Saturday, 10 November 2018

Why Woody Wouldn’t Warble

If nothing else, Walter Lantz was pretty astute.

He left Universal for United Artists, but when it turned out not to be a better deal, he stopped making theatrical shorts for about a year, built up some capital from reissues of old cartoons, and when he was in a better financial position, went back into production.

His only problem is his budgets had to be tighter than ever. He found one way of doing it, and solved two problems at the same time. He made Woody Woodpecker a pantomime character. That saved money, and made the cartoons more attractive to foreign exchanges.

Here’s Lantz chatting about it in a 1951 story by the Associated Press. Interestingly, it speaks of Grace Stafford as Woody’s voice. She certainly didn’t voice Woody in the theatricals prior to 1950; perhaps she was doing it in commercials.

This was published on March 22, 1951.

HOLLYWOOD (AP) — Woody Woodpecker has lost his voice. Not his raucous laugh — the soundtrack for that is the speeded-up voice of the wife of his creator, Walter Lantz. But no longer will Woody talk. And in pantomime, oddly enough, he's as funny as ever. Maybe funnier.
The expense of dubbing in foreign translations for exported prints inspired Lantz to try a wordless Woody. It costs about $1,500 to hire actors and pay technical costs of changing dialogue to, say, Italian, French, or German. With foreign restrictions on profit exports, that might be more than Woody would return.
The rascally red bird is popular also in Switzerland, Spain, Japan, the Scandinavian countries, Argentina, and India. Sometimes foreign-language subtitles were used, but Lantz thinks they interfere with the action. He's against too much talk even in feature pictures.
"We've all seen pictures that talk, talk, talk," the veteran cartoon producer said. "With less dialogue and more pantomime and acting, they'd be better pictures."
Lantz, 51 and graying, with friendly direct blue eyes, has produced about 700 movie cartoons in 35 years. That includes 55 Woody Woodpeckers in the last decade. The inkwell character was suggested to Lantz by a real woodpecker that woke him up by drumming on the roof of his week-end cabin. Woody's first appearance was as a supporting character to Andy Panda, but he soon stole the show.
Lantz, dissatisfied with his former releasing arrangement, recently took a year off from producing Woodies. Now he has signed a new contract for six a year with Universal-International and is redecorating and streamlining his studio for a busy output.
It’s a shame Handsaker’s story is so short. But he got a few chances to talk to Lantz again. Here’s a brief mention in his column from January 26, 1952.
Chit-Chat from Hollywood

HOLLYWOOD (AP)—If anybody boils at those middle commercials on TV shows, it's mild-mannered Walter Lantz. Says the producer of Woody Woodpecker and other screen cartoons:
"I don't know, what could be more disturbing. You're watching a drama. Some guy is all ready to be knocked off. Then another guy comes on and starts talking about ice-cold beer. This spoils the mood, and they don't pick it up again. I'm becoming a radio fan again-—because of TV commercials."
Lantz is turning out one-minute commercials plugging a soft drink and car equipment But he hopes they'll be used only once per program—and not in the middle. Incidentally, his cartoon star is just like the human variety when it comes to television. A releasing contract with Universal-International keeps Woody Woodpecker off TV.
Let’s pick up Handsaker again in 1967. By now, Woody was talking on screen again (with Grace Stafford’s voice) and had been since 1952. Lantz was still releasing cartoons to theatres and had managed, starting in 1957, to put Woody on TV in a half-hour show in which he was the host, to the delight of all kinds of kids. Woody was selling cereals for Kellogg’s on TV and bread for Butternut in print. There were comic books and merchandise to help add to the Lantz coffers.

