It's 1944, and Shamus Culhane has settled in at Lantz. Which is terrific, as it gives us a run of cartoons that's the best so far, including one cartoon scholars call the best Woody Woodpecker cartoon ever.
In the first of two Middle Eastern Swing Symphonies for this post, we get The Greatest Man in Siam, a Swing Symphony with lots of hot jazz. The plot has the King announcing that he'll give his daughter's hand in marriage to the greatest man, as you'd expect. We get lots of gags about people who say they have various attributes - the smartest man, the richest man, etc. The daughter is a gorgeous harem girl, and one of the reasons these cartoons are rarely seen on TV - she's almost drawn too sexily, with semi-transparent harem clothes showing off all of the legs and a great deal of the rest of her. In the end, the 'hottest' man in Siam comes by and wows everyone with his playing and dancing, and he wins the contest by getting everyone to dance.
And now we get Culhane's first Woody Woodpecker cartoon. There's a few differences to note. Woody has another new voice, that if writer Ben Hardaway, and this one would stick with him for the rest of the 40s. As a voice artist, Hardaway is a great writer, but hey, Woody cartoons aren't known for their snappy dialogue at this point anyway. He was also redesigned to be a bit shorter and cuter, though he's still pretty wild compared to the 50s version. As for the cartoon itself, it's been voted one of the 50 greatest cartoons of all time. It usually even gets more votes than Warners' Rabbit of Seville, which is impressive. Woody goes to a barber to get a haircut, only to find the barber's been drafted. Woody decides to cut his own hair, only to be beset by customers, so he quickly pretends to be the barber. His first victim is a cliched Red Indian, who Woody gives the hot towels treatment to, then eventually tosses across the street to be a cigar store Indian. Then a construction worker comes in and asks for "the whooooooole works". He quickly regrets this, as Woody whips out the lather and razor and starts singing Largo El Factotum from Rossini's opera. He also goes even more nuts than we usually see from Woody. He's positively terrifying in this, whipping around a noticeably chipper straight razor, and generally being almost homicidal. The worker escapes, but returns to toss Woody into a wall and throw the barber pole at him. Words don't do this justice, you really need to see it.
Remember Andy Panda? He's still been cruising along with the occasional cartoon. He's grown up now, mostly, and has lost his father's presence, but he's still very much a 'Porky Pig' type character, in that he does not actually drive the action. In Fish Fry, he decides to buy a pet goldfish and take it home. Unfortunately, he quickly runs into a mangy-looking cat who wants the fish for dinner. What follows will not surprise anyone who's watched the average Tom & Jerry or Tweety & Sylvester cartoon, though this cat is a lot more urban than either of those two. Fish Fry does boast a tremendously bizarre ending where, after attempting to run away from a bulldog about 3 times, the cat simply goes insane, leaping about into the distance laughing. It makes no sense in the context of the rest of the cartoon, but is certainly startling, I'll grant you.
Back in Swing Symphony land, we're still in the Middle East, and it's time for Abou Ben Boogie. This one has less plot than the Greatest Man in Siam, but has a lot more hot harem girls wearing next to nothing. My guess is that the first cartoon drew rave reviews from the dads in the audience. At an opium den (another reason this cartoon isn't seen very often on TV), the entertainment is there to tell us about Abou Ben Boogie, who is known for his hot dancing. He shows up about halfway through, but his attempts to romance the girl seem to be met more often than not with him kissing a camel. In fact, the camel gets more screen time than the girl, and shows that its dancing is pretty hot as well. Another great cartoon, showing that Lantz's folks had become experts at timing jazz licks to intense animation.
Meanwhile, Woody may be cuter and smaller, but he's even more of a horrible screwball pest. And now he finally has an ongoing nemesis in Wally Walrus, who is voiced in a heavy Swedish accent by Hans Conried (best known to cartoon fans as Snidely Whiplash). The cartoon opens with a bunch of beachgoers on the boardwalk watching Wally beat the crap out of Woody. He stops to explain how things got this way. Knowing Woody as we do, I think we could have guessed. Wally is trying to relax at the beach, but Woody runs over him, smashes into him, steals his food, soaks him, and then cons him by playing a phony swami. Sadly, in the end Wally does himself in, as his attempts to tie Woody to an anchor and drown him just succeed in destroying the entire boardwalk.
Now that Woody has a new look, new director and a regular adversary, he's improving by leaps and bounds. And even Andy Panda's cartoons have gotten interesting, if not Andy himself. Great stuff. Next time, we'll look at some 1945 cartoons.