Saturday, September 27, 2008

50s Woody, Conservative Control and Style

Lantz cartoons are not only fun; they are very interesting to study. The different period styles offer different kinds of entertainment.The first Woody had the most unique and funny design. The animation tended to be loose and unstructured. the direction was even more haphazard.

When Lantz was imitating the Looney Tunes Avery and Clampett cartoons, they missed the point. The timing was mushy and the gags were mostly executed without much conviction. But they are still fun, lively cartoons. I had "The Screwball" on a silent 8mm film when I was a kid and I ran it a million times.
The poses in the early 40s were wacky, but not too carefully planned to balance against each other.

MID 40S - Dick Lundy Tightens The Tools

In the mid 40s Dick Lundy came in from Disney and tightened everything up. He streamlined the posing and gave the timing much more control and variety.
These poses are extremely principled. No extraneous details. The style - or aesthetics of it come straight out of the 40s West Coast animation principles. Lantz had been imitating that style superficially before Lundy brought the real thing over from Disney. It's a style built amost solely of principles.

Perfect line of action. The forms flow around the line of action.
The details-clothes, hair, color separations wrap around the forms.

Perfect hierarchy.

In this quest for perfect principles, Lundy created a beautiful style for Lantz, but also lost some of the wackiness of the earlier sloppy style.

Unlike Warner Bros., Lantz really never quite got all the elements that make a good cartoon working together at the same time. But each period, even up to about the mid fifties has some good stuff in it.
I bought the 2nd Woody DVD and found out that most of the cartoons were from the 50s and I groaned. Though Lantz completely changed Woody's design and made him cute instead of zany, you can still find some pretty good animation in some of the early 50s films . The design of most of the cartoons is really bland and conservative, and sometimes just plain drawn badly - but not in all of them.
I was looking for some cartoons that have crummy drawings but good animation - because that is a very intersting combination, and then was surprised when I found one where I actually kind of liked the design.

I really hate what they did to Buzz in the 50s - even more than Woody! After seeing those great 40s Buzz Buzzard cartoons animated by Ed Love, I sure wonder what they were thinking when they evened him out and took away all his nasty appeal.
40s Buzz

Yeesh Buzz
This degree of conservatism is evil.

But I like these...

I like the way Woody is drawn in Buccaneer Woodpecker. It's conservative, but very stylish.
He has very controlled poses and subtle stylish angles bending around his classic cartoon principles.

I like conservatism when it is stylish and very controlled. This animator has a neat way of drawing hands. It reminds me a bit of John Sibley.
You can see the great control in these poses. They are very direct and non-ambiguous.
All the separate shapes that make up the character are carefuly put together to make a whole statement. No arbitrary corners, no erratic details sticking out of his silhouette to distract you from the overall pose.
If 40s cartoons are your standard for high quality animation - as they are for me, then these don't stand up. But if you had never seen 40s cartoons, and grew up on 90s cartoons, these would seem positively brilliant.

The poses are still lively - unlke today's disjointed talking corpses.

There is still much entertainment created from what only can happen in cartoons. The animators are so used to bending the laws of nature, that even when they are going through their conservative stage, they just take cartoon magic for granted. They haven't yet got so conservative that they stop animating things that "don't make sense". That did happen in the late 50s.
That's a beautifully conservative stylish pose there.

Interesting to see just slight stylization. I like it. It must take some self control, not to go further with it.

This animator has a lot of natural appeal. I'm not sure which one it is. Maybe someone can help me out here. La Verne Harding?

When you draw small, you have to get rid of more details, and just go for the basic pose. This animator still manages to squeeze out some style.

Look how well planned these poses are in relation to each other. Everything about Woody's pose draws us down the line of his sword right know.

Compare these to modern cartoons. Characters don't relate to each other visually anymore. They are merely in proximity to each other. Just close enough to say their one-liners.
Butt stabs were still essential to cartoon humor, even as the 50s started to calm everything down.

