Sunday, August 15, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 5: Knock Knock, Fair Today, Hysterical Highspots in American History, Woody Woodpecker, The Screwdriver

It's late 1940, and Walter Lantz has found a cartoon star that does OK, if not great - Andy Panda. Lantz is still trying other stars, though, knowing that Disney and Warners have several established superstars. He's also helped along by the hiring of WB director Ben "Bugs" Hardaway to write for him, best known for being the creator of a prototype that wasn't Bugs Bunny, but would, after several years, become a character given Hardaway's nickname.

Ben was clearly very fond of the screwball rabbit he'd done for Warners, as the first Andy Panda he worked on featured a very similar insane screwball. Only instead of a rabbit, this one was a woodpecker. Andy (who is still a child, but has lost his cutesy widdle voice, thank God, and just sounds like a normal young cartoon boy) and his father are trying to relax at a cabin, but a relentless pecking is driving them nuts. It's Woody, in his debut, and voiced by Mel Blanc. In these first few cartoons, Woody is less a character than a force of nature, being utterly insane and prone to hysterics. Andy's poppa, of course, is from the slow burn school of anger, so you can imagine how well they get on. And Andy wanders through trying to put salt on Woody's tail (my favorite gag is when Woody whips out a mug of beer to salt, then blows the foam in Andy's face). In the end, the nuthouse comes to take Woody away, but they prove to be just as nutty as he is, gibbering and hopping madly about.

Two cartoons follow also clearly influenced by Warners, this time the Tex Avery school of spot gag travelogue. Both Fair Today (going around a county fair gags) and Hysterical Highspots in American History (newsreel parody of US history gags) are decent enough, but neither really reach out and grab you, and it's clear that Lantz isn't as comfortable with the formula Hardaway brought with him, and didn't take to it like he did the insane Woody. I did note that the latter cartoon had a reference to the (peacetime) draft, showing we're headed towards World War II.

Knock Knock got VERY good word of mouth, and not for Andy Panda or his pop. Lantz immediately started cranking out more Woodpecker cartoons, with the year 1941 featuring 3 more. I watched 2 here, one being the self-titled Woody Woodpecker, and the other the aptly named Screwdriver. Both trade on one basic plot: Woody is genuinely mentally unhinged. Warners, with Daffy Duck, almost immediately began toning him down after his initial appearance. Woody hasn't hit that point yet.

In Woody Woodpecker, the forest animals are all half-disgusted, half-terrified of the insane bird, who already has his own theme song ("Everybody thinks I'm crazy! Yes sirree, that's me, that's me..."), and the Universal opening already has the 'ha-ha-ha-HA-ha' music with the logo. Eventually even Woody listens to their advice, and goes to see a fox psychiatrist. Sadly, the fox is a fox because Ben Hardaway likes bad puns, and is just as insane as the woodpecker. Seeing Woody battle a force equal (well, almost) to his own is a novelty, but you can see why most screwball cartoons have them go up against dumb guys or tough guys rather than equally crazy loons. The cartoon ends, as Knock Knock did, with the fox acting insane and jumping around.

The Screwdriver has Woody in his speed-happy jalopy trying to run from the long arm of the law, and is a better cartoon, inasmuch as the antagonist is a dumb guy (the cop trying to catch him for speeding), and it has more memorable gags. It's seen far less often on TV, but that's likely due to Woody's racist impression of a Chinaman rickshaw driver towards the end. Woody sings a variation of his 'crazy' song again, and is still voiced by Mel Blanc. Best gag has him approaching a four-way stop, grabbing the arm of a blonde girl in another car who's signaling a turn, and spinning her and her car around like a top. After leaving her dazed in the middle of the road, he drives off, commenting "That's the dizziest blonde I ever went around with!" The cartoon ends with the cop (in jail) having gone insane, gibbering and jumping up and down. For the third Woody cartoon in a row. Get a new ending, guys.

Like Tex Avery with Bugs Bunny at first, Lantz knows he has a superstar at last, but is not quite sure what to do with him other than make the same cartoon with variations. And worse, Mel Blanc is signing an exclusive with Warners, and he'll need a new voice for Woody. Not to mention the spot gag parodies didn't take off. Maybe he should try cartoons based more around jazz - that's worked in the past. We'll see what he does next time...

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