There’s a fascinating article in the New York Times, That Noisy Woodpecker Had an Animated Secret, about Shamus Culhane, a pioneer of modern animation, who slipped homages to avant-garde artists into several Woody Woodpecker cartoons in the 1940s.
Sixteen years ago Tom Klein was staring at a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, The Loose Nut, when he started seeing things. Specifically, Mr. Klein watched that maniacal red-topped bird smash a steamroller through the door of a shed. The screen then exploded into images that looked less like the stuff of a Walter Lantz cartoon than like something Willem de Kooning might have hung on a wall.
“What was that?” Mr. Klein, now an animation professor at Loyola Marymount University, recalled thinking. Only later, after years of scholarly detective work, did he decide that he had been looking at genuine art that was cleverly concealed by an ambitious and slightly frustrated animation director named Shamus Culhane.”
Culhane was an admirer of experimental film makers, Eisenstein in particular, as well as abstract painters and managed to work some of his artistic obsessions into his commercial work.
High art meets popular art inThe Loose Nut when Woody “is blown into an abstract configuration…a convergence of animation and Soviet montage.”
In lowbrow mode, Culhane enjoyed pranking Universal Studios and Walt Lantz by throwing not-so-subtle sexual imagery into his cartoons. In The Greatest Man In Siam, Culhane’s libido goes nuts in a veritable onslaught of genitalia. You don’t need to be Freud to notice the erect phalluses and vaginal doorways. At the 4:36 point in the clip, there’s a glimpse of a pink passageway that incorporates both yin and yang.