Woody Woodpecker's Great Big Little Secret
By Jack Feuer
Published Oct 1, 2011 12:00 AM
Some people are astronauts. Others are politicians or artists. But few achievements can match being a Woody Woodpecker expert.
That, however, is the rare distinction earned by animation veteran and scholar Tom Klein M.F.A. '02. The seeds of his expertise were planted in the early '90s when Klein, then a School of Theater, Film and Television graduate student at UCLA, had what he describes as "the most amazing job": archiving the UCLA Performing Arts Special Collections and Music Library's collections of Walter Lantz, the legendary animation pioneer who created the aforementioned wild-and-crazy cartoon bird.
In 1993, as editor of the UCLA Animation Workshop's magazine Animatrix, Klein interviewed Shamus Culhane, director of the classic Woody Woodpecker cartoons of the 1940s. The story was about a conflict Culhane had with a background artist but, afterwards, Klein realized he had, as he says, "written the wrong story."
Modern art within a cartoon
Tom Klein M.F.A. '02 talks about his discovery of modern art "mini-films" hidden in classic Woody Woodpecker cartoons.
From School of Film and Television at LMU
That's because nobody, apparently, had ever noticed that embedded in the Woody Woodpecker cartoons were fleeting, almost subliminal works of modern art, created and inserted into the 'toons by Culhane.
Culhane wanted to do modern art and avant-garde cinema. Cartoons didn't offer that opportunity. That is, until the director realized that Woody's manic character and the mayhem he created was a great way to sneak in Culhane's serious work — embedded within the cartoons' frequent explosions.
Culhane inserted his "mini-films" into many Woody cartoons, almost always in an eye-blink's worth of film. But in one, 1945's The Loose Nut, the director's modern images are on screen for several seconds. Boom! Suddenly Klein wasn't just an animated acorn woodpecker scholar. Now he was an animation history maker as well.
"It was staggering to me that no one had noticed it," he recalls. "It's a little bold to say I discovered it. I'm sure someone saw it, but honestly, of all the cartoon enthusiasts and scholars I've contacted, [the impish insertions] never appeared."
Woody even followed the Bruin animator into the workforce, where Klein established himself as a top-flight animator for Universal — which decades before distributed Walter Lantz cartoons, including the ones starring a certain peripatetic acorn woodpecker. And in 1999, Klein was asked to consult for the Fox Kids series The New Woody Woodpecker Show.
Klein is now professor of animation at Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and Television. And his, shall we say, unique distinction as an expert on everybody's favorite redheaded avian troublemaker?
"It's an odd thing," says Klein of his notoriety as a Woody Woodpecker expert, but he does admit that "as professional animators, we see cartoons differently."