Walter Lantz Productions
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|Fate||Merged into Universal Studios|
|Key people||Walter Lantz|
Walter Lantz Productions was an American animation studio. It was in operation from 1929 to 1949, and then 1950 to 1972, and was the principal supplier of animation for Universal Studios, now part of the media conglomerate NBCUniversal, owned by Comcast.
The studio was formed originally as Universal Studio Cartoons on the initiative of Universal movie mogul Carl Laemmle, who was tired of the continuous company politics he was dealing with concerning contracting cartoons to outside animation studios. Walter Lantz, who was Laemmle's part-time chauffeur and a veteran of the John R. Bray Studios with considerable experience in all elements of animation production, was selected to run the department.
In 1935, the studio was severed from Universal and became Walter Lantz Productions under Lantz's direct control, and in 1940, Lantz managed to gain the copyright for his characters. The cartoons continued to be distributed by Universal through 1947, changing to United Artists distribution in 1948–49, and by Universal again from 1951 to 1972.
The earliest Lantz Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, from 1929, were built around set plots and stories, in the tradition of the earlier Disney and Winkler shorts. The conversion of Oswald cartoons into musicals was a different matter. However, by mid-1930, Lantz and his staff achieved this goal. Unfortunately, in the process, Oswald's personality became less consistent. It could and did change drastically to fit a particular gag. Lantz's musical directors changed as well. To replace David Broekman, Lantz brought in James Dietrich, a member of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, making the jazz-era sound of the 1920s a quintessential element in the early Lantz cartoons. He remained as the permanent studio musical director until 1937.
In 1931, Lantz faced economic difficulties and was forced to make cutbacks, shortening the lengths of his films and post-synchronizing a handful of the early Disney Oswalds. Another way out of the hole was to gain attention by creating a secondary series of shorts featuring a new star, Pooch the Pup. Lantz and Nolan would now divide the studio into two separate units. Lantz would direct the Pooch cartoons, while Nolan would work on the Oswalds.
In 1935, control of Universal was slipping from the hands of founder Carl Laemmle and his family. Financial difficulties, the spending habits of Carl Laemmle, Jr. (who headed Universal since 1928), and the production of the costly and lavish remake of the 1929 part-talkie musical Show Boat all contributed to the downfall of the Laemmle regime. By the end of the year, the stockholders had had enough. The Laemmles were finally forced out and John Cheever Cowdin became Universal's new president. With the change in management, Lantz seized the opportunity to ask Universal for permission to make his studio independent. Universal agreed, and on November 16, 1935, Lantz broke off and claimed the studio for his own, even though it remained on the Universal lot.
In 1940, the Walter Lantz studio was in trouble. Because the studio starting to use Technicolor produced some clashes between Lantz and the management at Universal Pictures, who didn't like that their animation department was offering an apparently better output than their features, Universal decided to cut their weekly advance to the now-independent Lantz studio. This left Lantz scrambling for alternative sources for funds, forcing him to shut down the studio for a while. Lantz was able to gain the rights to the characters of his films (including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), and an Andy Panda cartoon, Crazy House, was developed into Lantz's first fully independent film. Lantz used the film as a final appeal to the heads of Universal and, in the end, was able to reach a satisfactory settlement with them. By autumn 1940, Lantz's studio was back in business again.
In 1947, Lantz went to renegotiate his seven-year Universal contract with Matty Fox, the new vice president of Universal. But the deal was interrupted when new ownership transformed the company into Universal-International and did away with most of Universal's company policies. The new management insisted on getting licensing and merchandising rights to Lantz's characters. Lantz refused and withdrew from the parent company by the end of 1947, releasing 12 cartoons independently through United Artists during 1948 and early 1949.
Under the deal with United Artists, Lantz was supposed to receive percentages of box-office receipts to pay for the production costs of his cartoons. Unfortunately, UA attributed a very small portion of the dollar amounts to Lantz's shorts from the features. The result was that Lantz exceeded his standing loan of $250,000 from Bank of America (he had left Irving Trust in 1942). It did not help that UA was, at the time, a struggling studio attempting to re-establish its position in the industry. So, at the recommendation of BAC president Joe Rosenberg, Lantz decided to shut down his studio temporarily at the end of 1948 until the loan was reduced. He asked Universal to reissue his older films during the hiatus, a request that was accepted by Universal President Nate Blumberg.
