Prior to the 21st century, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit had a fairly unlucky history. Created by Walt himself prior to the success of Mickey Mouse, the Disney company didn't own the creation until Bob Iger negotiated to get him back in 2006. In even more good fortune, the rare Oswald short "Hungry Hobos" has now been included as a digital bonus feature on the new Walt Disney Signature Collection edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Doobie recently got to chat with animation historian David Gerstein about the spotty history of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and how the character came to rejoin the Disney family.
Doobie: Hey David, how are you today?
David Gerstein: Hey, doing fine.
D: Great. So for those not familiar, can you talk about who Oswald was and where he fits into Disney's history?
DG: Sure. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was not just a character, but the title of Walt Disney's first all animated series as an independent for many years. Basically, Walt Disney's very first animated films in the early 20s involved some fairy tale parodies that were all animated. The Laugh-o-Grams, as they were called. But then for many years came a series called Alice Comedies, where a little girl, or a real life little girl, playing Alice, would get into adventures in a cartoon environment. She was super-imposed into it, with her buddy, Julius, the cat, and a couple of other animal characters. They were always a combination of live action and animation, and even though they got more animated over time with Alice's role generally reduced, there was still this feeling that the Disney studio produces live action and animation combinations. But really, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks were jonesing to produce an all animated series.
And in 1927 they got that opportunity and the character of Oswald, this mischievous, actually rather unlucky underdog of a rabbit, became their star. And there's this wonderful feeling of freedom, the studio had wanted to produce all animated cartoons for awhile, and there's this great freedom and energy and enthusiasm in this character of Oswald, sort of charming ne'er-do-well if you will, of a rabbit. And it's interesting, he was acclaimed as a new Brer Rabbit in the press, the comparison was made more than once. Basically there's just something rascally that I think speaks to our understanding of rabbits.
So essentially the Disney studio, Walt, Ub, and their crew charged into this new, exciting character, with a very exciting crew. With them were Hugh Harmon and Friz Freleng , and a number of others who would later split off to form, for instance, the Warner Bros. cartoon studio, and later the MGM cartoon studio, some would later for, Ally works for, he became an independent, and others would work for Walter Lantz. So essentially, this very strong series was produced by a crew that was the nucleus of the later Disney studio and other great animation studios. So it was a high concentration of talent on this exciting series.
D: And what ultimately happened to Oswald?
DG: Well, unfortunately as great as Disney's Oswald operation was, it was beholden to the distributor Charles Mintz who worked for Universal. And the overall ethos of Universal and Mintz was basically, keep costs low, low, low. Walt and Ub and their crew wanted to tell the most exciting, innovative cartoon stories they could, and you can see in short after short, how they pushed the envelope with speed and character count, and amount of action on screen. There had almost never been cartoons like these. And, then you get guys like Mintz and Universal, who wanted to keep the budgets down, they were being counter types. They felt that you know, the audience isn't going to notice now that the character's successful, if some of this creativity disappears, you don't always have to push the envelope. You don't always have to innovate. The audience is happy if you stay where you are for awhile. And that was completely opposed to Ub's and Walt's philosophies, you know?
So in the spring of 1928, Mintz told Walt, well you know, I'd like to bring you on to do the next season of Oswald cartoons for me now, but I'd like you to make them for less money. You can cut out the innovation, nobody is going to notice that it's gone. Well, Walt says, I'll split from you then and make Oswald cartoons myself. No you won't, says Mintz, because I've made absolutely sure that I own this character, that Universal owns this character, and that we can produce Oswald cartoons without you. Your staffers, if I take Oswald away from you, your staffers will have nowhere to go, they'll have to come with me and some have already signed contracts saying that they would do this if they had.
So essentially, relying on the fact there were few worker protections in the 1920s and the fact that that made employees rather desperate, Mintz simply decided, well I'll short-change Walt, his employees will be desperate and will have to go with me, and some of them did. Essentially, in pursuit of the bottom line, Mintz took Oswald and forced, and backed a lot of the staff into coming with him. And they continued to produce the Oswald cartoons for Mintz's reduced budget for another year. And then ironically, Mintz was a victim of his own bottom line thinking. Universal said, you know, why are we even using Mintz as a middle man? One of Mintz directors, without Walt, was Walter Lance, who offered Universal, you know, bring me onto the Universal lot, and I'll make the cartoons for you even cheaper.
