Here’s an Oscar-nominated Walter Lantz cartoon with Andy Panda!
As soon as his enduring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series began to fade in the mid-‘30s, Walter Lantz encouraged his studio to create new star characters. Despite the studio’s desperation to create a lasting series, their new creations were quite meager, and unable to sustain such aspirations. Among these characters were three simian brothers (Meany, Miny and Moe), and human characters, including a series which spoofed Gay Nineties melodrama featuring Nell the fair damsel and the grotesquely racist Lil’ Eightball. Different animal characters also emerged, such as Baby-Face Mouse and Charlie Cuckoo. Even outside contributions couldn’t guarantee success; famed Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogany and his wife Elaine’s Peterkin character — appearing only in 1939’s Scrambled Eggs — garnered little interest from audiences.
Lantz heard the news of Su-Lin, a large panda cub donated to the Chicago Zoo, and flew there to observe the newborn, and draw inspirational sketches. One of Universal’s newsreel cameramen captured footage of Su-Lin, and Lantz used it as reference for his probable character, which he ultimately named and debuted in Life Begins for Andy Panda (1939). The little panda’s first few cartoons paired him with his father Poppa Panda (Crazy House, Knock Knock, Mouse Trappers, Dizzy Kitty), but Andy soon matured– quite literally, too– into his own solo cartoons by 1942.
Director Shamus Culhane particularly detested the good-natured panda, claiming his cartoons to be “too goddamn sweet and cuddly.” In Culhane’s defense, Andy is too passive a character, compared to Lantz’s provocative woodpecker. In some of Andy’s cartoons, only the nature of given situations and the quirks of supporting characters redeem them— not the character itself. In Fish Fry, especially, Andy is used as a framing device, as he walks along with his new goldfish. Later, a famished cat (wonderfully voiced by Lionel Stander) robs him of his pet and kicks Andy into a cement mixer, left aside for a good portion of the cartoon. Culhane directed three other cartoons with Andy (Meatless Tuesday, The Painter and the Pointer and Mousie Come Home); like Fish Fry, he often chose not to give the character much screen-time.
Culhane recalled in his book, Talking Animals and Other People, his dissatisfaction from the storyboard’s lack of verve. While the cat puts his hand around the fish bowl, Andy’s goldfish bites his finger—the payoff originally stopped there. Culhane extended the sequence by having the goldfish comfort the cat and produce a first-aid kit; instead of bandaging him, the fish takes out a set of false teeth and bites the cat’s finger again, soaring him into the air. Culhane’s contributions were stronger, lending a more vicious side to a vulnerable creature, similar to Bob Clampett’s depiction of Tweety.
Emery Hawkins handles a wonderful sequence where the cat disguises himself as a dehydrated explorer. Scene 21 has some great acting and expressions, as the cat contently chews water from the fishbowl, thinking he has lapped up Andy’s goldfish. Moments later, he notices something amiss as he pokes his tongue around both cheeks. The cat spins and angrily glares at the goldfish, still in his fish bowl. As an animator, Hawkins was something of a perfectionist. “He had his own standards of quality and would often throw out a whole day’s work, just after I had assured him that it was a beautiful piece of animation,” Culhane said. “Emery was never satisfied with any of his work and suffered more agonies of anxiety and frustration than any other animation I have ever met.”
The draft for Fish Fry, even more so than those for Culhane’s cartoons, is a bit unreliable in its scene assignments. Scene 7, with Andy whistling to “Polly Wolly Doodle” after he acquires his new pet is assigned to Pat Matthews, but the drawing/animation is more sculpted than his usual work; it actually belongs to Verne Harding. The second half of the cat’s “merger” (scenes 37 and 38) between him and Andy is assigned to Emery Hawkins, but it looks comparably weak in the cartoon; Les Kline handles the scenes instead. Oddly enough, Kline draws the cat in different ways in his scenes; in scene 49, when his head is caught in the sewer, he is seen with rather large pupils, which aren’t seen in Kline’s other shots.
In scene 61, Matthews is assigned a shot of Andy running and catching the airborne fish; again, those are Harding’s scenes. The quick cuts in scenes 63-65 are credited to three different animators; judging from the dry-brush smears, these seem to be Don Williams’ animation in those cuts (instead of only sc. 63.) It’s unclear how Pat Matthews, or other artist’s scenes, were assigned to others. It takes a keen eye, developed from watching other scenes of their work, to notice this misinformation.
Dick Lundy is assigned to only one shot in Fish Fry; Variety reported the cartoon’s production began on December 8, 1943. Lundy had started directing by late March 1944, therefore it could be one of, if not the last, scenes he animated for Lantz before being promoted. Interestingly, Milt Schaffer, Ben Hardaway’s writing partner at the studio, is given two shots in the cartoon of the goldfish in the sewer, drawing him with droopy jowls. Schaffer previously animated for Disney in the ‘30s; however, it’s worth inquiring if he only animated on this cartoon while Lundy moved to the directing chair. (It’s still ambiguous if Schaffer animated on other Lantz cartoons besides this one.)
As a story-man and director, Hardaway often ended his Warners cartoons with antagonists losing their sanity, as they head off into the horizon, for instance, in Daffy Duck & Egghead and Hare-Um Scare-Um. The ending for this cartoon is bewildering; after the cat bumps into various objects, there seems to be an abrupt cut as he runs off into the horizon and runs back to the bulldog. Verne Harding does a wonderful job on the animation and Lionel Stander gives a truly manic vocal reading (“I made it! I made it! I made it!!”), but because of the abrupt cut, the reason for the cat’s sudden outburst is lost upon the viewer.
Fish Fry was released on June 19, 1944, about six months after it started production; there doesn’t seem to be a delay as there were for cartoons from Warner Bros, but the year’s output from Lantz was significantly half the number of Warners cartoons for ’44 (and were entirely directed by Culhane.) The cartoon was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to the brilliant Tom and Jerry cartoon, Mouse Trouble.
There won’t be a breakdown for next week. I’ve just started working on a highly anticipated video release, so I think a week off might suffice. As for the Easter holiday coming in a couple weeks, readers should know what breakdown’s arriving next.
Enjoy the breakdown video, folks! I’m going to go rest easy now…
(Thanks to Mark Kausler, Yowp, Frank Young and Larry Tremblay for their help.)