Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons, by David A. Bossert – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons, by David A. Bossert. Introduction by J. B. Kaufman. Illustrated.
Glendale, CA, Disney Editions, August 2017, hardcover $40.00 (176 pages).
I can’t say that I have been waiting all my life for this book, but it seems like it. As an animation fan during the 1970s and 1980s, everyone knew the Walt Disney story from the creation of Mickey Mouse onward, but nobody seemed to know what came before Mickey Mouse. Information about Disney’s first Laugh-O-Gram cartoons in Kansas City was gradually learned – his move to Hollywood and the Alice Comedies, then Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; then in early 1928 – nobody knew the exact date — the Oswald cartoons were somehow stolen from him, and he quickly created Mickey Mouse to replace his loss. But what happened in early 1928? Animation fans wanted to know.
The general story slowly emerged, but there was a shortage of details, and no one place contained all the information. Then in 2006 the Disney Studios reacquired the long-dormant Oswald rights from Universal. Well, to cut a long story short, this book now presents those details, with contemporary illustrations from the Disney Archives on almost every page. It’s not complete; there are still seven of Disney’s 26 1927-1928 Oswald cartoons that have not been found. But there is enough information here, in text and illustrations, to fill a book – this book.
This is fine for the animation fan. Is it worth it for the furry fan? Definitely! Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was a major anthro animal star of the late 1920s; by Disney in 1927-28, and it took him a decade to sink out of popularity under other directors during the 1930s. Here he is during his original stardom. If Disney hadn’t had Oswald taken away from him, we would never have gotten Mickey Mouse. Instead Oswald would have gone on to the mega-popularity that Mickey won. (Maybe. Oswald was still owned by Universal Studios, so Disney never would have had the creative freedom that he did with Mickey, who was 100% his own character.) Furry fandom would have acknowledged Oswald instead of Mickey as one of its major influences.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit relates Walt Disney’s story from his and his brother Roy’s coming to Hollywood in 1923 and starting their studio. Back then it was standard for an animator to create an idea, present it to an agent, and for his agent to shop it around to the big studios. A studio that liked the idea would buy the property, and hire the animator and his assistants to create the cartoons which it would pay for, through their agent. That is what happened with the Oswald cartoons. Disney created the concept, had it approved by his agent, Charles Mintz, and Mintz sold the concept to Universal Studios, which then hired Disney to make the cartoons, two per month. Universal was a major studio and Disney’s future seemed assured. But during 1927, Disney began spending more and more to make each cartoon. Oswald was a big animated cartoon star and Disney wanted to constantly improve each film’s qualities, while businesslike Universal just wanted the cartoons made as cheaply as possible. Universal and Mintz agreed together to replace Disney with a new animation director to produce Universal’s Oswald cartoons. Disney knew that he had sold all rights to Oswald, so he didn’t protest – he secretly created Mickey to replace Oswald, and he got his own funding so he never had to sell the rights to Mickey. With more money and imagination, the Disney Mickey cartoons grew to worldwide popularity during the 1930s, while the cheaper and less imaginative Universal Oswald cartoons dwindled and disappeared.
This is detailed in the first chapter, “The Origins of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”. Subsequent chapters are “Reacquiring the Rights to Oswald” (the Disney studio getting them back from Universal in 2006). “The Search Begins” (Universal hadn’t bothered to keep any of the 1927-1928 cartoons, so Disney had to search for them elsewhere). “Restoration, Preservation, and Music” (many of the cartoons, all silent films, were partial and in deteriorating condition), and “Walt Disney’s Original 26 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Episodes”.
Each of the 26 cartoons – “Poor Papa”, “Trolley Troubles”, “Oh, Teacher”, “The Mechanical Cow”, “Great Guns”, and all the others released from September 5, 1927 to September 3, 1928 — gets a five- or six-page profile, with its premiere date, complete credits, running time, and a lengthy plot synopsis. Even the seven cartoons that have not been rediscovered yet have their scripts and samples of their artwork preserved. The illustrations include film stills, cartoon scene notes (storyboards had not been invented yet), full-color posters that have been found, and pencil rough layouts for posters that have not survived. The opening chapters are illustrated with photographs, story notes, telegrams, and other materials from the Disney Archives. Apparently Disney hoarded everything, whether Universal did or not.
