UNIVERSAL STUDIOS CARTOONS / WALTER LANTZ STUDIOPrimary Product: Animated cartoons
Producing Since: 1929
Noted For: Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, Chilly Willy, Oswald the Rabbit, and more
Please contribute to its necessary financial support.
Amazon.com or PayPal
major movie studios to maintain their own animation departments. The first to bring the cartoon production in-house was Universal Studios.
Like other film producers, Universal got its cartoons from various sources over the years. One of them was a distribution company owned by M.J. (Margaret) Winkler and run by her husband, Charles Mintz. Starting in 1927, Mintz supplied them with a series called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which he got from their producer, Walt Disney. Tho Disney had created Oswald, Universal owned the character.
Universal (in the person of Carl Laemmle, its mogul) was relatively unfazed when, in 1928, Mintz switched suppliers. The Oswald cartoons from the new studio (which was run by Mintz's brother-in-law, George Winkler) were about as good as Disney's — and why not? The people who actually made them for Winkler, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, had worked on them at Disney.
A year later, Harman and Ising approached Laemmle with the idea of cutting out the middle man — let the Oswald cartoons be produced by their own Harman-Ising Studio and sold directly to Universal, leaving Mintz and Winkler out in the cold. By this time, Laemmle had had enough back-biting intrigue, and started thinking it might be better to get rid of the entire lot, and build a cartoon studio of his own — if only he could find someone to run it. Then an associate reminded him of a young man who drove Laemmle to his weekly poker game and supposedly brought him luck, and who also happened to have been in the animation business before Disney himself — Walter Lantz.
Lantz, assisted by Bill Nolan, quickly assembled an animation department for Universal, which then began churning out a couple of Oswald cartoons a month. In 1932, the studio attempted to diversify with a new character, Pooch the Pup, but that fizzled. The next non-Oswald — Jolly Little Elves (released October 1, 1934) inaugurated the "Cartune Classic" series, a knock-off of Disney's Silly Symphonies. That one was both the first Lantz cartoon produced in color, and the first to be nominated for an Academy Award.
In 1935, amid a political upheaval at Universal, Lantz negotiated a new position for himself — going against the trend Universal itself had started, Lantz's studio would be spun off from Universal, making Lantz mini-mogul of his own animation production company. Five years later, in another studio brouhaha, he secured the copyrights and trademarks of the characters themselves.
Besides the first Cartune Classic, the Lantz Studio's Oscar nominees include The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B (1941, directed by Lantz), Juke Box Jamboree (1942, directed by Alex Lovy), The Dizzy Acrobat (1943, by Lovy), Fish Fry (1944, by Shamus Culhane), The Poet & Peasant (1946, by Dick Lundy), Musical Moments from Chopin (1947, by Lundy), Crazy, Mixed-Up Pup (1955, by Tex Avery) and The Legend of Rockabye Point (1955, by Avery). No Lantz cartoon ever actually won an Oscar — tho Lantz himself received a "Special Achievement" one in 1979.
Oswald's design, tho popular in the 1920s and early '30s (it was similar to Felix the Cat and Bosko), didn't work as the '30s wore on. Attempts to modernize him didn't catch on, and he was gradually phased out. Today, he is virtually forgotten. Lantz tried several types of animal as replacements before finding a reasonably popular star in Andy Panda in 1939. A year later, Andy was eclipsed by Woody Woodpecker, which quickly became — and remains to this day — the studio's biggest money-maker. Lantz's third big star, Chilly Willy, was introduced in 1953.
The Lantz characters were licensed to comic books, starting in the 1930s. They appeared first in Dell Comics' anthology title New Funnies, but Woody, Andy and eventually Chilly were all spun off into their own comics. Even Oswald managed an occasional appearance under his own comic book logo. Gold Key Comics continued to publish Lantz characters in comic book form, at least sporadically, until 1984. Harvey Comics also licensed them, for a very brief period in the early 1990s.
The Lantz/Universal Studio was the last of the classic-era cartoon producers to close — but in 1972, it finally bowed to the inevitable. Walter Lantz retired from active cartoon making, but still kept his hand in, managing his cartoon properties' affairs. And that work continues even today, tho Lantz died in 1994. Not only are they still valuable licensing items — as recently as 1999, on Fox TV, it was possible to catch brand-new cartoons about Woody, Chilly and the gang.
Universal Studios/Walter Lantz Cartoon articles in Don Markstein's Toonopedia: