Friday, December 14, 2018

Walter Lanz’s Woody Woodpecker #182

Christmas 2018
Kid’s Stuff – Saturday Morning Cartoon Edition
Walter Lanz’s Woody Woodpecker #182

Don’t laugh, it contains three great all-ages stories

"Recipe for Trouble / The Water Wizard / An Alarming Situation”
Writer – Uncredited
Penciller – Uncredited
Inker – Uncredited
Letterer – Uncredited
Colorist – Uncredited
Editor – Uncredited
September 1978

Woody Woodpecker, the screwball bird with the beak like a pickaxe and the laugh of an insane asylum escapee, appeared in his first cartoon Knock Knock on November 25, 1940. The character’s creation is a bit of a tale in itself, as Woody owed his existence to a bunch of diverse hands.

For one, Woody only came in as the lunatic foil for the actual stars of the show he was on. Andy Panda is the billed star of the short. He and his father Papa Panda are spending time at home, when Woody comes knocking…or rather pecking. He annoys them to no end with his antics before being carted off to the looney bin in the end. As he is carted off, his captors prove to be crazier than he is.

(I'm including a link to the Knock Knock short, but be warned, the content is on youtube and riddled with ad breaks. Watch at your own risk. It is still amazing, but having your viewing experience interrupted every 30 seconds is enough to make you boycott all the advertisers.)

Who wouldn’t be? The pecking and peculiar call of the pileated woodpecker that the animated character is based off of would drive anyone to distraction. Exactly as one did to creator Walter Lanz and his new bride Gracie on their honeymoon in Lake Sherwood, California. Walter wanted to shoot the noisy bird, but his wife Gracie suggested that her husband make a cartoon of him instead.

Initially animated by Alex Lovy, Woody was developed by Lantz and the famous storyboard artist Ben “Bugs” Hardaway. His look became more refined over the years, looking less like a lunatic with crossed eyes and more like a mischievous but slick human shaped bird in the vein of the Chuck Jones Bugs Bunny. There were many hands that assisted in this transition over the years.

And his voice was no simple matter either. Initially voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc, Woody bore someone else’s voice after two shorts. Woody was a product of Universal Studios and Mel Blanc signed an exclusive contact with Warner Bros soon after the woodpecker’s creation. That meant Blanc moved on to do voices for Bugs, Porky, and Daffy, leaving Woody without the power of speech. While other voice actors were brought in to read Woody’s lines, Blanc’s signature “Guess who?” and Woody’s trademark laugh were used through-out the character’s first decade. A huge list handled Woody’s speaking parts thereafter including Danny Webb, Kent Rogers, storyboard artist Ben Hardaway, Walter Lantz’s wife Grace Stafford, Cherry Davis, Futurama alumni Billy West, and Eric Bauza.

The signature outrageousness and lunatic behavior went on for six years before Disney veteran Dick Lundy showed up to direct Woody’s cartoons. He rejected the earlier take on the character and grounded his antics unless he had a legitimate reason to fly off the handle. Thus Woody became much like Bugs in this regard: he began as a crazy, insane foil for an innocent and wound up as the innocent himself, albeit one that could act the lunatic given sufficient reason. And the short would always provide that excuse for his hijinks.

Just one year later, in 1947, Woody got his own theme music. The Woody Woodpecker Song made ample use of the character’s signature laugh and garnered quite a following. It became one of the biggest hit singles in 1948 and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, a first for an animated short. Lantz adopted it for Woody’s cartoon theme music from then on. 

Woody was gaining popularity. Clubs for Woody sprouted up. During WWII, his image had been painted on the sides of American planes and bombers that flew in battle, and now he only became more well liked. Theater matinees spring up showing his shorts and boys were getting haircuts that mimicked his feathery locks.

The use of the laugh in the song and the shorts upset Blanc. A lawsuit ensued but an out-of-court settlement was reached with Blanc at Lantz’s request. However, the court case came as a blow to Lantz. He shutdown his studio for two years, opening it again in 1950 with a much reduced staff. He ended up replacing Blanc’s laugh with one provided by his wife, Grace Stafford. She had slipped an audition tape into the stacks and Lantz had picked her without knowing. She would go on to voice Woody, uncredited for the next eight years. 

