Woody Woodpecker is an animated cartoon character, an anthropomorphic woodpecker who appeared in theatrical short films produced by the Walter Lantz animation studio and distributed by Universal Pictures. Though not the first of the screwball characters that became popular in the 1940s, Woody is perhaps the most indicative of the type.
Woody was created in 1940 by storyboard artist Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, who had previously laid the groundwork for two other screwball characters, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at the Schlesinger/Warner Bros. studio in the late 1930s. Woody's character and design would evolve over the years, from an insane bird with an unusually garish design to a more refined looking and acting character in the vein of the later Chuck Jones version of Bugs Bunny. Woody was originally voiced by prolific voice actor Mel Blanc, who was succeeded by Ben Hardaway and later by Grace Stafford, wife of Walter Lantz.
Lantz produced theatrical cartoons longer than most of his contemporaries, and Woody Woodpecker remained a staple of Universal's release schedule until 1972, when Lantz finally closed down his studio. The character has only been revived since then for special productions and occasions, save for one new Saturday morning cartoon, The New Woody Woodpecker Show, for the Fox Network in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
Woody Woodpecker cartoons were first broadcast on television in 1957 under the title The Woody Woodpecker Show, which featured Lantz cartoons bookended by new footage of Woody and live-action footage of Lantz. Though less popular today, a repackaged version of The Woody Woodpecker Show is still frequently seen in television syndication. Woody has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on 7000 Hollywood Blvd. He also made a cameo alongside many other famous cartoon characters in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Woody Woodpecker first appeared in the film Knock Knock on November 25, 1940. The cartoon ostensibly stars Andy Panda and his father, Papa Panda, but it is Woody who steals the show. The woodpecker constantly pesters the two pandas, apparently just for the fun of it. Andy, meanwhile, tries to sprinkle salt on Woody's tail in the belief that this will somehow capture the bird. To Woody's surprise, Andy's attempts prevail, and Woody is taken away to the funny farm — but not before his captors prove to be crazier than he is.
The Woody of Knock Knock, designed by animator Alex Lovy, is a truly deranged-looking animal. His buggy eyes look in different directions, and his head is all angles and sharp points. However, the familiar color scheme of red head and blue body is already in place, as is the infamous laugh: "Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha!". Woody is perhaps the best example of the new type of cartoon character that was becoming popular in the early 1940s — a brash, violent aggressor who pesters innocents not out of self defense, but simply for the fun of it. Woody's original voice actor, Mel Blanc, would stop performing the character after the first four cartoons to work exclusively for Leon Schlesinger Productions, producer of Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. At Schlesinger's, Blanc had already established the voices of two other famous "screwball" characters who preceded Woody, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. Ironically, Blanc's characterization of the Woody Woodpecker laugh had originally been applied to Bugs Bunny's predecessor, "Happy Rabbit", in shorts such as the aforementioned Elmer's Candid Camera, and was later transferred to Woody. Blanc's regular speaking voice for Woody was much like the early Daffy Duck, minus the lisp. Once Warner Bros. signed Blanc up to an exclusive contract, Woody's voice-over work was taken over by Ben Hardaway, who would voice the woodpecker for the rest of the decade.
Audiences reacted well to Knock Knock, and Lantz realized he had finally hit upon a star to replace the waning Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Woody would go on to star in a number of films. With his innate chutzpah and brash demeanor, the character was a natural hit during World War II. His image appeared on US aircraft and mess halls, and audiences on the homefront watched Woody cope with familiar problems such as food shortages. The 1943 Woody cartoon The Dizzy Acrobat was nominated for the 1944 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons), which it lost to the MGM Tom and Jerry cartoon The Yankee Doodle Mouse.
Animator Emery Hawkins and layout artist Art Heinemann streamlined Woody's appearance for the 1944 film The Barber of Seville, directed by Shamus Culhane. The bird became rounder, cuter, and less demented. He also sported a simplified color scheme and a brighter smile, making him much more like his counterparts at Warner Bros. and MGM. Nevertheless, Culhane continued to use Woody as an aggressive lunatic, not a domesticated straight man or defensive homebody as many other studios' characters had become. The follow-up to The Barber of Seville, The Beach Nut, introduced Woody's chief nemesis Wally Walrus.
In 1947, contract renewal negotiations between Lantz and Universal (now Universal-International) fell through, and Lantz began distributing his cartoons through United Artists. The UA-distributed Lantz cartoons featured higher-quality animation, the influence of Dick Lundy (the films' budgets remained the same). Former Disney animators such as Fred Moore and Ed Love began working at Lantz, and assisted Lundy in adding touches of the Disney style to Woody's cartoons.
"The Woody Woodpecker Song" and the Woody Woodpecker cartoons made extensive use of Woody's famous laugh, upsetting the man who created it, Mel Blanc. Although Blanc had only recorded four shorts as the voice of Woody, his laugh had been recorded as a stock sound effect, and used in every subsequent Woody Woodpecker short up until this point. Blanc sued Lantz and lost, but Lantz settled out of court when Blanc filed an appeal. While Lantz would stop using Blanc's Woody Woodpecker laugh as a stock effect in the early 1950s, Blanc's voice would be heard saying "Guess who?" at the beginning of every cartoon for the duration of the Woody Woodpecker series.
