Sunday, March 19, 2006

GOLD DIGGIN' WOODPECKER (1972)

Starting in 1953, Walter Lantz released 13 cartoons each calendar year. Every four weeks, a new cartoon. Quite a run, demonstrating his dogged success in keeping his studio production steady, though not necessarily while maintaining a high level of quality, into the dark days of theatrical cartoons. In the final year of this two-decade run, and quite near the end of the road for the Lantz brand on the movie screen, the studio released Gold Diggin' Woodpecker, a completely innocuous, unremarkable piece of filler.

It is the sort of cartoon that makes me sad when I view it these days, well past my initial childhood and on into around my third. The problem with second and third childhoods is that you tend to bring to the table all of the lessons you learned too late the first time around, and so on... and so on. It is simultaneously the blessing of second and third childhoods, too. In the case of Woody Woodpecker, a character that I seem to have loved throughout my life for no other apparent reason than the simple fact that he is there, it has enabled me to see with a refocused vision cartoons that in my youth I gave carte blanche to entertainment me freely. Now, I have a harsher and more cynical view of such things.

I have stated before that, as a child, I had a BS detector when it came to cartoon shows; I simply chose to ignore it when I watch all of that Hanna-Barbera and Filmation crap that I thrived on in the 70's. I knew the shows were garbage, but I watched them anyway, and the Saturday morning lineup on all three networks were the Gospel to me. It didn't matter what the quality happened to be; as long as they were on, I was content. The Oddball Couple, the Clue Club and Yogi's Ark were just as important to me then as the far superior Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show; Land of the Lost was the greatest show in the world to me simply due to the fact that it had dinosaurs and Sleestaks; and the Banana Splits were the funniest and best rock group in all of music. And in those days, there were still cartoons on display in the local theatres, and much of the time, they turned out to be Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Even into the early 80's, I still recall the occasional Woody cartoon showing up at the start of a film. And one of those cartoons that I recall was this one: Gold Diggin' Woodpecker.

Woody is riding atop his best pal Sugarfoot the Horse, who is marching through a western landscape as Woody sings a song about gold-mining. Woody finishes singing, flips over, and tries to relax on his friend's back, but Sugarfoot ends up kicking a rock laying on the ground before them. The film jumps to a surly miner who is having his usual day's luck digging for gold in his mine in the mountains nearby. He bemoans the fact that he has been mining thirty years and he has still found "No gold!" In the film's only well-timed gag, Woody immediately shouts over the top of the rocks that "We found gold!" In an abandoned mine, Woody and Sugarfoot take to searching for the precious ore, and strike it rich immediately. The surly miner lays claim to the mine merely by scratching his name, "Joe's", above the words "Abandoned Mine" on the sign leading into the shaft.

The battle then commences, with Joe the Surly Miner employing pistols, mine carts, lassos and TNT in his pursuit of doing away with the anthropomorphic interlopers, all, I might add, to no avail, and with each successive gag becoming more belabored and less amusing with each explosion and crash. (Of course, by this point, it was growing harder and harder to come up with new ways to blast someone with a stick of dynamite. I kept hoping that eventually the animators would resort to showing what dynamite would really do to a miner who is tricked into holding a stick by a sassy woodpecker.) Finally, Woody and his horse pal take the enormous amount of gold that they have found to the assay office, where they are told by the incredibly cantankerous clerk that they have been duped by a mass of fool's gold. He warns them that the next person to bring in any fool's gold to his desk will get blasted. Any guess what happens next?

Well, what happens next for me is that I have another childhood icon brought down in my mind's regard just a slight notch lower than he sat previously. While I have held great disdain over characters who matured and gained family members and cleaned up for general public consumption throughout my life, I never had a problem with Woody even with his ridiculous extended family of Winnie, Splinter and Knothead. No matter what permutations he took on, how many times they changed his size (even in one cartoon) or how they modified the woodpecker's appearance or attitude, I seem to have always had incredible respect for the obnoxious red, white and blue bird. Whether in song or film, on television or theatrical screen, just his laugh has usually been enough to bring a smile to my face.

Rewatching this film didn't necessarily wipe that smile away; it merely lessened its broadness until it became more of a smirk. The film is not actually bad; it is simply banal, though there is the usual Lantz smoothness in the animation to carry you easily through the picture, and there are even a couple of shots which are slightly intriguing in angle and design. But, overall, it is merely Lantz and Co. treading water in the final year of Woody's career and of the studio's in the movies.

See what can occur sometimes when you actually watch the films that you loved as a child? Again, that third childhood can be both a blessing and a problem...

Gold Diggin' Woodpecker (A Walter Lantz Cartune, 1972) Dir: Paul J. Smith
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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