As part of the upcoming Wave Seven for the enormously popular (and certainly controversial) Walt Disney Treasures line of tinned DVD collections, Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit debuts next month, giving animation fans and Disneyphiles a truly groundbreaking look at one of the "holy grails" of Disney animation - Walt's first commercially successful cartoon character and the direct precursor to Mickey Mouse: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And I write "groundbreaking" because except for various later releases of Universal's series of Oswald cartoons (after Walt was essentially removed from the project) and public domain copies, this is the first time since 1927-1928 that the Oswald cartoons have been released under the Disney banner.
In a "trade" that made headlines back in 2006, ABC (owned by Disney) swapped certain assets with NBC (with its ties to Universal), which included announcer Al Michaels returning to NBC, and finally, after almost eighty years, the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit returning to Disney. It was truly a landmark event for the Disney company, particularly because of the history that went along with Oswald's creation -- and his eventual removal from the early Disney studio. Back in 1927, when Walt's technically complicated and increasingly expensive series of Alice shorts (which combined a live-action girl cavorting in a cartoon world) had reached the end of their run, Walt went to Universal studio head, Carl Laemmle, with an idea to produce a new all-animation series of cartoons. Laemmle engaged Charles B. Mintz and George Winkler to be Walt's producers, and contracts were signed. Critically, the contracts stipulated that Walt had no control over budgets or who worked on the potential series. In essence, he didn't own the new cartoon character.
Working with his head animator and part owner of the small Disney studios, legendary figure Ub Iwerks, Walt and Ub created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a rubbery, anthropomorphized little black rabbit with a white mime's face and elongated ears (who didn't really look much like a rabbit). The first Oswald cartoon to be accepted by Universal for distribution, Trolley Troubles (it's included here on this DVD set), was a success, launching an increasingly popular line of shorts that saw Walt's and Ub's names rise in prominence as Oswald (and a ton of merchandising by Universal) caught on with the public. The tiny little Disney studio had really arrived.
Considering the absolutely insane work schedule that went into creating these cartoons (around two weeks, with only a handful of people working on them, including Walt and Roy Disney's wives), it wasn't unexpected after the initial success of the series for Walt to ask for a larger production budget to improve the series. Walt, ever on the lookout to enhance and perfect whatever project he was working on, anticipated no problems when he traveled to New York in the spring of 1928 to sound out Mintz for more money. To Walt's great shock, though, came news from the producer that not only did Mintz refuse to increase the budget, but that he expected Walt to take a 20% cut in the budget. When Walt balked, Mintz revealed that he had already secretly signed most of Walt's animators away from the series (notably, Ub Iwerks was not among that group) and that Walt had absolutely no say in the matter: Mintz and Universal owned the rights to the Oswald character - lock, stock, and barrel.
Devastated by this betrayal, Walt learned a valuable lesson on the train ride back to Los Angeles that he never strayed from again: own all copyrights to your own work. More importantly, according to one of the most treasured legends in the Disney mythology, on that train trip, Walt, frantically searching through magazines and newspapers for inspiration, came up with the concept for a new animal character, who would eventually morph into Mickey Mouse, the cornerstone of the soon-burgeoning Disney empire. Through the astounding draftsmanship of friend and animating genius Ub Iwerks (who worked in secret in a locked room, while dummy work was mocked up for upcoming Oswald shorts), the Mickey Mouse character was further refined and in a few short weeks, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy was created (if you can believe it, Iwerks was able to consistently churn out over 700 drawings a day during this period - an inconceivable achievement). And while Oswald would continue on at Universal, staying relatively popular for years afterward (Woody Woodpecker's Walter Lantz would even re-edit and re-release the older Disney-produced Oswalds, with newly recorded soundtracks, to meet distributor demands), Mickey Mouse rapidly eclipsed him; by the very early thirties, Mickey Mouse was probably the most recognized and beloved movie star in the world.
Which brings us to the shorts included in the Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit collection. Gathered together here are thirteen Disney-produced Oswald cartoons from 1927 to 1928. As explained in an introduction to the disc by famed Disney historian and film critic Leonard Maltin, once Disney secured the rights to bring Oswald back into the Disney family, a worldwide search was undertaken to present the best possible film elements of any remaining Disney Oswald titles. Museums and private collectors were tapped for 16mm prints and original 35mm nitrate negatives from Universal were gathered together and restored, giving Oswald as good a first presentation on DVD as was possible, considering the physical limitations of some of the source materials. Leonard Maltin, in his first introduction, makes a point of explaining this aspect of picture fidelity, stating that some of the prints show damage and that they may not be up to usual Disney DVD standards.
While he's certainly correct that a few titles included here look slightly rough, I was quite pleased with the picture quality of most of the shorts presented in the Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit set. Naturally, the safety prints taken from the nitrate negatives look the best, but some of the other shorts, taken from prints found in Spain and the Netherlands, looked quite good, as well. Anyone expecting Star Wars digital perfection will obviously be disappointed, but I suspect most animation buffs will be quite pleased with how good these Oswalds look. As for the integrity of the actual prints, several times in the individual commentaries for these shorts, Maltin and his guests state that most of these prints have been edited (many of them during the sound period, when these older silents had sequences shortened, edited out, or reshuffled in sequence to accommodate new soundtracks). I've included run times for all the shorts, and it's important to note that new musical tracks have been recorded for the Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit collection by esteemed composer Robert Israel (they're sensational, by the way).
