“Willie the Kid” (1952) is a masterpiece, and one of my favorite cartoons. It’s a kind of brilliant animated haiku, a snapshot of childhood and suburbia and the 1950s, so well-caught in the UPA studio style of limited animation.
It tells the story of some little kids who playact a typical Western scenario they might have seen on any number of B-movie or TV oaters. The wonderful thing is that this Western story is superimposed on a suburban neighborhood. We meet Willie, the cowboy hero, as he sits down to breakfast. His father reads the newspaper, his mother nags his father to cut the lawn, and the neighbor boy Roger stops by. I love how the mother knows it’s Roger before she opens the door. Roger must come over every day at this time.
When Willie and Roger leave the house to play outside, outside become the wild West. Dogs are their horses. Roger becomes the affable but less intelligent sidekick.
We have our villain, and we have our ingénue who must be saved from him, but Lillybelle has more moxie than a lot of B-move gals. She insists on continuing her murdered father’s stagecoach line (a child’s toy wagon pulled by a dog), shouting with gusto, “Someday my stage line will be looked upon as an important contribution to the West!”
Later when the villain accosts her, she beats him repeatedly with her parasol, theatrically wailing, “Oh, if I were only a man!”
The houses and backyard fences morph into rocks and buttes, but occasionally, reality breaks in on even the most intense imagination, and we see Willie’s dad talking over the fence with a neighbor. In a minute, Dad becomes a cactus when the kids’ power of concentration returns.
At one point, Willie is having trouble reading the map to the bad guys’ secret hiding place, and he hollers for Mama, who pokes her head out of the side of the canyon. It’s really the kitchen window.
The kids and the grownups tolerate each other, but their worlds rarely collide. For the most part they ignore each other, and I wonder if that, in 1952, isn’t the most prescient observation on the future relationship between the Baby Boomers and their folks in a couple of decades to come.
The voices are done by Marvin Miller, Marian Richman, and Martha Wentworth, all old hands at radio and B-movies. Robert Cannon directed. One of the animators was Bill Melendez, who later went on to a successful partnership with Snoopy.
“Willie the Kid” can be seen in “The Jolly FrolicsCollection” on DVD here from TCM. This is a fabulous collection of cartoons from the intelligent, stylistic and very arty UPA studio. Mister Magoo, you may recall, came out of this studio, and so did Gerald McBoing Boing, who I love so much because he breaks my heart. The original Madeline cartoon is also part of the collection.