In 1950, the Walter Lantz studio opened its doors once again. The first effort the studio produced was a brief sequence featuring Woody Woodpecker for the George Pal feature Destination Moon, released on June 27, 1950. Lantz then renegotiated with Universal for seven cartoons to be released the following year, provided that they all feature Woody Woodpecker. Lantz and his crew immediately set to work on the new batch of shorts. It should be noted that two of these new films — Puny Express and Sleep Happy — were previously storyboarded by Ben Hardaway and Heck Allen during the United Artists period. In 1951, the new cartoons were finally released and became instant hits with audiences. They were so successful, in fact, that Universal commissioned six more shorts for the following year. Overall, 1951 marked the beginning of a new era for the Walter Lantz studio.
During the fifties, the theatrical cartoon business was suffering and losing money. By 1956, there were only seven animation producers in the short-subjects business, and by the end of the decade that number would dwindle to three. Walter Lantz and his distributor, Universal Pictures, knew that the only way to subsidize the rising costs of new shorts was to release their product to television. Norman Gluck, from Universal's short-subjects department, made a deal with the Leo Burnett Agency to release some older Lantz product on television. Burnett handled the Kellogg's cereal account, and Lantz soon met with the Kellogg's people to sign the contract. Lantz admitted that he was only working in the medium because he was “forced into TV” and “cartoons for theaters would soon be extinct.”
The Woody Woodpecker Show debuted on ABC on the afternoon of October 3, 1957. The series was seen once a week, on Thursday afternoons, replacing the first half hour of the shortened Mickey Mouse Club. Lantz integrated his existing cartoons with new live-action footage, giving the show an updated look that satisfied both viewers and Lantz himself. The live action and animation segments created for the show, called ‘A Moment with Walter Lantz’, featured an informative look at how the animation process for his “cartunes” worked, as well as how the writers came up with stories and characters. The live-action segments were directed by Jack Hannah, who was fresh from the Disney Studio, where he had done similar live-action/animation sequences for the Disney show.
By the 1960s, other movie studios had discontinued their animation departments, leaving Walter Lantz as one of the only two producers still making cartoons for theaters (the other studio was DePatie-Freleng Enterprises).
From 1967 to the studio's closure in 1972, Universal distributed the Lantz cartoons as packages, and theaters would play them in no particular order. Lantz finally closed up shop in 1972 (by then, he later explained, it was economically impossible to continue producing them and stay in business, as rising inflation had strained his profits), and Universal serviced the remaining demand with reissues of his older cartoons. Bye Bye Blackboard, a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, was part of the final slate of cartoons made at the Walter Lantz studio. Thirteen were completed for the 1972 season: one with Chilly Willy, four starring the Beary Family, and the rest with Lantz' star character, Woody Woodpecker. Upon discovering that it would take a decade for his shorts to show a profit, Lantz himself decided to shut down company operations, and threw a farewell luncheon with his staff at the announcement.
The biggest characters for the studio were Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, Chilly Willy, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The music-oriented Swing Symphony cartoons were another successful staple, but ended after swing music died out.
Throughout the studio's history, it maintained a reputation as an animation house of medium quality. Lantz's animated shorts (dubbed "Cartunes") were considered superior to those of Famous Studios and Terrytoons, but they never gained the artistic acclaim of Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, Fleischer or UPA. However, the studio benefited from gaining talent from the other studios who were tired of the management there and usually found the Lantz studio a more enjoyable working environment. Tex Avery was just one of the many talents Walter Lantz Productions benefited from on the rebound.
After Disney's success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Lantz studio planned to make its own feature, Aladdin and His Lamp, featuring the comedy duo of Abbott and Costello, but after Mr. Bug Goes to Town failed at the box office, "Aladdin" never made it to actual production.