This would be considered completely wild today. How many times have you been scolded for drawing "too cartoony" at work?

I'm not opposed to conservative styles, as long as they are not so conservative that they throw out the essentials of cartoon quality- skill, style, control and butt stabs.

The Viewmaster Woodies are much more appealing than Lantz' own cartoons from the late 50s.

It's a good thing Woody couldn't see the future.


Cartoon Crank said...

LaVerne Harding did that scene with Woody getting snapped to the cannonball. Ray Abrams did the scene with the cannon. Most of the 50s Lantz cartoons are mediocre (and below), but I have a weird fondness for them. Great post!

JohnK said...


Mr. Semaj said...

Lantz wasn't known for innovation like Disney, WB, or to a lesser degree MGM. He was good at taking the best of different worlds and using them to his advantage.

To me, the best Woody cartoons were the ones directed by Shamus Culhane, though the Dick Lundy ones are also good for the reasons you stated.

lastangelman said...

I'm surprised Universal didn't pair Buccaneer Woodpecker with Jaws, during the latter's theatrical run in 1975, as both gave me belly laughs and nightmares.
Much of the Lantz output has this appeal to me that somehow reminds me of all those weird funny postcards they had in Stuckeys and other travel stops I'd see off of I-95 in The South (right up until 1986, there was a section of I-95 in Virginia/North Carolina that still had the old wooden Burma shave signs, until some souvenir collectors uprooted them, sigh). The BG paintings in those cartoons (until when everything in the later era of Lantz toons became flat and uninteresting) may have been the biggest eye candy for me - was Bill Wray influenced by those Lantz backgrounds?

Gustav said...

whenever I think over good cartoons I never went back to woody cause mine was the 90's ver. they showed looney toons like tex avery and chuck jones on CN and Nick. but never old woody's

SoleilSmile said...

Hey John, do you ever think you'll do a commentary on Famous Studios' Little Lulu and Little Audrey cartoons?

Those cartoons really helped me with my last film.

Do it-do it!

Rudy Tenebre, esteemed secretary. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"Woody the woodpecker"
was one of my favourite cartoons when I was young.
Im goin to do some of this fellow once i get the chance.

Johnk can you give me advice on inking a picture.

I did my first ink today using flash and put it up on my blog ,It took me a long time because I only have one of those crappy small tablets , But i tried my best.

thanks again for the johnk BLOG helps me out alot to stay motivated.

Bugs said...

"Good" Walter Lantz cartoons are the exception to the rule.

Occasionally, when Shamus or Dick or Tex got involved, the results improved dramatically, but those were the rare occasions.

Of course, Lantz and his crew turned out more than 500 theatrical cartoons in a 40 year period. No one would expect all of them to be great. But one would expect a good number of them to be great. And yet, there are only a few great shorts in the whole batch. And the number of really lousy Lantz cartoons is staggering.

I'm pretty sure, dollar for dollar, production after production, considering the quantity and quality of his productions, Walter Lantz -- God rest his soul -- is one of the worst filmmaker of all time.

Perhaps the best thing you can say about Lantz' cartoons: they make most of the Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons of the same era look GREAT!

CartoonSteve said...

Wikipedia: "In the Heroes episode "The Hard Part", at the moment Micah tries to escape from Candice, a Woody Woodpecker short (Bucaneer Woodpecker) is running on TV."
I thought it odd to see a kid actually watching an old cartoon (instead of a dumb Nick sitcom) - but it actually worked (Woody in danger from Buzz and the shark as the kid in the show was in danger) thanks to NBC/Universal. Now if they would only produce new Woody shorts - and hire John as director.

ps: heres the clip about 4.5 minutes in:

kris.w said...

LOL.. bludging eye gags are my "butt stabs"! gotta love Buzz's 9 eyes!

now where the hell did i put that Viewmaster...?

Nick said...

