The cartoon opens with a very important message, that one would do well to bear in mind at all times:
In what begins as a parody of the popular TV series Dragnet, police detectives "Thursday" and "Al" are on spy detail... when they get a call, reporting a "498-PS" --sneaky enemy agent "The Bat" has stolen the top-secret experimental "Formula 7 3/8" from a government research lab. While evading the authorities under cover of night, The Bat reaches through the open window of a first-floor apartment and quickly stashes the ill-gotten prize on a nearby tabletop... right next to some health tonic, housed in a bottle of identical size and shape. When the threat of capture quickly passes, The Bat accidentally retrieves the wrong bottle and flees.
The next morning, a sickly-green Woody Woodpecker is barely able to muster enough strength to drag his pathetic carcass out of bed. Guess it's time to take some of his tonic! Unaware of the shenanigans that took place while he was asleep, Woody gulps down what is actually Formula 7 3/8, and suddenly gains Hercules-level physical power! After a series of "doesn't-know-his-own-strength" sight gags and superheroic feats, Woody learns that the formula's effects are temporary.
|"Tonight's episode: "D'oh!" is the Door Prize..."|
|"Aw, crap! To fix this, I guess I'm gonna have to prop the rest of the building up on stilts!"|
|"Ah, here comes that intolerable jerk, Baby Huey... I'll settle his hash!"|
He also sees a TV news report about The Bat, which also clears up why his health tonic is suddenly so ridiculously effective. Like any good law-abiding citizen, Woody tries to return the stolen formula to the authorities... but The Bat has other ideas. The malefactor sets up a false route that takes the bird, instead, to The Bat's secret hideout, inside a creepy mansion...
|Woody seems a bit unsure as to whether this is indeed the British Film Institute...|
Great stuff! The Dragnet material is pretty funny, parodying the original, 1950s incarnation of the popular TV series, although the "enemy spy" plot derives more from Cold War-oriented programs, like I Led Three Lives (1953-56) and the film (and subsequent radio series) which inspired it, I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951). I love how (Joe) "Thursday" is so laconic --slouching in his swivel chair, hands in his pockets, his feet propped up on his desk-- that he answers the office phone with his foot.
The character designs and backgrounds are quite nice, if a bit more prosaic and spare than what was typically seen in the Woody Woodpecker cartoons of the 1940s. I particularly like the silhouette design of The Bat; simple and cartoony, yet menacing. He truly takes his moniker to heart. What really sells the cartoon, however, is the animation, which is very smooth, expressive and funny, overcoming any deficiencies in the toned-down, "cuter" Woody design (which was underway a few years before this particular short was made), or the somewhat-crude look of some of the minor human characters Woody interacts with in the film. On the flip side, the intentionally-limited animation of Dragnet surrogates, Thursday and Al, effectively satirizes the deliberately stiff, straightforward style of Jack Webb's TV show.
|Don Patterson, found in a detail of a large group photo of Charles Mintz Studio animation staff, circa 1933.|
Don Patterson (1909-1988) began as part of the animation staff at the Charles Mintz studio, along with his younger brother, the equally-great animator Ray Patterson, working anonymously on Krazy Kat, Scrappy and various other cartoons that were distributed by Columbia Pictures. In the late 1930s, Don was hired by Disney, animating on shorts (Boat Builders, Mickey's Trailer, The Brave Little Tailor, Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (all 1938), Donald's Garden (1942)) and features (Fantasia (1940, assisting with the Pterodactyls swooping in "The Rite of Spring", animating a torrent of ghosts and ghouls in "A Night on Bald Mountain"), Pinocchio (1941), Dumbo (1941), The Three Caballeros (1944)), moved to MGM (Tom & Jerry, Barney Bear), before going to work for Walter Lantz, where he animated on a batch of cartoons directed by Lantz himself, before rising to the position of animation director on 15 shorts, beginning with The Great Who-Dood-It in 1952, and was also responsible for the studio's only cartoon short to be filmed in 3D, Hypnotic Hick (1953). When director Tex Avery arrived at Lantz from MGM, Patterson shifted back to animator to work on Avery's quartet of shorts, and remained in that role for the remainder of his tenure at Lantz's studio, animating for directors Paul J. Smith and Alex Lovy. He also did some TV commercial work for Lantz, such as animating this energetic commercial for Kellogg's Rice Krispies:
(Credit the great cartoonist/animator, Mike Kazaleh, for identifying Patterson as this
commercial's primary artist. His eagle-eye for pinpointing who in the classic-era cartoon
world animated what, particularly in regards to vintage TV commercials, is semi-regularly
on display at Jerry Beck's amazing Cartoon Research blogsite. He and his peers there
have forgotten more about classic animation than you and I will ever learn.)
