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After co-creating some of the most notable cartoon characters of all time at Warners in the late 30s and early 40s (for Leon Schlesinger), Tex Avery moved to MGM Studios in 1941, where for about thirteen years (from 1941 to 1954), he accelerated the pace and scope of animations and adopted new characters: Adolf Wolf, Screwy Squirrel, a sexy red-headed beauty named Red, and a sad, droopy-eyed, dead-panning basset hound named Droopy (see below).
Avery's first cartoon for MGM, the anti-German propagandist short Blitzwolf (1942) brought him his sole Oscar nomination. It was a wartime semi-parody of Disney's earlier Three Little Pigs (1933) with Adolf Wolf (a thinly-disguised Hitler, portrayed as "one big stinker") threatening to invade the state of Pigmania and the house of Sergeant Pork (US).
Besides Tom & Jerry (see below), the other biggest MGM cartoon character, Tex Avery's most famous and long-lasting at the studio, was the meek, slow-moving and slow-talking Droopy Dog. The emotionless, deadpan-voiced, yet stoic Droopy (known as "Happy Hound") made his nameless debut in MGM's Dumb-Hounded (1943). His first line of dialogue was: "Hello all you happy people...you know what? I'm the hero." He finally received his proper name in his fifth cartoon, Senor Droopy (1949). Drag-Along Droopy (1954) was one of the classic Droopy cartoons, a spoof on range wars between sheepherders (Droopy) and ranchers (the Wolf's "Bear Butte Ranch"), as was Dixieland Droopy (1954) - the first Droopy cartoon in Cinemascope. One Droopy Knight (1957) was nominated for an Academy Award - the character's sole nomination (after Avery left the studio).
Later cartoons for MGM included Avery's controversially-sexy version of the well-known fairy tale Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) and Screwball Squirrel (1944). [Tex Avery's work heavily influenced director Chuck Russell's The Mask (1994) featuring Jim Carrey as mild-mannered bank clerk Stanley Ipkiss, who is obsessed with cartoons. When Stanley dons a magical mask, he turns into an alter ego composed of Tex Avery-like cartoon characters - the Wolf (including a famous double-take with his eyes popping out of his head and a wolf whistle), the Tasmanian Devil (whirling like a tornado), and others. He even re-enacts portions of a classic Avery cartoon that he earlier watched on his VCR, Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), in the nightclub scene. All special effects were compliments of George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic.]
Walter Lantz Studios: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Woody Woodpecker, and Chilly Willy
Walter Lantz, an early animator, and Charles Mintz (representing Universal and boss Carl Laemmle), took over the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Walt Disney in 1928 - it was the first animated character for Universal Pictures. The resemblance of Oswald to its biggest competitor, Mickey Mouse, was striking. Lantz made a series of black-and-white cartoons from 1929 to 1935, featuring the rubber-limbed, long-eared rabbit, including these early titles: Ozzie of the Circus (1929), Stage Stunt (1929), Stripes and Stars (1929), Wicked West (1929), Nuts and Bolts (1929), Ice Man's Luck (1929), Junegle Jingles (1929), Weary Willies (1929), Saucy Sausages (1929), Race Riot (1929), Oil's Well (1929), Permanent Wave (1929), Cold Turkey (1929), Amature Nite (1929), Snow Use (1929), Hurdy Gurdy (1929), and Nutty Notes (1929). Mickey Rooney was the first to do the character's voice. Lantz was noted for also making the first-ever Technicolor cartoon - the opening animated sequence to the live-action The King of Jazz (1930).
Another of Lantz' legendary creations was a new character - the red-headed, blue-bodied, long yellow-beaked, trouble-making Woody Woodpecker, with his distinctive trademarked laugh ("Ha-Ha-Ha-HA-Ha" by Mel Blanc) and voice (by Mel Blanc for the first four cartoons, and then by Ben "Bugs" Hardaway until 1948, and thereafter by Lantz' own wife Grace Stafford). Woody (looking slightly deranged and not like his later persona) first appeared in Lantz' Andy Panda cartoon Knock, Knock (1940) distributed by Universal Studios, in which he bedeviled the panda. The next year, the popular Woody became a starring character as "Woody Woodpecker" in The Cracked Nut (1941), and began to replace the waning Oswald the Rabbit.