For me, one of the worst aspects of the Lantz cartoons is the writing. For the most part, Ben Hardaway could not end cartoons coherently, and he loved taking up screen time with static visual puns. In the '50s, the writing improved slightly with the likes of Homer Brightman, Michael Maltese (briefly) and Dick Kinney, but by this time, the animation had become so stiff that a lot of gags didn't work.

HemlockMan said...

When I was a kid I never liked Walter Lantz cartoons with the single exception of Chilly Willy. Did Tex Avery do some of those? That might be the reason I liked them. It's hard to say.

But I did watch them. They just didn't appeal all that much to me.

The shark in that episode is one of the nastiest cartoon sharks I've ever seen. He means business!

Gabriele_Gabba said...

Wow, great post! I like how you tied it up at the end, i'd love to see some 40's woody now!

trevor said...

Yeah, the buzzard just kept getting worse. That's why I stopped watching the Woody show on T.V....

... they stopped showing the 40's cartoons with better designs.

- trevor.

BadIdeaSociety said...

Lantz, perhaps more so than post-Tom and Jerry HB, created a good variety of enduring, interesting, cute, and funny characters with fantastic, distinct voices.

It is a shame the scenarios he plugged the characters into were not much to write home about.

I would be hard-pressed to be able count the great Woody, Chilly Willy, Andy Pandy, and Inspector Whiloby (SP?) shorts on Bugs Bunny's right hand.

I more I read your reflections on the past, the more I realize how the grandparents of cartooning really had their heads buried in the ground as far as scenarios are concerned.

There has to be a way to have both good animation and fun stories in modern times.

Ted said...

"The BG paintings in those cartoons (until when everything in the later era of Lantz toons became flat and uninteresting) may have been the biggest eye candy for me"

The backgrounds actually remained significantly better than the drawings.
Compare this background from the 1961 Inspector Willoughby cartoon the Eggnapper
with screencaps from the cartoon:
This becomes more pronounced over time, although the backgrounds do eventually degrade as well (tho not as badly as the cels).

The other odd thing is that the drawings tend to look better than the cels on very late Lantz (especially post theatrical stuff done as TV bumpers); maybe it's just the palette, but there it is.

Cartoon Crank said...

Walter Lantz, "worst of all time"? I think the fact that actual directorial styles (however clumsy they were) emerged throughout the studio's history rates Lantz higher than studios like Famous Studios or Terrytoons, where NO directorial style emerged in their history. For the record, I'm aware Lantz wasn't doing anything in the late-50s and beyond worthy of accolades, but I sure enjoy them more than any post-war Disney short (the ultimate example of wasted money and talent in the Golden Age of animation).

In a way though, the Lantz studio foreshadowed the advent of limited television animation. It's little wonder H-B raided just about all of Lantz's staff in 1959!!

Kasey said...

You should check out "Fine Feathered Frenzy". The second half, animated entirely by Don Patterson, is some of the most insane animation ever done during the 50's at Lantz. The short itself is average, though.
I've always had a fondness for 50's Lantz. As mentioned, most of them are lame, but they make good time killers. Also, what do you think of Sid Marcus' work during the later Lantz period? Personally, I think they were some of the last cartoons to have really funny drawings.

Robert said...

Totally agree about the revised Buzz Buzzard design...the original was way more sleazy and dangerous. For me, the 2nd Woody design was the best.

Would really like to see a John K. Woody episode or three...hello, Universal?

Whit said...

If you want to see the dregs of limited animation and design, check out the 1964 Lantz Halloween special "Spook-A-Nanny" which is rock bottom cheap and stiff. The absolute nadir character design of Andy Panda turns up there, and yet Lantz actually had the sense to make fun of the Beatles, the same year they came on the scene in the USA, remarkable for a fossil of his generation.

Caleb said...

I agree, Woody is great compared to modern minimalism. The only thing I don't like about Woody cartoons are how they reuse the same gags and catchphrases too much. They always had interesting titles though, like "Billion Dollar Boner"

Larry Levine said...

