He was old enough to have seen the beginnings of American studio animation. And, his career was enduring enough to have seen big changes through the twentieth century. He was resilient enough to survive an early setback as a producer of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And then, turning lemons to lemonade, he created the character for which he is best remembered. His friends all called him Walt. But alas, the guy I’m referring to is not named Disney.
I’m talking about the other Walt of animation lore: Walter Lantz. How exactly does one assess the legacy of a man who lived in Disney’s shadow? (and, I should add, to such a degree that it encroached on his own name, compelling him to go by the formal Walter!) Lantz spent far more time making Oswald cartoons than even Disney did. There really are some curious overlaps between these two guys named Walt. Because of this, it begs an interesting look at the Golden Age from competing angles.
For instance, by looking at both men as two sides of the same coin, we see just how reactive those formative years of sound cartoons proved to be, a time when studios were desperately trying to catch up with Disney. In this sense, Walter Lantz was an exemplar of being the ‘alternative’ Walt. He succeeded with a prudent business plan, easygoing instead of unyielding and incremental instead of revolutionary.
Rather than steer into headwinds, Lantz generally coasted in the draft made by others. His amiable style worked well, even in those times when business was rough and he had to contend with some real hardships. By the post-war years, his sensible judgment put him in a very enviable position to greatly monetize his studio characters and his vast film library. Yet, as any reader of my column knows, this comfort that he settled into for the long haul was a blessing and a curse.
It was during these last twenty years of his studio that he damaged the long-term reputation of his cartoon franchise by releasing so many films that lacked the spirit and quality of his earlier work. Then, through the saturation programming of The Woody Woodpecker Show from the Baby Boom era until the Eighties, this notion of mediocrity was reinforced. It was a case of lumping too much that was bad with all that was good.
As American prosperity grew during the Cold War, both guys named Walt seemed to increasingly withdraw from the nuts’n’bolts endeavor of making cartoons alongside their animators. They took on the trappings of affluent businessmen, with big office desks and meetings to attend with commercial partners. They both were seen on television as themselves, appearing in short vignettes on their popular TV shows. For Disney, this was the pathway to yet another visionary exploit, his theme parks.
Disney delegated his studio animation to The Nine Old Men, a ‘brain trust’ that promulgated his legacy by creating a new era of less epic and more contemporary films. Meanwhile, Lantz passed on the one thing that could have shored up his prospects for a consequential second act—he let director Tex Avery slip away. With only four cartoons completed before parting ways, Avery nonetheless handed Lantz a priceless gift. He provided him the gag formula that gave Lantz his second biggest all-time star, Chilly Willy; in I’m Cold and Legend of Rock-a-bye Point.
Their quick ‘breakup’, which Lantz later grumbled had stemmed from the hardball tactics of Avery’s lawyer, was likely fomented by lingering resentment from earlier times when the two men were both jockeying for professional advancements at Universal. Avery, for his influential body of work at Warner Bros. and MGM, holds the critical reverence of history, while sadly his own personal life and finances suffered mightily. By contrast, Lantz lived a charmed life, but his later indulgence in easy profit (syndication and saturation) seemed to have dimmed his legacy.
If only the two men could each have traded on their respective strengths and given the other what they each most deserved. Despite Lantz’s estimable achievements, and certainly Avery’s too, the tragedy is what they didn’t do, what they left behind because of a few unsettled points of negotiation in 1955. Had they worked together, and with Avery reuniting with one of his best animators La Verne Harding, the later films of Lantz Productions might have been brimming with classics on par with Rock-a-bye Point.
Another reason to invoke this anecdote is simply to mention how Lantz played roles in animation history even when those connections might not be obvious. When Avery engineered his first studio getaway—leaving for the legendary Termite Terrace in 1935—he brought with him over five years of professional experience working at Universal, developing his signature style while making the ‘anything goes’ Oswald cartoons. However, Lantz was the one who cultivated the atmosphere there and encouraged Avery by eagerly putting his outrageous gags in the films.
In fact, Lantz was a catalyst for the entire westward migration of New York animators during the Depression. When Hollywood saw an emerging ‘gold rush’ for sound cartoons, Lantz and Disney became two men who made destiny. As prominent producers, they crisscrossed Manhattan in 1929 signing animators to lucrative contracts in sunny California, forever tilting the industry west.
