Saturday, 14 July 2012

Walter Lantz, Jitterbugs and Old Drawings

Today, the idea of tossing out animation art makes fans (and collectors) cringe, but if you want an idea about little anyone thought of the drawings at one time, just ask Walter Lantz. A United Press reporter did in 1938.

The story starts off talking about the short “I’m Just a Jitterbug,” which had yet to be released. It then talks about Lantz’s writers. By this time, the writing department seems to have consisted of Victor McLeod and James Miele. Finally, Lantz tells you how much you need to spend to get an Oswald drawing. The story is from December 1, 1938.

Jitterbugs in the Films
Movie Producer Insults 10,000,000
HOLLYWOOD — (U.P.) — Walter Lantz, who never has been noted for respectful treatment of things artistic, has completed a movie cartoon about jitterbugs — and never have we seen 10,000,000 people more thoroughly insulted.
Producers at Universal studios, it developed, were making a picture called “Swing, Sister, Swing,” for which they hired a dozen of America’s best jitterbugs. Lantz stumbled across these folks dancing like mad in a soundproof stage and that gave him an idea.
He sneaked in a movie camera to record their gyrations for his own nefarious purposes. He developed the film and had his 125 artists reproduce with line drawings each picture in the reel. Then he photographed the drawings in sequence and that gave him a moving cartoon of jitterbugs dancing. That was funny enough, but as insulting as Lantz intended.
Back to the Artists
He sent his cartoon film back to his artists and they turned the jitterbugs into bugs. The men became grasshoppers, the women lady bugs, and the members of the band, crickets. Then Lantz photographed these sequences, too, and he had a picture showing real bugs dancing exactly like jitterbugs. The result was precisely what Lantz wanted. It’s funny, all right, but not to a jitterbug. If the estimated 10,000,000 jitterbugs in the world don’t make him eat the whole reel, without catsup, they’re gluttons for punishment.
Lantz, whose hair is beginning to gray after 24 years in the cartoon business, said he feared no normal man ever could make a success of it.
“We’re all crazy,” he said, frankly. “If we weren’t, we’d never concoct our ideas. A mind has got to be more than just peculiar to do it.
“Craziest, of course, are our writers. They can’t write. They wouldn’t be any good if they could. They’ve got to be men who can express their ideas in pictures. So they think up their gags and draw pictures of ‘em. Usually a man who can express himself in words can’t do it in pictures.”
Writerless Writers
Lantz pays his writerless writers $125 a week, but when he finds a particularly crazy one, he shells out $150. His cartoons cost around $15,000 to produce and always return a nice profit.
Through the years his drawings have been piling up at the rate of several million a year. Lantz was considering burning the whole works, so he could get more space, when he discovered he was about to destroy a valuable asset.
“We found out there was a market for these drawings,” he said. “People would buy them to decorate their bar rooms and their nurseries and would pay $3 and $4 each for them. So now we’ve got an art dealer — imagine that! — selling original drawings of Oswald the Rabbit, Clock Gobble, Henrietta Hen, and Gladys Goose and whatnot and sometimes I wake up at night and laugh.”

The cartoon being discussed was written by Victor McLeod and owes a little bit to the Warner Bros. cartoons where books come to life in a store after closing and engage in musical gags. In this case, the story is set in a cartoon studio, and there’s live action footage of animators running out the door at closing time (sped up like in a Warners’ Christmas gag reel of the late ‘30s).

It looks like Jerry Beck posted it on line so you can watch it (with a re-issue opening title) below.


  1. I wonder who the dealer was. Lantz reused the jitterbug movie as a basis for drawings over and over and over. I think it pops up in at least one '43, too.

  2. As with Lantz's tale of the birth of Woody Woodpecker, this story about the bugged jitterbugs comes across as a nice Hollywood Golden Age way to make the mundane more interesting (and tie the cartoon in with both the feature release and the then-current jitterbug craze). But the short does a have a lot of energy going for it thanks to the lively musical score.