Walter Lantz was the Robert McKimson Unit on a studio sized scale: a small handful of decent output in a vast sea of turkeys despite a revolving door of great talent.

But, there is one small difference: Paul J. Smith was an even bigger hack as a director than McKimson.

The other thing that finished off Woody (at least for me) was Lantz hiring his wife to replace Ben Hardaway as the voice--she was dreadful!!!

oppo said...

About Woody's voice: the story is that Walter Lantz selected his wife after listening to many other auditions tapes, but he didn't know he picked his wife. So presumably the pickings were very slim. (But I don't see what was wrong with Gracie Stafford's performance.)

Anonymous said...

John, I know this is off the topic of the great Woody, but have you ever considered or done a post on cartoon music and SFX? You use the best stuff in your cartoons and I wanted to know your opinion on music and sound effects.

Anonymous said...

And as for growing up with 90's cartoons: yeah, I did enjoy 90's cartoons before I knew 40's cartoons, but the 50's stuff doesn't impress me. A lot of the stuff you show that isn't from the 30's and 40's doesn't impress me.

Especially 50's era Tom and Jerry. The Chuck Jones stuff was okay, but I hate the Gene Deitch era.

Now that I've soared off topic, Ii have to say that ruining Buzz Buzzard is a travesty and those who did it should be burned at the stake.

Eric C. said...

Hey John?

How come your agenst Writters?

Look at Matt Groening, not the greatest drawer in the world, but what a great Satirist.

Same goes with Trey and Matt (you might know them since you sued then for the creation of Mr. Hankey).

And another thing John. Why are you so protective over the art of Cartoons?

Hey John, I got an Idea

I want you to do a post on Cartoons VS Humor
Cartoonists VS Writers

I know of some cartoonists who can draw well make great animation, but can't write

what is your theory on that?

And why in the heck are you so sensitive over critisism? I remember you used to block a lot of my comments about how Adult Party Cartoon kind of ruined the hole Ren & Stimpy francize.

Dude, you need to learn how to take critisism.

It's like Artists can't take critisism but humor writers can.

Dude, I used to be an artist, then I found out I did it for humor writing.

_Eric C.

Dlove4u2 said...

I know this is off subject but

where would i find some good but cheap suplies for drawing up comix.

Zoran Taylor said...

Eric, stop wasting everyone's time!!!! We don't care about that debate anymore! We know what John thinks, we have our own opinions, and in case you haven't noticed, this is a blog about rebuilding cartoons from scratch. Satire can't exist successfully in an animated environment until studios re-learn how to establish an overall standard of quality that BEGINS WITH THE ANIMATION!!! I love the prime Simpsons as much as anyone, but those ideas worked because they had legs to stand on. Today's cartoons have no such thing. You wanna throw out the designs and write scripts? Go ahead. No one's stopping you, that's what everyone is still doing anyway. That's not going to change the fact that it's a bad, or at the very least, a TIRED idea.

paul etcheverry said...

Thanks, John, for the post. I'd be interested in any further commentary you may have about Shamus Culhane's Lantz cartoons; even his films that don't quite work contain some interesting, compelling and creative animation.

I have a fondness for the Swing Symphonies and Woody cartoons from the mid to late 40's. And the 1950's efforts directed by Don Patterson are not half bad.

I also find Lantz' early talkies among the best of all rubber hose-era classics. They exemplify cartoony, imaginative, surreal movie fun and are jam-packed with wild, rubbery animation by Bill Nolan. Many can be seen at Burbank's ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Sorry johnk for the email I just got a little steamed up at the fact that since someone has the power to talk to a profesional like yourself doesnt mean they should abuse it!

Larry Levine said...

"About Woody's voice: the story is that Walter Lantz selected his wife after listening to many other auditions tapes, but he didn't know he picked his wife. So presumably the pickings were very slim. (But I don't see what was wrong with Gracie Stafford's performance.)"

