Cartoons and Animation
Part 6

Walter Lantz was probably one of my big “main men” while growing up.

A contemporary of Walt Disney, Harmon, Ising, Bray and Fleischer (and on the scene long before Avery, Freleng and Jones -- Lantz started as an assistant to Gregory LaCava doing animation in 1918) Lantz got his really big break when the distributor handling the Walt Disney “Alice” cartoons turned on Disney, took the newest creation from the Disney organization (Oswald Rabbit) away and commissioned Lantz to take over production.

While Lantz may have certainly found this a sticky situation, as he and Disney were somewhat 'chums' and this action probably put them on the outs, but for Lantz it was a potentially profitable venture to have an established character, audience and distributor, so he'd be a fool not to do the job, so he did it!

Lantz quickly altered the character shape from the original Disney designs and continued from there, until going Independent.

Lantz’s biggest claim to fame is the Woody Woodpecker series, which endured from the 1930s right up to the late 1960s when I started watching it on TV, with Lantz as host.

One of the things Lantz has been famous for since the 1920’s is showing the “average joe” how cartoons are made. This is what fascinated me the most, when Lantz put Woody Woodpecker on TV, how they make drawings move! Lantz would show how cartoons were made in broad, general terms. How cels are put over backgrounds and photographed.

The voice of Woody Woodpecker was provided by Lantz’s wife, Grace, who applied for the job site unseen. She just went into the studio and did the voice. Lantz was not told who she was (according to stories, that is) and she got the job based on the tone of her voice.

The theme song also made headways, becoming a top 40 hit song in the era when Woody was originally released (ca: 1940).

Lantz made Woody Woodpecker cartoons available through Castle Films (he basically “was” the Universal Studios cartoon unit starting in the 1930s and continuing into the 1960s and Castle Films was the Universal home entertainment outlet) in 16mm sound, 8mm and super 8mm for home viewers, but in edited versions that were often in black and white (most of the Lantz work starting in the 1930s was in color).

Lantz also made a short cartoon for the George Pal feature film “Destination Moon” showing how the moon trip would be carried out, with Woody Woodpecker as astronaut (which is ironic because Pal also made "animated" cartoons, but using puppets instead of drawings).

With the advent of Television in the 1950’s Lantz created a show with him as host, featuring his “stars” Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda and others in their original release versions from the period starting in the 1930s and going into the early 1950s.

While not nearly as high of an art from as Disney, Warners or even M-G-M cartoons, Woody Woodpecker was very, very popular and a highly commercial star of the big screen back in an era when movies had two features, a cartoon and a Republic serial such as Buck Rogers or Commando Cody, along with a newsreel.

Universal was one of the big newsreel suppliers and also cornered part of the market with their cartoons. Walter Lantz was a kind of Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo animator who had a nice personality, often hosted his own presentations of how cartoons are made and gave you a little look behind the scenes as well as bringing a major animated cartoon star, Woody Woodpecker, to the silver screen and much later the TV screen.

For a while Lantz Lured Warner Animator Tex Avery over to the Univeral-Lantz operation with a profit sharing contract, however when Avery found out how long it took to turn a profit he vacated and went over to the M-G-M studios to work with their unit.

Today, Woody is all but forgotten except in a few film schools where a cartoon or two might be shown to students as part of their history lesson in the art from of classic animation.


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