Unlike other major animation studios of America, the studio never continued full-time in existence during the classic period of American animation, closing down in 1940 for two months, and then in 1948, reopening its doors two years later (both closures were caused by financial problems inside Lantz's distributors); it was shut down again (permanently) in 1972, after the end of the Golden Age of American animation. Since then, the characters of the studio have continued to be used in syndicated television series in licensed merchandise. From 1931 to 1932, Walter Lantz re-issued six of the Disney Oswald cartoons, like Trolley Troubles, Great Guns and The Ocean Hop.
In 1984, although Lantz sold everything outright to MCA/Universal, he remained active in overseeing how Universal handled his characters (for merchandise, TV, home video, theme parks, limited edition cels, etc.) up until his death in 1994.
In February 2006, the now-NBC Universal (who still owns the Lantz library) sold the trademark rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit along with the copyright to the original 26 cartoons produced Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. The sale was part of a deal that centered around both the rights to Oswald and NBC's acquisition of the rights to the NFL's weekly Sunday night game; in exchange for NBC Universal selling the rights to Oswald to Disney, Al Michaels was freed from his contractual obligations with ESPN and ABC so he could join NBC and become the Sunday Night Football play-by-play man.
In July 2007, Universal Studios Home Entertainment released The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, a three-disc DVD box set compilation of Lantz Cartunes. A second volume was released in April 2008, followed by a vanilla release in 2009, Woody Woodpecker Favorites, which contained no new-to-DVD material. Animation historian Jerry Beck, partly involved in the production of the DVD releases, has stated that plans for further volumes are currently on hold.
Walter Lantz filmography
- Andy Panda (1939–1949, 24 theatrical cartoons)
- The Beary Family (1962–1972, 28 theatrical cartoons)
- Cartune Classics (1934–1942, 1953–1957, 51 theatrical cartoons) (miscellaneous characters)
- Chilly Willy (1953–1972, 50 theatrical cartoons)
- Foolish Fables (1953–1955, 3 theatrical cartoons)
- Hickory, Dickory, and Doc (1959–1962, 8 theatrical cartoons)
- Homer Pigeon (1942–1956, 3 theatrical cartoons)
- Inspector Willoughby (1960–1965, 12 theatrical cartoons)
- Lil' Eightball (1939, 3 theatrical cartoons)
- Maggie and Sam (1955–1957, 4 theatrical cartoons)
- Maw and Paw (1953–1955, 4 theatrical cartoons)
- Meany, Miny and Moe (1936–1937, 13 theatrical cartoons)
- Musical Miniatures (1946–1948, 6 theatrical cartoons) (offshoot of the Swing Symphonies, featuring classical melodies)
- Nertsery Rhyme (1939, 2 theatrical cartoons)
- New Universal Cartoon (1938, 16 theatrical cartoons)
- Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1929–1943, 143 theatrical cartoons)
- Pepito Chickeeto (1957, 1 theatrical cartoon)
- Peterkin (1939, 1 theatrical cartoon)
- Pooch the Pup (1932–1933, 14 theatrical cartoons)
- Sugarfoot (1954, 2 theatrical cartoons)
- Swing Symphony (1941–1945, 14 theatrical cartoons) (musical cartoons, often featuring top boogie-woogie musicians)
- Windy & Breezy (1957–1959, 5 theatrical cartoons)
- Woody Woodpecker (1940–1948, 1949–1950, 1951–1972, 195 theatrical cartoons)
- Coca Cola Commercials (1948–1953, 19 theatrical commercials)
- "Meet my boss, Walter Lantz". The Los Angeles Times. 2007-10-22. Retrieved 2011-11-22.
- The Ones that Didn't Make it
- "Who's Who in Animated Cartoons: An International Guide to Film & Television ... - Jeff Lenburg - Google Books". Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-07-06.
- "Walter Lantz Studios Studio Directory". www.bcdb.com, April 13, 2012
- Official site for the Woody Woodpecker and Friends DVD collection
- The Big Cartoon DataBase entry for Walter Lantz Productions cartoons
- The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia
- Walter Lantz animation art at Rubberslug