Saturday, 29 August 2015

Explaining Woody

The cartoons of the Walter Lantz studio became pretty easy targets for ridicule; exactly when that happened is in the eye on the beholder. Lantz wasn’t the only one in the late ‘60s making unfunny, cheap-looking cartoons; the Warner Bros. output wasn’t much better. But everyone in the business around that time seems to have liked Lantz himself, and certainly they must have respected his lengthy, pioneering career in animation.

The Chicago Tribune syndicate published a feature story on Lantz starting around November 23, 1969. Lantz avoids the “honeymoon” part of the Woody Woodpecker creation story (it never happened that way), and he gives an interesting cost breakdown of animated shorts. And if you wondered how quickly Lantz churned out one of those painful Beary Family cartoons, he has the answer.

Lantz’s description of Woody’s voice is interesting. He calls the first voice “The Brooklyn Woody” and then Grace Lantz pipes in that she was the next type of Woody voice in 1949. The only thing is four voice actors played Woody in the ‘40s and none of them sound the same. Mel Blanc started the decade and Ben Hardaway finished it. Neither of them sound like they’re from Brooklyn; Hardaway has a flat, often expressionless Midwestern delivery.

Lantz’s comments about limited animation are interesting. While Lantz may have had more drawings than, say, a Filmation TV cartoon, held cels are pretty noticeable in his late ‘60s–early ‘70s efforts.

Whatever their faults, the Lantz shorts found homes in theatres of the 1970s that still chose to put cartoons on their programme, and Universal continued reissuing them after Lantz closed his studio in 1972.

The columnist believes “laughs” and “laffs” are two different things. I’m missing his point.