And technically, Lantz had been involved in an early sync-sound test (1924) and had made a color cartoon (1930) before Disney did those things, even if these precursors did not impact cinema in the same manner. Like a Zelig of animation history, as an alt-Walt who lived in and shared Disney’s shadow, Walter Lantz always seemed to be near the action.
During the Thirties, Lantz made a notable hire that now ranks as historic. When he promoted La Verne Harding from an assistant to an animator (1934), she became the first woman to hold that role in a Hollywood studio. She continued to work there until 1960, long enough to re-team with Avery. There is evidence that two other women, Xenia Beckwith and Anna Osborne, eventually also worked as animators at Lantz Productions.
Beckwith was part of the wartime animation effort, a time when the Lankershim Blvd. studio had a security-clearance restriction and was visited by Navy brass checking training films. Harvey Deneroff has recently posted about Beckwith’s work at Lantz. Also, I have seen archived production schedules showing that someone listed as “Anna,” presumably Osborne, animated scenes on eight cartoons between April and September 1952.
The legacy of his studio comprises a lot of individual legacies, great and small, and Lantz provided the chance for many artists and directors to pursue their vision without much restraint from him except budgets. Some of his best directors—Alex Lovy, Shamus Culhane, and Dick Lundy—hatched the lunatic persona of Woody Woodpecker and made him both an antagonist and a beloved cartoon star.
Over these last fifty columns, I’ve tried to make light of many of these people working there, the talented individuals who lent themselves to the collective effort under the banner of Walter’s studio. In many ways it’s their stories that form the Lantz legacy as much as the cartoons they made, and I have especially loved feedback I’ve gotten here from families and descendants of the artists.
I also want to mention how Walter is posthumously such a generous benefactor to a whole new generation of animators through his Lantz Foundation. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the Foundation over the last twenty-five years, culminating in my Animation department and LMU’s School of Film and Television receiving consequential monetary gifts from them. This is going toward new construction and technology investments in our program.
Walter’s studio archive of production materials resides at my alma mater, UCLA, and a recent final gift of personal memorabilia, including his 1979 honorary Academy Award, is now housed within Hannon Library Special Collections, here where I work at LMU. It’s been an honor to take part in the effort not just to promote his legacy into the future, but also to be active as a film historian preserving the record of his long and distinguished career.
For this, my fiftieth and last column, I wanted to thank everyone for the great message posts I’ve gotten each time and for all your insights. This has certainly been a great experience. I plan to focus next on a book specifically about the early years of Lantz in Los Angeles, when the ‘two Walts’ competed and carved out a tumultuous beginning to sound cartoons.I’ll offer plenty new details and a clear chronology on a period when Lantz continued to produce Oswald the Lucky Rabbit at Universal. It will be a story about those guys named Walt and lots of others: Tex Avery, Pinto Colvig, Manuel Moreno, Bill Nolan, La Verne Harding, to name just a few. I hope it will provide a fresh way to see the paradigm shift of the cartoon industry in the Thirties.
In fact, Walter’s life nearly perfectly analogizes the span of filmed animation. He was born in 1899, at the dawn of cinema and trick films. He died in 1994, on the eve of Toy Story, the first all-digital feature animation and a harbinger of widespread computer-aided production. When I visited Walter at his office for an interview on September 14, 1993, I ended by asking him some general questions about the industry and its rebound. I was an aspiring animator, still a student then at UCLA with the privileged part-time job of cataloging his archive.
Walter joked with a puckered face that he thought The Simpsons were “ugly,” that it wasn’t really his thing. So I brought up Pixar, wondering what he would say about emerging CGI. His face changed to awe. He answered yes, he had seen the Pixar short films and loved them, believing they were a glimpse of the future. He said he felt they had great characters. Suddenly I was in awe, too. I was looking at a pair of eyes that had seen Winsor McCay perform the original Gertie the Dinosaur on a vaudeville stage and then, crossing all the decades of a century, Walter would behold and enjoy Pixar’s Tin Toy. What a splendorous journey he took during his long, happy life in cartoons.