By the end of those eight years Lantz was struggling financially. True, Woody had become a worldwide sensation owing to many of the 1950’s shorts not having much dialogue. But due to budget constraints Lantz had been forced to reduce the quality of the animation, owing to a much simpler, redesigned Woody. During this period Woody was given a love interest in Winnie Woodpecker and a niece and nephew.

A white knight appeared when ABC ordered The Woody Woodpecker show and the popular bird made the leap to television in 1958. It was a half hour program showcasing three shorts and a brief interlude by Lantz talking about cartoon creation.

The show ran for a year and then survived on syndication until 1966.

NBC revived it in 1970 and again in 1976. Woody transitioned to straight-man, having to cut down his manic craziness to meet the stringent rules against violence in children’s television. These toons were further hampered by even more simplified animation techniques, coming in below the ones made in the 40’s and 50’s.

His revivals would continue. You can’t keep a good character down, so it seems. Lantz sold his library to MCA Universal in 1985. They repackaged them in 1987. Woody even got a walk on near the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Definitely that was the high water mark, even though he would receive a new show 1999 on Fox with Billy West doing the voice. Currently there is a new 2D animated series on YouTube.

And as a humiliating footnote, Woody received his own live action/CGI movie in 2018. The Canadian film had a direct to video release in the US. The less said about it the better.

Dell was the original title holder to the Woody Woodpecker license for producing comics. When Western Publishing split from Dell to create its Gold Key line, it appears Woody was one of the properties it took with it. All the stories in this issue are uncredited. Writer Mark Evanier once said that mid-1960’s TV comedy writer Jerry Belson (who wrote for such TV sitcoms as The Dick Van Dyke Show) could be credited for writing some of the Woody Woodpecker comics, but even I don’t think he was still at it in 1978.

However, whomever wrote this knew what they were doing. This isn’t really true to the wacky nature, early 40’s-50’s Woody personality, but it holds up to his later straignt-man incarnations pretty well. There is nary an odd laugh in sight, so I do feel we are missing some of the authenticity of the character. I’d fault the book for that, except that in its place is some solid storytelling the likes of which I haven’t seen outside of the Disney books ten-pager comedic pieces. They may not be quite as good as say a Carl Barks story, but they aren’t far off from it.

I should just crack the cover and show you what I mean. We’ll begin with Recipe For Trouble

I enjoyed this one for what the story didn’t do. Let me set things up for you. We begin with Woody, his niece, and nephew barging in on Winnie because they see smoke billowing out her window. Appears she needs a whole new kitchen set in the worst way.

Sadly, she doesn’t have money for all that. Who does? Well, not Woody and the kids, who hastily make for the exit. And then Woody sees something on TV later…

And there is what we believe will be our payoff at the end of the story, wrapped up like a bow. Woody and the kids are going to win that contest. Except they need something to cook. Something like Winnie’s prize-caliber Yum-Yum Cake.

Trouble is only Winnie has the recipe. So this will be several pages of them attempting to sneak the box of recipe cards out…

…no? That easy, huh? Okay…

…then the cake will need some exotic element or crazy condition or they won’t have time to make it or Woody’s a horrible cook or…

…no? None of that? And they even take the time and effort to practice making the cake so they can be certain they do a good job at it like reasonable people? Okay, comic. You got me. Where is this story going?

Why to the bake-off, obviously! The unexpected part comes from Winnie tuning in to watch…

…and becoming miffed when she notices that Woody is baking her cake recipe. After finding the card missing she rushes down to the station.

This is all going to end up fine, I’m certain folks. One bite of that Yum-Yum Cake is all it will take for Woody to win and then Winnie will forgive him AND have a new set of kitchen appliances. Right?

Except it totally DOESN’T! Winnie destroys the cake by mashing it into Woody’s bill, the audience gets a good laugh, and there is nothing left for the judges to try. Wait! Wait! I had this ending figured out. Where the heck are we going now?

