Humphrey and Ranger Woodlore.


Original Medium: Theatrical animation
Released by: Disney
First Appeared: 1950
Creator: Jack Hannah
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Of the many memorable characters the Disney organization came up with during the heyday of theatrical animation, only seven had series of their own, i.e., starring roles in …

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… short cartoons that opened with the character's own logo. Naturally, these included the company's most luminous luminaries — Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Chip & Dale … even Figaro the Cat, featured in a few shorts in the mid-1940s, was well known to audiences through his role in Pinocchio.

And then there's Humphrey Bear — a certified Disney star, yet so obscure there are major animation reference books that don't even mention him.

Humphrey was first seen in Hold that Pose, directed by Jack Kinney, which was released November 3, 1950. It was one of those "how-to" cartoons, where Goofy plays an inept expert of one sort or another. This time, he was a photographer, and Humphrey was an unwilling subject. The Bear was a little rough around the edges in his first outing — he looked the same, but started out ferocious, which is very much unlike him. By the end, tho, he was the good old, perfectly tame Humphrey that audiences later came to know (briefly, at least), hawking autographed photos.

Humphrey was definitely himself in his next picture, Rugged Bear (1953), in which he impersonated a bearskin rug in a vain attempt to lie down peacefully for the winter. He'd become a fully sympathetic character, with desires viewers could relate to, which he was inclined to satisfy through wit, resourcefulness, and in other socially accepted ways. Tho he didn't speak in the usual human sense, he did make quasi-articulate noises. They were supplied by voice actor Jim MacDonald (Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland, Penguins in Mary Poppins).

That one was directed by Jack Hannah, who was to guide Humphrey for the rest of his career — and, in a sense, beyond. He was playing second fiddle to Donald Duck, which he did three more times before he finally got star billing in Hooked Bear (1956).

His usual co-star (introduced in one of the cartoons he shared with Donald) was Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore, a mild-mannered, chubby little guy voiced by Bill Thompson (Droopy). The Ranger seemed to think of the bears of Brownstone National Park, where he worked, as his children, there to be loved, corrected, and forced to do household chores such as picking up litter in the forest. Humphrey, for his part, assumed the role of child, trying to please the Ranger and at the same time get away with misbehavior.

Humphrey seemed headed for the top, but his timing was wrong, as Disney was just then phasing out its short cartoons. His logo appeared only twice, the second being in In the Bag (also 1956). After that, it was nearly three years before any of the established stars turned up in a short, and even then, they appeared rarely that way. Humphrey wasn't established, and there was no room on the schedule for nurturing new stars.

Humphrey made a handful of very minor appearances in U.S. comic books in 1959. He was slightly more successful overseas, but soon faded completely from view.

Completely? Not quite. Jack Hannah went to work for Walter Lantz's studio, where he transplanted the personality of Ranger Woodlore into that of Ranger Willoughby (either a relative or an alter ego of Inspector Willoughby), and that of Humphrey into an even more minor character called Fatso Bear. Meanwhile, Hanna-Barbera, which patterned practically everything it ever did after something else, made a pretty good success of its own Humphrey clone — Yogi Bear.

And Humphrey himself has started turning up again. He's appeared in minor roles on Chip'n'Dale Rescue Rangers and Goof Troop, and several times in the new cartoons Disney shorts that aired on ABC during the early 21st century. Maybe he can work his way up again, and this time won't stumble on the edge of fame.


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Text ©2002-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © The Walt Disney Company.