Beginning with the 1950 feature film Destination Moon, which featured a brief segment of Woody explaining rocket propulsion, Woody's voice was taken over for this and following films by Lantz's wife, Grace Stafford. According to the Lantzes, Stafford slipped a recording of herself into a stack of audition tapes, and her husband chose her without knowing her identity. Lantz also began having Stafford supply Woody's laugh, possibly due to the court case with Mel Blanc. Nevertheless, Stafford was not credited for her work at her own request until 1958 with the film Misguided Missile, as she felt audiences might reject a woman doing Woody's voice. Stafford also did her best to tone down the character through her voice work, to appease Universal's complaints about Woody's raucousness.
Lantz signed again with Universal (now Universal-International) in 1950, and began production on two Woody Woodpecker cartoons that director Dick Lundy and storymen Ben Hardaway and Heck Allen had begun before the 1948 layoff. These shorts have no director's credit, as Lantz claims to have directed them himself. Puny Express, released by Universal-International in 1951, was the first to be released, followed by Sleep Happy. These shorts marked a departure from the dialogue-driven shorts of the past. Though Stafford now voiced Woody, her job was limited, as Woody (as well as the rest of the characters) rarely spoke in the first dozen or so shorts. It was because of these shorts that Woody became very popular overseas, thanks to the lack of a language barrier (The Pink Panther shorts of the 1960s and 1970s would also enjoy worldwide popularity due to this pantomime luxury).
Nine more Lantz-directed Woody cartoons followed, before Don Patterson became Woody's new director in 1953. The bird was redesigned once again for these new cartoons, this time by animator LaVerne Harding. Harding made Woody smaller, cuter, and moved his top-knot forward from its original backwards position. By 1955, Woody also received one more minor makeover, making his domestication complete: the hazel pigmentation in his eye was eliminated starting with 1955's The Tree Medic, making Woody's eye a simple black dot. This version of the character is still used today as Woody's official look.
By 1955, Paul J. Smith had taken over as primary director of Woody's shorts, with periodic fill-in shorts directed by Alex Lovy and Jack Hannah, among others. With Smith on board, the shorts maintained a healthy dose of frenetic energy, while the animation itself was simplified, due to budget constraints. In addition to Lantz's wife Grace Stafford providing Woody's voice, which returned the cartoon to being more dialogue-driven again, voice talents during this period were generally split between Dal McKennon and Daws Butler. This era would also introduce several of Woody's recurring costars, most notably Gabby Gator, who first appeared in Everglade Raid (then known as "Al I. Gator"). Other films paired Woody with a girlfriend, Winnie Woodpecker, and a niece and nephew, Splinter and Knothead, both voiced by June Foray. The domestication of Woody Woodpecker was complete.
Woody Woodpecker reappeared in the Fox Kids series The New Woody Woodpecker Show, which ran on Saturday mornings from 1999 to 2003. The series featured the first new Woody cartoons to be produced in over 20 years, and returned the character's design to the Dick Lundy/Emery Hawkins version of the late 1940s. Woody's voice is now provided by voice actor Billy West. The original Woody Woodpecker Show also continues to run in syndication, and Woody and Winnie both appear as costumed characters at Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Japan and Universal Studios Hollywood.
Woody was number 46 on TV Guide's list of the 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All-Time in 2002 and 2003. He came in at number 25 on Animal Planet's list of The 50 Greatest Movie Animals in 2004. The character has been referenced and spoofed on many later television programs, among them The Simpsons, American Dad!, South Park, The Fairly OddParents, Family Guy and Seinfeld.
The Beach Boys' 1967 album Smiley Smile featured a song entitled "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (Woody Woodpecker Symphony)." Also, the first song on the 2007 Dan Deacon album Spiderman of the Rings is entitled "Wooody Wooodpecker" and makes extensive use of the characters trademark laugh.
Woody Woodpecker is the mascot for the Universal Studios Theme Parks. In 1998, Woody appeared on the nose of the Williams Formula One Team, and in 2000, he became the official team mascot of the Honda Motorcycle Racing Team. A balloon featuring the character has long been a staple of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
A handful of non-comprehensive Woody Woodpecker VHS tapes were issued by Universal in the 1980s and 1990s, usually including Andy Panda and Chilly Willy cartoons as bonuses. A few were widely released on VHS in the mid-1980s by Kid Pics Video, an American company of dubious legality, who packaged the Woody cartoons with bootlegged Disney cartoons. In the early 2000s, a series of mail-order Woody Woodpecker Show VHS tapes and DVDs were made available by mail order through Columbia House. However, following complaints about censorship (the cartoons included featured varying amounts of censorship, from restored and intact prints to severely cut TV edits), the series ended after fifteen volumes rather than the planned twenty.
In 2007, Universal Studios Home Entertainment released The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, a three-disc DVD box set compilation of Walter Lantz "Cartunes". The first forty-five Woody Woodpecker shorts — from Knock Knock in 1940 to The Great Who-Dood-It in 1952 — were presented on the box set in chronological order of release, with various Chilly Willy, Andy Panda, Swing Symphonies, and other Lantz shorts also included. A second collection, including the next forty-five Woody cartoons — Termites from Mars through Jittery Jester — was released in 2008.
|DVD Name||Cartoon #||Release date|
|The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection: Volume 1||45 Woody cartoons, |
|July 24 2007|
|The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection: Volume 2||45 Woody cartoons, |
|April 15 2008|