Today’s Thanksgiving feature is Shamus Culhane’s first Woody Woodpecker!
It might be disappointing for some readers there aren’t any materials available for a Thanksgiving-related cartoon. It’d be nice if drafts of Chuck Jones’ Tom Turk and Daffy (1944), Tex Avery’s Jerky Turkey (1945), The Little Orphan (1949) with Tom and Jerry, or even Hugh Harman’s Tom Turkey and His Harmonica Humdingers (1940) to surface, but it just isn’t possible. (It might be very unlikely the documents for Holiday for Drumsticks, a 1949 Art Davis Daffy Duck, is extant either.)
Woody Woodpecker’s antics in a barbershop (or to a lesser extent, Woody’s insult remarking an Indian customer’s headdress) could slightly relate to those looking their sharpest, before they celebrate the sumptuous Thanksgiving repast with their loved ones. However, you will be happy to know this feature will incorporate a holiday theme during the month of December, starting next week, with cartoons related to Christmas or winter. Keep a sharp lookout!
In his autobiography, Talking Animals and Other People, Shamus Culhane recalled his captivation during film screenings at the American Contemporary Art in Hollywood while he started directing at Lantz. He witnessed the cinematic techniques of Russian filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and V.I. Pudovkin, and influential figures such as D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir. Culhane’s experience from the film screenings incited him to study Pudovkin’s Film Technique and Eisenstein’s Film Sense. The Barber of Seville proved to be a suitable project to make use of these methods.Woody Woodpecker’s character changed in design and voice by the time director Alex Lovy departed the studio to enter the Navy in 1942. Giving the woodpecker white gloves in the previous entry, Ration Bored, was a serviceable modification, but Seville marked the first appearance of a polished incarnation of Woody, designed by animator Emery Hawkins and layout artist Art Heinemann. It also introduces an main title (wonderfully animated by Hawkins) where Woody pops out of a tree stump, and performs his trademark laugh. Story-man Ben Hardaway, co-contributor to his creation, provides Woody’s voice for the first time in this cartoon, and continued the role throughout the forties.
Culhane’s first handling of Woody was a most ambitious effort. It became the most expensive Lantz production in the 1943-44 release season, costing $16,717.
In this cartoon, Woody’s usual madness is justified – and hilariously overestimating in context – after being insulted by a burly, Italian hard-hat. The backgrounds for this sequence employ minimal visuals during most scenes, using solid or plain-color settings. The abstract nature works effectively to make the frenzied action readable, even if Woody doesn’t stand on firm ground as he shines the customer’s shoes in scene 40.
As the title indicates, Woody recites Gioachino Rossini’s “Largo al factotum” as he gives his customer “the whole works.” To provide Woody’s singing vocals, Lantz contacted Universal’s music director Joe Gershenson to find a trained singer whose singing would be mechanically sped up to match the woodpecker’s spoken voice.
The performing artist for Woody’s singing is provided by Lee Sweetland, who had dubbed the singing for actor George Dolenz (future Monkee Mickey Dolenz’s father) in a live-action feature. Sweetland’s normal singing voice can be heard in the opening of the Lantz Swing Symphony Sliphorn King of Polaroo, where he receives credit. It is uncertain, but the probable actor providing the voices for the two customers might be actor Nestor Paiva, known to have worked for Lantz. (As an added bonus, you can hear the normal pitch of Sweetland’s vocals in this audio-only clip.)
Pat Matthews animates Woody for the first time in Seville, portraying him as the most manic he had been so far in his animated career. Woody’s penetrating looks to the Italian customer, holding a razor blade underneath his nose (and slowly unsheathing it away from him) in scene 41, are frighteningly hysterical. Woody’s jump, accomplished with balletic grace, adds another stroke of brilliance. Matthews handles another great moment in the cartoon, with Woody searching and even splitting into multiple woodpeckers, calling out to his frightened customer. The reaction (scene 52) after he finds the customer and stretches out of the frame, exiting with his lower body, is pure lunacy.
Verne Harding animates the start of the musical sequence in scene 34 with marvelous posing, as Woody lathers shaving cream on the Italian customer’s head. Harding handles a crucial escalation in tempo in scene 44, when Woody pops in various positions, lifting up the sheet and swinging the razor at his victim. Emery Hawkins is responsible for what Culhane anticipated in Seville – the rapid cutting as Woody finally keeps the Italian customer motionless. Frank Tashlin utilized this type of editing in animated cartoons in the mid-‘30s at Warners. Culhane knew the risks in this venture. With some shots lasting less than a second, there was a danger that the audience wouldn’t assimilate the material. However, as he stated in later years, “I felt just right speeding it up to keep the picture moving – it should take you on a roller-coaster ride, really give it to you.”
One particular weakness in this cartoon is the sequence with Woody and the Indian chief, which is burdened with Hardaway’s weak gags. The timing of the Indian receiving a “scalp treatment” in scene 20 is too quick, as if Culhane wants to end the sequence as succinctly as possible. This entire scene is credited to an artist named “Rudy,” presumably animator Rudy Zamora. Zamora was one of Culhane’s colleagues in the East Coast at Fleischer’s and over at Ub Iwerks’ studio when they moved West. He worked for Lantz in the mid-‘30s, but it’s uncertain if he animated for other Lantz cartoons in the 1940s. Another weakness that plagues Lantz cartoons from this period is the inconsistency in clean-up/inking in Les Kline’s scenes with Woody; his introductory scenes are nicely done, while shots of Woody in the barber chair are sloppy.
When the pencil test for Seville was shown at the studio, Culhane claimed that the drawings were hard to interpret as line drawings. Lantz didn’t ask the director to modify the action, agreeing that it would be discernable after the drawings would be inked and painted. Ben Hardaway didn’t care for the fast cutting, and grumbled after the screening, “Looks like a Chinese goulash.” Culhane’s understanding of filmic techniques led to an enthusiastic response from the audience preview. To him, Seville remained “one of my most satisfying achievements as a director.”
Enjoy this breakdown video, and have a happy Thanksgiving!
(Note about the draft below: sc. 26A is credited to Kline, but the timing/posing is undeniably Hawkins, properly credited in the video above.)
(Thanks to Mark Kausler, Keith Scott, Frank Young, Michael Barrier and Joe Adamson for their help.)