Friday 16 March 2012

Bitesized Biographies #3 - Walter Lantz

I never tried to make a cartoon for a certain age bracket. I just tried to make entertaining pictures. That's why they still play and why they play so well in foreign countries."
—Walter Lantz

After looking at perhaps two of the most famous and prolific figures in all of animation, Chuck Jones and Matt Groening, with our first two Bitesized Biographies; it seemed very apt and fitting - given A113Animation's new year's resolution to spotlight classic cartoons and pay homage to the geniuses behind them - that this latest Bitesized Biography is dedicated to one of the less famed animation pioneers, Walter Lantz.

Although his name may resonate with a few of you, it's possible that you've no idea who Walter Lantz is. However, it's very unlikely that you haven't heard of his most famous creation: Woody Woodpecker. The famed woodpecker, known best for his distinctive laugh and his screwball comedy, was a particular staple of my childhood - with The New Woody Woodpecker Show being one of the most influential cartoons in my early life. Over 70 years old, Woody has remained a strong favourite amongst those who grew up watching him (which is an awful lot), and it was announced late last year that Illumination Entertainment, the studio behind Despicable Me, were developing a film adaptation of the character. Another famed creation of Lantz's that, if anything, meant more to me growing up, was the adorably mischievous penguin, Chilly Willy.

Born on 27th April, 1899 in New Rochelle, New York to Italian parents that had immigrated to America some time previously - the name Lantz was actually bestowed upon his father by an immigration officer upon entry to the States, to Anglicize the family's original name, Lanza - Walter Lantz was interested in art and drawing from a very early age. By the age of just 12, Lantz had completed a mail-order drawing class, imbuing him with the enthusiasm for his natural artistic talents that would lead him - along with the very first cartoon he saw, Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur - to a fantastic career in cartoons and animation.

As often is the case, Walter Lantz needed a big break, something to propel him into stardom and prosperity, but more than that - to leave his legacy. This came via the help and belief of a wealthy customer of the car garage he worked at, Fred Kafka, who was so taken with some of Lantz's drawings adorning the garage that he financed his studies at the Art Students League in New York. This would catapult him into a world of animation, and in 1924 - directing for the John R. Bray Studios - he directed his first cartoon, Dinky Doodle.

When work in New York died down, Lantz made the decision that many others before and since would make - to relocate to Hollywood. A few years prior, Universal had snatched Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Walt Disney (Lantz was referred to as The Other Walt, and was actually close friends with Disney) and Lantz would be brought on in 1928, under Charles B. Mintz, as a director on the cartoons. A year later, the studio would grow tired of Mintz and removed him; producing the Oswald shorts at the studio, under new management. Lantz wagered Universal's president, Carl Laemlle, that he could beat him at poker, the prize if he could: the rights to Oswald and the new animation studio charged with producing those cartoons. Walter was successful in his gamble and renamed his newly acquired animation studio Walter Lantz Productions.

Although Oswald served Walter Lantz Productions well, by the late 30s, the series had run its course and the studio had to try and create some new characters, characters that would soon eclipse the status and recognition of Oswald - including Andy Panda, as well as the aforementioned Chilly Willy and, most famously, Woody Woodpecker. Although, Woody would have many voices in his early years, originally being voiced by Mel Blanc of Looney Tunes fame, before eventually being voiced by Lantz's wife, the actress Grace Stafford. The zany characters originally brought to mind an early Daffy Duck, before the he really came into his own; epitomising the studio. Woody would be nominated for an Academy Award in 1948, for The Woody Woodpecker Song (which would get Lantz sued by Mel Blanc for use of the distinct laugh he recorded prior to his departure from the character).

Due to the climate of the time, theatrical cartoons were no longer financially viable, and in 1972 (long after most other competitors), Walter Lantz Productions shut down production. In 1990, Woody Woodpecker was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, recognising the quality and prestiege of the most famous character to emerge from the mind of Walter Lantz. Lantz passed away just a few years later on 22nd March, 1994 - leaving a lasting impression and an eternal legacy on the world of animation.

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