With all the technical considerations out of the way concerning this collection, we're left with the actual cartoons, and how the play today. Despite being warned by Leonard Maltin at the beginning of the disc that these are relatively primitive cartoons, I found the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts included here really quite funny. The very nature of these early efforts, that primitive, almost crude (in execution) design and animation proves to be one of the most appealing elements of the series. As a few people state in the commentary tracks and on the Ub Iwerks documentary that's included on disc two of the Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit set, these cartoons were never intellectually thought out. Walt and Ub and the rest of the animators ("Ham" Hamilton's contributions are remarked on several times) set out to make people laugh for seven or eight minutes, while they themselves enjoyed the craft of animation, pushing themselves to constantly perfect their techniques. And that's all. The fact that these were silent cartoons necessitated that these funny little shorts moved. Oswald never stands still because he only has a short amount of time to tell his little story. Increasingly clever gags are constantly thrown at the audience, with Oswald charmingly pantomiming his thoughts and intentions so that even the smallest child can understand what's transpiring.
Of course, animation historians have noted that that aspect of Disney's earliest work - storytelling based on true character development - was what set him apart from his rivals, and consistently put him at the forefront of animation. And you can see that at work here in the Oswald cartoons. Oswald may not be as fully developed or as individual as Mickey would become in later years (Oswald, as several commentators on the discs note, owed not a little bit to the famous Felix the Cat), but he definitely has a personality, a spunky, rough-and-tumble insouciance that will be immediately recognizable to animation buffs as a precursor to the early Mickey Mouse character. Indeed, Oswald's favorite form of expression is either thumbing his nose at someone, or turning and showing his rear end in a form of disdain. As with more familiar early Disney fare, barnyard and toilet humor abound (as do extremely mild sexual gags - Oswald and his girlfriend frequently lose her little pants), but in his constant battle to win a kiss from his girlfriend (the kissing is quite long and amorous for 1927!) while beating up Putrid Pete (who will eventually morph into Pegleg Pete), there's a cocky, uniquely American nervy feistiness to Oswald that still resonates today.
Also of note for animation historians (as well as just the casual viewer looking for a funny cartoon) is the technical facility of these relatively primitive cartoons. It's really astounding to see in these simple, almost crude black and white line drawings, successful experiments in perspective and stock animation conventions (like characters squishing on the ground or stretching out of shape) that show up to this day in modern cartoons. Watching the first official Oswald release, Trolley Troubles, animator Ub Iwerks creates a dizzying runaway trolley set piece at the end of the short that's as effective as anything done today (I just saw a remarkably similar sequence on a SpongeBob short the other day). Despite some viewers' feelings that these old cartoons, with their shadowy, spidery black and white lines bouncing around on a ghostly white background, are somehow too dated to be funny or relative, viewing the Oswald collection has quite the opposite effect. It's amazing to see how much of what was attempted in technique back then, is still in use today. And more importantly, those techniques and conventions still get laughs. Assuming my younger children wouldn't have the slightest interest in the Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit collection ("It's old and in...black and white!" I imagined them saying), I didn't bother asking anyone if they wanted to watch it with me. Imagine my surprise then, when after peeking in, two of my younger kids not only started giggling at Oswald's antics, but they asked to watch more of them. Perhaps the simplicity of the design intrigued them; maybe they connected with the simple pantomime that made Oswald not at all unlike a small child. Who knows? But I probably shouldn't have been surprised that they would like it: funny is forever. If it worked eighty years ago, it will work today, and eighty years from now.
Here are the 13 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts, along with run times and my comments, included in the Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit two-disc collection (I'll discuss the bonus features on Disc Two, in the "Extras" section below) :
Trolley Troubles (1927) (5:54)
Oh Teacher (1927) (6:01)
Great Guns (1927) (6:50)
The Mechanical Cow (1927) (6:11)
The Ocean Hop (1927) (6:11)
All Wet (1927) (6:46)
Rival Romeos (1928) (6:26)
Bright Lights (1928) (7:40)
Ozzie of the Mounted (1928) (5:12)
Oh What a Knight (1928) (5:49)
Sky Scrappers (1928) (5:35)
The Fox Chase (1928) (5:24)
Tall Timber (1928) (7:41)
On Disc Two, there's a marvelous (and long overdue) documentary, The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story, directed by his granddaughter, Leslie Iwerks. Running 1:31, and narrated by Kelsey Grammar, this affectionate, thorough look at Iwerks' unsung contributions to the inception of the Walt Disney Studios, his work on Mickey Mouse, and his return to the studio years later, is most welcome. I found the examination of his years running his own animation studio particularly enlightening (with plenty of cool clips from his Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper cartoons), and I was astounded to see the summation of his second career as a special effects and camera innovator (he should quite rightly be placed among the true geniuses of technical innovations in motion picture history, considering the long list of firsts he invented). Leslie Iwerks moves smoothly from each time period, carefully crafting a fascinating portrait of a man largely unknown except to film historians and buffs. As well, there's a section called The Work of Ub Iwerks, where some pre-and-post-Oswald work is included to see the remarkable growth in Iwerks' technique. Three Alice shorts are included (Alice Gets Stung, Alice in The Wooly West, and Alice's Balloon Race) to represent the pre-Oswald period, and Plane Crazy, Steamboat Willie, and Skeleton Dance show us the amazing post-Oswald evolution of his technique.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.