Comic books did not exist yet, so these 26 one-reel theatrical cartoons were all the existence that Oswald got. But they were enough to make him a major cartoon movie star of 1927-28. Many of the story ideas and gags in these cartoons were recycled by Disney in his later Mickey Mouse cartoons. The character of Mickey evolved over the years, in animated cartoons, newspaper comics, comic books, and more. The character of Oswald never got the chance to evolve. By the time furry fandom arose, all that was available of Oswald were some very bland and completely redesigned and forgettable Dell comic books, from the 1950s through December-January 1961-62. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shows both the history of the cartoons, and what character the furry fan has unknowingly been missing.
Today Disney is reintroducing Oswald through new video games, comic books, merchandise, and theme-park costumes. Don’t miss this chance to find out about Oswald’s origins.
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Hooray for the Internet and YouTube! Here are two Disney Oswalds, “Trolley Troubles” and “Bright Lights”, one of Disney’s first and one of his later ones, showing how Disney was improving their quality.
Here is a 1933 Universal-Walter Lantz Oswald, “Confidence”, supporting newly-elected Franklin D. Roosevelt whom everyone hoped would lead America out of the Depression. In 1933 it was still a secret that FDR was crippled by polio and could not walk.
Note that one of the animators was Fred “Tex” Avery.
Walter Lantz also produced theatrical commercials in the 1930s & 1940s. Here is what may be the final animated appearance of Lantz’s Oswald, with Andy & Miranda Panda, before the Disney Studio reacquired the rights in 2006.
It looks today like Universal Studios deliberately sabotaged the Oswald cartoons after Disney by ordering the new director (Walter Lantz) to “keep ’em cheap”. So he made them as cheaply as he could. Disney spent more and more on his Mickey Mouse cartoons.
In addition to money, the Oswald cartoons were just a job for Lantz, while Disney was excited and personally motivated to make his studio better and better. This led to the famous Disney strike of 1941 — Disney’s animators got tired of not getting paid while Disney spent all he could get improving “his” studio and “his” cartoons (Fantasia was a notorious money sink), but nobody could say that Disney wasn’t obsessed with higher quality. Lantz did better when Universal let him retire Oswald and create new characters, notably Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker.
Thank you for a good review here, Fred.
I’m not much of a scholar of Walt Disney’s creative works, but earlier this year I did watch the documentary about the history of Disney, which was broadcast here, and I presume in other cities, by the local PBS television stations. I actually saw it twice, and a couple months ago I read the book Mouse Tales, A Behind-The-Ears Look At Disneyland, Golden Anniversary Special Edition, by David Koenig, from Bonaventure Press, Irvine CA, 2005 791.0687 K78.
It appears to me that Disney’s (and Mickey’s) success was due greatly to Disney’s ambition to create a high quality product, in the hope that this would be enough to motivate the public to support Disney’s works. I can only guess if the current Disney corporation can achieve similar success with an Oswald rabbit character, without having to rely as heavily on contemporary marketing practices as they do now. I wonder if they might feel that Mickey and other characters are declining in popularity, perhaps to the point where Disney corporate will retire the Mickey era characters. I’m skeptical that they can make a new Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character achieve the star status of Mickey. Or maybe they just don’t feel the need to do that.
Anyway, come on Fred, let’s sing a couple songs. You know the first one . . .
See ya real soon!
Why? Because we love you!
Now try this song . . .
(Maybe they’ll find a better lyrics writer than me.)
Th-th-th-that’s all folks!
The Disney TV Studios have recently begun a new series of Mickey Mouse free short cartoons, reportedly to keep Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and the other classic cartoon characters “alive” in the public’s consciousness for merchandising purposes.