Watching a Walter Lantz “Woody Woodpecker” cartoon from the early 1970s feels like a bittersweet experience. After the logo for Universal Pictures fades to black in the opening sequence, Woody pops his head out to the audience, pecks his name on some wood, and hops around maniacally. The animation is fluid, and Woody’s face is expressive. However, that sequence reuses animation from the 1950s, and there’s sadness in knowing that the animation of Woody in the five-minute cartoon to follow will not be nearly as polished as those few seconds of the bird’s former self because of slimmer budgets in the intervening years.
I often wondered if people documented their experiences of watching late-era theatrical cartoon shorts, but recently I found some primary sources that seem to answer my question. Jim Korkis noted in his “Animation Anecdotes #134” for Cartoon Research that Lantz held a farewell luncheon for his employees on March 10, 1972, as his studio closed. March 2017 is the forty-fifth anniversary of that event, and my column for this month is about how the press covered the last years of theatrical cartoon shorts.
In the “Golden Age” of the 1930s and ’40s, motion picture companies sponsored animation studios and in return received cartoon stars and popular short films. However, budget reductions from movie companies, over-stylization of characters and backgrounds, excessive dialogue in the films, and technological gimmicks like 3-D and CinemaScope damaged the cartoon short in the years afterward. A “Silver Age” began by 1953, and a “Bronze Age” succeeded it in the ’70s. During those two eras, fewer theaters advertised individual shorts by name in newspapers, and even the trade journals stopped reviewing new releases. When reporters covered all-cartoon “kiddie matinees” just for “special interest” stories, only then would discussions of animated shorts appear.
In the Silver Age few new stars emerged, and old stars appeared in cheaply animated pictures. “White flight” from desegregated theaters and strong competition from television programming led to declining ticket sales, which forced further budget restraints from film distributors. All of the remaining animation studios from the Golden Age eventually closed during the Silver Age. Journalist Kenneth Best wrote about a 15-cartoon matinee in New Jersey for his article “An Afternoon with Cartoon Friends” in Bridgewater’s Courier-News of November 21, 1973, and it encapsulates the cartoon stars of the era. The show had taken place four days earlier, and among the cartoons exhibited were DePatie-Freleng’s Scratch a Tiger, Croakus Pocus, and Blue Racer Blues and Walter Lantz’s Sleepy Time Bear. Best identified the program’s “featured characters” as “Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy, the Tijuana Toads, as well as the Aardvark and the Ant (sic).”
The reporter expressed nostalgia for the cartoons of old but did not entirely dismiss the new short stars. He wrote that the show’s “modern day Woody Woodpecker stories … are not as funny as the original ones made in the days of original Popeye and Mickey Mouse cartoons.” On the other hand, he called the Blue Racer “one of the more interesting characters.” Still, errors in the article reflect the minor star-power of shorts stars of the early ’70s. The writer misidentified the cartoon series title “The Ant and the Aardvark” by reversing the billing order of the stars. The “Blue Racer” series fared worse. The author misidentified the title-character as “a big blue worm” instead of a snake, and he wrongly called the snake’s adversary an “oriental looking bee” instead of a Japanese Beetle.
Best may or may not have known that he covered one of the last matinees of theatrical animation’s Silver Age. Lantz’s final new cartoons were released by the time the reporter attended the show. For the rest of the 1970s, DePatie-Freleng produced the only new shorts series, and Walt Disney Productions released just two shorts–Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too in 1974 and The Small One in 1978. A Bronze Age had begun.
In the White Plains Journal News of June 1, 1975, reporter Linda Peterson’s article “Where Are the Cartoons” provided some insight as to how this new era arrived. She acknowledged DePatie-Freleng as the lone regular supplier of new shorts and that the popularity of the studio’s Pink Panther on television kept the character in theaters. Arthur Reiman–sales manager of shorts for the studio’s distributor United Artists–told her, “If we were depending on theatre rentals alone now, we’d never break even.” He then explained, “In 1970 we were shipping these shorts to 3,000 theaters each week. Because of the economy, we’re down to 750 theaters now, and the average rental price is $8.” And at the time each film cost $30,000 to produce.
Peterson neglected to mention DePatie-Freleng’s other Bronze star: the Dogfather. As a canine caricature of Marlon Brando from the recent feature film The Godfather, the character had some cultural relevance. However, the Dogfather’s topicality did not attract press attention, and one of the rare newspaper references to the star did him no favors. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of December 27, 1976, entertainment columnist George Anderson offered a damning two-sentence dismissal. “Have there ever been duller cartoons than those ‘Dogfather’ cartoons from DePatie-Freleng?” he complained. “I’ve had to sit through three of them lately, and they’re even duller than the scratchy tapes of Percy Faith Goes Latin American you usually have to sit through between features.”
When United Artists ran out of new Pink Panther cartoons to release to theaters in 1981, the Bronze Age of animation came to an end. For the first time since the Silent Era, the major Hollywood distributors essentially ceased releasing new animated shorts (Disney continued to limp along with its periodic shorts program, which included such films as Tim Burton’s Vincent in 1982, and Winnie The Pooh and a Day For Eeyore in 1983). Even that development, however, went largely unnoticed by the media, too. Whether the theatrical era ended with a bang or a whimper, no one expressed enough interest to write which sound it made.