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Monday, April 05, 2010

All This and Oswald Rabbit's Stew

I never saw an Oswald The Lucky Rabbit until those recent DVD’s came out. Animation expert Mark Mayerson (great site he has) said in a comment to Greenbriar’s Flip The Frog post that practically the entire inventory of theatrical sound cartoons were on New York TV during the late 50’s and early 60’s. My friend Norman Stewart (who used to write exemplary book and video reviews for Movie Collector’s World) remembers Oswald televised during a family trip to Washington in the early sixties. Some of us have spent lives accumulating animated character sightings. Oswald ran with Woody Woodpecker’s pack and lots were unaware that he’d begun as Walt Disney’s (partial) creation. The Disney Company swapped to get Oswald back in 2006 after seventy-eight years in which his name was seldom uttered (at least by them). Now Disney owns the shorts Walt made during 1927-28 and marketing rights to the Rabbit, while Universal maintains ones they distributed from the point at which WD was euchred out of his participation by certain evil folk whose names live in infamy. Got that? There’s a long story behind it all. My reason for mentioning Oswald lies in having watched those Disney survivors and a dozen or so Lucky Rabbits tucked among Woodpecker Volumes One and Two. I confuse easy when animation history gets complicated, and there are aspects plentiful here to trip one up. Being Disney related makes worthy chasing Oswald into his briar patch, however. At least for me.

The corporate line on Walt Disney’s early distributing partners reads simply: They were snakes. The one who rattled loudest was Charles Mintz (not coincidental is the fact you can hiss the name). Mintz has been variously called a double-crosser, a greedy fool, and a lying turncoat. He horned in on the Disney operation after marrying Margaret Winkler, the distributor who’d taken a chance on Walt’s Alice cartoons and found modest success getting them to theatres. My impression of Margaret suggests a woman under the influence of a husband who lacked both tact and ethics. Maybe business got better when Mintz took charge, but relationships did not. There was another Winkler on the bobsled, brother George. He seemed willing enough to take orders from Mintz. Together they pressured Disney to come up with a new character to replace his slipping Alice, the latter a live action/animation hybrid having plateaued by 1927. Mintz got Universal interested in a fresh cartoon series and executives there hashed over what species of animal their pen and ink star should be. No more cats was one resolution they agreed on, what with Krazy and Felix already filling industry pipelines. Oswald’s gestation was as much corporate inspiration as Disney’s. Universal, Mintz, and Winkler all signed off on the Lucky Rabbit’s design and personality. Walt’s initial short for the Oswald series was in fact rejected by his new studio partner with the character sent back to Disney drawing boards. Universal enjoyed major player status thanks to distribution far wider than Margaret Winkler’s, so pleasing them was essential. The company stood ready to go with aggressive promotion, product tie-ins (anyone got the pencil set shown below?), and placement for Oswald cartoons in first-run theatres previously off-limits to Disney output. Trolley Troubles would be the second Rabbit made and first one released. Universal’s season order called for twenty-six. Walt’s limited staff was strapped aboard their own trolley now with a mere two weeks between release stops.

Disney artists felt the whip as pressure mounted to deliver Oswalds. Walt the benign boss was a memory. Now he was pushing as Mintz pushed him. The latter had pipelines to Universal brass, and guarded these jealously. He was overseeing other cartoon shops as well, figuring artists for little more than wage earners producing at his behest. Since when did Disney rate status above these? Walt was perhaps naïve for imagining he’d get a fair shake from moneychangers like Mintz and Winkler. His business was product and theirs was dispersal of same. Ub Iwerks tried to warn Disney that Mintz was poaching his artists, but Walt wouldn’t believe it. The roof eventually fell with plots revealed and Disney too late to reverse Mintz’s machinations. All of Walt’s best talent was purloined, save Iwerks and beginner Les Clark. They would go off now to Mintz’s workshop and create further Oswalds sans Disney supervision. Animators Hugh Harmon, Friz Freleng, and Ham Hamilton felt justified bailing harsh policies Disney had instituted. Their boss, however, would never get past their betrayal. Walt’s heart was hardened and I’d imagine people who knew him before and after the ordeal would say a new man was forged upon the cauldron of stolen staff and a character he'd no longer create for.

