As many people have already gathered, I'm a huge, huge fan of old theatrical cartoons. Looney Tunes first and foremost, but I definitely watched other studios growing up as well. Woody Woodpecker was right up there on my list of favorites, and Universal has released 150 of their cartoons, including 75 with Woody, restored and uncut on 2 DVD sets. As future DVD sets are unlikely due to both a poor economy and a fire at Universal destroying some prints, this may be all we get. As such, I'd like to take this time to review some of these cartoons.
That said, I'm going to try to review them in chronological order. And Woody was not Walter Lantz or Universal Pictures' first cartoon star. That was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney for producer Charles Mintz. Unfortunately, Mintz owned the rights to the star, so when Ub and Walt wouldn't take a huge budget cut, he stole most of the staff out from under them and starting making the cartoons himself. (Not sure what happened to Iwerks and Disney, I guess they found work somewhere.) However, as if to show that karmic retribution was still a force back then, Universal was unsatisfied with Mintz and fired HIM, opting to produce new Oswalds in house. The man they got to produce these was named Walter Lantz. Lantz actually asked Walt for advice before starting his series, so there was less bad blood there.
These early Oswalds are from a very early period when it comes to animated cartoons, and I've found it's very much a case of 'either you get it or you don't'. Many cannot get past the fact that these are 6-7 minute cutesy cartoons with crappy animation, dumb gags (few of which are verbal), and all based around seemingly endless singing and dancing. On the other hand, I've always liked the musical aspect myself, mostly as I'm a huge fan of the popular songs of that period. And if you get into the mindset of realizing these are not Disney, or even Schlesinger cartoons, there's a lot of quiet innovation here.
Of the five cartoons I began with, the first two are specific parodies of popular films of the time. Hells Heels is a take off on the popular 1930 melodrama Hell's Heroes, released (not coincidentally) by Universal. The movie is rather bleak, featuring a bunch of nasty crooks and a lot of death. The Oswald cartoon, needless to say, is a lot more lighthearted, although not exactly a laff riot. Oswald is coerced into robbing a bank, and escapes pursuit into the desert, where he comes across the toddler child of the local sheriff. They then head back to town, avoiding skeletons trying to kill Oswald (ghosts of his former friends, who were blown up in the bank heist?) while Oswald tries to keep the kid from crying by dancing to the music (this being 1930, there wasn't a lot of syncopated singing yet). Strangest gag is when the toddler drinks a pool of 'poison water', which turns out to contain an orchestra conducted by a walrus.
Spooks is not much better, despite having a far more familiar parody, the 1925 silent movie The Phantom of the Opera (which had been re-released in 1930, the year Spooks was made). This is where you first hear the composer's knack for not-quite-the-same-theme background music, as much of the cemetery scenes here are Funeral March of a Marionette, only slightly altered so that it's different enough. The villain, the Phantom himself, ends up at an opera house, where he sees Oswald and a female pig serenading the crowd. (Oswald has a high peeping voice, so naturally the pig's is much lower, despite the gender roles). Oswald's girlfriend Sadie (who is a kitten, but cross-species romance is common in cartoons) is jealous but talentless, so the Phantom sticks a gramophone player in her ass and sends her out to be a star. (The scene where he does this is probably the funniest in the cartoon.) She's a hit, but only has eyes for Oswald, so he kidnaps her and goes to his underground lair. Oswald follows, and a long chase ensues. In an utterly bizarre ending, the chase is stopped so that the Phantom can tell Oswald an incredibly lame joke, and the cartoon just ends. I imagine they were running out of film.
Easily the best cartoon of these first five is Grandma's Pet, from 1932. 2 years have done a lot for Oswald cartoons, which now have much more dialogue and better singing. More importantly, a new animator named Tex Avery has joined the staff, and his influence is already being felt on this cartoon, despite not being the director. The plot is, at first, standard Little Red Riding Hood, with a 'dream sequence' wraparound. However, once the plot gets rolling we really start to see the cartoon take advantage of the fact that it *is* a cartoon. The wolf accidentally hurts a sapling, and the 'mama' tree next to it grabs him and starts to wail on him. Oswald's girlfriend (now a dog) is Red Riding Hood, and her grandmother swallows a harmonica when the wolf surprises her, not only being funny but meaning they don't need another voice artist - just a musician. Most importantly, at one point the wolf gets a magic wand, and starts to zap the background into various dangerous scenes - a high rise under construction (with Oswald standing in thin air), a railroad track in midair with a train coming, and a shooting gallery. Finally Oswald grabs the wand and send them back to Grandma's house - with the wolf turned into turkey dinner! Utterly random, but it works great by using cartoon logic. An underrated gem here.
Unfortunately, the next cartoon, also from 1932, is pretty boring. Carnival Capers is your standard 'we need to churn out a cartoon every 2-3 weeks' time waster, with Oswald and his girlfriend (still the dog) at the fair taking in various sights. I was amused at the milk shake stand, where they get the milk shake by sticking it in the swaying hips of a hippo doing a belly dance, but once the villain arrives, things get very predictable. (I should note the villain has a pegleg, and that several of the other cartoons feature blatant Mickey copies. The Disney ripoffs back then were so obvious it wasn't even funny - and EVERYONE did it.) Still, there are better cartoons than this.
The last cartoon I saw, 1933's Five and Dime, I enjoyed a great deal, but how much you may depends on how much you like the song Million Dollar Baby, which this is basically an 8-minute music video for. Oswald ducks out of a torrential downpour (which is shown by two thunderclouds becoming boxers and beating each other up - another great example of using cartoon logic to its fullest) and heads into a five and dime, where he quickly meets his dog girlfriend and serenades her with the aforementioned song. There's lots of celebrity caricatures here, which likely explains why it's on the set (the caretaker of these DVD sets, Jerry Beck, adores cartoons with celebrities caricatured), including Durante, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy. Having been unfairly kicked out of the store, Oswald decides to propose, and the last two minutes of the cartoon are basically a long cakewalk, as Oswald and his girl get a ring, gown, tux, hit the church, then go to his house, all without breaking step. (Confession: I got my dates mixed up, and this actually comes after two other Lantz cartoons on the DVD sets. Oh well, I'll cover those next.)
If you're going to get the Lantz DVD sets, chances are you'll get them for Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy or Andy Panda. But give Oswald a try, and try to get into the depression groove while watching these. Some of them are very rewarding!