Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Legacy of the Little Ranger

In interviews, director Jack Hannah referred to him as the “Little Ranger.” Introduced primarily as a supporting player, he comically traded pratfalls with the more cantankerous Donald Duck and the ever goofy Humphrey Bear. A relatively small fish in the then shrinking small pond of 1950s animated short features, Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore would prove to be a survivor, and ultimately crossover into other Disney entertainment venues throughout the 1960s and even beyond.

Hannah remembered the origin of the character. "For the sake of something new, we tried the Duck with a bear in Rugged Bear and it seemed like an immediate success for them to play against each other," the director recalled in an interview with Disney historian Jim Korkis. "Later, when we started thinking of another picture for the bear, it seemed natural to be in a National Forest and that's how the Little Ranger came into being."

While not specifically named until his later television appearances, “The Ranger” made his debut in the 1954 cartoon Grin and Bear It. The pear-shaped and overly fastidious character became a counterpoint to the antics of Donald and Humphrey who had already established a relationship of conflict the previous year in Rugged Bear. Grin and Bear It established the setting of Brownstone National Park and clearly tapped into the postwar popularity of the great outdoors as represented by the country’s national parks. In the short, the Ranger tries desperately to contain the chaos perpetrated by the duck and the bear, but very pointedly falls victim to the short’s final gag.

Still without a moniker, the Ranger would find himself relocated to points south later in 1954 in the terrific Cinemascope short Grand Canyonscope. Again, he is caught between tourist Donald and various elements within the famous national landmark. This time it’s the duck’s encounter with a mountain lion that literally brings destruction down upon the Ranger’s otherwise neat and orderly existence.

The Ranger returned to Brownstone in 1955 for the Donald Duck short Beezy Bear, and did not venture beyond its borders in his remaining two appearances in Hooked Bear and In the Bag, both Humphrey Bear cartoons. His penultimate and likely most famous moment came in In the Bag where he cunningly cons the park bears into litter cleanup via a hilarious, and at the same time, catchy dance number. So popular was this song, it inspired a Mickey Mouse Club recording entitled the "Humphrey Hop."

Unfortunately, the Ranger would fall victim to the decline of cartoon shorts that marked the final years of the 1950s. As John Grant noted in his Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters, “Had he come on the scene in 1944 or 1934 rather than 1954 there is little doubt he would have become a major Disney character.”

The novelty of the Ranger and Humphrey was likely not lost on fellow cartoon moguls Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they would reinvent the pair for television, albeit with distinctly different personalities, in the incarnations of Yogi Bear and Ranger Smith.

Ten years after his last cartoon short appearance, J. Audubon Woodlore was resurrected and finally given his name when Walt Disney introduced him to audiences on the 1966 episode of the Wonderful World of Disney entitled Ranger’s Guide to Nature. Director Ham Luske combined animation and live action footage to put a slightly different spin on the studio’s traditional nature documentaries. Ranger Woodlore effectively became an environmental counterpart to the show's other frequent animated host, Ludwig Von Drake. He would go on to host two additional nature programs, Nature’s Better Built Homes and Nature’s Charter Tours. He also took center stage in the 1968 episode The Ranger of Brownstone, where director Luske seamlessly blended new animation with the existing Donald Duck and Humphrey Bear shorts. Three new musical sequences specifically showcased Brownstone’s fussy caretaker.

The character of the Ranger is most especially distinguished by the terrific voice work provided by Bill Thompson. More famously known as the original voice of Droopy, Thompson voiced numerous other Disney characters including the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, King Hubert from Sleeping Beauty, and Mister Smee from Peter Pan, and later provided the vocals for Hanna Barbera’s Touche Turtle. Jack Hannah fondly remembered working with Thompson. "One of the sequences I remember having having a lot of fun with was when the Duck had a honey farm [in the cartoon Beezy Bear] next to the Ranger's station. The Duck complained that the bears were stealing his honey, so the Little Ranger had them stand up in a police-line fashion. The Little Ranger always treated his bears like family pets. Sometimes I would fill in and do some of Humphrey's grunts."

When Ranger Woodlore returned in episodes of Mickey’s House of Mouse in 2001, Thompson’s original and distinct interpretation of the character was sorely missed.

Ranger Woodlore also successfully moonlighted in the publishing world. Similar to his television shows, he was featured in nature-themed articles in numerous Disney books and publications. If you ever purchased a Disney grocery store encyclopedia or magazine premium back in the day, there was a strong possibility that Ranger Woodlore would appear somewhere within its pages.

Uniquely different from just about all other animated characters of the same era, Ranger Woodlore stands distinctly apart from the rest of the stable of Disney cartoon personalities. His resume may not be terribly extensive, but he has always been a fun and entertaining player in Disney entertainment.

9 comments:

Nic Kramer said...

The ranger was also seen in one of Wendel's vaction slides in "The Country Bear Jamberee Vaction Hoedown" and was seen on the map of CA's Redwood trail.

Anonymous said...

The Ranger is probably my favorite character. Thanks for this detailed and loving look.

Cory Gross said...

Hooray for Ranger Woodlore! Actually, you just threw my own article about him out of the schedule and down a few years so it doesn't come off like I'm completely plagiarizing you ^_~

I know that In the Bag and Hooked Bear were included on the Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities disk, but they really need to pull all the shorts and TV specials together for a definitive Humphrey and Woodlore collection.

Aracuanbird said...

Great article. J Audobon Woodlore and Humphrey are tremendous characters...brilliantly pantomimed. The grunts and Thompson's fussy voicework are just icing on the cake.

Nice work!

Greg Ehrbar said...

Ranger Woodlore also had his own Disneyland record album called A NATURE GUIDE with soundtracks from Wonderful World of Color episodes and Paul Smith True-Life music.

mydisneycollection said...

You know, it really sucks that Ranger Woodlore and Humphrey aren't featured at all in the Grizzly Peak section of DCA. I would rather Disney drop in a classic character rather than the flavor of the month "Brother Bear."

George Taylor said...

Tom...

http://www.2719hyperion.com/2008/05/snapshot-disneyland-fire-hazard-medium.html

Jeff and I were super-excited to see this small tribute. We agreed that Grizzly Flats is a perfect area for Woodlore and Humphrey!

Anonymous said...

You know, it really sucks that Ranger Woodlore and Humphrey aren't featured at all in the Grizzly Peak section of DCA. I would rather Disney drop in a classic character rather than the flavor of the month "Brother Bear."

I agree that it'd be nice to have Woodlore and Humphrey recieve more recognition at the parks, but I disagree with you on Brother Bear being a "flavor of the month" kind of thing--it's far from that, IMO.

Jon Cooke said...

An interesting sidenote is that when Jack Hannah went to Walter Lantz, he brought back the Ranger and Humphrey as "Ranger Willoughby" and "Fatso the Bear" in three cartoons: "Hunger Strife" (1960), "Eggnapper" (1961), and "Bear and the Bees" (1961). "Fatso" looked identical to Humphrey, while the Ranger would eventually become Lantz's Inspector Willoughby character.

I also remember a Disney TV episode that had Woodlore running an employment agency trying to find a job for Donald.