Friday, December 15, 2006

Walter Lantz Studios:

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Woody Woodpecker, and Chilly Willy

Walter Lantz (1900-1994), an early animator, and Charles Mintz (representing Universal and boss Carl Laemmle), took over the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Walt Disney in 1928. The resemblance of Oswald to its biggest competitor, Mickey Mouse, was striking. Lantz made a series of black-and-white cartoons from 1929 to 1935, featuring the rubber-limbed, long-eared rabbit, including these early titles: Ozzie of the Circus (1929), Stage Stunt (1929), Stripes and Stars (1929), Wicked West (1929), Nuts and Bolts (1929), Ice Man's Luck (1929), Junegle Jingles (1929), Weary Willies (1929), Saucy Sausages (1929), Race Riot (1929), Oil's Well (1929), Permanent Wave (1929), Cold Turkey (1929), Amature Nite (1929), Snow Use (1929), Hurdy Gurdy (1929), and Nutty Notes (1929). Mickey Rooney was the first to do the character's voice. Lantz was noted for also making the first-ever Technicolor cartoon - the opening animated sequence to the live-action The King of Jazz (1930).

Another of Lantz' legendary creations was red-headed, blue-bodied, long-beaked, trouble-making Woody Woodpecker, with his distinctive laugh ("Ha-Ha-Ha-HA-Ha" by Mel Blanc) and voice (by Mel Blanc for the first four cartoons, and then by Ben "Bugs" Hardaway until 1948, and thereafter by Lantz' own wife Grace Stafford). Woody first appeared in the cartoon Knock, Knock (1940) distributed by Universal Studios, in which he bedeviled another Lantz character Andy Panda. The next year, the popular Woody became a starring character in The Cracked Nut (1941), and began to replace the waning Oswald the Rabbit.

Over the next three decades, Lantz made about 200 six-minute Woody cartoons. Woody's appearance was somewhat softened in The Barber of Seville (1944), but he still maintained his aggressive and slightly sadistic personality. A long-time adversary of Woody's, Wally Walrus, was introduced in The Beach Nut (1944), the same year. In 1948, the novelty tune, The Woody Woodpecker Song (written by George Tibble, Ramey Idriess and Danny Kaye) was released on record and became the #1 hit song (sung by Kay Kyser). The song was put into the latest cartoon, Wet Blanket Policy (1948) (with another new co-star arch-nemesis Buzz Buzzard) and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song (it lost to Buttons and Bows in The Paleface (1948)). Young boys copied Woody's haircut, and fan clubs developed across the country. In the late 50s, The Woody Woodpecker Show first appeared on ABC-TV, and led to further shows and syndication.

A less popular but distinctive Lantz cartoon character was Chilly Willy - a penguin, who first appeared in 1953 in a cartoon titled appropriately, Chilly Willy (1953). Chilly's popularity soared when animator Tex Avery joined the Lantz Studio the following year and directed Chilly's second and third cartoons: I'm Cold (1954) and Academy Award-nominated The Legend of Rock-a-bye Point (1955) for Best Short Subject Cartoon (it lost to Speedy Gonzales (1935), a Warner Bros.' Merrie Melodies cartoon). As with Woody, Chilly Willy cartoons appeared all the way until 1972 - the last year of production.
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