Willie (top) and The Masked Marvel, from 'Rasslin' 'Round' (1934).


Medium: Theatrical animation
Produced by: Ub Iwerks Studio
First appeared: 1933
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In 1931, when Disney man Ub Iwerks struck out on his own to form an independent animation studio with products distributed by MGM, his first cartoons concerned a character called Flip the Frog. But in terms of audience acceptance, Flip didn't work …

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… out for him very well, so two years later, he was pulled from the schedule and replaced with Willie Whopper.

Or — was he?

Willie started out looking very different from what he quickly became. He was a tall, skinny kid who looked kind of like a human version of what Flip had evolved into toward the end of his tenure. In fact, MGM had been pressuring the studio for some time, about making Flip more and more human-like; and this was the apotheosis of that trend — Flip completely humanized. Along with his species change came a name change and a schtick implant. Flip the Human was called Willie Whopper, and his new schtick was to ask the viewer, "Say, did I ever tell ya this one?" and then proceed to tell an outrageous "whopper", a slang term for a big, fat lie.

Willie's lies weren't of the ordinary sort, designed to exonerate him from an accusation or make him seem more qualified for a task than he actually was. They were the kind that make good stories in cartoons — exercises in imagination such as a soujourn on an alien planet, rescuing his girlfriend (name of Mary) from a slave-holding Sultan, or even visiting Hell itself and having it out with Satan.

The transformed character was first seen in Play Ball, which was released September 16, 1933. An earlier stab at him, The Air Race, was reworked, renamed, and released later as Spite Flight. And by the way, contrary to widespread reports, the non-refurbished Flip didn't make a cameo appearance in Play Ball. In fact, unlike the Warner Bros. cartoons, where characters like Porky Pig and Sylvester Pussycat guest-starred with each other all over the place, there was never any such contact between Iwerks series. The misconception may have started when a prominent critic accidentally typed Flip's name, intending Willie's.

After the first couple of releases, Willy was re-designed again, becoming not just fat but cartoon-fat, almost round, the Willie Whopper most cartoon buffs remember today. But while this improved his visual appeal, it didn't do anything for the cartoons' overal entertainment value, which was low from beginning to end. Iwerks, easily capable of duplicating Disney's technical achievements — indeed, he was behind most of them in the first place — failed to do the same with his former employer's ability to craft an excellent gag, character or story. Like Flip, Willie sometimes did breath-takingly spectacular things, which few animators would even attempt, but which nonetheless didn't make people laugh.

Willie was done in black and white, for the most part, but three were made in Cinecolor, a now-extinct corporate rival of Technicolor. Thirteen Willie Whopper cartoons were released altogether. In duration, Willie's series was even shorter-lived than Flip's. The last entry was Viva Willie, released September 20, 1934, only marginally more than a year after the first. After that, the studio concentrated on non-series cartoons, most based (very loosely) on familiar stories such as Don Quixote or Humpty Dumpty. Its only subsequent attempt at a series was to adapt Gene Byrnes's Reg'lar Fellers into animation, and only one cartoon, Happy Days, was made.

The studio folded in 1936. Eventually, Iwerks went back to Disney.


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Text ©2007 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Ub Iwerks estate.