz himself.
Homer Brightman, a Disney veteran, was another storyman who worked under Smith. His long career produced both hits and misses and it is difficult to discern his exact style. Still, even the best Brightman stories could not brighten up Smith's direction and his Woody cartoons gradually descended into mediocrity.
When Tex Avery left the Lantz studio in 1955, returning veteran Alex Lovy became the new head of his unit. Lovy's greatest successes during his latter stay at Lantz were his Chilly Willy cartoons and his one-shot shorts. His Woody Woodpecker cartoons were enjoyable but less impressive cartoons. His first Woody short, The Tree Medic in 1955, introduced yet another design revision of the character. The new Woody was shorter and his green eyes were replaced by black dots. Paul J. Smith apparently took liberal use of this and the result was a Woody whose size would vary from cartoon to cartoon. In After the Ball, Woody is the size of his adversary's thumb while in Arts and Flowers, he appears at roughly half the size of the artist in that cartoon.
Woody found more success on television. In 1957, Lantz, seeing potential in the new medium, compiled a half-hour package of his cartoons in a program called The Woody Woodpecker Show for ABC. Each show was comprised of three theatrical Walter Lantz cartoons bridged by new animated sequences featuring Woody and live-action sections with Lantz himself. The live-action pieces, dubbed A Moment with Walter Lantz, explained how animated cartoons were produced. The sequences are concise and enjoyable and were a major hit with contemporary television viewers. The show itself proved to be a major success and succeeded in introducing Woody to a new generation. The character also appeared in a number of commercials for Albers, Auto-Lite, Carnation, Interstate Bakeries Corporation, and Kellogg's and also was featured in a Lantz-produced film for the American Red Cross entitled Blood is Needed.
Despite this, however, Lantz also ran into censorship issues. He found that in order for his shorts to make it on television, many would, unfortunately, need to be edited for being too violent, too racial, or, as in the case of 1944's Abou Ben Boogie, too risquι. Even the live-action sequences were replaced with, at the insistence of ABC, "more educational" content. The replacement segments, introduced in the early 1960s, were entitled Woody's Newsreel and were comprised of black-and-white footage focusing on subjects as diverse as aviation and farming. Narrated by Lantz, they were noticeably less inspired than the earlier animation-related sequences.
Back on the theatrical front, Lovy left the Lantz studio in 1960 and was replaced by Jack Hannah. Hannah was a Disney veteran and his Lantz shorts appear superior to those of Paul J. Smith that were released at the time. The animation in his films appears more energized and fluid a characteristic largely due to the influence of another former Disneyite Al Coe, who followed Hannah to Lantz.
Among his achievements with the Woody series, Hannah breathed life into the Daws Butler-voiced Ali Gator, an earlier Paul J. Smith creation. Now dubbed Gabby Gator, this character became a new and successful adversary for Woody. Then in 1962, Hannah left Lantz and was replaced by the talented Sid Marcus. During his stay, Marcus managed to direct a few good Woody cartoons, including the memorable Three Little Woodpeckers, a personal favorite of Lantz's. Still, like Alex Lovy before him, Marcus' greatest achievements proved to be his Chilly Willy cartoons, particularly Half Baked Alaska.
In 1966, Marcus left Lantz and Paul J. Smith became the studio's sole director. The cartoons from this period are considered by critics to be the worst in the studio's entire history. Woody, once the raucous bird of The Beach Nut, Ski for Two, and The Barber of Seville was now a nice, gentle character. In 1972, Lantz ceased production of animated theatrical cartoons and the Woody series finally came to a close.
Woody remained Lantz's premier star. He continued to thrive on television, in comic books, and in merchandising and, in 1982, made his first appearance in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Then, in 1985, after Lantz sold his entire library of films to Universal/MCA, some of the best Woody Woodpecker cartoons were released on VHS video cassette. Two years later, Universal repackaged most of the color Lantz shorts, including all the Woody films, for television syndication. Following this, Woody himself made an appearance in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
After Lantz's death in 1994, all of his characters, including Woody, fell into the hands of Universal. The woodpecker subsequently became the mascot for Universal Studios Theme Parks and, in 1995, was featured in a Pepsi commercial alongside NBA star Shaquille O'Neal. Then, in 1999, Universal Animation Studios began a new Woody Woodpecker television series, entitled The New Woody Woodpecker Show, for Fox Kids. Billy West, best known for playing Stimpy on The Ren and Stimpy Show and Philip J. Fry on Futurama, supplied Woody's new voice. Mark Hamill (best known for playing Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars fame) notably voiced Woody's old adversary Buzz Buzzard. Woody was also redesigned for the program, with a new look recalling the designs used in the mid-to-late 1940s. Unfortunately, the new show did not have the energy or the creative spirit of the cartoons from that same period. The series, poorly written and poorly animated, lasted barely three years. Most of the episodes were not even broadcast in the United States.
After this, Woody became absent from American television screens. However, in 2007-2008, Universal released every Woody Woodpecker cartoon from 1940 to 1958 on its highly acclaimed Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection DVD series. Exposure like this is certainly promising, and ensures that Woody will continue to live on for generations past, present, and future.
Filmography:1940: Knock Knock
Cameo Appearances:1941: $21 a Day (Once a Month)