Over the next three decades, Lantz made about 200 six-minute Woody cartoons. Woody's appearance and demeanor was somewhat softened in The Barber of Seville (1944), but he still maintained his usually aggressive and slightly sadistic, manic personality. A long-time adversary of Woody's, Wally Walrus, was introduced in The Beach Nut (1944), the same year. Two Woody shorts were Oscar-nominees:
In 1948, the novelty tune, The Woody Woodpecker Song (written by George Tibble, Ramey Idriess and Danny Kaye) was released on record and became the #1 hit song (sung by Kay Kyser). The song was put into the latest cartoon, Wet Blanket Policy (1948) (with another new co-star arch-nemesis Buzz Buzzard) and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song (it lost to Buttons and Bows in The Paleface (1948)). Young boys copied Woody's haircut, and fan clubs developed across the country. In the late 50s, The Woody Woodpecker Show first appeared on ABC-TV in 1957 , and led to further shows and syndication.
A less popular but distinctive Lantz cartoon character was Chilly Willy - a penguin, who first appeared in 1953 in a cartoon titled appropriately, Chilly Willy (1953). Chilly's popularity soared when animator Tex Avery joined the Lantz Studio the following year and directed Chilly's second and third cartoons: I'm Cold (1954) and Academy Award-nominated The Legend of Rock-a-bye Point (1955) for Best Short Subject Cartoon (it lost to Speedy Gonzales (1935), a Warner Bros.' Merrie Melodies cartoon). As with Woody, Chilly Willy cartoons appeared all the way until 1972 - the last year of production.
Tom and Jerry:
In their first full teaming together after first meeting at MGM and serving as co-directors in the studio's animation unit, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera created the cat and mouse Tom and Jerry series (clearly influenced by the frenetic action in Tex Avery's work at Warners), comic adventures about Tom - a gray mangy cat, and Jerry - a wisely innocent mouse. When the cartoon series highlighting the love-hate relationship between the two animals was first introduced in 1940 with the 9-minute Puss Gets the Boot (1940), Hanna and Barbera received their first Oscar nomination. In this first appearance of the characters, Tom was called 'Jasper' and the mouse had no name.
Over 100 cartoons from 1940 to 1958 featured the two cartoon characters, and Hanna and Barbera were able to break Disney's Oscar monopoly for award-winning cartoons. They won more Academy Awards than any other cartoon series in history, except for Disney's Silly Symphonies. They won Oscars for Best Short Subject: Cartoon for the following animated cartoons, all in the Tom and Jerry series:
In The Cat Concerto (1946), Tom was a concert pianist, attempting to play Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 while Jerry the mouse was trying to sleep in the piano. And in the last film Johann Mouse (1952), Jerry - the mouse, can't resist waltzing when he hears music from the master of the house, Viennese composer Johann Strauss. Tom, also a resident in the household of the Maestro, takes piano lessons to keep Jerry dancing and entranced - so that he can snatch him. One of their most famous cartoons was Mouse in Manhattan (1945) that featured a score by Scott Bradley (made up mostly of Louis Alter's "Manhattan Serenade" later used in The Godfather (1972) and Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown's "Broadway Rhythm") and told about Jerry's adventures in the big city.
Later, in a few famous sequences, Jerry the mouse danced with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (1945) - the first instance of the combination of live action and animation in a feature film. Tom and Jerry also performed an underwater fantasy dance with Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet (1953). Famed animator Chuck Jones was assigned to produce new episodes for Tom and Jerry cartoons in the 70s at MGM - but they had lost their spunk and spirit by that time - and were ultimately unsuccessful.
The First Full-Length Animated Film:
The earliest animated films that most people remember seeing are the later, more sophisticated Disney feature films that contain exquisite detail, flowing movements, gorgeous and rich color, enchanting characters, lovely musical songs and tunes, and stories drawn with magical or mythological plots. The first, full-length animated film was Disney's classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) released on December 21, 1937, which took four years to make and cost $1.5 million dollars. It was 1938's top moneymaker at $8 million.
It was financed due in part to the success of Disney's earlier animated short, The Three Little Pigs (1933). Although dubbed "Disney's Folly" during the three-four year production of the musical animation, Disney realized that he had to expand and alter the format of cartoons. He used a multi-plane camera, first utilized in his animated, Oscar-winning Silly Symphonies short, The Old Mill (1937) to create an illusion of depth and movement. His version of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale was the second of its kind - the first was a five-minute Snow White (1933) starring Betty Boop (with an appearance by Cab Calloway). Disney's risk-taking paid off when the film became a financial and critical success.
