Walter Lantz was one of the major cartoon directors and producers of the Golden Age of Animation (1928-1960), most famous for characters like 'Andy Panda' and, of course, 'Woody Woodpecker'. While less of an innovator compared to his contemporaries, his cartoons are still remembered as quality animation. He managed to keep his studio profitable for decades, being effectively the last classic cartoon studio to cease production. Lantz was furthermore one of only three animation pioneers to ever receive an Academy Award for his entire career (the other two being Walt Disney and Chuck Jones).
Walter Benjamin Lantz was born in 1899 in New Rochelle, New York City. His father was a grocer of Italian descent. His mother died while giving birth to his younger brother Michael. Lantz' father became physically incapacitated not long afterwards. As a result Walter had to run their grocery store from a young age. Between all the hard labour he still found time to take a mail order course in cartooning. At the age of 15 he moved to Manhattan, while his younger brother took over their store. Lantz studied at the Art Students League of New York and found a job as an office boy for William Randolph Hearst's The New York American, where he occasionally was allowed to draw and letter comics by such professionals as George Kerr and Willy Pogany. Another major graphic influence was Winsor McCay. In 1915 Hearst founded his own animation company, International Film Service, to produce animated films based on his most succesful newspaper comics, such as George McManus' 'Bringing Up Father', Frederick Burr Opper's 'Happy Hooligan', Walter Hoban's 'Jerry on the Job' and Rudolph Dirks' 'The Katzenjammer Kids'. Lantz joined in since one of his good colleagues, Gregory LaCava, was in charge of the department. Apart from that the pay was much better too. Lantz worked two years as an animator until he unexpectedly got more responsibilities. In 1917 the United States entered the First World War, which led to many employees being drafted. LaCava and Lantz - who was underage - were among the only ones left behind. They tried to keep everything running, but in 1918 Hearst still closed down the studio since its profits were well beneath his expectations.
Lantz thereupon joined the studio of Raoul Barré, where he worked on animated adaptations of Bud Fisher's comic strip 'Mutt and Jeff'. In 1921 he became assistant director, animator and script writer at John Randolph Bray's cartoon studio, where he worked on series like 'Colonel Heeza Liar' and 'Dinky Doodle'. Lantz created Dinky Doodle and came up with the idea of combining the animation with live-action, much like the 'Koko the Clown' cartoons by the Fleischer Brothers. In 1926 he also developed the 'Pete the Pup' and 'Outlandish History' series. His colleagues in those days were John Foster, Clyde Geronimi, David Hand, Jack King, Frank Moser, Bill Nolan and George Vernon Stallings. These seven men were literally his entire staff, which explains why Lantz was credited as director, writer, animator and actor in all their cartoons. Just like the last time when he and only a small number of men had to run an entire studio, Bray eventually went bankrupt in 1927.
At the time most animation studios were still located in New York City, but since the entire movie industry moved to Hollywood, Lantz decided to make the same trip. His Hollywood neighbour at the time was Frank Capra, the film director who'd later become famous for such feel-good live-action pictures like 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1937) and 'It's A Wonderful Life' (1946). In those days Capra was still a young intern working for legendary slapstick film director and producer Mack Sennett. When Sennett needed someone to animate a tiny bug for a gag in one of his films, Capra suggested Lantz. He did such a swell job that Sennett employed him as his scriptwriter for six months. Unfortunately both Lantz and Capra then got fired for no official reason. Lantz found a new job at Universal Pictures, where he wrote gags and scripts for their live-action films.
As fate would have it he rolled right back into animation. Universal had recently obtained the rights to 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit', a cartoon series created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks and also bought almost their entire staff, including people like Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising and Friz Freleng. Their only problem was that Universal didn't have an actual animation studio at the time. Lantz was given the task of building and organizing the studio. He not only did this, but also won the rights to Oswald after winning a card game against Universal's producer Carl Laemmle! Lantz redesigned the character and even asked Disney for professional advice. While Disney had all good reason to refuse this offer - seeing that his most popular character was bought away from him because of contractual issues – he still obliged. The men even struck a friendship for their entire respective careers. Lantz often borrowed ideas from Disney, such as the 'Walter Lantz Cartune Specials' (which imitated the 'Silly Symphonies') and the cold-fearing penguin 'Chilly Willy' (which was basically a rip-off of 'Pablo the Penguin' from Disney's 'Saludos Amigos' (1942)). Nevertheless Lantz was basically the only animation director whom Disney respected. Both men coincidentally also shared the same first name and were the first theatrical animators to realize the possibilities of television to distribute their cartoons. Their studios also survived longer than all their rivals in the industry. In 1979 Lantz even became only the second animator after Disney to ever receive an Academy Award for his entire career. After Mickey Mouse became the first fictional character to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1978, Bugs Bunny the second in 1985 and Snow White the third in 1987, Woody Woodpecker became the fourth in 1990.
