NY Times on the hidden art of Shamus Culhane at Lantz

Must-read article for today: The New York Times on animator Shamus Culhane’s secret art, hidden in Walter Lantz Cartoons of the 1940s.

The article examines the theory – discussed by Tom Klein in an article in the acedemic publication Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal – that Culhane worked experimental art into his Woody Woodpecker and Swing Symphony cartoons, produced by Walter Lantz, in the 1940s.

Be sure to click the video to see the slowed-down track Klein made of the “hidden images” in Culhane’s The Loose Nut (1945).

(Thanks to Tom Klein for the two images, above, from The Greatest Man in Siam (1944) with not-so-subtle suggested imagery, courtesy of Culhane and background designer Art Heinemann)


  • http://jackmunchproductions.blogspot.com/ Malcolm Thomas

    I was intrigued when I looked at the video. Then I gave the above pictures a second glance…AW come on, MAN!

  • AaronSch

    I remember all the controversy about the phallic symbols on Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” posters. It was laughable. It reminds me of the people who see Jesus’ image in a tortilla or on a piece of toast. The human brain will quickly arrange random shapes into recognizable images just as gazing up at the clouds or taking a Rorschach test. If your mind is preoccupied with sexual thoughts, there is no doubt you could find those references in just about anything. Psychologists believe these processes are helpful in determining both a person’s character and emotional functioning.

    • Jeffrey Simonetta

      This is probably true in most cases, but you have to remember that the people who make films are human too. And sneaking in phallic or drug references in a production is funny to them, and doesn’t have to do with a sinister plan to corrupt the youth.

      I sometimes hear this is still the case in the theatrical versions of the films, and then that kind of stuff gets taken out in the video releases. Kind of what happened with Disney’s ‘The Rescuers’ VHS release.

    • Robert Schaad

      Obelisk.

  • Thad Morrow

    Whatever his motivation, Culhane bettered what would have otherwise been a cheap-looking cartoon. Yet compared to today’s standards, even Walter Lantz’s second string animation looks like nine billion dollars.

  • http://asteriskpix.blogspot.com Richard O’Connor

    It’s He-Man all over again.

  • http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/ Michael Sporn

    Can’t compete with the scatological humor in today’s cartoons. It’s all geared for the 16 year old boys out there. It’s all puerile.

    • Funkybat

      I don’t even mind scatological humor, though the Seth MacFarlane cartoons overdo it, often without the rationale behind it that South Park usually has.

      No, what bothers me about today’s cartoons is the intense focus on “tween & teen” concerns. It’s as if half of them want to be “Saved By The Bell – The Animated Series” and the rest want to be a mix of the superhero and teen angst genres. Kim Possible balanced this latter format pretty well, but it had good writing, which is more than I can say for some other popular cartoons. Even the best of them, like Sym-Bionic Titan, are still hindered by the format, IMHO. I think the idea that “straight” Adventure or Action shows no longer appeal to today’s kids is a fallacy.

      • http://www.drunkduck.com/anecdote Marbles

        I actually agree with both of you. I can’t stand the super-saturation of puerile, 16-year-old-boy humor, nor the “tweenie-bopper” infestation. Both of these things are fun in small doses, but it’s gotten downright obnoxious.

  • Ace Weems

    Words. Words. Words
    When does Amid serve up more homoerotic He-Man?

  • http://www.segaltoons.com Steve Segal

    I love the way Culhane pushed his animation, with quick cutting, super-fast action and neutral backgrounds. His explosion stuff is cool. Culhane’s not the only one to get creative with explosions; all the studios experimented with them. I had the Castle films 8mm version of Looses Nut and I studied his timing and tricks. I remember also looking at the Disney and Fleischer explosions. There’s some good stuff in Moving Day (though not as abstract as this one).

  • http://www.ronimation.com Ron

    Jerry- I wonder if you would be so kind as to repost these links on the Shamus Culhane fanclub page on Facebook. I believe you are a member. Here is the link:

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=493755710251

  • http://artnote.blog.com Stephen

    “The Greatest Man in Siam” has backgrounds by Phil DeGuard, who worked closely with Chuck Jones at Warner’s. You can see the resemblance; DeGuard’s backgrounds are quite distinctive. Perhaps he also deserves some credit/blame?

  • T. Maynard

    I always looked forward to a movie when I saw certain names in credits, such as Shamus Culhane, Ub Iwerks, and so many others. Now, with all the scholarly works that I have found since the 1970s, I understand better why I thought their work was so good. (Quick confession): another guy and I once painted a strange looking tree on the backdrop of a school play in 1965.

