Saturday, 27 April 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Er, Cartunes

Walter Lantz was born 113 years ago to the day in New Rochelle, New York. He started his career as an auto mechanic, until one day a wealthy customer saw some of his drawings on a garage bulletin board and helped to finance his studies through art school. He would then go on to lead a long and varied career in animation, creating one of the world's most iconic cartoon characters.

Pour yourself a nice bowl of Rice Krispies (or Sugar Pops, maybe?), and let's take a look at few of Walter Lantz's more memorable contributions to, cartunes.

Walter Lantz's first foray into animation was at John R. Bray Studios in the 1920s, where he wrote and directed a series of shorts starring a character called Dinky Doodle. Lantz starred in each film as the hapless cartoonist.

You may remember reference to Dinky Doodle in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when lovable reprobate Angelo sarcastically included him in a list of potential clients for "Mr. Detective-To-The-Stars" Eddie Valiant.

Also on Angelo's list was Chilly Willy, who we'll get to in a few minutes. But in the interest of chronology, we must first mention Oswald The Lucky Rabbit.

Oswald was an original creation of Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney. Walter Lantz was already working as an intern on the films, when new studio ownership allowed him to take over and redesign the character in 1929. In fact, he won the character as a prize in a poker game played against then-founder of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle. Seriously, that game basically gave him his first character to build his own studio around.

Oswald would star in 140 cartoons under Lantz's ownership. Watch the drastic changes in character design that occur between his first film, 1929's 'Race Riot' and 1943's 'The Egg Cracker Suite'.

By the 1940s, Oswald's popularity in cartoons had waned, but still had surprising longevity in comic books for several years to follow, like many of Lantz's creations.

Oswald is currently back in the hands of Disney, as part of a trade deal done in 2006, when Universal gave the rights for Oswald back to Disney in exchange for moving sportscaster Al Michaels from Disney-owned ABC to Universal-owned NBC Sports. I could not make that up if I wanted to. To my knowledge, Oswald's film library is still split between the two studios, which is awkward.

During the 1930s, Lantz left the Oswald series to focus on new characters that could flagship his new studio. One of them was Pooch The Pup.

Another was Andy Panda, who made his debut in 1939's appropriately-titled 'Life Begins For Andy Panda'.

Andy proved quite popular, but 6 cartoons later in 1940's 'Knock Knock' would be overshadowed by...guess who?

Woody Woodpecker was an instant hit with audiences. His relentless, manic personality had the same appeal as the original Bugs Bunny did. Woody's original, more hideous design was done by Alex Lovy, who would go on to do a larger majority of work for Hanna Barbara. This would be one of many examples throughout Walter Lantz's career, where he would surround himself with enough talented individuals for short periods of time to add fleeting footnotes to the annals of cartoon history. Let's be honest - many of Lantz's cartoons weren't classics by any stretch. They certainly weren't memorable like the Looney Tunes lot. But there are a few gems to be found, depending on who was working on them.

Alex Lovy was nominated for an Oscar for 1943's 'The Dizzy Acrobat'.

My favourite Woody Woodpecker cartoons were directed by a guy named Shamus (James) Culhane. If you watch his stuff, there are wonderful scenes and drawings to find in brief snippets. Watching them frame-by-frame will reveal a lot of detail. Here are some famous segments hidden within 1944's 'The Loose Nut'.

Shamus had a reputation for inserting naughty bits of fun into his cartoons. Here's a not-so-subtle background from another short he did while working for Lantz called 'The Greatest Man In Siam'.

Speaking of 'peckers, Woody had a scruffy and very deranged look to him during this period, which I love. My eyebrows look more and more like his every day!

But this style would be short-lived, as from 1947 on, Woody's cartoons and character would get less "looney" and increasingly watered-down as the series progressed under the direction of Dick Lundy, Don Patterson, Walter Lantz and Paul J. Smith.

But this didn't hurt the bird's popularity. Woody Woodpecker toys and comics flooded stores. His cartoons continued to churn out into theatres until 1972. In 1957 he received his own TV series, The Woody Woodpecker Show, which featured 3 theatrical cartoons per episode, linked together with new segments hosted by Woody and Walter Lantz himself.

