Scaring trick-or-treaters on a dark Halloween night seems easy enough, but what does it take to strike fear into the hearts of cartoon fans? To find out, let’s travel back in time sixty years ago to see how the fortunes of a studio may have tilted on the axis of a mostly forgotten cartoon, Witch Crafty (1955).
Even watching it today, this cartoon appears promising in its opening moments, with an inspired bit of action and effects animation. A witch flying on a broom delivers a fun aerial sequence—she spins around a mountaintop, whooshes through clouds, dances on her broomstick, and then crashes into a chimney.
As she slides down the bricks, it becomes clear how the cartoon will play out. Woody Woodpecker is working the night shift at a broom factory. When the witch realizes she has broken her broom, she inquires for a replacement. Woody agrees to make her a new one for only 50 cents, but when she swindles him a conflict ensues between the two.
The story team are Mike Maltese and Homer Brightman. Despite their notable careers in animation, this seems an underperforming attempt from them. There is not much in this premise to really ratchet up the gags. The witch is not much of a foil or even an eccentric character. Witch Crafty never really finds a rhythm or offers something clever to make us laugh.
And here is why, looking at the Lantz studio releases for 1955, that this cartoon deserves to make us SCREAM: it marks the moment when the Walter Lantz cartoons take a precipitous turn for the worse, commencing a nosedive from which they never recovered. However, at that moment in time, there was still a reason to be hopeful.
The cartoon released the previous month was Crazy Mixed-Up Pup, starring new characters Maggie and Sam, and it was followed by the classic Legend of Rock-a-bye Point, a Chilly Willy short. These were reinvigorating the Lantz slate of cartoons because each was directed by none less than Tex Avery. The Avery-Maltese pairing should have been a longstanding collaboration that would have minted more classics for years to come.
Unfortuately, a financial dispute kept this from happening. Avery at this point in his career was expecting more than a salary. He wanted a share of the back-end profits. In fact, he had begun directing at Lantz with certain expectations that began to unravel when he became aware of complicating factors that he felt would compromise his split. Walter always maintained that if Tex had stayed that he too would have gotten rich, but their negotiations soured.
After one more cartoon—the oddly or maybe aptly titled SH-H-H-H-H-H — the great Tex Avery was gone and never returned. And ever since Lantz had moved his studio to Seward Street in Hollywood a few years earlier (after an initial period of directing by Lantz himself), Don Patterson had been the director who was capably handling the Woody series, but suddenly in 1955 there was turnover that altered the creative talent at the top.
Avery preferred not to work on Woody, so he developed the ‘specials’ or non-Woody cartoons that had previously been assigned to Paul J. Smith. With the departure of both Patterson and Avery, Smith was effectively promoted to the ranking director in charge of the Woody Woodpecker series, which he never relinquished. When Lantz closed his studio in 1972, Smith was there to call it a career with his boss.
Not much is made of what an omen Witch Crafty turned out to be, like a signpost that pointed to one path yet fortune should have picked the other. Had the Avery dispute been ironed out, the mediocrity that defines the later years of Lantz cartoons might have been avoided. As well, Tex might have stayed a director of theatrical shorts, which suited him best, instead of working on animated commercials and then forgettable TV shows.
Sandwiched between two parting gems from a comedy master, Witch Crafty provides an inciting incident that now seems like ironic commentary. Instead of paying the meager 50 cents for the broomstick, the witch rubber-stamps the inkprint of a coin on Woody’s hand, and so they fight. But only for a dispute over money that would maybe seem like chump change now, cartoon fans are forever without an additional—yes, possibly!—17 years’ worth of Tex Avery cartoons. And that is a blood-curdling horror story fit to bring out a frightful round of screams on this Halloween day.