Saturday 6 August 2016

Selling Oswald

Walter Lantz had a long association with Universal Studios, but it was not always a happy one. In a fit of pique, he refused to accept a counter-offer from Universal in 1947 and moved over to United Artists (where he announced a three-month closure at the end of the year). And before that, something happened with finances somewhere around early 1940 that caused Lantz to halt production. But he was still making cartoons for Universal when he closed his studio in 1972 and Universal was pleased to re-issue old ones after that.

Lantz’s arrival at Universal is surrounded in a bit of mystery. Animation historians will tell you the studio decided to set up its own cartoon operation with Lantz in charge, instead of distributing shorts made by Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising for middleman Charlie Mintz. That’s quite true; Variety reported on February 28, 1929 that Lantz and Bill Nolan had been signed to make a series of cartoon pictures, with work to begin on March 18th. But Lantz didn’t come out of nowhere. He had been animating and directing for Mintz. He also knew Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal. How and why did Universal decide to dump Mintz and spend the money to build a cartoon studio with one of Mintz’s staffers in charge? Did Lantz go behind Mintz’s back, just as Mintz had gone behind Walt Disney’s back about a year earlier to pirate Harman, Ising and other staffers? I’d love to know the answer. (As a side note, Lantz seems to have pirated Tom Palmer, who had been working for Mintz).

Incidentally, Nolan left the studio in October 1934. Was it really because of “a nervous condition,” as Variety claimed? (He landed at Columbia by April 1936)

Universal’s in-house magazine, Universal Weekly, contained some very nice full-page plugs for the Lantz cartoons in the ‘30s’; cartoon shorts were hot for a while thanks to Disney’s “Three Little Pigs.” There were a few articles as well. Here’s one from February 4, 1933. Oswald the rabbit was Universal’s original star, created by Disney in 1927 when the studio was releasing his cartoons. He made it into the sound era but suffered from Disneyitis, where characters became duller and cartoons filled with fewer surreal gags as the ‘30s wore on.
ALTHOUGH Oswald was not officially released as a cartoon personality until September 1, 1927, he was actually shown to the public on July 15th at the Criterion Theatre, Los Angeles. On this historic date, almost six years ago, "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" as a stellar attraction took his place on a theatre marquee sign with John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. On July 15th of this year, Oswald will be six years old. Universal is planning an anniversary for him, to start on June 30th, at which time Brother Pooch the Pup will be one year old.
And Along Came Pooch
It seemed that when "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" was five years old, he became lonesome. Walter Lantz, director of cartoons at Universal City and originator of young Oswald, decided to do something about this loneliness. He went into a huddle and evolved Pooch the Pup, unpedigreed and pretty much a tramp, but harmless to rabbits. Oswald has been very happy about this situation because ever since Pooch came, his labors have been cut in half, so to speak. Oswald goes to bat thirteen times a year, instead of twenty-six, and Pooch takes up the cudgels for the other thirteen appearances. Neither of these cartoon characters, as will be easily seen, is superstitious.
With the current release, "Oswald the Plumber," Oswald will have appeared in exactly 135 subjects. This is a stellar accomplishment which only the most popular stars, like Tom Mix, for instance, can possibly equal. But great things are ahead for Oswald. In spite of the splendid record he has made, "Oswald the Plumber" is regarded by many critics as the best Oswald yet.
"In 1933," says Lantz, cartoon director, "it is necessary to step up the quality of animated talking cartoons. In spite of the high standard we have attempted to maintain on Oswald, we are definitely committed to making improvements in his cartoons, and with Pooch we feel that we have an opportunity of unique character, and we are going to take full advantage of it. The other day, we discovered that Pooch looked better with dark ears. The whole lot was enthusiastic about the new sideboards, and we feel that Pooch's admirers will also be greatly amused by the new ears we have given him." (First picture of Pooch in his new ears will be seen on the opposite page. Take a look at them. The new ears will not appear on the screen until "The Lumber Champ," released in March.)
Lots of Hard Work
If anyone thinks that it is an easy matter to turn out animated cartoons, it will be a surprise to them to know that to turn out the thirteen Oswalds and the thirteen Pooch cartoons requires the services of forty people, artists, animators, gag men and musicians. The music is under the direction of James Dietrich.
Universal encouraged and helped theatre owners to promote the Oswald and Pooch shorts in at least two issues of Universal Weekly. Here’s one of the promotional suggestions from the same issue as the article above.

Here’s another short story about another shorts series by Universal. News commentator Lowell Thomas featured the Lantz studio in one of his entries in 1936; you can find it on one of the Woody Woodpecker DVDs as an extra.
Here’s The Way Cartoons Are Made
ONE of the greatest tributes paid to "Cartoonland Mysteries," No. 18 in the series of "Going Places" with Lowell Thomas, was paid by W. G. Van Schmus of the Radio City Music Hall.
Mr. Van Schmus has just booked "Cartoonland Mysteries" into the Music Hall and it will play there as soon as the next show is made up. The trade reviewers have all given this interesting and novel expose of the way moving picture cartoons are made, the highest of ratings.
And no wonder the reviewers enjoy and recommend this interesting subject. Everyone who sees cartoons in moving picture theatres has wondered how they are made. No matter how much you are interested in the antics of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, of Mickey Mouse, of Pop-Eye the Sailor, and all of the other cartoon characters, you wonder how they are made to move so naturally, and yet so grotesquely, how the sound is produced, recorded and synchronized, how the sound effects are obtained, and how the story is put together into one laughable and enjoyable piece of entertainment.
Lowell Thomas, in his trip to Cartoonland, answers all of the questions which people have been asking for years and years. He satisfies their curiosity. He tells you the methods that are adopted in one of the great moving picture studios. He introduces you to Walter Lantz, who is the creator and manipulator of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and by means of one of Oswald's releases, he gives you the low-down on how Oswald and all the other cartoon characters get that way. This is the first picture actually showing the public how all this is done. It is a public benefaction.
The publication also printed a few cel set-ups accompanied by trade publication views to convince exhibitors to show the cartoons.

Carl Laemmle retired in 1936 and control of Universal was handed over to new owners as of April 3rd. The Universal Weekly seems to have died a few weeks later.


  1. I think Universal severed the Charles Mintz / Winkler studio after the 1928-29 season, because it was assuming production responsibility for all of its short subjects at this time. Universal had been directly producing short westerns, one reel comedies and a serio-comedy series called “The Collegians.” In 1929, Universal stopped releasing shorts independently produced by Hearst (the Universal International Newsreel), the Stern Brothers (two reel comedies) and Winkler (cartoons). Syd Saylor and
    Sunny McKeen, who had appeared in comedies produced by the Sterns (Carl Laemmle’s brothers-in-law, no less) made comedies made by Universal employees. And the new Oswalds were also made by Universal employees, led by industry veterans Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan.

  2. Which Oswald cartoon is the last still from? I tried Amateur night, or Amateur Nite, and its completely different from the picture?