[It must be noted that another little-known but pioneering, oldest-surviving feature-length animated film that can be verified (with silhouette animation techniques and color tinting) was released more than a decade earlier by German film-maker and avante-garde artist Lotte Reiniger, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (aka Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed) (1926, Germ.), based on the stories from the Arabian Nights.]
Disney's Golden Age of Hollywood Animations in the 40s:
The Golden Age of Hollywood cartoon comedy was in the late 1930s and 1940s. The critically-praised Pinocchio (1940) released on February 7, 1940 and based on Carlo Collodi's 1883 fable made a record $2.6 million and became the highest-earning film of the year. This second Disney animated feature also won two Oscars, for Best Original Score and Best Song (When You Wish Upon a Star). It was the rites of passage story of a wooden puppet (with Tyrolean britches) that came alive. The good-intentioned but naughty boy was accompanied by an ingenuous narrator/carpetbagger named Jiminy Cricket who served as the boy's conscience (and sounded like Benjamin Franklin). The ingenious animation used the multi-plane camera technique to create an amazingly life-like animation.
Disney experimented with other milestone, ground-breaking techniques that combined classical music and animation in seven separate episodes in the film Fantasia (1940), released on November 12, 1940. The film, with a production cost of more than $2 million (about four times more than an average live-action picture), featured Mickey Mouse as the star of the picture in Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the mouse's only appearance in a feature cartoon. It was the first film to be released in a multichannel stereo sound format called Fantasound - decades ahead of its time - requiring a special system devised for playback, although it was rarely shown that way due to the expense (and the fact that only 6 theaters were equipped to play Fantasound).
Fantasia was the fullest expression of Disney's earlier work on Silly Symphonies. [A sequel of sorts was released 60 years later, originally in the IMAX format, Fantasia/2000 (1999), with new interpretations of classical music (including Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance, Stravinsky's Firebird, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 - and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue), plus a replay of The Sorcerer's Apprentice.]
Other great classic Disney tales, animated features, and storybooks in the 40s included:
The 1950s: Disney's Golden Age of Animation (continued)
In the 50s, Disney released more animated features, including the following full-length classics:
In order, Lady and the Tramp (1955), Peter Pan (1953), and Cinderella (1950) were the top 3 grossing films of the 50s. [Taking into account reissues and re-releases over the years as well as the original releases, the order of these top-grossing animated films of all time has been rearranged, placing Cinderella (1950) first, followed by Lady and the Tramp (1955) and then Peter Pan (1953).]
Walt Disney achieved a milestone in the 1954 awards ceremony - as the individual with the most Oscar wins (4) in a single year. He won the award in four awards categories, including one film which was animated: Best Cartoon Short Subject: Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953).
UPA Productions - Columbia Studios:
Some who left Disney Studios around the time of the studio's 1941 strike later established United Productions of America (UPA), a studio for cartoons distributed by Columbia. It was known for simplified, stylized drawings of human characters in the Jolly Frolics cartoon series, such as Gerald McBoing-Boing (first seen in the cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing (1951)) and the near-sighted Mister Magoo (with voice by Jim Backus).
Mister Magoo's first cartoon was Ragtime Bear (1949) - also in the same series of Jolly Frolics cartoons. The first of the Mister Magoo series of cartoons was Spellbound Hound (1950). Mister Magoo starred in UPA's first feature-length cartoon film, the 76-minute 1001 Arabian Nights (1959).
Jay Ward -- Crusader Rabbit and After:
Animator Jay Ward, working with Alexander Anderson, Jr (whose idea was first turned down at Terrytoon Studios), created the immensely-popular animated, serialized NBC-TV show Crusader Rabbit, through their new company Television Arts Productions. It was the first American animated series produced especially for television. The show originally aired from 1950 -1952 and also had a color version in 1957, with both Lucille Bliss and GeGe Pearson providing the voice of the Don Quixote-like title character. It told about knight-in-armor Crusader Rabbit and his tiger companion Rags, combatting nemesis Dudley Nightshade, with episodes ending in a cliffhanger. Ward went on to produce animated cartoon shows, such as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show - composed of Rocky and His Friends (1959-1961) and The Bullwinkle Show (1961-1964), Hoppity Hooper (1964-1967), George of the Jungle (1967), and The Dudley Do-Right Show (1969-1970) about a Canadian Mountie. The only live-action TV comedy show that he produced was Fractured Flickers (1963).
