A Year in Shorts Day 278/Song of the Week #1: The Woody Woodpecker Song- "Wet Blanket Policy"
All good things come to an end and that, unfortunately, includes our Year in Shorts. Yes folks, we’re under a hundred entries away from the final entry in this little experiment. At least, until I’ve seen enough shorts to do a sequel. And while I will miss getting to write about all these cartoons, I certainly won’t mind not having to make a new post every single day. Still, while A Year in Shorts may be nearing its end, The Great Oscar Baiter will live on, with all sorts of new features and series which will be posted at more reasonable intervals. As such, I thought we’d use today’s entry to serve as a backdoor pilot for one of those- Song of the Week, in which I will look at an Oscar-nominated song and do my best to try and analyze it. Now I know what you’re thinking- How on Earth is there an Oscar-nominated song associated with a short film? Is that even legal? Well let’s look at Wet Blanket Policy to find out.
While he's something of an obscure character today, Woody Woodpecker must have been quite popular in his heyday. Why that is, I'm not entirely sure; he's just a less funny and more annoying Daffy Duck, after all. But I guess back in those days you didn't really get a choice in which cartoon you saw before the feature film, and you could certainly do worse than him I suppose. But even taking all that into consideration, I can't imagine anyone being particularly satisfied with Wet Blanket Policy. Like all Walter Lantz productions we've covered, Dick Lundy's Wet Blanket Policy plays like a cheap version of something you've seen done better elsewhere. Sure, the specific premise may be original- as far as I know, the Looney Tunes never did a short about a malicious buzzard tricking someone into signing a questionable life insurance policy which will benefit said buzzard in the event of the signee's accidental death, with the buzzard proceeding to try and murder his prey in order to collect on said policy. Then again, maybe there was. The Looney Tunes were pretty unpredictable. Besides, while the notes may be different, it's nevertheless a pretty familiar tune. Just a bunch of cartoon violence, chases and general shenanigans, only with less wit and more of Woody Woodpecker's horrible laugh.
It's really no surprise the film didn't score a nomination for Best Animated Short. (Although, to be fair, it's not as if it was any worse than some of the films which did get nominated that year.) Yes folks, we were almost spared having to discuss this short if it weren't for that damned theme song. You see, Wet Blanket Policy is an important short for two major reasons. (Well, it's an important Woody Woodpecker short at any rate, which, in the grand scheme of things, is not particularly significant.) Firstly is the introduction of Woody Woodpecker's new arch nemesis, Buzz Buzzard, who proved to be more popular than his previous enemy, Wally Walrus. I'm sure if I had any real interest in Woody Woodpecker outside his Oscar-nominated shorts, I'd have some sort of opinion on that. But more importantly, this short marked the debut of Woody Woodpecker's theme song, the aptly titled "The Woody Woodpecker Song." Well, sort of. It's actually a little more complicated than that, and (in my opinion) a little baffling.
Written by George Tibbles and Ramsey Idress with vocals by Gloria Wood, "The Woody Woodpecker Song" was apparently a big hit upon its release. According to Wikipedia (which doesn't provide great sources to back it up), "The Woody Woodpecker Song" was in fact one of the biggest hit singles in 1948, selling a truly staggering 250,000 records within the first ten days of being released. Just let that sink in- 250,000 records. That means a quarter million people loved Woody Woodpecker so much that they decided they had to own his theme song on vinyl as quickly as possible. They needed to play that song in their homes. They wanted to take the single out of its sleeve and put it on a record player just to listen to it. That's absurd. I can't think of any theme song that's worth that much trouble (ok, maybe the theme to Cheers), let alone Woody Woodpecker's theme. The pre-Internet age was a dark time indeed if this is what people willingly chose to do for entertainment.
(via The Internet Animation Database)
The song's unexpected popularity is also what led to its Oscar nomination. Lantz, wanting to cash in on the song's success, decided to put it in the next Woody Woodpecker short released. (Google has failed me in my attempts to find any posters or lobby cards for this short, but I assume that they must have advertised its presence.) This is why the song is kind of awkwardly shoved into the first minute of the short; it wasn't originally meant to be there. In TV broadcasts of this short (which is where virtually every other online copy of it comes from), the song is cut and replaced by voiceover Woody just reading the words on screen. Which also proves to be an awkward solution, as he's supposed to have been caught off guard by Buzz Buzzard in the first place, but I guess there's no point in raising questions about plot holes in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.