Woody Woodpecker's Creator Still Goes for the Laughs

The Los Angeles Times
HOLLYWOOD—"I still go for the laughs," says Walter Lantz, really meaning laffs. He's not the only one who could today; a lot more of us could, if we could find ‘em.
Lantz, at least, is doing something about it: He is the oldest active producer of movie cartoons, still at it after more than 40 years, most of them spent on Woody Woodpecker who is now 28 but still pecking away.
It's unique to see Lantz flailing steadily away at the old stand. At 69, he has a record of 42 years as a producer with one company—and has a new contract for three more. The company is Universal, and at this rate he just may outlive it.
Lantz is also unique in that he does his own financing; he has since 1937, with Universal doing the distributing. And unique, again, in that he has never made a feature and says he never will. “A short cartoon used to cost me $8,500 and ran 8 ½ minutes. Now we’re down to 5 ½ minutes at a budget of $35,000 plus a print cost of about $7,000. Rather than cut the quality, we cut the time.
“Walt Disney got up to $100,000 for a six-minute short and quit them. MGM (Tom and Jerry, etc.) was spending $55,000 to $60,000 and closed down. "I am the only one left with my own business—financing, producing—and it takes me seven years to recoup on an investment. When new you have a backlog working for you—and only if you have one—you can come out on your investment."
One source of continuing income has been TV. "The Woody Woodpecker Show was on the air for Kellogg’s seven years—it's off at the moment—and will be back again next year. These were cartoons that had already played theaters. But there's always a new generation of kids, so the old ones are just as good today as they were 20 years ago.
"One reason they don't really date is that we use no puns or popular phrases of the time; also, they are made up of two-thirds physical and sight gags and only one-third dialog. This is a secret of their success in foreign countries, too; often we don't even translate the dialog."
Woody Woodpecker, for instance, has been seen—and heard—in 72 foreign countries, plus some 12,000 theaters in the United States. He has appeared on TV in 38 lands abroad and in comic books as well.
Lantz emphasized that "we don't ever go for violence per se. Physical gags, yes. A character may be all banged up in one scene but he's all right in the next scene. And we never show blood.
"How would I explain Woody? Well, he was very raucous to start with, but he evolved as he went along.
It's very difficult to say a cartoon character, this is it—and since he's not human we can take a lot of liberties. I think 'precocious' is the word for him now. He goes along minding his own business until someone tries to take advantage of him; he likes to do the things we all would, only we don't have the courage."
One reason Woody lost some of his raucousness is that his voice changed. "The first voice was what I like to call the Brooklyn Woody. I'm the Boston Woody," volunteered Grace Lantz, who was sitting in. (Grace, before she retired—from the stage, that is—was a long-time trouper in the old Henry Duffy local companies and others. She was Grace Stafford then).
"Twenty years ago Walter lost the Brooklyn Woody and was auditioning sound tracks of other actors for both voice quality and articulation. I made one unbeknownst to him and he picked me. I've been Woody ever since." Walter listened without a word of contradiction—beaming, even—so who are we to presume otherwise?
Returning to the matter of "quality animation," he explained he requires about 5,000 drawings per cartoon—"as against television's 1,200 for the same length picture. Our characters act out the whole line with hands and bodies, not in the jerky movements of part-time animation.
“The fundamentals haven’t changed much in 40 and more years. When we started out we used 8x10 still photographs every other frame; then put our animation over the cells. The traveling matte and other improvements came later, but it’s still a good deal like it was.”
Lantz dates back to the very beginning. Born in New York on April 27, 1900, son of Italian immigrants, he took a mail-order course in cartoon drawing at the age of 12. At 15, he was employed as a copyboy for Hearst's New York American, where Morrel Goddard, the editor-in-chief, initiated Sunday color comics. Goddard recommended young Walter to Gregory LaCava (later a “live” director) who had opened a cartoon studio for the Hearst chain. Walter was soon animating such zany figures as Krazy Kat, the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan and Mutt and Jeff.
By the tune he was 22, he was working for the J. R. Bray studio on the Col. Heeza Liar series, which, like Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series, included a live actor—in this case, Lantz himself. After five years the demand for silent cartoons dwindled and Walter headed for Hollywood by Locomobile.
In 1927, be began working as a gagman in Mack Sennett's story department and a year later left for Universal. The situation there was noteworthy: Disney, who had been animating Oswald Rabbit, which wasn't selling, wanted to introduce a new figure named Mickey Mouse. "But the whole Universal sales department was against it. What did they want with another mouse, after all the mice drawn by Paul Terry?
Anyhow, Disney took his Mickey to Columbia and boss Carl Laemmle bought me in to redesign Oswald Rabbit." One of the changes Lantz made was to color Oswald white instead of dark, but there were no objections at the time.
For the next 10 years he was occupied with Oswald, 26 a year. Sound came in, and color: In 1929 Lantz conceived an opening for Paul Whiteman's otherwise live feature "The King of Jazz."
It was in two-tone technicolor and the star, a lion, was sung by a film newcomer named Bing Crosby to an accompaniment by the Rhythm Boys, otherwise Harry Barris and Al Rinker.
From Oswald, Lantz went on to Andy Panda. When a woodpecker hammered his way into the Lantz vacation cottage at Lake Sherwood, causing $200 in damage, Walter was unable to forget him—so he put him into one of Andy's cartoons. It wasn't long before the ubiquitous Woody laughed Andy clear off the screen.
"Eventually, we built a whole new cartoon studio on the old Universal lot. It was so old, in fact, that when I started I had to hold an umbrella over the drawing board whenever it rained. About 20 years ago I established my own studio in Hollywood, where we employ a small staff of 30, most of whom have been with me from the start.
"We now turn out 13 theatrical cartoons a year: Seven with Woody, others with Chilly Willy, the penguin, and the Charlie Bearys—bears, naturally. Each one takes 3 1/2 weeks to complete—but actually, from the time we write the story, four months.
We use situations that are everyday—not dated, not old fashioned, and certainly not controversial ... as topical as taking a camping trip or installing a TV set.
"Yet still"—he chuckled—“we have to put a 'G' on every one of 'em--for general audiences!” At that, he says, more seriously, “someone is sure as hell to come out with one that won't rate a 'G'.”
A few later creators are turning out features like “The Aristocats” and “You’re a Good Man, Charley Brown.” [sic] “Since I started I’ve made about 1,100 cartoons—more than 300 Woody Woodpeckers—but all of them shorts. I’ve never had a desire to make features. Very few, outside of Disney’s, have ever been successful and his have come to $3 or $4 million apiece. Even with a one-shot death, if you miss, you can lose everything you’ve worked for the last 40 years.”


  1. I guess "laffs" was a lame attempt at Variety-style slang.

  2. “At 69, he has a record of 42 years as a producer with one company—and has a new contract for three more. The company is Universal, and at this rate he just may outlive it.”

    Lantz passed away at the age of 94. He definitely outlived his contract with Universal.