Oswald became Universal’s pride and joy. Trade ads shown here are but a fraction of what the company generated to sell their cartoon pet. Charles Mintz delivered with efficiency, helped in no small measure by artists formerly with Disney, so shorts maintained standards set by the opener season. Sound was added as new staff came aboard, among these Walter Lantz. There are conflicting accounts as to how he aced Charles Mintz out of the Universal Oswald deal. Suffice to say he deftly applied some of Mintz’s own medicine and justice was done, a story relished by Disney from there on and one he’d repeat often to loyalists and would be usurpers. Walt’s joy was reflected in a greeting he sent Carl Laemmle (October 1935) wherein triumphant Mickey approaches a glowering Oswald with an open hand (or is he poised to strike the Rabbit?): In Memory Of The Days When I Produced Oswald For Universal. Anyway, the card speaks volumes. For once, real life paid off with an ending right out of a Disney fable: square dealing vindicated and treachery routed. As for Mintz, he died pretty well busted in 1939, having lost berths at Universal, then Paramount, then Columbia. Oswald continued on through the thirties under Walter Lantz’s leadership. Quality ran warm and cool, seldom achieving extremes either way. Those dozen handpicked for Universal’s DVD volumes are the likely best, as competent as any cartoons Disney rivals were making. An outstanding Oswald might snip at Walt’s heels, as for instance Merry Old Soul, a 1933 Academy Award nominee that Universal pushed hard to compete with marquee juggernaut The Three Little Pigs. Maybe for classic horror fans it’s enough knowing that Oswald played often in tandem with Frankenstein, Dracula, and whatever monsters Universal served up through the thirties, accompanying as well prestige bids like Counselor At Law (shown here), wherein Merry Old Soul aims to Place Cartoon Comedy In A Class By Itself.

You could pen a psychological profile of The Lucky Rabbit and call it The Three (at least) Faces Of Oswald. First his ears are floppy, then rigid. The face and body is black before drifting to fluffy white. Personality-wise, Oswald is all over maps, being early on aggressive and near anti-heroic, only to embrace sticky sweetness as the series wound down. Lantz spawned at least one Rabbit-alike with clone Pooch the Pup for a lackluster mid-thirties group, then spun off Oswald into comic books that continued decades past the character’s cartoon fade. Was Walt Disney observing the Rabbit’s progress? I’d figure not, despite his admitted emotional investment in this one that got away. Of studio look-backs instigated during Walt’s lifetime, I’ve seen none that mentioned Oswald or included Rabbit clippings. That would have necessitated licensure from Universal, an observance Disney would surely have abhorred. The 1999 documentary, The Man Behind the Mouse, about Ub Iwerks but produced by the Disney Company, did acknowledge Universal for Oswald excerpts and presumably paid for use of same. Was this a first since Walt lost the character in 1928? I also wonder if Mintz or the Winklers experienced regret over how they (mis) handled their association with Disney. Imagine the riches that might have been realized just for staying aboard and playing fair. Such meditation surely interrupted many a night’s sleep for Charles, George, and Margaret. According to animation historian/producer Ray Pointer at the Golden Age Cartoons forum, Mrs. Winkler (Mintz) by 1947 found herself unable to pay nitrate storage fees for the many cartoon negatives she still owned, including Disney Alice and Oswalds. She had those elements destroyed to save expense of warehousing. You’d think Walt would certainly have purchased this material had the lady offered it, as both would have benefited. Was she too proud to approach him?

When Michael Barrier’s definitive Hollywood Cartoons was published in 1999, he reported nine surviving Disney Oswald cartoons. Following their acquisition of rights in 2006, the Disney Company instituted a worldwide archival search for missing shorts among the 27 Walt made. As of December 2007 and the release of Walt Disney Treasures - The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, thirteen were accounted for and included in the DVD. That’s pretty much half the group and a better survival rate than most silent cartoons can boast. Quality varies according to where and from whom prints were acquired. Some originated with collectors, others from European sources. A few survived thanks to Universal having reissued them with music tracks (albeit edited) during the early thirties. Disney has manufactured some toys and Oswald figures to generate awareness of the character. I guess it’s conceivable they’d use him in new animation. Perhaps a Bugs/Daffy inspired rivalry with Mickey, such as Walt’s card to Carl Laemmle anticipated? The search meanwhile continues for missing Oswald silents. It’s quite possible more will turn up. There may even be a Greenbriar reader with one or more tucked away.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I seem to remember an OSWALD clip on a 70's NBC Disney retrospective show.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Poptique said...

A great 1987 South Bank Show special on Walt Disney in the UK had a couple of Oswald clips alongside some Alice material.

Oswald gets his first proper modern Disney outing in an upcoming game called "Epic Mickey". Oswald is supposed to have be stuck in a cartoon wasteland, jealously regarding the Mouse's success over the decades. He drags Mickey into said wasteland, where he must battle through levels based on classic 30s titles like Clock Cleaners!

Sounds like fun, (to me at least!)

6:20 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I've heard there's at least one in the hands of a collector too p.o'd at Disney's rough treatment of collectors over the years to be willing to let them use it in the DVD set. (Only one collector who felt that way?)