Lantz often noted he came up with Woody due to a woodpecker encountered on his honeymoon--despite the fact Woody debuted a YEAR before he married Grace, so I seriously doubt that he blindly choose her tape (I'm pretty certain slashed budgets was the key factor).

Bottomline, the Lantz/Woody output after returning to Universal is far more painful than 1950's Robert McKimson (at least Bob's soundtracks had Mel Blanc to distract from the horrible animation, zombie pacing & weak stories).

PCUnfunny said...

I agree on the Buzz Buzzard de-evoltuion. They subtracted alot of his personality when they removed his ruffled feathers and smoothed out his beak, just awful. I love 40's Lantz overall, not as good as WB or MGM Avery but they had the heart.

Ted said...

"They always had interesting titles though, like "Billion Dollar Boner""

Unfortunately, Lantz titles also eventually degraded. Starting in late 1965, with only one or two exceptions until the studio closed in the '70s, the titles were uniformly text over a solid color.
The lettering was different for each cartoon, but that's only interesting compared to a completely uniform titling system (and I think it's actually less interesting than the uniform Oswald titling system Lantz had used in the early '30s).

Theory as to why Lantz would choose Grace blind: he'd been getting hammered with her early Woody voice at home (or even just her basic speaking voice) and had come to subconsciously think of that as the base voice (or simply connected some of the vocal undertones with the woman he loved and therefore with good things).

I don't think her voice is actually bad as Woody; I think the large amounts of dialogue, and the awful content of most of the dialogue, are the problem. Her deliveryy isn't spectacular much of the time, but I wonder how much that has to do with the direction she was receiving, since sometimes her delivery is good.

mike f. said...

Even the Buzz Buzzard model used in "Buccaneer Woodpecker" shows the beginning signs of degeneration. The earlier, cooler Buzz had a 5 o'clock shadow.

The best Wally Walrus model has a soft, doughy, malleable cranium and tusks that weren't attached to his mouth - they just poked out from either side of his bushy mustache (as is clearly seen in the 2nd Wally scan). Eventually he lost both the tusks and his hilarious Swedish accent.

Lantz cartoons had a steep decline; a good rule of thumb when judging them is the iris-eyed Woody. Once their Woodpecker model lost his cool green irises, the character became nondescript, and the cartoons are no longer visually interesting.

oppo said...

(I know this post is sortof old, but still)

Larry: The story also said that he didn't know who he picked at the time.

But that's just the DVD notes for ya.

RodTramonte said...

I really missed some shots of the (HEDIOUS) 90´s version of Woody in this post.

Rotgut said...

"Once their Woodpecker model lost his cool green irises, the character became nondescript, and the cartoons are no longer visually interesting."

Good point Mike. I always felt the green irises gave Woody a "mentally challenged", crazed look helping to add another layer, another ingredient to the character.

Early Woody looks wacky and unpredictable, not unlike early Daffy Duck.

To the viewer, early Woody projects a "Who knows what will happen with this kooky-looking guy?!" vibe.

Unpredictable = potential fun
Fun = enjoyment

Or something along those lines. John, I'm a believer that you can't bottle the exact magic that makes a cartoon great, but - - maybe a general foundational equation can be drawn up...?

Someone should come up with a sort of universal "Cartoon Equation" since I'm not qualified to do so. John, I know you could do this.

Anyway, my thoughts are... cartoon characters with distinct personality traits improve the focus of a character's personality/psyche.

Strong traits - visual and auditory - let the viewer know where the character stands. Love them or hate them, they are strong traits (Popeye's chin sack, for instance).

Strong traits take "bland" and body-slam it to the ground.

rodineisilveira said...

Jesus, Johnny K.!

When I see this scenes from this Woody Woodpecker short - Buccaneer Woodpecker (1953, directed by Don Patterson) -, it seems that I'm hearing the Clarence Wheeler's music score.