Here's a nice sampling of some of Don Patterson's theatrical animation work from the late-1930s through the mid-1950s, at Lantz, MGM and Disney, prior to his long TV career at Hanna-Barbera (where he animated for Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick-Draw McGraw, The Flintstones, Jonny Quest, etc, from 1959 to 1988):
He's credited with stories/gags for 10 of Patterson's films at Lantz, and continued at the studio through the 1960s, while also doing some work at MGM in the late 1950s, for director Michael Lah's unit, making the last batch of theatrical shorts starring Tex Avery's Droopy, including the Oscar-nominated One Droopy Knight (1957). For television, he wrote for UPA's Dick Tracy (1961), the animated Bozo the Clown (1962), The New Three Stooges (1965), and the DePatie-Freleng superhero spoof, The Super Six (1966). Brightman once got to appear on TV himself, on the Walter Lantz-hosted Woody Woodpecker Show, showing young viewers a storyboard pitch for one of the Woody cartoons he wrote, To Catch a Woodpecker (1957), directed by Alex Lovy:
Helping Patterson and Brightman bring this cartoon to life was a team of three lead animators:
Ray Abrams (1906-?) started animating at Disney in 1927, as an in-betweener on the new Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts that Disney and animator Ub Iwerks were making for Universal, and was among the staff who were subsequently lured away from Disney by producer Charles Mintz, who took possession of Oswald, and formed a new animation company to make them. Mintz was soon ousted by Universal, and the unit was given to Walter Lantz, for whom Abrams worked steadily through the late 1930s. He moved to MGM in 1940 to animate on a couple of Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising shorts, before joining Tex Avery's new MGM cartoon unit, and staying there through most of the 1940s, helping to animate some of the greatest cartoons ever made, such as Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), Who Killed Who? (1943), Northwest Hounded Police (1946) and King-Size Canary (1947). Toward the end of his time at MGM, Abrams (along with Don Patterson) helped animate a trio of good Barney Bear shorts co-directed by Preston Blair and Michael Lah: The Bear and the Bean (1948), The Bear and the Hare (1948) and Goggle Fishing Bear (1949). Abrams returned to Lantz in 1951, and worked steadily at the studio through 1965. From there, he joined Hanna-Barbera, working for them from the mid-1960s through the 1970s on such kiddie fare as Secret Squirrel, Frankenstein, Jr. & The Impossibles, The Herculoids, The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Gulliver, Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, The Cattanooga Cats, Scooby's Laff-A-Lympics and Captain Caveman.
Jacobs' collaborator on the backgrounds for this short, Art Landy (1909-1977), followed a similar career path, starting at Disney in the late 1930s, and moving to Lantz in the early 1950s. Unlike Jacobs, however, Landy stuck largely to theatricals, retiring from the business in the late 1960s. Here are a few examples of his paintings, done outside of his animation work.
Later, McKennon would be the voice of Gumby (from the 1960s, onward, as well as Pokey, Prickle, and others), Filmation's Archie (and Mr. Weatherbee), Q.T. Hush (and his dog, Shamus), both Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse, etc. He was also (uncredited) the movie theater projectionist attacked by William Castle's The Tingler (1959). and the short order cook who, with Tippi Hedren and other onlookers, yells out to warn the ill-fated smoker about the flow of gasoline pooling at his feet in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). McKennon was seen a lot on live-action TV, as well: first as kid show host Captain Jet on Los Angeles TV in the early 1950s; a part on the 1953 Dragnet episode, "The Big Lover"; appearances on a few popular '60s sitcoms (My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, My Favorite Martian) and dramas (The Untouchables, Ben Casey, a recurring part as Medical Examiner Dr. Tom Blaney on 87th Precinct); and particularly in westerns (Gunsmoke, Sugarfoot, Colt .45, Wagon Train, Bonanza, The Big Valley, The Rifleman, The Virginian, many others), including a regular role as "Cincinnatus" on Daniel Boone.