Personally, looking at the Oswalds makes Mintz's decision more explicable. Quality is variable-- one will be expertly animated and with sharp characterization, the next shockingly crude. And Disney often liked to expend effort on things that "wasted" money on screen, like scenes with lots of individually animated parts (a hallmark of his work through the 30s). I think as an employee he was torn between his artistic ambition and his need to crank product out, and the results were inconsistent; not until he was the boss did he find the balance point where he could devote just enough time to each cartoon to make it distinctive, but not too much.

Still, the best couple of Oswalds are the first MIckeys in all but name. A superb set.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As Poptique said the new Disney Game 'Epic Mickey' will feature both Mickey and Oswald but the way Disney re-acquired the rights to Oswald was a trade with NBC. Disney gave up Al Michaels and in return NBC gave up the rights to Oswald.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous John McElwee said...

Donald Benson weighs in via e-mail on Disney, Oswald, and the wisdom of maintaining ownership of your film library:

It's been argued that the loss of Oswald played a key part in Disney's later survival and success. From that point on, Walt and brother Roy were almost fanatical about keeping ownership of everything they created. They even resisted the easy money of selling off their libraries to television; consequently they were able to keep making money on re-releases (with as much marketing as most new films) and fill their Sunday hour with "real" movies that hadn't been run ragged on the late show like everybody else's. Today those relics are the backbone of their DVD, cable and merchandising empires.

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when ANY Disney animation was appointment television, while the greatest Bugs Bunnys were running daily on multiple local channels. Even second-tier features came back to theaters with as much hoopla as new films. It's as if Fox successfully re-released the musical Doctor Doolittle and similar Christmas turkeys on a regular schedule; or if Universal scored a prime-time network spot for its monsters.

If Disney had trusted a seemingly benign studio partner after Mintz, he may well have gone the same way as the Fleischer brothers. Paramount allegedly prevented them from making the first animated feature, and later they managed to yank the whole studio away from the Fleischers, condemning us to Casper, Herman & Katnip, and Baby Huey -- the cartoons that made children wince.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Well, comparing Disney vs. Warner's approach is a double-edged sword. Disney kept such a tight rein on its early work that it faded from memory; Mickey was reduced to Steamboat Willie, The Band Concert and The Sorcerer's Apprentice while Bugs and Daffy were familiar friends.

What I've heard from a prominent Disney historian is that the studio was so committed to the idea that their work got better and better every year (when, of course, it grew technically more advanced but often artistically stagnated) that they consistently devalued their early work. Who'd want to see early Silly Symphonies or crude black and white Mickeys when there's Jungle Book and Robin Hood, Fox and the Hound and Oliver & Co.? At the same time, there was the fear that if critics saw the early work, it would be used to beat up on the more recent films. (Which, of course, was exactly correct.)

It took the retirement or passing of most of the people who'd lived through that era to make those films into the treasured and marketable past-- rather than the embarrassing work of youth. Now the early Disney films are available, somewhat, but it is unlikely that they'll ever be as loved by the generations for whom Bugs and Daffy were Saturday morning companions all through childhood.

7:05 PM  
Blogger ramapith said...

Michael—you are, tragically, correct.

It is inspiring to look at the early Disney cartoons that have been uploaded on YouTube... and read hundreds of reactions that show the genuine enthusiasm of children and young people. Pay channel viewing slots (long since gone, anyway) and limited edition DVDs (not advertised—do they even exist for the layperson?) mean little—this, ironically, is the first real exposure these characters have had in decades.

In Europe, both the classic shorts and the Disney comics are much more prevalent, as they have always been in the modern age. Mickey and Donald are familiar friends.

4:25 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Many great observations here! As a kid with with a red hot interest in animation I was well acquainted with Oswald's Disney origin while watching all the Lantz titles on NYC television in the late fifties/early sixties. Loved the Lantz entries, especially the early black-no-shirt-Oswalds. Despite filling a room full of various 16mm cartoons over the intervening 50 years, I've had a heck of a time revisiting those specific films ever since. Now, thanks to the Internet and some assorted DVDs I've caught up with a handful of select titles, validating my original enthusiasm for the series. Much of this stuff is not bad at all! And one strong childhood impression that I have carried for half a century proves spot on: characters in early Lantz talkies were always turning into skeletons!

11:04 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wonderful article, great insights on the comments, but since nobody else has asked, I'm going to have to.

Where the heck did that Oswald statue/figure/maquette come from, and where can I get one?

7:29 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I don't know if this is where John's came from, but I found a picture of one at

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Disney needs a character with a black person's voice. So they should use Oswald to round out all the characters with white person voices so they won't be called racist.

10:15 PM  

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