Saturday, 22 March 2014

Oswald Fades Out

Starring cartoon characters come and go, just as starring actors do in live action. There probably weren’t too many movie-goers in the 1940s lamenting the disappearance of Tom and Jerry (Van Beuren version) or Columbia’s Scrappy or Iwerks’ Flip the Frog. They may not even have noticed.

But at least one person was paying attention to the fading animated stars of yester-years. Here’s a little column by Robbin Coons, who spent part of his newspaper career with the Associated Press, and some of it as a freelancer in Hollywood. This is from November 24, 1943. I’m particularly pleased to see a mention of Lantz animator Pat Matthews. Individual animators, especially outside of Disney, didn’t get much recognition back then.

By Robbin Coons

HOLLYWOOD—Some of the greatest actors in our town get through their entire careers without squabbling over money, billing, or roles.
They do exactly as they're told, all the time. They’re never jealous of each other. They’re never in the scandal columns. They don’t get divorces and they don’t have fist fights in night clubs. They’re a movie producer’s delight and joy—these creatures compounded of ink and paint and imagination for the screen cartoons.
But even in this realm of fantasy, actors who ride the crest of popularity today may be tomorrow’s has-beens.
• • •
OVER at Walter Lantz’s cartoon studio, looking over some of the new work there, I glanced at the little board on which, in neat lines and squares, the producer outlines his year’s shooting schedule. I looked in vain for any mention of that old friend named Oswald the Rabbit. “Oh,” explained Walter, “he’s there—in ‘The Egg-Cracker Suite.’ We use Oswald in just one a year now, for Easter release.”
Predominant on the schedule were the “Swing Symphonies,” which are based on current or forthcoming (Lantz hopes) song hits: “The Greatest Man in Siam,” “Abou Ben Boogie,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” and so on. Andy Panda (who, I suspect, is the animal who booted Oswald down the chute) is down for three appearances, and an upstart named Woody Woodpecker grabs four.
It’s sad about Oswald, who was bequeathed to Lantz when Walt Disney left Universal in 1926 to go on his own, but less sad than the fate of the first cartoon characters Lantz worked on, when he began in 1916. They were cartoons based on a couple of comic strip characters who have long been off the screen entirely. Oswald at least has been put to clover, like an honored veteran.
• • •
AT Leon Schlesinger’s, the Intrepid Bugs Bunny has all but sidetracked Porky Pig, while at Disney’s Mickey is no longer the fair haired Mouse because the obstreperous D. Duck gets first quack at everything.
Lantz had on display a new creation, a glamour girl of the ink-and-paint pots, the heroine of “The Greatest Man in Siam.”
“Maybe,” said Walter, “she’ll get to be a pin-up girl and we can star her again.”
Maybe so—but Pat Matthews, the young artist who created her, was at his drawing board working on another tasty dish in a hula skirt. Maybe the girl from Siam was headed for Oswald the Rabbit’s clover field already.

Oswald was pretty much relegated to comic books after “The Egg-Cracker Suite,” though he did appear on TV for a period when Lantz sold 179 of his aged cartoons to television in late 1954. Thanks to animation historians, interest was revived many years later as people got to see some of the old Oswald cartoons until he was finally purchased by Disney and made another part of their vast product line.

As for Matthews’ Miss X, she ran afoul of censors, according to Lantz, and was dropped after only two entertaining cartoons. And while other cartoons were on the horizon with starring characters, none were more popular for Walter Lantz than a certain woodpecker.

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