'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit' ran all throughout the 1930s, but was never as succesful as Disney's cartoons. Just like other animated characters around the same time Oswald also made the transition from silent cartoons to sound. Among the famous actors who once voiced him were Pinto Colvig (best known as the voice of Disney's Goofy), Mickey Rooney (only nine years old at the time) and June Foray (the voice of Granny in Friz Freleng's 'Tweety & Sylvester'.). Only two 'Oswald' cartoons have some historical significance today. An animated segment in the all-star live-action musical 'The King of Jazz Revue' (1930) with Paul Whiteman and Bing Crosby was the first colour cartoon, predating the official first colour cartoon – 'Flowers and Trees' (1932) – by Disney. The only difference is that the Oswald cartoon was made in two-strip Technicolor, while Disney's short two years later was made entirely in full-colour. Another 'Oswald' cartoon, 'Confidence' (1932), is only remembered for being a propaganda film for US politician Franklin D. Roosevelt who'd eventually be elected President later that year. Apart from Oswald, the studio also produced the animated series 'Pooch the Pup' (1932-1933) and the 'Walter Lantz Cartune Specials'. Production rate was high and soon the studio had to hire many new talents, including Ray Abrams, Tex Avery, Ed Benedict, Steve Bosustow, George Grandpre, LaVerne Harding (notable for being one of the few female animators at the time), Cal Howard, Chuck Jones, Fred Kopietz, Victor McLeod, Manuel Moreno, George Nichols, Virgil Ross, Cecil Surry and Sid Sutherland. Unfortunately Universal still closed down their cartoon studio in 1935.
Lantz didn't worry, but saw the plus side of this unwelcome event. He started his own independent animation company – much like Disney had done in 1930 – and convinced Universal to guarantee him a bank loan. That way he could keep producing cartoons for them, while maintaining creative and financial control. In 1938 the 'Oswald' series were terminated by lack of success and many of their other attempts for new characters like 'Meany, Miny and Moe', 'Baby-Face Mouse', 'Snuffy Skunk', 'Doxie' and 'Jock and Jill' failed to catch on. Their first star with staying power was 'Andy Panda' (1939). Andy was originally a naughty baby panda, but eventually evolved more into a cute straight character like Mickey Mouse. Already in his fifth short, 'Knock Knock' (1940), he was upstaged by a new star who'd become the studio's signature character: Woody Woodpecker.
Woody Woodpecker was obviously inspired by Tex Avery's 'Daffy Duck' (1937) at Warner Brothers. Just like Daffy he was a completely insane bird who enjoyed tricking people. He was even voiced by the same actor: Mel Blanc, who also invented Woody's iconic cackling laugh. Blanc had used both the voice as well as the laugh before in the Looney Tunes shorts 'Porky's Hare Hunt' (1938), 'Hare-um Scare-um' (1939) and 'Elmer's Candid Camera' (1940), which starred a prototypical version of Bugs Bunny. He reprised the voice in two 'Woody' cartoons more until Warners put him under an exclusivity contract. Woody's new voice became Ben Hardaway and various female staff members until Lantz eventually settled on the voice of his own wife, Grace Stafford. The case didn't end there, though. Woody became incredibly popular and in 1947 he even received his own song, 'The Woody Woodpecker Song', which was used in the cartoon 'Wet Blanket Policy' (1947). It became the first and only song from an animated short to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Song, but lost. Still, it was a huge hit in the US charts and covered by many artists, including jazz band leader Kay Kyser. Lantz therefore adapted it as Woody's theme song. Meanwhile Blanc felt that the bird's success, as well as the novelty song, owed a lot to his voice and laugh. He took the case to court, but lost since he hadn't copyrighted the voice at the time. Lantz, however, proved to be a gentleman and paid him an out-of-court settlement.
