Walter Lantz’s new cartoon department at Universal was not even operational yet when Steamboat Willie caused a seismic shift in the industry. The initial success of Mickey Mouse was owed to the gimmick of sound, but at least the visual synchronization displayed ingenuity. While Lantz had little leeway to work outside his lean budgets at Universal, Disney was immediately raising the industry cost of theatrical cartoons by creating this new audience expectation for sound. It was the first of many times that he would chasten his competitors.
Perhaps the only significant early victory of Lantz over Disney was in regards to a high-profile recruit whom both producers coveted. In the 1920s, the most prolific American animators were Ub Iwerks, Otto Messmer, and Bill Nolan. Disney sorely needed to staff a full studio once he secured his contract to produce Mickey, and the only place with a large talent pool was New York City. Disney began recruiting animators there relentlessly in 1928, raiding the staffs of Fleischer, Mintz, Sullivan, etc. to accomplish this.
Bill Nolan had left Mintz the previous year and was one of the first East Coast animators approached by Disney. Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman wrote that having “both Iwerks and Nolan under contract would have given Disney an unbeatable animation staff, not to mention poetic revenge on Mintz.” However, Nolan declined Disney’s offer of $150 per week and then proceeded to accept Lantz’s offer to work at Universal.
This was a major recruiting coup for Lantz, which instantly boosted the stature and viability of his forthcoming studio. Lantz had an advantage because he had previously worked with Nolan in New York and the two were friends. As well, Lantz topped Disney by paying $175 weekly and then made his offer even more attractive. Nolan, in effect, became the co-director of the new Universal Cartoon Department. In a short time, the credits to the Oswald series read “A Walter Lantz ‘Bill’ Nolan Cartoon Comedy.”
Disney and Lantz were now among the handful of producers chiefly responsible for the westward migration of New York talent to Los Angeles. At this point, it could even be argued that Walter Lantz had a chance to compete with Disney. Even with Mickey freshly galvanized as a rising star, the Oswald series might have stood its ground, given the following conditions that existed in early 1929.
With Nolan and Lantz—two New Yorkers with real industry pedigree—ably canvassing their former co-workers, the Universal recruitment of seasoned animators went quite well. The studio that Lantz supervised was built right at the advent of sound cartoons and could take advantage of the new sound facilities on the Universal lot.
Furthermore, Lantz could read and play music. He not only had a competent musical director in James Dietrich, but also should have been able to communicate creatively with him.
Unfortunately, Lantz got off to a slow start. He technically succeeded in adding sound to his cartoons, but the artistry behind sync took a bit longer to realize. Post-synchronization led to results like the instrumentation of dialogue in the 1929 films. The conversion of the Oswald cartoons into recognizable musicals was gradual.
Lantz then pursued voice synchronization. In Broadway Folly, released in February 1930, the dialogue is plodding and drawn-out. It’s as unsteady as a kid on training wheels. From this, one can infer that the novelty of hearing the spoken word, even with an awkward slow delivery, was either deemed a sufficient wonderment in itself or that Lantz was using commercial releases instead of test films to refine the sound process.
It’s unsettling to watch the opening of Broadway Folly just to hear the belabored pace of an exchange between Oswald and a bellhop. The vocal performances are so painfully s-l-o-w, perhaps to lower the threshold for sync to occur, that it feels like watching a cartoon on novocaine. Because the animation adjusts to this temporal shift, it gives the sensation that the film is actually playing at a slower frame rate.
In a short time, by the middle of 1930, the Oswald cartoons were finally musicals, not experiments. Lantz and Nolan suddenly brought some verve to the Oswald series. However, in the intervening year Disney advanced still further, and the Silly Symphonies — in addition to Mickey Mouse — were enjoying huge popularity.
The assignment that really accelerated the Lantz studio’s sophistication with musical sync was the animated introduction to The King of Jazz, a feature film that showcased the music of Paul Whiteman. This was envisioned as Universal’s The Jazz Singer. By making an all-Technicolor musical, this lesser player among Hollywood studios was making a splash to be seen as catching up with MGM and Warner Bros, even if Universal was actually a bit late to the talkies and 2-color Technicolor. Nonetheless, being involved on this film certainly was a prestige moment for the newly minted animation staff.
There is a certain ‘money shot’ that got repeated in the Oswald cartoons at the time, and it involves a galloping cycle of a beast pouncing suddenly into the foreground and then shrinking way back in perspective, only to take another big stride right into the full frame. This shows up in the intro as a lion chasing the bandleader Whiteman. As a corny joke on how he got crowned the “King of Jazz”, he appears here as a big game hunter, and some of its cel animation was then repurposed in the Oswald short Africa.
A bit more interesting than this opening movie number was the short cartoon it subsequently engendered, My Pal Paul. After his public performance playing a cat as an instrument, Oswald hangs himself from a tree, but is then rescued by Paul Whiteman himself, who slips the jazz-rabbit’s head from the noose, prompting the two to compete in a strange bunch of musical gags involving Paul’s car. This becomes one of those signature cartoon oddities for which Bill Nolan is known—and which link him indeliably with Iwerks, both for their pencil mileage and hermitic humor.
The King of Jazz did not fare well at the box-office, catching the downward trend of a glut of musical revues that talkies had made possible. Even Paul Whiteman would shortly drop out of public favor, as if spun ‘round a turnstile by the handsome young crooner Bing Crosby, who made his debut in the movie. Like an animated artifact of one man’s fame, My Pal Paul remains a small trophy marking the apex just before Whiteman’s descent from the top. Like Nolan, he would enjoy a few more good years, but by the middle of the decade he would seem irrelevant, a holdover from his peak in the 1920s.
The caricatures of Whiteman are fun. He’s a great figure to cast in cartoon form—rotund with a little waxed moustache. His ‘stache is even a prop, with Paul plucking at it musically.
He also blows notes from a hollow trunk and naturally he sings, too. The dialogue in this cartoon still seems awkward, but it’s progress. At least the musical sequences zip right along. Then Whiteman puts Oswald back into the noose. He’s had enough of this rabbit who’s wrecked his car.
Top that? Well, the most isolated and self-indulgent sequence in an Oswald cartoon usually belongs to Nolan, and in this case there is every reason to expect that he animated the anthropomorphic hood ornament that dances on the cap of the radiator shell (3:00 mark). Then, as an encore, you’ll see a bunch of these ornaments—how did they multiply?—all dancing on the clarinet tailpipe (5:40). That sure strikes me as Bill Nolan animation, perfectly jubilant and unrestrained by logic or worry. It’s time to party like it’s 1929.