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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Walter Lantz Dose Of Native Americana

Boogie Woogie Sioux Drips 1942 Technicolor

How much heed did cartoon-makers pay to quality of output? Not enough, say investigators of Walter Lantz. He was most about finishing on time and doing so cheaply, that at least understandable in view of fact that Walt was independent producing his shorts for Universal release and they frowned on overruns. Any extravagance would be Lantz's cross to bear, as in money gone from his pocket. So how good was "good enough"? Film Daily trade-reviewed Boogie Woogie Sioux and liked it ("This short cleverly combines fun and music"). Seven minutes mattered less so long as it was colorful and loud, two elements Lantz flogged hard with his "Swing Symphony" series. These cartoons don't get seen a lot nowadays, a few are on Woody Woodpecker DVD sets from Universal, but content of others (racial, ethnic, what not) maintain quarantine for much of the lot. Lantz hired animators from all over into his wartime shop, thanks to the ruinous Disney strike (many had left WD) and stragglers off Warner assembly. These guys couldn't uplift Lantz, but he could sure drag them down.

Pretty soon a newcomer would understand that keeping within budget was Rule One and Only (Walt deplored spend-levels over $15K per reel). Swing Symphony formula was simple in the extreme: A problem would be introduced, then resolved in terms of jive, peppy music a cure to all ills. The set-up here is parched Indians seeking rain; can a hot band, Tommy Hawk and His Five Scalpers, come to rescue? Lantz staff knew the drill soon as the boss handed down framework ... desert gags, thirst jokes, redskinned laffs ... the situation was old as hills, but swing's tonic would soothe that. Technicolor as Lantz-rendered made it look like someone took brushes to the screen itself, being among most vivid hues laid down in the 40's. That legacy lasted thanks to Castle Films releasing Lantz cartoons to home use from the late 40's through the 60's. Prints were supplied by Technicolor in narrower format --- you could own Boogie Woogie Sioux in glorious 16mm three-strip --- and they'd not fade. Collectors rightfully prized these intact survivors from cartooning's Swingingest Era.

Ouch! Writer/Historian Scott MacGillivray Supplies a Glimpse of What Castle
8 and 16mm Prints Eventually Became When They Weren't On Technicolor Stock 

UPDATE: 9/10/13 --- 1:35 PM: Scott MacGillivray, expert in the area of Castle Films, and author of  a splendid book on the topic, sends along the following specifics of Walter Lantz cartoons on non-fading (or otherwise) 8 and 16mm stock:

Castle only issued Technicolor prints for a few years, ending in 1950. Castle's color releases were usually printed in Cinecolor (1941-51), Kodachrome, and Ansco, and ultimately in the cheaper and far less sturdy Eastmancolor (which is why there are so many faded Lantz cartoons these days).
The print I viewed of Boogie Woogie Sioux, belonging to a longtime film collector, turns out to have been one of those rare Techicolor prints that Castle sold prior to 1950, according to Scott's info. Wonder how many of these even exist now ...

Many Thanks to Scott MacGillivray for this fascinating info.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson speaks up for Walter Lantz and the Universal cartoon style:

Lantz was cheap, but from what I've read he was generally regarded as a nice guy (unlike Paul Terry, the other fabled cheapskate). And while the cartoons never threatened the other Walt, they weren't as gratingly childish as Terrytoons or post-Fleischer Paramounts.

You could make a case that Lantz cartoons were a perfect match, in tone and quality, for Universal B product of the same vintage. Looney Tunes were sharp and snappy like Warner gangster pics. Tom & Jerry, for all their violence, had a hint of MGM gloss. If you're there for "Cobra Woman" or Bud & Lou meeting another monster, Woody Woodpecker is a suitable appetizer.

That logo of Woody as a knight always intrigued me. I always thought that somewhere out there was a mini-franchise of Woody in that guise, like the Tom and Jerry as musketeers (besides the shorts there were comic book stories and Viewmaster slides, I recall).

7:43 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Very astute observation about the Lantz cartoons being appropriate curtain-raisers for Universal features! The "Woody as a knight" logo is a visual pun: it's a LANCE cartoon.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

Every year that he was in business, Lantz made it easy for film critics to compile their "10 Worst Films of the Year" List. The ten worst of the year? Any and all films by Walter Lantz. His cartoons were THAT bad.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Ouch! A little harsh there, Tom, don'cha think? (Or don'cha?) Lantz's cartoons of the '30s and '40s had a lot of energy and, depending on the level of talent involved, some great humor. The Woody cartoons were fine up until the time Lantz's wife took over the vocals. Likewise just about everything else Lantz put out from the 1950s onward was indeed as bad as you suggest (the four Averys excepted, although not by much).

In 1972, I saw AMERICAN GRAFFITI at Loew's Riverdale in the Bronx, and the program opened with one of the last BEARY FAMILY cartoons. I was astonished that 1) any theaters were still RUNNING cartoons by then; 2) Lantz was still MAKING them (although I later found out he'd just stopped); 3) a cartoon in the post-Bugs Bunny era could be so woefully unfunny.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Lantz's cartoons were not that bad (tho' at the end they certainly lived down to that label).

When DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID opened in Toronto it had a late Woody by Paul j. Smith in front of it.

The theater went wild. I turned to my friend and said, "In two minutes they will be shouting, 'Take it off!'"

In two minutes the audience was shouting, "Take it off!"

Had it been one of the earlier Woody that would not have happened. Had it been Shamus Culhane's THE BARBER OF SEVILLE the place would have gone wild.

The 4 Avery cartoons go over very well, Michael J. Hayde.

I think when Universal briefly pulled the plug on Lantz he lost his spark.

2:37 PM  

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