All throughout the 1940s and 1950s 'Woody Woodpecker' was one of the most popular animated cartoon series, only rivalled by Hanna and Barbera's 'Tom & Jerry' and Tex Avery's 'Droopy' at MGM and Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin and Bob McKimson's 'Looney Tunes' at Warner Brothers. Audiences loved Woody's madcap comedy and the character starred in dozens of cartoons. Naturally he and most other Lantz creations also found their way to comic books, published by Dell and Gold Key from the 1940s through the 1970s. Whereas 'Andy Panda' had retired from cartoons in the late 1940s, he continued to live on in a series of comic books and in some one-shots in Dell's 'Four Color Comics' for years to come. 'Woody Woodpecker' also had its own title, and both characters additionally appeared in 'Walter Lantz New Funnies', while the 'Four Color Comics' collection also featured 'Chilly Willy' issues. Artwork was created by Dell mainstays like Phil De Lara, John Carey, Jack Bradbury, Dick Hall, Bob Gregory, Al Hubbard, Vivie Risto, Roger Armstrong, Frank McSavage, Bill Weaver and many more. Foreign publishers also got a license to produce their own material; in Denmark, for instance, Fred Milton worked on many stories with 'Woody Woodpecker' during the 1980s. Already in the early 1940s, Lantz and his co-workers made a couple of prototypes for newspaper comics of 'Andy Panda' and 'Woody Woodpecker', and the artwork is generally credited to Walter Lantz himself, although it is well possible that it was actually done by a studio worker. Both were never serialized, but the 'Andy Panda' material was published in 'Andy Panda All Picture Comics' (1943) and 'Crackajack Comics' (1941) by Dell Publishing. A 'Woody Woodpecker' newspaper comic did eventually run through Consolidated News Features from 1952 to 1956. The authors were presumably writer Al Stoffel and artist Bill Weaver.
Woody Woodpecker originally looked rather grotesque and ugly, but from 'The Barber of Seville' (1942) on he was remodelled into a more appealing character who only bothered others out of self-defense. He was often pitched against his recurring nemeses Wally Walrus (1944) and Buzz Buzzard (1948). In 1954 he received a girlfriend, Winnie Woodpecker, and in 1956 two little nephews, Splinter and Knothead, who originated in the comic book series. In 1947 Lantz briefly got into an argument with Universal's new management over the licensing and merchandising rights to his own characters. Between 1948 and 1949 he distributed 12 cartoons through a different studio: United Artists. After his studio had to shut down a new deal was negotiated and by 1950 Lantz' production at Universal continued again. During this period Lantz employed many top talents, such as Homer Brightman, James Culhane, Jack Hannah, Alex Lovy, Dick Lundy, Sid Marcus, Mike Maltese, Don Patterson, Ray Patterson, Grant Simmons and Paul J. Smith. He was able to quit directing in 1942 and leave the job to others while he became the studio's producer. Between 1951 and 1952 he briefly resumed directing and oversaw eleven cartoons before returning to production work again. Lantz' studio also provided animation for some live-action films, such as 'Destination Moon' (1950) by Irving Pichel.
In 1953 Lantz created a new cartoon character, the penguin Chilly Willy, who became the studio's third major star after Andy and Woody. One animation veteran who directed two of Chilly Willy's shorts ('I'm Cold' (1954) and 'The Legend of Rockabye Point' (1955)) was Tex Avery who had just left M.G.M. While the shorts were extraordinarily funny and 'The Legend of Rockabye Point' got nominated for an Academy Award for best short Avery's stay was brief. He quit in 1955, leaving the animation industry for decades despite Lantz' genuine efforts to keep him at his studio. Like many other cartoon studios Lantz' pictures found a new source of income by repackaging and rebroadcasting their old cartoons for television. 'The Woody Woodpecker Show' (1957-1958) was rerun for years. All those years Lantz managed to keep his budgets tight while still delivering quality products. While all other animation studios, except Disney's, eventually had to close down in the 1950s and 1960s, Lantz managed to survive all the way up to 1972. He spent his final years managing the distribution of his old cartoons on TV, while painting in his spare time. In 1994 he passed away.
Walter Lantz was one of the most commercially succesful animators of his time. Ten of his animated shorts were nominated for an Academy Award: 'The Merry Old Soul' (1933), 'Jolly Little Elves' (1934), 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B' (1941), 'Juke Box Jamboree' (1942), 'The Dizzy Acrobat' (1943), 'Fish Fry' (1944), 'The Poet and Peasant' (1945), 'Musical Moments from Chopin' (1946), 'Crazy Mixed Up Pup' (1954) and 'The Legend of Rockabye Point' (1955). None ever won, but – in a much greater honor – he did receive an Annie Award (1973) and an Academy Award (1979) for his entire career. In 1986 he also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. After Disney in 1960 and Hanna & Barbera in 1976, he was only the third animator to receive this honour. Still, his cartoons are generally not held in high artistic esteem. While Disney, Warners, Tex Avery and UPA were innovators of the medium, Lantz's cartoons have always been unpretentious entertainment. The only cartoon by them generally hailed as a classic is 'The Barber of Seville' (1942), in which Woody becomes a psychotic barber.
Woody Woodpecker was one of many classic cartoon characters to have a cameo in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' (1988). Between 1999 and 2002 the character was revived in 'The New Woody Woodpecker Show' on Fox Kids. He also remains the mascot of the Universal Studios Theme Parks and is particularly beloved in Latin America. So much, in fact, that an upcoming 2017 live-action/CGI comedy film 'Woody Woodpecker' wil debut in Brazil first before being shipped to other countries.