  • Art Binninger

    Let’s not forget the few frames of green scrotum at the end of the beanstalk in WOODY THE GIANT KILLER (about 2:28 in). That dirty bird!

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/OriginalGagBonkerss OriginalGagBonkers

    They are just complaining about the hidden art? Now thats just silly. Keep in mind guys, Disney got away with “hidden” stuff that would later be caught by the overprotective parents. I’m sure plenty of you remember the whole Little mermaid VHS cover issue.

  • http://stanleystories.blogspot.com Frank M. Young

    I got hep to this high-art stuff in Culhane’s cartoons in the early ’80s, when I wasted hours of my life suffering through Paul J. Smith cartoons, in the vain hope of seeing a Culhane Lantz cartoon on TV.

    These little flashes of visual brilliance are rife in Culhane’s Lantz work, although his last couple of directorial efforts (“The Reckless Driver” in particular) have none of that pizazz.

    It will come as a shock to modern-day admirers, new to the Lantz cartoons, that they’re pretty crappy, content-wise. Culhane delivered the most finely polished turds in classic animation history with his Lantz output. Everything visual about them is dynamite; the bad puns, inept gags and weak conclusions, courtesy of Bugs Hardaway, are unforgivable.

    Still, they retain a great fascination. I wish Lantz had employed better writers and gagmen. Culhane brought much class and dynamism to the Lantz product. In his memoirs, he grouses about the crap Hardaway wrote; Culhane was certainly aware of what he was doing.

    • http://thadkomorowski.com Thad

      “Turds” is kind of harsh. I like all of Culhane’s cartoons at Lantz, and the best of those hold up very well against the contemporary Warner and MGM product, and are certainly better than much of what was going on elsewhere.

      The actual writing for the Lantz cartoons, at least in terms of gags and structure, got better later, when Mike Maltese, Homer Brightman, and Dick Kinney were regulars. But the animation got so stiff by that point it didn’t really matter.

      • http://stanleystories.blogspot.com Frank Young

        OK, perhaps I was a bit harsh. I admire everything about Culhane’s work on the Lantz cartoons, and on his designers such as Art Heinemann and Phil DeGuard. Visually, they’re as cool as 1940s studio cartoons get. This is remarkable in light of how cheaply they were produced.

        It’s the stories that suck, bite and otherwise hamper Culhane’s best efforts. The best cartoon of the batch–the one that really works, from start to finish–is THE BEACH NUT. (Runner-up is MEATLESS TUESDAY; of the “Swing Symphonies,” THE BOOGIE-WOOGIE MAN, GREATEST MAN AND SIAM and PASS THE BISCUITS, MIRANDY overcome story weakness with their visual excitement and beautiful pacing.)

        I greatly admire the last half of BARBER OF SEVILLE. The first 50%, with its stale, deadening written puns, plus the hard-to-stomach Native American sequence, exemplify the crap churned out by Lantz’s sub-standard story dept.

        The prime example of what’s wrong with these cartoons is CHEW-CHEW BABY. It starts out well, and contains a couple of brilliant moments (Wally Walrus mixing the phone into his bubbling stew; later, his frantic removal and destruction of his girlie pictures). The last minute or so of the cartoon peters out miserably, with a labored and awkward gag that undoes everything of value.

        Others, such as WOODY DINES OUT, THE DIPPY DIPLOMAT, and the Andy Panda cartoon MOUSIE COME HOME, have more coherent stories that don’t waver off into inane puns, bad sight gags, etc.

        As said, Culhane directs the living hell out of his Lantz cartoons. I admire them greatly. I just regret the crap he had to work with, story-wise.

        The same wretched story team derailed most of Dick Lundy’s Lantz cartoons. Lundy wasn’t a particularly strong or forceful director, and though the films themselves are visually beautiful, the stories bite, bite, bite. Bugs Hardaway had no sense of when enough was enough. He couldn’t resist throwing in the most out-of-whack visual gags (or pace-killing written puns, usually in long laundry-lists).

        The only Lundy Lantz that really works for me are BATHING BUDDIES and MUSICAL MOMENTS FROM CHOPIN. The rest are deeply flawed in their content and concept, despite that gorgeous, flowing animation. All of them have moments, but they singularly fail to cohere into a sturdy, workable whole.

        Story was always the weak spot in Walter Lantz’s cartoons. The narrative flaws were only made more apparent when talented directors helmed the cartoons.

  • The Ghost of Warner Bros. Past

    Does credit for these creative frames of modern art within the WW cartoons belong with Culhane, or with the effects animator, or with the ink and paint department?

  • Christopher Cook

    Even more recently: the Woody Woodpecker T-shirt showing him looking groggy in a bedrobe and slippers. The caption: “Morning Woody.”