So Mintz was essentially, not exactly double crossed, but out-maneuvered by the exact same kind of thinking he, himself, had subjected Walt to. It happened to Mintz... So then Walter Lance continued to produce Oswald cartoons on a regular basis until 1938 and then occasionally afterwards, directly for Universal. And, over the years, it's interesting, the Lance Oswald became less and less like the Disney Oswald. He became cuter and cuddlier, there was this belief that the audience really wanted sweetness and charming and flavor, but actually it didn't. And becoming sweeter and more charming, caused Oswald to become less interesting. And while he had remained popular for quite a few years, without Walt Disney, he was overshadowed by more dynamic characters, well like Mickey and Donald. Who, while people often seem to like to remember them as cute and charming, no Mickey and Donald get into some wild, outrageous adventures. And that's just the way we like them.
So they, so essentially, in the 1930's, Mickey, and then Donald, were ahead of Oswald. They coexisted with him, but becoming sweeter and more charming wasn't the right route for Oswald. And for many years, he, Oswald spent decades as a comic book character only. He was in the Walter Lance comics. But Lance had sort of over-cutesified the cartoons to a point where no one wanted them any longer. And, the character sort of just drifted out to sea. And then later of course, in the 2000's, happily, the Disney studio has gotten Oswald back.
DG: And so we can once again see the more fallible, the more rascally, the more outrageous Oswald that first became a popular character. And you can see how he was popular.
D: So you being the biggest expert on this of anyone I've talked to, had Disney been able to maintain control of Oswald the way he wanted, do you think he ultimately would have evolved and stayed around the way Mickey Mouse did? He would have basically been Mickey Mouse, wouldn't he? Not that he would have become Mickey Mouse, but that he would have been the symbol for Disney that evolved over the years and was, basically, the most famous character in the world.
DG: I think that he might have had a good shot at it. It would have depended on Disney still being innovative enough and having had the power, for instance, to bring sound to the series at the time he did for Mickey. But I think there's a good chance he might have been able to do that. Walt and Ub Iwerks were certainly innovative enough. So, it's easy, I think that there's an interesting factor in Mickey's success [which] was the "Steamboat Willie," the first sound Mickey short, was not the first Mickey produced. It was the first widely released Mickey tune. So Mickey exploded onto the scene, with sound immediately at his back. Now, you have to wonder, if Oswald had gotten, Oswald had eventually acquired sound in early 1929 without Walt, imagine if he had acquired it under a hypothetical second season of Disney shorts though. Then it's easy to imagine. Gaining sound would have been quite a coupe for Oswald, but would it have been quite as powerful as debuting the sound.
D: That's a good point.
DG: It's hard to know. I think it's safe to say that Oswald, if Walt had acquired sound at the same period that he did in late 1928 before most of the other studios, would a soundtracked Oswald have become as big as Mickey did, debuting in sound? Maybe not, but I think he would have come close. And he still would have been ahead of most other cartoon characters. When they say that Steamboat Willie was the first cartoon with synchronized sound, it's overlooking a cartoon from earlier in 1928, "Dinnertime," featuring Farmer Alfalfa, produced by Paul Terry. But to say that that cartoon had synchronized sound is almost a misnomer because, while occasional effects matched, most of the sound effects didn't. It was a messy cartoon. And a funny cartoon, if you watch it today. But one can immediately see the advantage that Walt had with "Steamboat Willie." There is so much more, the technology is just so much further ahead.
D: Since Walt did lose Oswald, did he end up taking a lot of Oswald in creating Mickey Mouse? Are there a lot of similarities there?
DG: That's an interesting question. There are definitely some similarities, I mean, obviously Mickey and Oswald look rather similar, I mean, a lot of people have taken a prose of Mickey and simply, in modern times, and say, knocked Mickey's head off and put and put Oswald on Mickey's shoulders and said, well here's what Oswald would have looked like a few years later. But actually, there's a little more difference than that. If you look at them, Oswald does have a sort of different build, his body is more sphere and more rabbity. His limbs are thicker. So while it's easy to look at the two and say, "hey, they do look like relatives," there is a little bit of a physical difference. It's more just that the faces have that similar black and white bird look. But that's it. I would say that there's a definite personality difference between Mickey and Oswald.
