That Boisterous, Maniacal Woodpecker Had a Very Secret Animated Life!

That Boisterous, Maniacal Woodpecker Had a Very Secret Animated Life!

Sixteen years ago Tom Klein was staring at the Woody Woodpecker cartoon, The Loose Nut, when he began seeing things.  Specifically, Mr. Klein watched that crazy, noisy 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 traditional Hollywood-style cartoon than like something Willem de Kooning might have hung on a wall.

What was that?” Mr. Klein, now an animation professor, recalled thinking. Only after years of scholarly detective work, did he conclude 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.

Mr. Klein says that Mr. Culhane broke the boundaries of traditional animation when he worked on the Woody Woodpecker cartoons in the 1940s. Visual pranks have been common in the animation world, where artists often find ways, occasionally in frames that pass by without actually being seen, to plant jokes on bosses and a largely unsuspecting audience. Mr. Culhane’s clever stunt was to work ultra-brief experimental modern 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 people in his audiences.

Mr. Klein describes Mr. Culhane as a devotee of the avant-garde. Culhane had art training, but no college degree; he was  a sophisticated reader who painted in his off hours. The experimental mini-films were really a journey of the man who directed them. One of those experiments was a two-second piece of an explosion in the 1945 Woody Dines Out, frames that were improvised like visual music. 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 could be viewed as the convergence of animation and Soviet montage.

Viewers can read more about Mr. Culhane and his animations in the New York Times here.

Woody Woodpecker: The Loose Nut

Woody Woodpecker: Woody Dines Out

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