Clarence Wheeler (1885-1966) got his start in radio in the early 1930s, as orchestra leader and music director for Chicago's WBBM. Moving to Hollywood, he began composing for animated shorts, beginning with a trio of latter-day Ub Iwerks shorts in 1938 (Beauty Shoppe, Baby Checkers and A Busy Day) starring Gran-Pop Monkey, and leading to some of Columbia Studios' Color Rhapsodies cartoons, as well as an experiment, in a form of a couple animated newsreels: Broken Treaties (1941) and How War Came (1941). Wheeler then graduated to scoring some live-action features, albeit programmers for the low-budget Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) in the early 1940s, such as Dangerous Lady (1941), The Miracle Kid (1941) and Too Many Women (1942), as well as the Shirley Temple feature, Miss Andy Rooney (1942, famous for featuring Miss Temple's first screen kiss) for indie producer Edward Small, and work on a couple of Columbia's Blondie series, Blondie's Holiday (1947) and Blondie's Anniversary (1947). During this time, Wheeler was tapped by producer George Pal to provide music for some of his Puppetoon shorts at Paramount, mainly those involving Pal's character Jasper, though also the highly-regarded John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946) and Together in the Weather (1946). He also scored Hugh Harmon's lavish cartoon sales film short, Easy Does It (1946) for Stokely Van Camp Foods, a couple of the short-lived Jerky Journeys cartoon travelogue-spoof shorts for Republic, and the theme music for the first (barely) animated cartoon series made for television, the original Crusader Rabbit, in 1948-49. He then joined Walter Lantz in 1951, and remained there until his death in 1966.
If you poke around the major streaming services, you might have a decent chance at running across Under the Counter Spy, but in lieu of that, here are some further entertaining screen shots from it:
|"Be sure not to miss our next exciting episode, 'Love Me or Cleave Me' ~ or ~ 'Bye Bye Birdie'!"|
|Jack Webb in Decline and Fall... of a Birdwatcher (1968)|
|"Brainnnnnnssssss... morrrre brainnnnnnnsssss..."|
|"Dammit, WHY do my hands always suddenly fuse together to form a volatile high-explosive at the least-opportune times?!?"|
|"Cripes! They take Palm Sunday seriously around here!"|
|The terms of their divorce settlement were extreme, to say the least...|
|"Oh no! The Bat's a SCANNER!!!"|
|Framed for a crime he's ABOUT TO commit...|
|Woody finds out what happens when he succeeds in angering the Magic 8-Ball...|
|"Thanks for delivering the laxative, son... we couldn't have held out much longer."|
|Woody is serenely oblivious to his lewd visual metaphor...|
|The latest sharp drop on Wall Street nearly left Woody flat broke!|
|Plagued by low self-esteem issues, Woody seeks solace in self-actualizing signage.|
|"You're quite right, Mini-Me... once again, I stupidly forgot to align my molecular structure with that of the wall!"|
Fortunately, Under the Counter Spy, as well as all but one of Don Patterson's 14 Woody Woodpecker cartoons, can be found on DVD in the 3-disc Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection - Vol. 2; Patterson's first, The Great Who Dood It (1952), is included in Vol. 1. Both collections are still widely available (and relatively inexpensive) through the usual online vendors. His final directorial effort at Lantz, the one-shot cartoon, Flea for Two (1955), only got a DVD release via Vol. 10 of the long out-of-print Columbia House series, Woody Woodpecker & Friends in 2002, and was only available for purchase as part of their "book-of-the-month club" subscription format.
The cartoon closes with a funny parody of the famous Mark VII logo that closed every Dragnet show: