Among the in-betweeners who worked at the Lantz studio in the 1930s was Dick Kinney. Over the last weeks, I’ve showed how a number of the young men in that unit were aspiring to be storymen and cartoonists, as demonstrated by a trove of archival gags that remain from 1938 and 39. These were submitted to Walter Lantz in the hopes of receiving bonus pay for any gags that were used in the Nellie/Mello-Drama series.
One of Kinney’s drawings from that period shows the villain Rudolf Ratbone holding the end corners of his cape to form a billowing sheet, with this hand-written caption: “In the course of the chase, Ratbone uses his cape as a parachute off a cliff, building, rafters, etc.” This is the earliest example of Kinney’s fondness for gags involving a character falling, which years later culminated in his favorite Lantz cartoon for which he served as a writer, Niagara Fools (1956).
In fact, considering how barrel-riding The Falls became a widely publicized sensation in the 30s, it’s quite possible that the germ of this idea may have struck him while he worked as an in-betweener. At that time, the daredevil who got international headlines for this feat was a Canadian riverman named William “Red” Hill. He built a custom steel barrel to withstand the pressures of Niagara Falls.
Understanding the value of showmanship, he had his barrel painted bright red with gold lettering: “William Red Hill, Master Hero of Niagara.” He tempted fate four times during the 1930s, each time plunging over the steep drop and into the monstrous churn of water below. Each time he survived. The legend of Red Hill only grew and his daring exploits were admired around the world.
Of course, the horrors of World War II ended the headline-grabbing notoriety of these barrel stunts. Back in Southern California, Kinney left the Lantz studio and worked for Disney during wartime, where his brother Jack was rising up the ladder and had become a director of Donald Duck shorts. Among Jack’s considerable credits, and they are illustrious, was an Academy Award for Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), which he directed.
Dick Kinney worked in the Disney story department into the 1950s, but eventually he was lured back by Walter Lantz. By this point, the Lantz studio was no longer on the Universal lot. Instead, the small studio was located at 861 Seward Street in Hollywood and Woody Woodpecker was the blockbuster cartoon character that kept the joint in business.
Lantz had just lost Tex Avery in a dispute and shortly thereafter the writer Mike Maltese was gone, too. Lantz rotated in a few writers on single assignments to fill the gap, but in 1956 he hired Kinney to a full-year contract. Dick wrote or co-wrote a total of eight produced cartoons, five of them starring Woody, released over a period from late 1956 to early 1958.
The first one, Niagara Fools, has been repeatedly mentioned online as his best-regarded or personal favorite among the eight, though I have never seen that claim formally attributed. However, it surely makes a lot of sense that Dick would have had that opinion. And, it wouldn’t be the last time that he used the barrel-over-the-Falls theme in his work.
The son of Red Hill, who went by the name Red Hill Jr, carried on his father’s legacy, reviving these extreme feats as a post-war novelty. Starting in 1945, he too began riding barrels over the edge of Niagara’s challenging drops. However, in 1951, his adventurism came to an end. He took the rapids over the most dangerous portion of Horseshoe Falls and his barrel—this time made of rubber tubing instead of steel—was torn apart by the sheer force of Niagara’s huge currents.
Hill Jr’s battered body was recovered the next day. There was a public outcry against such a needless death and the Ontario government rebuked the Parks Commission for its negligence in allowing this activity, which had at times attracted crowds as large as 200,000 people. Thereafter it ended its policy of granting permits for these barrel-rider stunts. It was widely reported in the American media that this era of audacity was over, brought both up and down by the derring-do of Hill Sr. and Jr.
This notorious stunt was made formally illegal, with no exceptions, which of course only gave it a dazzling new allure. What psychopathic maniac was reckless enough to still attempt this foolhardy ride? Dick Kinney knew the answer: Woody Woodpecker! His very first story credit at Lantz was a cartoon about a park ranger trying to keep Woody from going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but inevitably the well-meaning ranger takes each drop himself.
Kinney brought some inspired storylines to the late 50s Lantz cartoons, and in the case of Niagara Fools his work retains a pop culture resonance that lasts to this day. To put that in context, I should mention that Woody Woodpecker is probably more popular today in Brazil than anywhere else in the world, where he is known as Pica Pau and still commands huge blocks of television airtime, more so than he does in North America.
His surge in popularity is traced to the 1980s and, for reasons that I am not certain about, it is Niagara Fools in particular that stands out in Brazil as an especially famous cartoon within the packaged Pica Pau television programming. I have always imagined this was because of the Great Natural Wonder that stands on the border between Brazil and Argentina: the mighty Iguazu Falls.
Niagara Falls are considerably shorter across. Iguazu Falls is an iconic destination in South America that dwarfs Niagara with its epic scale and majesty. As a national treasure—which Brazil shares, just as Canada shares Niagara with the U.S.—Brazilians probably see this classic episode as a little more special because of its vicarious connection to Iguazu.
For a selection of all the barrel-riding moments from Niagara Fools, have a look at this highlight reel on YouTube. Then, notice that 95,000 have watched this little diversion, and realize that a big chunk of that audience probably calls this red-headed louco-bird by the name Pica Pau, not Woody.
Kinney’s magic touch with Brazil does not end there, however. He got out of animation and thereafter had a notable career as a writer for Lantz and Disney comics. For his work for Disney, he created a character that only exists in print, a lunatic cousin to Donald named Fethry Duck.
It is Kinney’s collaboration with artist Al Hubbard that is celebrated for his imaginative handling of Donald, but it was in Brazil that Fethry became a popular addition to the Disney lineup, where Fethry was widely seen in print in the 1960s and 1970s, achieving sidekick status. My fellow Cartoon Research writer Thad K. has noted that Kinney’s “specialty was obnoxious, destructive characters,” so it might be said that Woody was invoked when coming up with Fethry.
Not only are their personalities similar, but one of their best-known comic escapades is lifted right from Niagara Fools — Donald and Fethry together in “Fall Guys.” I don’t even need to describe it because an intrepid blogger has scanned the whole story and made it available online here. To see some great samples of these 1960s Duck comics that were more popular abroad than in America, including Kinney-Hubbard’s “Do It Yourself” from 1965, check out the beautiful new hardcover compilation, Donald Duck: Timeless Tales Volume 1.
Perhaps no better example exists of Brazil’s enduring fascination with Kinney’s Niagara Fools than two current mobile apps that turn this cartoon into a game, one officially licensed with Woody called Waterfools and the other a not-so-subtle homage from Uia Games called Super Barrel Stunt. You guessed it, Uia Games is an indie outfit, just “three guys” from Brazil making a free videogame in their spare time. Somehow, the legacy of Red Hill’s barrel ride lives on in the most unlikely of ways. Viva Brasil.