The early version of Woody Woodpecker, as seen in the 1941 short Pantry Panic.
According to Walter Lantz's press agent, the idea for Woody came during the producer's honeymoon with his wife, Gracie, in Sherwood Lake, California. A noisy woodpecker outside their cabin kept the couple awake at night, and when a heavy rain started, they learned that the bird had bored holes in their cabin's roof. As both Walter and Gracie told Dallas attorney Rod Phelps during a visit, Walter wanted to shoot the thing, but Gracie suggested that her husband make a cartoon about the bird, and thus Woody was born. The story is questionable, however, since the Lantzes were not married until after Woody made his screen debut. Also, their story that the bird's cry inspired Woody's trademark "Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha!" is also questionable, as Mel Blanc had already used a similar laugh in earlier Warner Bros. cartoons such as Elmer's Candid Camera.
Woody Woodpecker first appeared in the film Knock Knock on November 25, 1940. The cartoon ostensibly stars Andy Panda and his father, Papa Panda, but it is Woody who steals the show. The woodpecker constantly pesters the two pandas, apparently just for the fun of it. Andy, meanwhile, tries to sprinkle salt on Woody's tail in the belief that this will somehow capture the bird. To Woody's surprise, Andy's attempts prevail, and Woody is taken away to the funny farm — but not before his captors prove to be crazier than he is.
The Woody of Knock Knock was designed by animator Alex Lovy. Woody's original voice actor, Mel Blanc, would stop performing the character after the first four cartoons to work exclusively for Leon Schlesinger Productions (Later renamed Warner Bros. Cartoons), producer of Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. At Schlesinger's, Blanc had already established the voices of two other famous "screwball" characters who preceded Woody, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. Ironically, Blanc's characterization of the Woody Woodpecker laugh had originally been applied to a Bugs Bunny prototype, in shorts such as the aforementioned Elmer's Candid Camera, and was later transferred to Woody. Blanc's regular speaking voice for Woody was much like the early Daffy Duck, minus the lisp. Once Warner Bros. signed Blanc up to an exclusive contract, Woody's voice-over work was taken over by Ben Hardaway, who would voice the woodpecker for the rest of the decade. To complete the connection full circle, Hardaway, who had also worked under Schlesinger at Warner Bros., was the designer of the Bugs Bunny prototype that Blanc supplied the aforementioned laugh for. Haradaway's nickname around Termite Terrace (the ramshackle building where the Looney Tunes were originally produced) was "Bugs," and the bunny prototype's first model sheet was labeled "Bugs' Bunny"--the apostrophe was later dropped.
Audiences reacted well to Knock Knock, and Lantz realized he had finally hit upon a star to replace the waning Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Woody would go on to star in a number of films. With his innate chutzpah and brash demeanor, the character was a natural hit during World War II. His image appeared on US aircraft as nose art, and on mess halls, and audiences on the homefront watched Woody cope with familiar problems such as food shortages. The 1943 Woody cartoon The Dizzy Acrobat was nominated for the 1944 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons), which it lost to the MGM Tom and Jerry cartoon The Yankee Doodle Mouse.
Woody Woodpecker and his captive client in The Barber of Seville (1944), directed by Shamus Culhane.
Animator Emery Hawkins and layout artist Art Heinemann streamlined Woody's appearance for the 1944 film The Barber of Seville, directed by Shamus Culhane. The bird became rounder, cuter, and less demented. He also sported a simplified color scheme and a brighter smile, making him much more like his counterparts at Warner Bros. and MGM. Nevertheless, Culhane continued to use Woody as an aggressive lunatic, not a domesticated straight man or defensive homebody, as many other studios' characters had become. The follow-up to The Barber of Seville, The Beach Nut, introduced Woody's original chief nemesis, Wally Walrus.
The post-war woodpecker
Woody's wild days were numbered, however. In 1946, Lantz hired Disney veteran Dick Lundy to take over the direction chores for Woody's cartoons. Lundy rejected Culhane's take on the series and made Woody more defensive; no longer did the bird go insane without a legitimate reason. Lundy also paid more attention to the animation, making Woody's new films more Disney-esque in their design style, animation, and timing. Lundy's last film for Disney was the Donald Duck short Flying Jalopy. This cartoon is played much like a Woody Woodpecker short, right down to the laugh in the end. It also features a bad guy named "Ben Buzzard" who bears a strong resemblance to Buzz Buzzard, a Lantz character introduced in the 1948 short Wet Blanket Policy who would eventually succeed Wally Walrus as Woody's primary antagonist.
In 1947, contract renewal negotiations between Lantz and Universal (now Universal-International) fell through, and Lantz began distributing his cartoons through United Artists. The UA-distributed Lantz cartoons featured higher-quality animation, the influence of Dick Lundy (the films' budgets remained the same). Former Disney animators such as Fred Moore and Ed Love began working at Lantz, and assisted Lundy in adding touches of the Disney style to Woody's cartoons.