Saturday, August 11, 2007
Last of the WOODY goodies
My compliments to all involved in the WOODY and POPEYE DVDS. Both sets are excellent and here's hoping for a volume 2 for each.
Although both series of shorts have been rare in recent decades, I consider myself lucky to have been born just in time to enjoy their heyday in syndication before virtually disappearing in the 1970's. From that point on if you saw either Woody or Popeye anywhere it was usually a later (poorer) short from the twilight of their run. Woody was at one point my very favorite cartoon character, but he virtually dropped out of view in the late 1960's. Luckily, I had seen enough of the B & W Fleischer cartoons in adulthood to know that they held up (to say the least), but Woody became so scarce for so long I was beginning to think maybe my memories of enjoying the early ones were faulty. Happily, these DVD's bear my fond memories out. In fact, they are in many ways better than I remember.
Although the Woody's aren't as lavish (or quite as well crafted) as Warner and MGM shorts, they are freewheeling, loose and pretty action-packed. The gags are good and often unpredictable and Lantz gets lots of credit for not over-analyzing the characters (at least not early on). Woody can be an aggressor or victim, sane or insane, driven by hunger, greed or just a penchant to annoy others. You never quite know how (or when) each cartoon will end. I am impressed by the fact that while the DVD revived many memories, the cartoons still seem fresh, and it says something that as a kid I don't remember noticing Woody constantly changing model, even within a given cartoon which goes to the issue of what "on-model" really means (a lifetime peeve).
I am also glad there are many more cartoons where Woody has a "man" voice and even that changes from cartoon to cartoon. Yet for all his flexibility he is always ineffably himself. Maybe because there isn't much to the character to begin with, but what little there is, it's unique. There's a lesson in there somewhere about over-thinking characters. And somehow I like the guy, even though I don't really "care" about him in the classic sense. After all Woody doesn't do much to solicit sympathy or "identification" but he sure is fun to watch and I can't wait to see what he does. Whatever it is, it's usually something the laws of physics or propriety wouldn't let me do, which is what animation is all about. I had also forgotten what wonderful 'heavies' Wally Walrus and Buzz Buzzard were, at least initially. The genius stroke of making Wally Swedish is pretty brilliant and Buzz (who I remember just being kind of rotten) is actually a nicely realized sleaze-ball.
The extras are great. The shows where Walter Lantz walks you through the process are things I remember seeing when very small and had a lot to do with stoking my fascination for the animation process. I remember having made up my mind to become a cartoonist by the time I was four years old and these clips had a lot to do with it.
Most of the animation is really inventive and very often the humor comes as much from the execution of the action as from the gag ideas themselves. What a novel concept! Fans of Emery Hawkins will be in heaven watching this stuff. There are also many lesser known animators who seem to are pretty fantastic here: Pat Matthews, Les Kline, Ken O'Brien and Alex Lovy among them. The Lantz studio Tex Avery cartoons are among that director's best and funniest later work and it seems like the animators had no trouble adapting to whoever was in charge. And although none of the soundtracks would be mistaken for MISTER ROGERS', it's a joy to watch how much time is devoted to purely visual pantomime. Compared to the shrieking yakk-filled cartoons of today, many of them seem quiet.
Jerry Beck if you're reading this, my thanks to you and all involved.