(via The Movie Database)
Instead we should be raising the question of how exactly the song managed to get nominated in the first place. While there's no rule saying that a song from a short is ineligible for an Oscar nomination (nor should there be), there is a rule stating that the song has to be written exclusively for the film it's nominated for. Now this wasn't always the case- originally the category was just called Best Song, with the only requirement being that the song appeared in the movie itself. But the rules changed after Jerome Kern won an Oscar for "Lady Be Good" at the 14th Academy Award and protested that it was unfair for him to have won for a song written a year before the movie used it. And that was seven years before "Wet Blanket Policy" was nominated, so what gives? There is admittedly some ambiguity and debate surrounding this rule- such as why "Falling Slowly" from Once was eligible for a nomination while "Come What May" from Moulin Rouge! was not- and the music categories are annoyingly arbitrary in their rule enforcement, but still. The one thing which has remained constant since is that in order to be nominated, a song has to be written for the film it first appeared in, which is demonstrably not what happened here. Sure, the Internet didn't exist back then so I suppose it wasn't as easy to fact check on these things (resulting in famous gaffes such as the film Hellzapoppin' getting a Best Original Song nomination for a song which didn't even appear in the film), but surely someone must have noticed something was up?
It's not even like the song itself is worth bending the rules over. It's not terrible, but it's not particularly special. Although at the very least it does help define Woody Woodpecker's character a bit more clearly for me- one of the lyrics states that he will "on the tiniest whim/poke a few holes in your head", thereby establishing that he is apparently supposed to be some sort of violent sociopath. (That's part of the reason these shorts don't really work; he's an instigator of all the conflict, but we're supposed to be rooting for him?) I will admit that Kay Kyer's orchestrations are pretty pleasant to listen to, and Gloria Wood has a nice voice, but the nomination wasn't for them. Maybe the Academy just felt bad about snubbing the (much better and much shorter) Donald Duck theme which was released a year before and decided to give a nomination to another cartoon bird's theme song as an act of penance. Or maybe the Academy just made a lot of dumb decisions that year; that was the same year they gave Best Picture to Laurence Olivier's mediocre Hamlet and failed to nominate Humphrey Bogart's iconic performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre after all. Clearly SOMETHING was screwy.
Still, they at the very least had the good sense not to actually award "The Woody Woodpecker Song" with an Oscar. No, that honor went to the song "Buttons and Bows" from the movie Paleface. I haven't seen that film so I can't say for sure if it was more deserving; I like to look at a song's context in the film as well as its standalone quality when I make judgments on these things. Nevertheless, I feel comfortable saying that, at the very least, "Buttons and Bows" has had a greater cultural impact. After all, "The Woody Woodpecker Song" was just Woody Woodpecker's theme. Meanwhile, "Buttons and Bows" was featured in the climax of the Frasier episode "Look Before You Leap." That scene was the funniest moment in one of the funniest episodes of Frasier, which thereby makes it one of the funniest moments in the history of television. But you don't see Frasier stumbling through the Woody Woodpecker theme, do you? I rest my case.
No, "The Woody Woodpecker Song" has instead been relegated to the same awkward limbo of semi-obscurity which its namesake character finds himself stuck in. Too well-known to be considered a hidden gem, but not popular enough for anyone to really care. Think about it- they make a Space Jam movie desecrating the sanctity of the Looney Tunes and we spend weeks ripping it apart. They made a cheap cash grab Woody Woodpecker movie, and hardly anyone even remembers it exists. How horrible to have enough of a legacy that someone can disgrace it, but not enough of one for anyone to try and defend it. It almost makes you feel bad for the little guy. Then you watch a short like Wet Blanket Policy and realize he probably deserves it.
Keep up with the Oscar Baiting here on Letterboxd!
Have any suggestions for the next Short of the Week? Contact me on Twitter via @NoahGoucher!
The Great Oscar Baiter is a not-for-profit work of criticism. All images herein are property of their respective owners and are protected under Fair Use.