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The Barber of Seville

Here's a long awaited post about one of the best Woody Woodpecker cartoons, and according to many people (myself included) one of the greatest cartoons of all time. It was certainly my favorite Woody Woodpecker cartoon when I was a kid, and it still holds that position today. This is one of Woody Woodpeckers most insane and delightfully psychotic editions.

This cartoon is marked by several important debuts: it was a first cartoon with the new re-design of Woody Woodpecker (courtesy of Art Heinemann and Emery Hawkins who made the new streamlined character design). Also, it was the first cartoon that used the famous opening title card featuring Woody Woodpecker popping out of a log, asking "Guess Who?!" and delivering his trademark laugh. And finally, this was the first Woody cartoon directed by the great Shamus Culhane.

Culhane arrived at Lantz in 1943, after spending nearly two decades in animation business. He started the career while still a teenager, and during the 30s and early 40s worked as an animator at such places like Fleischer, Iwerks, Disney, and briefly Warner studios. Culhane found himself at Lantz studio after a dispute with Leon Schlesinger (to whom Culhane told to "perform an impossible sexual act"), and spent next three years as studio's main director. Walter Lantz was at that time in an odd situation... after many dry years, he was finally having a popular and successful character in Woody Woodpecker, but his studio was desperately lacking a strong and talented director. During the early 40s, cartoons were directed by Lantz himself, Alex Lovy and for a brief time even ex-Disney director Burt Gillett, all with uneven and mostly unspectacular results (though some really good cartoons were produced during that period).
Culhane quickly proved himself as an energetic and talented director, unafraid to experiment, but also capable to deliver the explosively funny cartoons. His talents were first tested with several cartoons in the Swing Symphony series (and some of them are going to be presented on this blog very soon).
After "The Barber of Seville" (released on April 22, 1944), Culhane will direct a handful of excellent Woody Woodpecker cartoons (among them "Ski for Two" and "Woody Dines Out"), before leaving Lantz studio in 1946.

The only two animators credited at the beginning of this cartoon are LaVerne Harding and Les Kline, but a very large part of scenes could be identified with great certainty as the work of Pat Matthews and Emery Hawkins. Check out Thad's post about this cartoon , with more discussion about the animators.

The major part of "The Barber of Seville" is dedicated to Woody's manic performance of "Largo al factotum" aria from the first act of Gioacchino Rossini's opera "Il barbiere di Siviglia". This musical piece has been very popular among the animators, and it was used in many other cartoons, most famously by Chuck Jones in Bugs Bunny classic "The Rabbit of Seville", and "The Cat Above and the Mouse Below" (one of his funniest Tom & Jerry cartoons). Does anybody know who performs Woody's singing voice?

This cartoon looks very much like a Warner cartoon of the same period, and Culhane's style is quite similar to Frank Tashlin's. Both directors shared the affinity for experimental camera angles, super-fast cuts, strong poses and razor-sharp timing. The most famous example of such experimentation in this cartoon is the "Figaro" portion of the tune, when Woody splits into three, then four, then five instances of himself, in less than two seconds of screen time. The shortest cut lasts for only 6 frames (one quarter of a second), and audience can still register it. A truly remarkable achievement!

Backgrounds for this cartoon have been done by Philip de Guard who will couple of years later become one of the main background artists at Warner studio. It's interesting to note that a majority of scenes in this cartoon has been staged in front of the sparse, or completely empty backgrounds (painted only in just one neutral color). This has been done to put the stronger emphasis on the character poses and to make character "readable" during the extremely fast action and cuts. Several other directors, mainly at Warner experimented with that technique: Chuck Jones, Tashlin and especially Bob Clampett (who might have been the first one to use it).

Several original storyboard drawings from this cartoon can be seen at Kevin Langley's blog

Here are the screenshots:

"You give chief the bird, me give you scalp treatment!"

Next posts: a Popeye cartoon with some of the funniest and most savage beatings ever. Then, two Culhane's Swing Symphonies. Also, two very rare Lantz cartoons not on DVD (including a special surprise for all the fans of silent cartoons).

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