And Woody had his own hit theme song, which was introduced in 1948's 'Wet Blanket Policy'. The tune was nominated for a 'Best Song' Oscar - the only one ever taken from an animated short.

Here's another ditty by The Starlighters, who performed another song built around that famous laugh in 1951's 'The Woody Woodpecker Polka'.

That famous laugh brings up another cartoon legend and his strained relationship to Walter Lantz - voice actor Mel Blanc. As you know, Mel is famous for voicing Warner Bros. characters. But before signing an exclusive deal with them, he was heard as the voice of Woody Woodpecker. For only 4 cartoons. But during that brief time, he recorded the signature laugh behind Woody's songs and basically the entire brand. And that laugh was kept as a sound effect, which was used for a large majority of the series' run. So when profits were being made from that sound effect, Mel obviously felt entitled to a piece of the pie. He tried to sue Lantz and lost. Still, that didn't stop him from releasing a cover of the song he helped to make famous.

Brief, subsequent voices were used for Woody after Mel Blanc's departure, including Woody gag-writer (and the guy who named Bugs Bunny), Ben "Bugs" Hardaway. (another famous co-worker!)  But it was Walter Lantz's wife, Grace Stafford, who voiced Woody the longest - between 1950 and 1985. She didn't officially receive credit for it until 1958 though. By her choosing, she insisted on doing the voice uncredited at first for fear of potentially freaking out fans who may have been uncomfortable with the idea of Woody being portrayed by a woman. Her first Woody role was for a cameo he did in a film called Destination Moon.

Okay, okay. Now we can talk about Chilly Willy, who was blandly introduced by Paul J. Smith in 1953's cartoon of the same name.

But here's where another passing ship in Walter Lantz's life defrosted the franchise for a brief period of time. Cartoon legend Tex Avery spent a short period of his later years working for Lantz. During that time (1954-1955) he released a few cartoons - most notably, two funny (if not not highly original) Chilly Willy contributions - 1954's 'I'm Cold' and 1955's 'The Legend of Rockabye Point'. Here we see Avery revisiting familiar territory from his MGM period, albeit funny and well-paced territory. That's Daws Butler as the idiot dog, Smedley. Daws also used that Huckleberry Hound drawl for Avery's wolf character in Droopy cartoons.

To get a sense of the vibrancy a good animation director can bring to a feature, check out this lifeless later Chilly Willy entry from 1967 for comparison.

There are a few other noteworthy Lantz cartoon creations we haven't covered.

Homer Pigeon was introduced in 1942, and appeared in several incarnations over the years.

In 1958, Lantz created Inspector Willoughby, an unassuming special agent similar in demeanour and doggedness to Droopy.

The Beary Family, created in 1962, was a sitcom-like set-up starring Charlie, Bessie, Junior and Suzy Beary, along with their pet goose. 

And then probably the last of Walter Lantz's most well-known characters was Space Mouse, who starred in only one cartoon - 1960's 'The Secret Weapon'.

This cartoon was created to coincide with the release of a new comic book, but it never went to series. As a comic book character though, Space Mouse made several appearances between 1960 and 1965.

Walter Lantz's crew also made cool commercials for Coca-Cola, which were released in theatres between 1948 and 1953.

Due to financial troubles (like every animation studio at the time), Walter Lantz Productions stopped making cartoons in 1972. Next to DePatie-Freling (who made the Pink Panther shorts), Walter Lantz Productions was one of the last remaining classic cartoon-makers still standing.

In later years, Walter Lantz would make ends meet by managing merch and media, doing specially commissioned artwork and visiting children's hospitals with his wife, Grace. While there, Walter would draw pictures of Woody for the kids, and Grace would supply the official laugh to accompany them. What a wonderful way to spend retirement!

Walter Lantz passed away of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 94, but left behind a rather large legacy for  little kids - and a few bigger kids too.

Ha-ha-ha-HA-happy birthday, sir!

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