The History of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Part Twoby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Last week, I discussed Walt's early silent cartoons and the birth of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. I finished the story with Walt being upset that Universal was not going to renew his contract to make new Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons thanks to the intervention of Charles Mintz.
Mintz decided he could make the cartoons at his own studio with Walt's animators, whom he had hired away from an unsuspecting Walt.
When Walt's contract for making Oswald cartoons was not renewed, supposedly Walt confronted Charles Mintz and said, "Protect yourself, Charlie. If my artists did this to me, they'll do it to you." Mintz laughed and didn't believe him.
The Winkler studio lost the contract to produce more Oswald cartoons in 1929 when animators Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising went to Universal to try and convince the studio to put them in charge instead of Mintz. Carl Laemmle, who was the head of Universal Pictures, was tired of all these internal politics. He decided to produce the series in-house with director Walter Lantz taking charge.
This piece is one of the very earliest items of Disney character merchandise and possibly the earliest Disney-related "toy” ever created. Set was produced by The Universal Toy and Novelty Co., N.Y. in 1928. Image © Disney.
Lantz had been working in animation in New York since 1922 before moving to Hollywood. At the Winkler studio, he supplied gags and became a director on the Oswald series starting with Mississippi Mud (1928). Pinto Colvig (later a Disney storyman and the voice of Goofy) also supplied gags for Oswald.
More importantly, Lantz played poker with Laemmle every Thursday night and Laemmle considered him a lucky charm.
"He's been lucky for me at poker," Laemmle said, "so maybe he will be lucky for me at producing cartoons."
Lantz had a drink with Walt Disney to see if this situation would cause Walt any concern. Walt, who was now successful with Mickey Mouse, gave Lantz his blessing and told him there would be no hard feelings. They remained friendly for the rest of their lives.
"An old timer in the business slipped in before they [Walt's former animators] could put over their fast move and took charge of the Rabbit," Walt told his daughter Diane Disney Miller during the summer of 1956. "I was cheering for him throughout all of that infighting, and I got a kick out of it when he outsmarted the artists who'd deserted me."
Mintz was out in the cold and Harman and Ising found work at Warner Brothers creating the first "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies."
Lantz, working with animation legend Bill Nolan (who was just as fast and talented as Iwerks), slowly turned Oswald into a cuter, more childlike character. Oswald got white gloves, shoes, larger eyes and more.
Another design change came in 1936 when Lantz assigned Manuel Moreno to redesign the character into a white furred, chubbier rabbit. This new design didn't find favor with audiences. In addition, it severed any connection at all with Walt's version of the rabbit.
Movie Theater Hand-Out for children circa 1928. Image © Disney.
Lantz's release schedule of cartoons included several reissues of some of the original Disney cartoons, now with added soundtracks. Sound had been added to the series midway through the Winkler season. In the Lantz era, a variety of people, including Mickey Rooney, June Foray and Lantz himself supplied Oswald's voice.
The series wore out its welcome and ended in 1938 (with one additional cartoon, The Egg Cracker Suite in 1943) although the character still appeared for many years in the Dell comic book series featuring Lantz's characters.
Starting in the late 1940s comic books, Oswald was portrayed as a brown adult rabbit who adopted two young orphan rabbits, Floyd and Lloyd. This version of the character had absolutely nothing in common with the earlier Oswald from the Disney, Winkler and even early Lantz cartoons. However, this version of the character lasted in comic books for roughly two decades.
Lantz developed Andy Panda in 1939 and Woody Woodpecker in 1940 who became even more successful and popular than Oswald ever was which was one of the reasons Oswald went into retirement.
There is an urban legend that Walter Lantz won the ownership of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Carl Laemmle in a poker game in the 1930s.
The actual truth is that when Laemmle was forced out of Universal in 1936, Lantz was clever enough to see that Universal would probably eliminate the cartoon studio so he renegotiated his contract.
He became an independent producer supplying Universal with animated shorts and that the copyrights and trademarks for all of the characters he had worked on including Pooch the Pup and Oswald the Rabbit would belong to him.
