Saturday 23 June 2012

That’s Oswald

Not too many stars have their career revived at the age of 85, but Oswald the Lucky Rabbit isn’t just anyone. He was Walt Disney’s first animated success, and then made the jump from silent to sound films before a slow and steady decline. After all, what can be more demeaning than playing straight man to Charlie Chicken in comic books?

The Disney Hype Machine™ has gone all out pushing Oswald lately, most recently digging into the archives and creating a “cartoon” from some of the drawings made for one of Oswald’s first cartoons. So allow me to dig into the archives and pass on a couple of old Oswald newspaper stories.

In case you don’t know the basic story...

Walt Disney created Oswald in 1927 for distribution by Universal through Margaret Winkler’s company managed by her husband, Charles Mintz. Mintz then waved a contract at Disney’s unhappy animators and hired all but one of them, taking Oswald as well because the rabbit wasn’t Disney’s property. But Oswald wasn’t Mintz’s, either, and Charlie became an early victim of Cartoon Karma. Universal suddenly decided to dump the Mintz studio and set up its own under Walter Lantz to make Oswald cartoons. Mintz played out the rest of his years making increasingly crappy cartoons while Disney and Lantz went on to much better things.

The Syracuse Herald of March 11, 1929 reveals “Walter B. Lantz, animated cartoon artist, has arrived in Universal City to do his stuff.” Not long after that, Oswald—and Lantz—got a bit of publicity. Here’s a syndicated column dated July 27, 1929:

Screen Life in Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD, July 26—It takes 15 or 20 men two weeks to make Oswald act for a few minutes. Oswald is that mischievous little rabbit of screendom possessing so many human qualities.
The film, “Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit,” comes under the head of “short subjects,” but to the artists and cameramen who put Oswald and his playmates in celluloid and into sounds, it is anything but a short subject.
Every time Oswald playfully pulls off his elongated ears, or throws his right paw through a window pane, it means hundreds of minute cartoons painstakingly made. One of Oswald’s adventures requires more than 6,000 individual cartoons, which make a half-reel of film. A separate series of cartoons must be drawn for every-movement.
Crew Of Artists
Walter B. Lantz, the originator, and his two assistants pencil the cartoons after the story has been written. Each draws a portion of the story. Other artists retrace the drawings in ink. Each of the 5,000 cartoons must be photographed separately and sounds to accompany Oswald’s antics are made during this process.
The popularity of cartoon comedies has grown greatly during the last few years, and now nearly every picture theater in the country has on its program either Oswald, Felix the Cat or Aesop’s Fables, to name three of the better known screen cartoons.

The absence of the name “Mickey Mouse” in that last sentence is intriguing.

The funniest story about Oswald comes in another Hubbard Keavy column, this one dated April 12, 1931. People who keep blabbing on about the 1934 Production Code and its effect on films don’t seem to realise there was an earlier Code in place with restrictions as well. That’s the centre of this piece dealing with an Oswald cartoon.

Story Conferences
Story conferences have been story conferences ever since the first movie studio came to Hollywood, but every once in a while one crops up of more than usual interest.
The movie public generally is aware that the board of censors, a rather intangible bogey that frightens the producers and the directors, recently decreed that cows in the animated cartoons should be entirely removed from the dairy business.
The pen and ink boys, who draw Mickey Mouse, Oswald the Rabbit, and the other talking cartoon characters, were in a very sad state of mind for some time afterward.
Walter Lantz, creator of Oswald, called a story conference to determine just what steps should be taken.
Hundreds of sketches were submitted and paper littered the floor.
Finally Lantz hit upon an idea. He attired Madame Cow in a Mother Hubbard frock. Her part in the picture was to run down a railroad track.
But Bossy found difficulty running in a Mother Hubbard and the artists became tired of drawing the bulky dress.
Finally, when the comic strip was about half finished, Lantz threw up his hands and moaned; “What will we do?”
“Oh, let a train hit her,” said one of his disgusted assistants.
Then—just about the time the assistant was prepared to laugh at his own remark—Lantz surprised the group.
“Swell idea,” he declared. “Change the script. Draw a train. We’ll end the whole thing in the next scene.”
And the cow, a hapless sacrifice to fashion, was just a bit too slow in leaping from the track in the next scene.

Perhaps a Lantz expert out there knows the name of the cartoon involved. “The Farmer” (1931) features a cow giving milk under a Mother Hubbard skirt, but there’s no train scene.

It’s up for grabs who might have come up with the train gag. Both Tex Avery and Pinto Colvig were working for Lantz in 1931. Either one could have blurted out a warped gag like that.

In case you haven’t seen the footage created from drawings made for “Harum Scarum,” you can play the video below. Is it the work of Ham Hamilton? Rudy Ising? Ub Iwerks? Beats me. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun and I’d rather watch this than the stuff that’s in theatres today.


  1. I remember these same drawings being bad-mouthed by Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston in their 1981 tome, "The Illusion of Life".

    I think they're fun, too, as well as quite a few of Lantz's earlier Oswald productions.

  2. It seems all the studios went through a blah period about 1933 or '34. Before that, there's lots of rubbery musical fun with objects becoming human for a scene. The early 30s Lantz shorts I've seen are enjoyable.

  3. I do believe the name of the cartoon with the cow in a Mother Hubbard apparel running down the train track and being hit by a train is Sunny South.

  4. here is a site about Disney animated shorts, creators & rarities : Secrets of productions, unmade Disney, original documents... :