Lantz’ career dated back to the silent era and he was honoured a number of times for his decades of contributions to animation. This Handsaker story was published May 21, 1967. You’ll notice the “Woody creation” story above now mentions that canard about a honeymoon. Lantz (and Gracie) related it time and time again for the rest of their lives. It simply isn’t true.
Luncheon Given At Universal For Walter And Gracie Lantz
HOLLYWOOD (AP)— Walter is 67, gray-fringed and shy. Gracie, 63 and jolly, kids him about the bags under his blue eyes.
"Walter was born with his eyes packed to go somewhere."
"No," he corrects merrily: "They've only been that way since I was 3."
One of Hollywood's happiest teams—in marriage, work and play—Walter and Gracie Lantz will be honored at a Universal City Studios luncheon next Wednesday for: —
—Their combined century in show business, and;
—Twenty-five years of their Woody Woodpecker animated cartoons, inspired by a bird that disturbed their honeymoon and has made them million-dollar rich.
Lantz, a son of Italian immigrants and onetime $10-a-week New York newspaper copyboy, got into cartoon animation at 16 and is the only pioneer still active in that field.
The former Grace Stafford entered vaudeville at 12 with her father, a blind pianist, and became a theater, radio and film actress. Of Irish descent, full of impish humor, she has been Woody Woodpecker's raucous voice for 17 years and cracks: "I'm the oldest woodpecker alive."
The Lantzes, introduced at a party, were married in 1941. A woodpecker that drilled holes in the roof of their honeymoon cabin—and that Walter couldn't drive away—inspired Gracie's suggestion: Make him a cartoon character.
"So I gave Woody a secondary part in my next Andy Panda, already a star for four years," Walter recalls. "The New York distributors said, 'You must be out of your mind; this raucous bird will never go.'
"But the preview crowds roared. Woody stole the picture and has been a star ever since."
Woody outshone other Lantz characters—Oswald Rabbit, Charlie Bear, Gabby Gator, etc.—and was the emblem of countless U.S. fighter planes in World War II. The Woodpecker Trail, a U.S. highway from Florida to North Carolina, bears Woody's likeness on its signposts urging careful driving.
Kay Kyser's "Woody Woodpecker" record, with Harry Babbitt cackling the vocal, led the hit parade for 13 weeks.
With 32 studio employes, Lantz produces 13 new Woody Woodpecker cartoons and reissues seven a year for theaters in 73 lands. A weekly Woody television show is seen in 200 U.S. cities. Walter makes his preliminary sketches.
Lantz, associated with Universal since his late friend Walt Disney left there in 1928, analyzes Woody's appeal: "He's a mischievous, likable person who does things we'd like to but mustn't."
Work requires only four or five hours a day for Lantz, who says: "You've got to have hobbies."
His include oil paintings— mostly still-lifes, which sell, to his amazement, for $500 apiece—fishing, with Gracie, who once landed a 110-pound sailfish with light line—and golf, which they both play.
"We're always having fun," says Walter, and Gracie echoes: "We enjoy everything—even catastrophes."
Golfing at Las Vegas when they heard the 1961 Bel-Air fire had destroyed 460 homes including theirs, they ordered drinks and the most sumptuous meal of their lives.
Walter is president and Gracie vice president of Walter Lantz Productions, Inc. As for any thought of retirement he says: "As long as I can entertain children, I'll keep going."
Lantz finally ended theatrical production in 1972. He crunched the numbers. It took him too long to see a substantial profit on new cartoons. He was content to have Universal release his back catalogue to theatres and make his money that way.

By every account I’ve read Walter and Gracie Lantz, especially during their senior years, were pleasant and delightful people who truly loved their cartoons and the effect they had on both kids and adults (even though the stuff in the last half of the ‘60s and in the ‘70s was completely forgettable).

Handsaker had a chance to chat with the Lantzs again. We posted it here. We’ve got more of Lantz’ comments from his retirement years we’ll save for a future post.


  1. Grace Stafford supposedly handled Woody's voice in George Pal's "Destination Moon", so that may be where the connection in the 1951 AP story comes from (though Woody's voice there is different from the one Stafford would use a few years later).

    1. Thanks, J.L. This is so obvious, I don't know why I didn't think of it when writing this.

  2. Lantz is turning out one-minute commercials plugging a soft drink and car equipment But he hopes they'll be used only once per program—and not in the middle.

    My understanding is that the ads for Coca-Cola and Electric Auto-Lite were for theatrical distribution.