Universal seems to have felt it had become an unnecessary burden to manage the characters and the previously made cartoons and felt it was a good business move to have cartoons produced by an outside contractor, eliminating overhead at the studio.
So for decades, Lantz was the owner of Oswald. In 1984, he sold everything back to MCA/Universal but remained very active until his death consulting on how his characters from Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker to Oswald the Rabbit would be used in theme parks, comic books, merchandise, video, and other venues.
In February 2006, Disney CEO Bob Iger agreed to a trade with NBC Universal for a number of minor assets in return for releasing sportscaster Al Michaels from his ABC and ESPN employment contract to go to NBC Sports.
What made the real news is that one of those minor assets was the rights to the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character designed by Disney, and the original 26 short cartoons made by Walt Disney. All the rights to the other Oswald cartoons and merchandise produced by Winkler and Lantz were retained by Universal.
In early 2006, as permitted by the deal with Universal, Disney filed for numerous Oswald-related trademarks to secure the Disney version of the character. The later versions of the character had trademarks that linked them to Lantz and Universal.
The media exploited the fact that "Oswald comes home."
"When Bob [Disney president and CEO Robert Iger] was named CEO, he told me he wanted to bring Oswald back to Disney, and I appreciate that he is a man of his word," Walt daughter Diane said in a statement on March 9, 2006. "Having Oswald around again is going to be a lot of fun."
In December 2007, thanks to the efforts of film historian Leonard Maltin, animation historian David Gerstein, and a Disney restoration team that included Theo Gluck and Steve Poehlein, 13 of the existing Disney Oswalds were released on DVD as part of the Walt Disney Treasures series.
In addition, Disney also released a new line of character merchandise and included Oswald as a major character in the 2010 Mickey Mouse video game Epic Mickey as well as two follow-up games, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two and Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion.
The full version of the Oswald cartoon Oh, What a Knight is included as an unlockable cartoon in Epic Mickey by collecting various film reels in the game.
Just like Duffy the Bear, Oswald the Rabbit is hugely popular in Japan with Disney offering key rings, puppets, inflatable dolls, clothing items and other assorted merchandise to the eager fans.
With the re-opening of Disney California Adventure in California in 2012, at the front of the park is Oswald's Service Station, a gift shop themed like a 1920s gas station. A plethora of Oswald merchandise, including a rabbit ears cap reminiscent of the famous Disney theme park mouse ears cap, decorates the area.
Tokyo DisneySea introduced a new walkaround costumed character version of Oswald in April 2014 and a version of that costume began making appearances at Disney California Adventure on September 14.
As Disney fans, we should be very grateful that any of the Disney Oswalds exist at all.
Of the 26 Oswald cartoon made by the Winkler-Mintz studio, only about a dozen seem to have survived.
Fortunately, more than that of the Disney produced Oswalds survive. A couple more have been recently located and are in the process of being restored.
The fact that any silent cartoons at all exists is something of a miracle.
One of the reasons that some of these silent Oswald cartoons still even exist was the fact that, as noted earlier, Walter Lantz reissued several of the early Disney Oswald cartoon with added sound, In 1931, due to budget restraints and schedule challenges, these re-releases were necessary to fill gaps in the production schedule. James Dietrich did the soundtracks.
Other Disney Oswalds came to the home movie scene by different means. Oswald und die Wolkenkratzer, a localized German print of The Sky Scrapper (1928) was translated back to English as simply "Skyscraper," and sold for many years in an unauthorized 16mm release.
Today, Skyscraper only still existed to be enjoyed because a dedicated researcher located two incomplete but different prints of the cartoon and combined them to recreate the original cartoon.
As researched by Gerstein, these Oswald reissues were later used by a company called Motion Pictures for Television (MPFT) during the early 1950s. On its own and through U.M.&M. TV Corp, MPFT distributed a large selection of black and white Lantz sound shorts to television and home movie markets.
