“Ha-ha-ha-HA-ha! Ha-ha-ha-HA-ha! That’s the Woody Woodpecker Song…”
In 1947, musicians George Tibbles and Ramey Idriss played Walter Lantz their new song about his famous manic woodpecker over the phone. Tibbles and Idriss wanted it published, and Lantz agreed. In October of that year, James Caesar Petrillo, union leader and head of the American Federation of Musicians, outraged that jukebox companies and disc jockeys made more money than the musicians in his union, announced a nationwide strike by all musicians in the country. It would be effective at the stroke of midnight, January 1st, 1948. This gave the record companies three months to stockpile recorded songs. Petrillo had paralyzed the record industry with a prior ban that lasted from August 1942 to late 1944.
On New Year’s Eve, Tibbles and Idriss approached popular bandleader Kay Kyser, in the midst of an immense recording session, and wanted their Woody Woodpecker song recorded before midnight. Kyser agreed, but his other songs would need recording first. At ten minutes to midnight, Kyser recorded the song. Gloria Wood sang the lyrics and Harry Babbitt performed the woodpecker’s trademark laugh. While the strike ended only a few weeks later, The Woody Woodpecker Song became a magnificent hit in June 1948, selling over 250,000 records within ten days, with 155,000 sales of sheet music.
Lantz stated to The San Diego Daily Journal (June 29, 1948) that Woody’s laugh hadn’t been imitated so incessantly before the public’s exposure to the song. He heard it everywhere – at the market, the drug store, in telephone calls, and at the barbershop. It even decreased his golf scores, but he couldn’t argue with its popularity. To ensure further success, he rushed the song to the soundtrack of Dick Lundy’s Wet Blanket Policy.
Lundy was part of a new group of animators that emerged at Disney’s in 1929. He started as an in-betweener and cel washer and became assistant to esteemed animator Norm Ferguson. As a full animator, Lundy was adept at dancing sequences (i.e. Piper and Fiddler Pig in Three Little Pigs and Mickey’s Astaire number in Thru the Mirror) but his animation of Donald Duck for the character’s second appearance, Orphan’s Benefit, proved he was just as competent with personality animation. It was Lundy who developed Donald’s belligerent tantrums, as he hopped around with one arm stretched out.
When Lundy was promoted to director, he mainly made Donald Duck cartoons, along with Navy training films during World War II. Around October 1943, Lundy found himself without any animator/directorial assignments, even after coming up to Disney’s office to discuss his status. He was terminated and felt betrayed, since he helped organize the burgeoning studio. To make matters worse, he hadn’t received a bonus for his work on Snow White when it finished. He migrated to the Lantz studio the following month.
As he arrived at the studio, Lundy animated on Culhane’s Lantz cartoons until he started directing on March 23, 1944. Culhane and Lundy’s cartoons at Lantz are night and day, particularly when it comes to story and characterization. Culhane was often able to improve writer Ben Hardaway’s meager contributions, but Lundy was not as conscientious. Woody Woodpecker is relegated to a “fall guy” figure, in the Jack Hannah Donald Duck vein, in Lundy’s cartoons. The Coo-Coo Bird, Solid Ivory and The Mad Hatter are big examples of this, but Lundy’s efforts were more helpful in other aspects.
Culhane’s departure in October 1945 left Lundy as the sole director. He brought a new visual flair to the Lantz cartoons. The rough-and-tumble, formally innovative cartoons of his predecessor were now smoothed down to a slick, graceful quality. Other changes proceeded under Lundy’s watch. The Swing Symphonies were now replaced with the short-lived “Musical Miniatures” (The Poet and Peasant, Musical Moments from Chopin, The Overture to William Tell, The Bandmaster, Kiddie Concert and Pixie Panic), profiling classical melodies as well as Lundy’s brilliant musical timing. Adjustments aside, Lantz was not keen on Lundy’s Disney influence, knowing he didn’t share Culhane’s quick humor. As well, his shorts cost more to make, due to their more elaborate animation. The Musical Miniatures were Lantz’s most expensive series, costing over $30,000 to produce. After a dispute with Universal, Lantz signed a distribution contract with United Artists on February 12, 1947.
Wet Blanket Policy (released August 27th, 1948) not only boosted The Woody Woodpecker Song to an Academy Award nomination (the only animated short with this distinction), but introduced Buzz Buzzard, a stronger adversary for Woody. Lionel Stander’s gravelly voice for Buzz provided the perfect mixture for animated villainy. Due to the afterthought of adding the song, the music doesn’t match with the first minute and half of the cartoon, and it obscures Buzz’s first line of dialogue (his first audible line “The Whistler!” is a reference to the 1940s radio mystery drama/film adaptation of the same name). The character/plot is a reprise of Dick Lundy’s last Donald cartoon, Flying Jalopy, where both main characters sign off crooked life insurance policies, and escape murder as soon as the ink is dry.
Ed Love and Fred Moore’s presence added to the visual sheen of Lundy’s cartoons. The alcoholic Moore had been fired from Disney’s in August 1946. He at first freelanced at Lantz, but was later on staff. Moore was given the opportunity to redesign Woody into a sleeker character. His only credit in the draft ─ of Buzz shilling his phony insurance ─ has great posing and flexibility. Ed Love has almost two minutes of animation in the cartoon, still carrying his sharp timing/drawing from Avery’s MGM cartoons. Pat Matthews also does some phenomenal work here, especially Buzz’s reaction to Woody’s nearby whistling.
Lantz’s cartoons were at the pinnacle of 1940s animation, but their producer was stricken with financial troubles with the Bank of America and distribution difficulties with UA. Lantz was forced lay off his artists. Each department grew empty by the week, with one last cartoon on the pipeline, Drooler’s Delight. Solely animated by Ed Love, it was Lundy’s last cartoon for the studio (it was also the last entry where Lionel Stander voiced Buzz Buzzard). Lundy’s polish and Stander’s voice vanished in one fell swoop when the studio closed (Stander had been blacklisted from films by the HUAC.) The studio re-opened a year later, but the slashed budgets guaranteed less vibrant animation, and Buzz was replaced by Dal McKennon, a talented voice actor that played him as more of a buffoon than a lout, as Stander had.
Here’s this week’s breakdown video (and keep your eyes peeled, there’s an ad for Lantz’s New Funnies comics somewhere!)