Hanna and Barbera:
In the late 50s after their success with Tom and Jerry cartoons, Hanna-Barbera formed their own company. They were one of the earliest animation studios to become successful producing animated cartoon TV shows for television, but were often criticized for their crude, low-budget animations. They became responsible for the following cartoon shows, and their related spin-offs:
Based upon some of these cartoon shows, they also produced feature-length films, such as the animated musicals Hey There, It's Yogi Bear! (1964) and The Man Called Flintstone (1966) - a James Bond spoof, the Star Trek-like Jetsons: The Movie (1990), and the live-action Scooby-Doo (2002) (with a sequel in 2004).
Cold War Era Propagandistic Animations:
One of the most notorious propaganda films ever made, Duck and Cover (1951), was aimed at school children. The 9-minute Civil Defense film used an animated turtle named Bert to show children how to survive a nuclear explosion or atomic attack by using a "duck and cover" technique under their desks. Later, Bert became a cultural icon in the documentary The Atomic Cafe (1982), and it was cleverly spoofed in Brad Bird's The Iron Giant (1999) with a cartoon beaver. For its historical and cultural place within film history, it was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2004.
Advanced Animation Techniques in the 50s and 60s:
Ray Harryhausen and Others
In 1949, inspired by the stop-motion work of Willis O'Brien in King Kong (1933), Ray Harryhausen animated the stop-motion gorilla in Mighty Joe Young (1949), although the work was mostly credited to O'Brien. This was Harryhausen's first feature film for which he created stop-motion animation. His own distinctive brand of stop-motion animation was termed DynaMation - a process involving split-screen rear projection to insert the stop-motion characters into background live-action plates. He created the fantastic images in 15 films between 1953 and 1981, including:
Ray Harryhausen's films, such as his best known work Jason and the Argonauts (1963) with its skeletal warriors set-piece, perfected stop-motion animation. By the time the 61 year-old Harryhausen had finished Clash of the Titans (1981), he had worked on more than a dozen sci-fi and fantasy films with stop-motion animation.
George Pal, the father of screen science fiction fantasy films, artistically combined live acting cinematography, animation, puppets (e.g., Puppetoons produced for Paramount in the 30s), and other visual effects in films such as Tom Thumb (1958), the Cinerama-configured The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1963).
Animator-geniuses of recent years have used pixillation, the frame by frame animation of live subjects or objects and human beings by filming them incrementally in various fixed poses. Mary Poppins (1964) was a more recent, semi-animated kids musical with both live-action and animated characters.
The best-known work of the Halas & Batchelor (husband and wife) animation studios was the adult-themed and serious Animal Farm (1954), the first animated color feature film made in England. All of the character's voices were provided by actor Maurice Denham. The allegorical tale, based on George Orwell's 1945 satirical political novel, told of animals at Manor Farm who were led by fascist pigs Napoleon and Snowball to rebelliously overthrow oppressive Farmer Jones, take over the farm, and form a free, egalitarian socialist utopia. The new society was to be based upon seven principles: 1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. 2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. 3. No animal shall wear clothes. 4. No animal shall sleep in a bed. 5. No animal shall drink alcohol. 6. No animal shall kill any other animal. 7. All animals are equal. However, the animals would learn that some animals were more equal than others. [After the success of the 'talking-animal' hit Babe (1995), the film was later remade as the live-action TNT-TV production, Animal Farm (1999). It featured creations of Jim Henson's Creature Shop (where director John Stephenson was a veteran supervisor), animatronics and computer animation.]
A classic family animation with similar animal characters, although a-political, was Charlotte's Web (1973), adapted from E.B. White's beloved tale about an intelligent spider (Charlotte, voiced by Debbie Reynolds), a rat (Templeton, voiced by Paul Lynde), and a bashful, ill-fated barnyard pig (Wilbur, voiced by Henry Gibson). It was noted for Charlotte's sacrificial saving of Wilbur with web-spinning creations ("Some Pig"), Wilbur's caring for Charlotte's egg sac and spiderlings upon her death, and memorable songs including "Mother Earth and Father Time."
The magical puppetry of Jim Henson's Muppet characters have also charmed audiences, first with The Muppet Movie (1979), then followed by more adventures with Kermit, Miss Piggy, and other delightful characters. [See section on Children's Films.]