This Disney Oswald cartoon Skyscraper greatly influenced the storyline and gags in the popular Mickey Mouse short Building a Building (1933).
As Gerstein explained when we talked at length about the character and the series, "The decades-long absence of an original English language print led The Sky Scrapers to be inaccurately listed for those decades under that working title including on the 2007 DVD."
More recent research has led to the original title's proper identification. This is yet another example of why Disney history is so exciting in recent years with new discoveries resurfacing in surprising ways, including films that were misidentified.
In a strange way, many of the Disney Oswald cartoons survived when those who worked on those cartoons remade them or used major elements from them with other cartoon stars.
Oswald's Harem Scarem (1927) became Disney's later Mickey in Arabia (1932). Oswald's Rival Romeos (1928) became Ub Iwerks' Flip the Frog short Ragtime Romeo (1931).
When Mickey Mouse tipped his ears like a hat in The Karnival Kid (1929) inspiring the mouse-eared caps in Disney theme parks worldwide, the gag had already been done in the Oswald cartoon Sleigh Bells (1928) nearly a year earlier.
In Steamboat Willie (1928) when Pete pulls Mickey's stomach and it stretches, Walt's comment on the original story sketches outline was "same as Oswald and the Bear in Tall Timber (1928)." When the goat eats the sheet music and Mickey cranks its tail for the music to play, Oswald had already done it in Rival Romeos released almost nine months earlier.
According to the survey of the Library of Congress of the United States, more than 85 percent of silent movies produced in the Unites States have already been lost or are in unrestorable states. Another survey claims that more than 90 percent of silent movies produced before 1930 have been lost.
With each passing year that percentage increases, despite the efforts of people like the amazing Steve Stanchfield, who is an animator, educator and film archivist. He runs Thunderbean Animation, an animation studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Stanchfield has compiled more than a dozen archival animation DVDs, including cartoons that inspired Walt Disney, stolen from Walt Disney, or even are Disney cartoons that are in public domain like animated commercials.
Without his labor intensive efforts as well as patience and talent, these gems would have been lost forever.
Silent cartoons were produced in small quantities and then those prints were circulated to theaters in the United States and then later shipped overseas until the prints often just fell apart or were never returned.
When the "talkies" era came into vogue, silent films were considered worthless and then later when color became standard in films, the black and white films became even less valuable.
During the silent era, cellulose nitrate film was used for the majority of films. It is a highly flammable and unstable compound, with a life span of between thirty and eighty years.
The historic (and one of my favorite animated cartoons) Gertie the Dinosaur survives in a complete form only because there were multiple copies of it found in 1947 in a garage of a friend of Winsor McCay who had made the film and then literally threw away the copies as he moved on to other things and needed storage space.
The cans containing the film (and other films by McCay) were opened in a barrel of water so the film wouldn't instantly burst into flame. The decomposition of nitrate film cannot be halted, although in the right conditions, it can be slowed so that a safety film copy can be made.
Cellulose Nitrate was first used as a base for photographic roll film by George Eastman in 1889 and was used for photographic and professional 35mm motion picture film until 1951. The silver nitrate gives the images a sharpness and warmth that resulted in the term "Silver Screen" being coined.
It is highly flammable and also decomposes to a dangerous condition with age. When new, nitrate film can be ignited with the heat of a cigarette. Nitrate film burns rapidly, fueled by its own oxygen, and releases toxic fumes.
Many films were lost in studio fires caused by this decomposition. Some films were destroyed deliberately for their silver content, while others were just allowed to decompose due to simple neglect and lack of interest.
Laemmle, who when he needed a bonfire for a scene in one of his "talkies," told his assistants to pull out some of the silent films that were loaded with silver nitrate and toss them onto to the fire so it would glow brighter.
Universal, which distributed the Oswald cartoons, dumped its entire collection of its remaining silent films in 1948 to free up storage space for its new films, and all of Samuel Goldwyn's earliest productions were supposedly destroyed to save money on insurance premiums and storage costs.
