Avant-Garde Pranks of a Classical Animator

Submitted by Peter Markus: Woody Woodpecker had a higher aesthetic…

That Noisy Woodpecker Had an Animated Secret
by Michael Cieply
The New York Times
April 10, 2011

Los Angeles “” Sixteen years ago Tom Klein was staring at a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, “The Loose Nut,” when he started seeing things.

Specifically, Mr. Klein watched that maniacal red-topped bird smash a steamroller through the door of a shed. The screen then exploded into images that looked less like the stuff of a Walter Lantz cartoon than like something Willem de Kooning might have hung on a wall.

“What was that?” Mr. Klein, now an animation professor at Loyola Marymount University, recalled thinking. Only later, after years of scholarly detective work, did he decide that he had been looking at genuine art that was cleverly concealed by an ambitious and slightly frustrated animation director named Shamus Culhane. Mr. Culhane died in 1996, a pioneer whose six decades in animation included the sequence of the dwarfs marching and singing “Heigh Ho” in the 1937 film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

In the March issue of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Mr. Klein relates an intriguing theory. He says that Mr. Culhane broke the boundaries of his craft when he worked on the Woody Woodpecker cartoons in the 1940s, going well beyond the kind of commonplace puckishness that supposedly led later animators to stitch frames of a panty-less diva into “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Mr. Culhane”™s stunts, Mr. Klein posits, were of a higher order. He worked ultra-brief experimental art films into a handful of Woody Woodpecker cartoons.

“Culhane essentially “˜hid”™ his artful excursions in plain sight, letting them rush past too rapidly for the notice of most of his audience,” Mr. Klein writes in the 15-page article, titled “Woody Abstracted: Film Experiments in the Cartoons of Shamus Culhane.”

In the article Mr. Klein describes Mr. Culhane, who was credited in his work then as James Culhane, as a devotee of the avant-garde. He was influenced by the writings of Russian theorists like Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, Mr. Klein writes, and spent evenings at the American Contemporary Gallery in Hollywood. There, he watched films by Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir, might have seen paintings by Oskar Fischinger and definitely “was inclined to wear a beret.”

In an interview in his office at Loyola”™s School of Film and Television, Mr. Klein described Mr. Culhane as having had art training but no college degree; as being a sophisticated reader who painted in his off hours. He said the experimental minifilms “were really a journey of the man” who directed them.

Mr. Klein writes that one of those experiments was a two-second piece of an explosion in “Woody Dines Out,” from 1945. He finds the frames “improvised like visual music” in what Mr. Culhane acknowledged in his autobiography, “Talking Animals and Other People,” was an Eisenstein-inspired moment.

The longest such experimental sequence was in the seven-second steamroller smash-up in “The Loose Nut,” also from 1945. And, later in that cartoon, Woody is blown into an abstract configuration that Mr. Klein, in his article, calls “the convergence of animation and Soviet montage.”

According to the obituary of Mr. Culhane in The New York Times, Mr. Culhane”™s family moved to Manhattan from Massachusetts when he was a small child, and later a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art inspired his career as an artist. He first worked with Mr. Lantz when Mr. Lantz got him a job as an office boy at the studio of J. R. Bray, where Mr. Lantz was head of animation. Mr. Culhane animated his first scene there in 1925. It was of a monkey with a hot towel.

Throughout the mid-1940s Mr. Culhane made cartoons, briefly at Warner Brothers, then at Mr. Lantz”™s studio, where he was a director of some shorts that are remembered for more than their surface humor. In 1944 he collaborated with the layout artist Art Heinemann on “The Greatest Man in Siam.” In it the Fastest Man in Siam bolts past doorways that are distinctly phallic in shape and peers at another that mimics a vagina.

“We were just trying to put one over on them,” Mr. Culhane years later told Mr. Klein, who had asked him about the bawdy imagery in the course of a visit and correspondence shortly before Mr. Culhane died.

Visual pranks have been common in the animation world, where artists often find ways “” occasionally, in frames that pass without actually being seen “” to plant jokes on bosses and a largely unsuspecting audience. A favorite trick has been to hide caricatures of real people in crowd scenes, like those in the Walt Disney films “Aladdin” and “The Princess and the Frog,” which contain images of their directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, according to Charles Solomon, an animation critic and historian.

“Even I appear in a crowd,” said Mr. Solomon, whose hidden image, he said, is tucked in the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence of “Fantasia/2000.”

It was clues in “Talking Animals and Other People” and in letters Mr. Culhane wrote to Mr. Klein “” who had become a Woody Woodpecker expert through his archival work for Universal Studios, which distributed the cartoons “” that pointed Mr. Klein toward something more. In one letter Mr. Culhane, talking of his fascination with Russian film theory, said nothing he picked up from his studies ever caused trouble with Mr. Lantz, who was known for giving his directors a free hand.

As for much of the contemporary audience, Mr. Klein said, “Maybe they were seeing their first glimpse of modern art.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 13, 2011

An article on Monday about a theory that the animation director Shamus Culhane inserted ultrabrief experimental art films into a few Woody Woodpecker cartoons misidentified the machine that Woody smashes through a shed door in “The Loose Nut.” It is a steamroller, not a bulldozer. The article, citing visual pranks in other cartoons, also misidentified the character who bolts past phallic-shaped doorways in “The Greatest Man in Siam.” It is the Fastest Man in Siam, not the king.