Woody Woodpecker is an animated cartoon character, an anthropomorphic acorn woodpecker who appeared in theatrical short films produced by the Walter Lantz animation studio and distributed by Universal Studios. 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 Warner Bros. cartoon 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 been revived since then only 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. Woody has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on 7000 Hollywood Boulevard. He also made a cameo alongside many other famous puppet characters in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Woody Woodpecker and friends are also icons at the PortAventura Park in Salou, Spain. Brought to the park by Universal Studios, Woody and friends remain there despite Universal no longer having a financial stake in the park.
Film and TV history
According to Walter Lantz's press agent, the idea for Woody came during the producer's honeymoon with his wife, Gracie, in Sherwood Lake, California. A noisy woodpecker outside their cabin kept the couple awake at night, and when a heavy rain started, they learned that the bird had bored holes in their cabin's roof. As both Walter and Gracie told Dallas attorney Rod Phelps during a visit, Walter wanted to shoot the thing, but Gracie suggested that her husband make a cartoon about the bird, and thus Woody was born. The story is questionable, however, since the Lantzes were not married until after Woody made his screen debut. Also, their story that the bird's cry inspired Woody's trademark "Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha!" is also questionable, as Mel Blanc had already used a similar laugh in earlier Warner Bros. cartoons such as Elmer's Candid Camera.
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 was designed by animator Alex Lovy. Woody's original voice actor, Mel Blanc, would stop performing the character after the first four cartoons to work exclusively for Leon Schlesinger Productions (later renamed Warner Bros. Cartoons), 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 a Bugs Bunny prototype, 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. To complete the connection full circle, Hardaway, who had also worked under Schlesinger at Warner Bros., was the designer of the Bugs Bunny prototype that Blanc supplied the aforementioned laugh for. Haradaway's nickname around Termite Terrace (the ramshackle building where the Looney Tunes were originally produced) was "Bugs," and the bunny prototype's first model sheet was labeled "Bugs' Bunny"—the apostrophe was later dropped.
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 as nose art, and on 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.
The post-war woodpecker
Woody's wild days were numbered, however. In 1946, Lantz hired Disney veteran Dick Lundy to take over the direction chores for Woody's cartoons. Lundy rejected Culhane's take on the series and made Woody more defensive; no longer did the bird go insane without a legitimate reason. Lundy also paid more attention to the animation, making Woody's new films more Disney-esque in their design style, animation, and timing. Lundy's last film for Disney was the Donald Duck short Flying Jalopy. This cartoon is played much like a Woody Woodpecker short, right down to the laugh in the end. It also features a bad guy named "Ben Buzzard" who bears a strong resemblance to Buzz Buzzard, a Lantz character introduced in the 1948 short Wet Blanket Policy who would eventually succeed Wally Walrus as Woody's primary antagonist.
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"
In 1947, Woody got his own theme song when musicians George Tibbles and Ramey Idriss wrote "The Woody Woodpecker Song", making ample use of the character's famous laugh. Kay Kyser's 1948 recording of the song, with Harry Babbitt's laugh interrupting vocalist Gloria Wood, became one of the biggest hit singles of 1948. Other artists did covers, including Woody's original voice actor, Mel Blanc. Lantz first used "The Woody Woodpecker Song" in the 1948 short Wet Blanket Policy, and became the first and only song from an animated short subject to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song. Lantz soon adopted the song as Woody's theme music, and due to the song's popularity, Woody Woodpecker fan clubs sprang up, theaters held "Woody" matinées, and boys got the "Woody Woodpecker" haircut.
"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 (the laugh, in a different recording, was first used for the seminal Bugs Bunny prototype character in Elmer's Candid Camera). 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.
Financial problems within United Artists during the aftermath of the Paramount case caused financial problems within the studio, and by the end of 1948, Lantz had to shut his studio down. The Lantz studio did not re-open again until 1950, by which time the staff was severely downsized.
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 claimed to have directed them himself (despite the fact it has been speculated to be directed by another). 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 outside the English-speaking world, 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 crest forward from its original backwards position (although Woody had sported this look since 1947). (The small Lantz Studios logo seen at the start of every cartoon - Woody as an armored knight on horseback carrying a lance - continued to display Woody with his old topknot for a while.) For 1955's The Tree Medic, one last makeover was given to the woodpecker, making Woody's eye a simple black dot and taking away the green/hazel iris he'd had since his beginnings. However, Woody's eyes were not changed in the cartoon's intros, and they remained green for the rest of the shorts' production run. During this time, the intro was changed as well. Instead of having Woody's name on screen and Woody pecking a hole in the screen to introduce himself, Woody would peck his way onto the screen, say "Guess who?", peck his name on either a brown or gray wood background, and flop around the screen laughing.
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 (voiced by Daws Butler in an Ozarks voice, a slightly different southern dialect than he used for Huckleberry Hound). Gabby first appeared in Everglade Raid (then known as "Al I. Gator"). Other films paired Woody with a girlfriend, Winnie Woodpecker (voiced by June Foray), and a niece and nephew, Splinter and Knothead (both voiced by June Foray). Other antagonists that Woody has dealt with were Ms. Meaney (voiced by Grace Stafford) and Dapper Denver Dooley (voiced by Dallas McKennon).
Woody in the television era
As Lantz was struggling financially, Woody's longevity was secured when he made the jump to television in The Woody Woodpecker Show on ABC. The half-hour program consisted of three theatrical Woody shorts followed by a brief look at cartoon creation hosted by Lantz. It ran from 1957 to 1958 then entered syndication until 1966. It was later revived by NBC in 1970, and again in 1976. In addition, the woodpecker was no longer dishing out abuse to his foils, but was instead on the receiving end. The first notable short to feature Woody as the straight man was 1961's Franken-Stymied. Woody's popularity had been based on his manic craziness, and by 1961, this had all but been eliminated in favor of a more serious Woody, one that was trying to do good. This was due in part to Woody's large presence on television, which meant Lantz had to meet the stringent rules against violence for children's television.
Woody continued to appear in new theatrical shorts until 1972, when Lantz closed his studio's doors due to rising production costs. His cartoons returned to syndication in the late 1970s. Lantz sold his library of Woody shorts to MCA/Universal in 1985. Universal repackaged the cartoons for another syndicated Woody Woodpecker Show in 1987. A year later, Woody made a brief cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, voiced by Cherry Davis, near the end of the film. In 1995, Woody appeared in a Pepsi commercial with NBA star Shaquille O'Neal.
Woody Woodpecker reappeared in the Fox Kids series The New Woody Woodpecker Show, which ran on Saturday mornings from 1999 to 2002. For this series Woody's appearance was redesigned to look more like his mid-1940s look instead of the classic look he had sported for years afterward. To that effect, his crest was pushed back and his eyes were once again made green. Winnie Woodpecker, who had debuted in Real Gone Woody in 1954, became a semi-regular character as Woody's primary love interest. Like Woody, Winnie received a redesign that made her look almost exactly like Woody did from 1947 until 1972, with the obvious differences being that she was a female woodpecker and had blue eyes. Woody's primary antagonist was Wally Walrus, who became Woody's neighbor (Woody lived in a tree house in Wally's backyard). Buzz Buzzard often made appearances, as did Ms. Meany and several other older characters.
Woody and Winnie both appear as costumed characters at Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Japan, Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Singapore.
The Woody Woodpecker Show was named the 88th best animated series by IGN.
Walter Lantz and movie pioneer George Pal were good friends. Woody Woodpecker makes a cameo in nearly every film that Pal either produced or directed—for example, during the 1960 sequence in The Time Machine, there is a brief shot of a little girl dropping her Woody Woodpecker doll as she goes into the air raid shelter.
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 character's trademark laugh.
Woody Woodpecker is the mascot for the Universal Studios Theme Parks. In 1998 and 1999, 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.
Woody Woodpecker is also the patron saint of the computer science program at Chalmers University of Technology.