Riddle me this—when is a woodpecker a cow?
Answer—when it’s a cash cow.
And that’s what Woody Woodpecker was to the Walter Lantz studio. He appeared in a guest-starring role with the tedious child version of Andy Panda in November 1940, then began what turned into a long series of cartoons with the self-titled ‘Woody Woodpecker.’
Woody opens the cartoon with a song about himself which, for reasons I don’t understand, was never used as his theme. He ends it by filling the screen, poking his head and finger at the camera, emulating an audience-grabbing trick Harman and Ising loved doing in the early ‘30s.
The cartoon was supposedly released on July 7, 1941, but there are “now playing” ads going back to late June. The one on the right is from July 2.
Something rare about the cartoon is there are two female voices. Berneice Hansell supplies one and the other sounds like a voice Gay Seabrook used on network radio. An unusual, unbylined squib in the Ames Daily Tribute of July 5, 1941 states: “Robert Cummings’ stand-in, Ed Regan, is the voice of Willie the Woodpecker [sic] in a new Walter Lantz cartoon.” I have no idea what the source of the story is, but it’s pretty obvious Mel Blanc is Woody. Danny Webb shows up an owl and I’m guessing he’s the angry bird at the beginning.
The story is by Bugs Hardaway and for 1941, it’s not bad, but Hardaway substitutes uninhibited idiocy for real gags at times and wrote this at a time he just couldn’t stay away from a “look, he’s insane” ending which he first used at Warners. There’s no director credit, but the credited animators are Alex Lovy and Ray Fahringer. With Hardaway’s story and the presence of Blanc and Hansell, this has a Warners feel to it, though the animation isn’t as good.
In later years, Lantz continually spun a tale that Woody was invented when he and Grace Stafford were on their honeymoon. You could spot them on TV shows, Gracie clutching Walter and chuckling in affirmation as he repeated his spiel. He related the story in his biography written by Joe Adamson in 1985. The two are such nice people and it’s a nice story. But either Lantz believed his own B.S., or he just simply got to the point where he had told it so many times, he couldn’t change it. To the right, you see a story from the Reno Evening Gazette, dated August 30, 1941. That was the start of Walter and Gracie’s very happy marriage. The Associated Press the following day reported they were honeymooning at a ranch near Reno, not a cabin in Sherwood Lake near Los Angeles as Lantz later claimed. And even if they had, Woody had first appeared on the screen nine months earlier. If Grace and Walter were trysting in a woodpecker-infested cabin that resulted in a cartoon brainstorm, then it happened while he was still married to his first wife, Doris.
However, the “honeymoon” aspect of the story was a late addition. In 1944, Lantz talked about Woody’s creation. The bulk of the story has to do with “Miss X,” the sultry girl that Pat Matthews animated in a couple of great musical cartoons directed by Shamus Culhane. The story is from March 8th.
By ERSKINE JOHNSON
NEA Staff Correspondent
She's only a cartoon character but this Miss X has more oomph than Hedy LaMarr or Lana Turner or Ann Sheridan. At least that’s what the film censors say, and it's their business to know about such things.
The gentleman who draws Miss X, Cartoon Producer, Walt Lantz, was telling us about his troubles today. “Why,” he said, “we drew that lady 50 times before the Hays office said she was okay. In the first drawings we had her bare legged, wearing shorts. Nothing improper at all. Just like those chorus girls you see running around on the screen. But the censors said nudity in a cartoon drawing was different, too.”
So Lantz’s artists drew some transparent panties—just the suggestion of pants with light lines. The censors took another look, didn't blush and said Miss X was now properly dressed to go out on the screen.
Then there was her name. “The censors didn't like Miss X,” Lantz said. “‘When it's slurred,’ they said, ‘it sounds too much like Miss Sex.’ I explained the name was only temporary. That 19,000 Universal exhibitors are having a contest to name the lady, with a $100 War Bond for the winner. Thousands of names are pouring in, like Una Versal and Lana Lantz. We haven’t found the right one yet. The censors said, ‘Okay. Have your little contest. But hurry it up before all the little kiddies are slurring Miss X.’ ”
Until he introduced Miss X on the screen recently, Walt Lantz had concentrated on animals like Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda and Oswald the Rabbit. “It was funny,” he said. “My animators had been drawing animals so long that when we dreamed up Miss X, they discovered they’d lost their touch for humans, and had to go back to art school to brush up on anatomy.”
Lantz is the dean of Hollywood’s cartoon producers. Started out drawing animated cartoons way back in 1916 while working as office boy in the art department of a New York newspaper. Except for a brief fling as a gag man for Mack Sennett, he’s been in the cartoon business all his life.
He says film cartoon animation is getting better all the time but that perfection still hasn't been reached.
“Cartoons won’t be perfect,” he said, “until animators become better actors. Sure, they know how to draw. But to be a good animator, you have to be a good actor—to inject your dramatic ability into the character you're drawing.”
He says if actors like Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant could draw, they’d be the greatest animators in the business. “Some day,” he said, “I’m going to start a dramatic school for animators.”
How does Walt Lantz get ideas for his characters? Well, take Woody Woodpecker. Lantz has a cabin up at Lake Sherwood. One Saturday afternoon he was trying to sleep and there was a big racket on the roof. He climbed up and discovered some woodpeckers were stuffing acorns under the tar paper shingles. A forest ranger came along and explained the woodpeckers left the acorns under the shingles until they got wormy and then came back and ate the worms. Lantz decided if woodpeckers were that smart, he'd star one of them in a cartoon series.
“It cost me $120 for a new roof,” he said, “but the idea was worth it.”
This, of course, came as a great surprise to us. We figured that in Hollywood even woodpeckers had agents.
The tale still misses the key component. Hardaway, Lantz’s new writer, had written basically the same character as a duck and a rabbit at Warners. When he changed studios, he brought the character with him. It’s conceivable Lantz’s “ranger-woodpecker” story happened and it inspired him to ask Hardaway to come up with a character, one Hardaway had ready-made for production. It’s more conceivable Lantz hired Hardaway to duplicate the success Warners was having with its wacky cartoons and told him to copy what he did over there.
Woody suffered a decline starting in the ‘50s and his cartoons got downright pointless by the time the Lantz studio closed in 1972. But I really like the earliest, goofy Woody design and the woodpecker never sounded better than when Blanc voiced him.
Note: This post has been amended to reflect information that Bernice Hansen’s name was really Berneice Hansell.