The Television Program:
Vintage animation buffs would dig A Conversation with Walter & Gracie Lantz, an in-depth chat with the creator and primary voice of Woody Woodpecker. This 1981 appearance was the longest televised interview Walter and Gracie Lantz ever granted, taped around the time of the couple's 40th wedding anniversary - and Woody's birthday. Despite technical goofs and the host's shortcomings, it's a goodie filled with interesting tidbits about Walter's start in the silent era, the development of Woody's character, and how Gracie came to be cast as the screwball woodpecker.
Despite what the cheesy packaging implies, the Lantz interview makes up just a portion of the A Conversation with Walter & Gracie Lantz DVD. The rest of the disc is devoted to the source of the Lantz interview - a locally produced program called Classics 34 - and its host, Chris Buchman. Broadcasting from South Bend, Indiana PBS affiliate WNIT in 1980-83, Classics 34 had Buchman curating a weekly selection of vintage films, cartoons and interviews with whichever nostalgic pop culture figures happened to be traveling through town. From the copious notes included on this disc, apparently the show was quite popular. In the days before VCRs became commonplace, shows like Classics 34 were often the sole outlet to see classic-era films presented with a bit of history by a knowledgable host - even in a fairly good-sized city like South Bend (our equivalent in Phoenix was Hollywood Greats hosted a local movie critic, Bill Rocz - who earned my eternal ire by blurting out the end of Citizen Kane halfway before the film was over).
Grouped somewhat confusingly under the banner "Reel Curiosities," Act One of the disc presents Walter and Gracie Lantz's interview, which (according to the show's added prologue) needed to be released quickly since it was the only Classics 34 put out on bootleg DVD. This 53-minute edit removes some of the original 1981 broadcast's "little intrigues and technical dilemmas." The sweaty, disorganized Buchman frequently loses his train of thought and seems overwhelmed throughout the broadcast (which wasn't done live, although it feels that way), although the Lantzes graciously take it all in stride. Between the chatter, Buchman and a person in a Woody Woodpecker costume present Walter and Gracie with a celebratory anniversary cake. The broadcast also included Buchman introducing some of Walter Lantz's cartoons in between interview segments (which accounts for the show's haphazardness). The cartoons have been edited here, although some of them show up in restored condition in the disc's bonus materials.
Act Two includes an overview of Classics 34, from its conception to its contentious final broadcast in November 1983. This fascinating peek into the world of local TV is filled with lively clips from the show, which alternate with wordy, self-serving text passages filling in behind-the-scenes data. Buchman is infinitely more poised and confident here than in the Lantz program, and it's clear that he had a love of sharing classic movie arcana. The ending of this half-hour program has some bitter, non-objective text recounting the trials Buchman went through before the show ended (long story short: penny-pinching change of management), which blemishes this otherwise entertaining section. In another segment, Walter and Me, Buchman recalls first contacting Walter Lantz as a cartoon-crazy child, and the animation legend's graciousness later on in life.
Act Three goes back in time slightly, to the 1970s, and Buchman's pre-Classics 34 jaunts curating eclectic film programs for Baltimore's Peabody Bookshop & Beerstube Corner Theatre and Johns Hopkins University. This segment is also somewhat lengthy and bogged down in hyperbole, yet as with the Classics 34 section it's serves as a completely absorbing look at localized film fandom in the pre-home video era. Buchman organized several themed "evening at the movies" with hosted feature films, shorts, cartoons, custom-made bumpers, and original poster art (how I would have loved to have seen An Evening with Maria Ouspenskia and Her Fiends). This section of the disc also includes a full 52 minutes' worth of interviews with other notables who dropped by the Classics 34 studio, including Carmine Coppola, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, former Disney animator Francois Pratt, and others.
Conversations with Walter & Gracie Lantz is an offbeat release for its distributor, Thunderbean Animation. While Thunderbean specializes in expertly restored editions of overlooked animated fare like 1939's Gulliver's Travels, this particular disc fits in with their m.o. of presenting bits of our film heritage in a fun, engaging way.
The Walter and Gracie Lantz interview derives from an aged videotape (VHS grade?) which sports a soft image with frequent distortion/artifacts. Murky darks, color banding, halo effects and a stripe across the bottom are a few of its flaws. Clips from other Classics 34 episodes fare slightly better, although the video quality isn't as clean as network television from the same era. The newly produced segments look vivid with good, saturated colors and nice detail, while many of the cartoons are the high-quality restorations present on other Thunderbean releases. All selections are in 4:3 full frame format.
The mono audio on the Lantz interview and other Classics 34 selections have the kind of shabby, limited dynamics one would expect of older videotaped programs, but overall it's an adequate sounding effort. The newer, Buchman-narrated pieces have a clean sound, backed with a pleasant selection of vintage '20s-'30s tunes. No subtitles are provided.
A crazy-quilt of "Extra Added Attractions" relating to the Lantzes and Chris Buchman's career, is included in its own sub-menu on this disc. A delightful selection of Walter Lantz Cartoons from 1920 through 1941 includes Red Riding Hood with Dinky and Doodle, a Fleischer-style short with live action Walter Lantz interacting with a cartoon boy and dog, clips and complete cartoons from the silent-era Jerry on the Job series, the surreal Boy Meets Dog (a 1938 advertising film sponsored by Ipana toothpaste), the early Woody Woodpecker outing Pantry Panic (1941), and a Kelloggs cereal commercial starring Woody. Walter & Gracie Album showcases photographs taken before and during the 1981 Classics 34 taping, in a three-minute montage. Walter Lantz On Home Screens, Bijou Gallery and Classics 34 Gallery show some of the imagery used in the main documentaries in click-through format. Other brief features delve into Gracie Lantz's early appearances as an actress, and Walter's '70s-'80s forays into "Happy Art" oil paintings of Woody and Andy Panda.
Marquee names notwithstanding, A Conversation with Walter & Gracie Lantz serves as a sprawling tribute to vintage movie buff and television host Chris Buchman. While less of a hands-on touch would have been preferable, there's a lot of fun to be had in this grab-bag of stuff. Come for the chat with Woody Woodpecker's proud mom and dad, stay for the insights into local TV production and the way vintage movies were consumed in the pre-DVD, pre-streaming era. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.