Why, back to Woody and the kids beating the street selling Winnie’s cakes in an effort to capitalize off the publicity from the Baking Show Contest. And for all their efforts, it looks like Winnie will be back in her own newly decked out kitchen in no time.

Surprising. The story showed me an expected result and then went somewhere else instead. It created a satisfying, surprising twist that made me reevaluate just how good these short little stories might me.

On to number two…

Our second tale, dubbed The Water Wizard, begins with Woody and the kids coming upon a giant, exceptionally unintelligent dog while out camping in the woods. The beast is so stupid that it traps itself chasing after them.

After tying a rope around his neck and rescuing the big lug, the trio come across a similarly huge canary…

…that is also as dumb as a bag of rocks.

Lucky for them, they are happened upon by Professor A. Meetbole, the cause of these mentally stunted giants. Appears both of these big creatures used to be of above-average intelligence, then Meetbole gave them a dose of his giant water to make them healthier. What he ended up with are giantly healthy mental midgets.

Meetbole doesn’t see the downside to any of this though and makes off to add his giant water to the local drinking water. Woody and the kids run away to notify the authorities, but Meetbole sends his huge mutt and bird after them. Woody realizes they will have to outsmart the dumb pair if they are going to prevent Meetbole from raising the town’s stature while simultaneously shrinking its collective IQ.

This ploy works and Woody escapes with the kids. Unfortunately, the town sheriff doesn’t believe Woody’s wild tale. And the lawman puts a tail on them to stop them from creating a panic. Bumper is as dumb as he is big, worrying Woody that Meetbole has already gotten his giant water into people’s homes.

Turns out Bumper’s just the common, ordinary variety of nincompoop. It takes very little convincing to get him on the bird’s side. 

Unfortunately, Meetbole is able to turn the tables on them and convince Bumper that the giant water would make him smarter. And he nabs Woody as a new test subject. Meanwhile the kids find out that the reservoir is already tainted and the first victim is a bear who is now huge (and dumb.)

While the kids get the bear to follow them, Woody’s situation is looking worse and worse…

…which convinces Bumper to tell the town to lay off the water, after which Woody and the gang discover its effects are temporary.

Another surprisingly well made story. It takes none of the curves you expect and is an enjoyable read-through. So far the magazine is two for two. Let’s head into the final tale and see how we finish up?

Our last bit of birdwatching is called An Alarming Situation and it features an appearance by Wally Walrus as Woody’s neighbor. Wally is a bit nervous when he catches Woody installing a burglar alarm attached to a rather large siren on the top of Woody’s house. Wally’s worried about being disturbed by false alarms. Woody sets his mind at ease.

Woody’s thought of everything. At least it appears that way until a pesky pelican starts pecking at the wiring.

Of course, this is exactly the thing that Wally and Woody’s other neighbors were worried about, so Woody hops up on the house to fix it straightaway. He’s still feverishly working on bird proofing his alarm system when Winnie drops by. 

Unfortunately Winnie isn’t aware of the new alarm remote and tries to use it to turn on the television.

And all of this would still be fine, if it wasn’t for the presence of this burglar who happens by. Noting the elaborate setup, he assumes Woody’s got something extremely valuable he’s trying to protect. And so, he concocts a diversion so he can break in unannounced. He starts with that bothersome pelican…

While Woody and the kids try to disable the alarm, the thief sneaks in and starts making off with their valuables. However he is quickly caught in the act by Woody’s niece and nephew.

Which causes them to activate the alarm again, startling Woody right off the roof, onto the ladder, and landing him on the back of the escaping criminal. 

And that wraps the issue up nicely. I will be completely honest in stating that I didn’t think I would get my money’s worth out of this issue. I came away pleasantly surprised. Whomever did the writing and art clearly took pride in telling a good story.

And it was nice to sneak down Woody Woodpecker’s memory lane too. I honestly had no idea the character had been around since the 1940’s. It seems astounding to believe he’s only a couple of decades shy of being 100 years old. Hopefully there’s still a successful revival ahead for him. The character certainly deserves one.

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