There are other reasons why films disappear. When Walt Disney decided to make the live-action feature Swiss Family Robinson, he bought up the rights to the 1940 version produced by RKO and confiscated all known prints so there wouldn't be comparisons to his remake.
This used to be standard operating procedure at all the major studios, and accounts for many missing films which is one of the reasons the silent feature film version of Peter Pan disappeared from public view for decades.
Although the nitrate negative of the 1940 original Swiss Family Robinson was destroyed in a fire years ago, the ever-incredible Scott MacQueen, who was at that time the Disney film archivist, was able to get an original 16mm copy from a private collector, and also located a 35mm print he found in another archive and was able to piece together a complete, fairly good looking master copy of the film.
MacQueen was the one who located the only known copy of Walt Disney doing Mickey Mouse's voice on camera, restored the Disney feature Bedknobs and Broomsticks, discovered live-action reference footage of an actor performing as Jiminy Cricket, and so many other accomplishments that enriched Disney Heritage during his 12 years with Disney.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has had a long and colorful life, surviving long after many of his contemporaries were only vague memories. The Disney version of the character is especially appealing.
I eagerly hope the Disney Company might one day produce an updated DVD/BluRay disc that would include any the cartoons that were unavailable to be included in the 2007 set, plus more historical material about Oswald—including the fact that he pops up in a short cameo in the new Mickey Mouse cartoon Get a Horse! (2013), an overview of his merchandise and maybe a featurette on his popularity in Japan.
I hope the rumors are true that the Disney Company is set for a major re-introduction of the character.
Here is a complete list of the Disney produced Oswald the Rabbit cartoons. Disney made 26 Oswald cartoons. Winkler made another 26 cartoons. Lantz made 142 Oswald animated shorts.
- Trolley Troubles – September 5, 1927
- Oh, Teacher – September 19, 1927
- Great Guns – October 17, 1927
- The Mechanical Cow – October 3, 1927
- All Wet – October 31, 1927
- The Ocean Hop – November 14, 1927
- The Banker's Daughter – November 28, 1927
- Empty Socks – December 12, 1927
- Rickety Gin – December 26, 1927
- Harem Scarem – January 9, 1928
- Neck 'n' Neck – January 23, 1928
- The Ol' Swimmin' 'Ole – February 6, 1928
- Africa Before Dark – February 20, 1928
- Rival Romeos – March 5, 1928
- Bright Lights – March 19, 1928
- Sagebrush Sadie – April 2, 1928
- Ride'em Plow Boy – April 16, 1928
- Sky Scrappers – April 1928
- Ozzie of the Mounted – April 30, 1928
- Hungry Hoboes – May 14, 1928
- Oh, What a Knight – May/June 1928
- The Sky Scrapper – June 11, 1928
- The Fox Chase – June 25, 1928
- Tall Timber – July 9, 1928
- Sleigh Bells – July 23, 1928
- Poor Papa – August 6, 1928
- Hot Dogs – August 20, 1928
For more information about Walt's work in silent cartoon animation, I always highly recommend the book Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney by Russell Merrit and J.B. Kaufman
Of these cartoons, these are the ones that were released on that now long out of print Disney Treasures edition, along with many other special features if you want to try tracking down a copy for your collection.
- Trolley Troubles
- Oh Teacher
- Great Guns!
- The Mechanical Cow
- The Ocean Hop
- All Wet
- Rival Romeos
- Bright Lights
- Ozzie of the Mounted
- Oh What a Knight
- Sky Scrappers
- The Fox Chase
- Tall Timber
I would like to especially thank Disney experts David Gerstein and J.B. Kaufman for their kindness in reviewing this essay to make sure I was as accurate as possible. Like me, they are both huge fans of Walt's Oswald.
Jim, your research is, as always, impeccable. But did the term "silver screen" really come from the silver nitrate film stock? It seems far more likely that it's an entirely straightforward allusion to the highly reflective fabric screens onto which film is projected, don't you think?