When Walt and Ub Iwerks began to work with Mickey, Walt actively stated that he wanted a Douglas Fairbanks kind of character, more of an innate hero. Because for me, I think, whereas Oswald is more of an underdog, more of a wannabe hero, he loved to talk the talk without having to walk the walk, you might say. How would I describe this? Oswald loved the idea of adventure. He's the first on his block to puff out his chest and, if say, his dear Ortensia is in peril, he will try to save her. But he's less the innate hero, he's more of an anti-hero. In "Hungry Hobos," he's on the wrong side of the law, fleeing from the Sheriff, Sheriff Crab and, in fact, it's not the only cartoon where Oswald is fleeing from Sheriff Crab.
So one gets the feeling, let's put it like this: Mickey Mouse is a legit hero and he creates humor, while bravely struggling through ridiculous danger. I mean, basically, Mickey has to save Minnie's life in a dangerous situation, but somehow that situation requires Mickey running up a down escalator with eggs and tomatoes running down it towards him. Basically, Mickey is a hero on a very unlucky day. That's where a hero comes from. Oswald, by contrast, is going to try and find, he's not going to want to be a hero, he's gonna get this idea that if he turns the escalator off and climbs up the back side, that it'll be a lot easier then running up in hero style. But he's going to run into some different kind of problems for trying to reprogram the escalator.
He's maybe his luck is just his tendency to survive narrow escapes, maybe he's not such a lucky rabbit, he just likes to think he is.
I guess Mickey is an innate hero, and [Oswald] is an innate anti-hero. And seeing with how the two of them struggle with those concepts is where the humor comes from.
D: That's a great distinction.
DG: I feel, really, that Donald Duck is an anti-hero. There we go. It's easy to look at a hero and say, aww, Mickey Mouse, always the hero, he's always standing and greeting you with a smile, he's kind of boring. Oh God no, not in the best Mickey Mouse cartoons.
He's still a rascal. He's a rascally hero. And Mickey is still a hero by crazy odds. So yeah, if Mickey is handled the right way, oh it's so easy to make him funny.
D: Can you talk some, a little bit about discovering "Hungry Hobos" and the process of bringing that back?
DG: I was not the new discoverer.
D: No, but realized that you had this here.
DG: I had worked with Walt Disney animation studios, at helping research and locate other lost Oswald cartoons. It's always so exciting when one of these things turns up. Essentially, when Disney recovered the character from Universal ten years ago, they immediately wanted to release and reissue some of the Oswald cartoons, and in 2007 they did on a DVD set that I was one of the researchers involved with. But, Universal at that time only had five or six of the Disney Oswald's in its holdings, and those were the few that they had reissued with sound in the early 1930s. The silent Oswald cartoons, well Universal had actually — in the 40s, from what is known today — destroyed their materials, saying well, it's too much trouble to soundtrack these, so we just don't have a market for them anymore. Let's save some storage space, let's get rid of the unusable silent films. So Universal just trashed its materials and recovering them has been about talking with archives around the world, and collectors around the world. And learning what the films were called in other languages.
D: Oh yeah.
DG: So very good examples, one of the Oswald's that we located in 2007, was this great cartoon where Oswald is hunting and camping. He goes down these rapids and gets into an awesome fight with these big bears. But, when Disney tried to find it, Tall Timbers it was called, asking archives around the world, do you have Tall Timbers? They would say no. What happened was, we learned that in Norway, Tall Timbers was first released under the title, Stas Stogen, which means, The Big Woods.
And, while, the Norwegian National Archive, did not have a copy of Tall Timber, they had Stas Stogen, which at that time they didn't realize was Tall Timbers, they didn't know it was a Disney cartoon. But, take a look at it, well, we'd know that rabbit anywhere. Then there was this rush, wow, we found another one.
D: Well thank you so much, I appreciate your time.
DG: Thank you so much. It's been a lot of fun.