A promotional drawing of Disney's Oswald c. 1927
It all began in 1927. That was the year when Walt Disney's Alice Comedies cartoon series concluded – and when Disney signed a new contract with Universal Pictures. The plan was to create a new cartoon series under producers Charles Mintz and George Winkler. Disney and his colleague, head animator Ub Iwerks, devised a new character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. A cheerful rabbit in a simple funny animal world, Oswald lacked the surrealist style that carried the big stars of the day – Messmer's Felix the Cat and Fleischer's Koko the Clown. Still, competition was always a good thing. If it was evident that surrealism was needed, the series offered barnyard humor and introduced a new kind of humor – the "machine gag" devised by technical-minded Iwerks – in which a character's limbs could be used for any range of contraptions.
The first Oswald cartoon, Poor Papa, was not well received by the brass at Universal, so Disney and Iwerks streamlined the rabbit for his second cartoon, the highly successful Trolley Troubles. Oswald also now had a stronger personality; a combination of rakishness and determination that called to mind both Chaplin and especially Keaton. The Oswald shorts had found their momentum, and by 1928, the lucky rabbit achieved a high degree of success among audiences.
The success Oswald obtained encouraged Disney to push boundaries and make his films more technologically advanced. So, Disney asked Mintz to up the budget on the shorts. Mintz, however, made a much less tolerable offer instead – as well as a threat. If Disney did not agree to a cut in the budget, Mintz would cut Disney out of the production process. Mintz had already begun to offer Disney's animators and gagmen more promising contracts to work for a new studio of Mintz's own.
Iwerks' mechanical humor is demonstrated here in a sketch for a poster of The Mechanical Cow c. 1927. Click to enlarge.
Disney and Iwerks were frustrated with Mintz for having pulled the rug out from under them. The two rebuilt their studio from scratch and began creating shorts starring a new, more familiar character – in the form of a mouse. Mintz, meanwhile, consigned the new Oswald shorts to be produced under his brother-in-law, George Winkler. The first short released under Winkler was High Up, debuting July 23, 1928.
Though lowered budgets were evident in a few ways, the Winkler Oswald shorts were not dramatically different from the product of Disney's. The films still had the traits of crude barnyard jokes and Iwerks mechanical humor. The Winkler cartoons were fairly successful themselves. In addition to the Disney refugees, Winkler expanded his staff further with a select handful of young gagmen from the Mack Sennett comedies, including the extremely talented Pinto Colvig (who would begin as an inbetweener) and unpaid intern Walter Lantz (who served as a director starting with Mississippi Mud).
Meanwhile, Disney transformed the entire industry with just one film, 1928's Steamboat Willie, featuring the character he created and developed along with Ub Iwerks – Mickey Mouse. The idea of the animated film was a novelty as it stood, but the addition of sound broke endless boundaries, and now Winkler and Mintz had to catch up. So beginning in February 1929, Winkler began releasing his cartoons in optional sound and silent prints, starting with Hen Fruit. These early films have very crude soundtracks. Bert Fiske would provide the musical accompaniment and synchronization, while Winkler's staff would use the "pots and pans" method of creating sound effects; "It was funny how we did it," Lantz once recalled. "We had a bench with all the props on it—the bells, and so on. And we'd project a cartoon on the screen and all of us would stand there in front of the cartoon. As the action progressed, we'd take it and make sound effects, dialogue, and all. We never prescored these films. We did everything as we watched the picture. It was the only way we knew how to add sound." Oswald's voice was provided by a slide whistle.
A promotional drawing of Oswald c. 1929. Click to enlarge.
Things were going smoothly for Winkler as well as Mintz, but two former Disney staffers, Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, had other plans. Harman and Ising decided to edge out Mintz in the same manner as he had previously done to Disney. They made a proposal to Universal to produce the films themselves. The two men also planned for an additional series to be produced with sound – that of their self-created character, Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid. Not only did Universal reject such offers, but company founder Carl Laemmle also terminated the Winkler-Mintz contract as well, preferring to have the Oswald films produced directly on the Universal studio lot.
Historian Tom Klein speculates that Walter Lantz was actively involved in Laemmle's decision. Lantz was interested in controlling Oswald himself, and was not able to do so from within the Winkler studio framework. When the moment came, Lantz ultimately obtained the rabbit – and the studio that would eventually become Walter Lantz Productions – just by simply being at the right place at the right time. Lantz placed a bet in a poker game with Laemmle, with Oswald as the prize, and won.
Lantz's first operation was to form his new studio. Some new staffers came and went rather quickly. Two Winklerites, Tom Palmer and R. C. Hamilton would leave for Disney and Harman-Ising in early 1930. Pinto Colvig would leave for Disney in 1931, making a name for himself there as a gagman and voice artist. The former Winkler musical director, Bert Fiske would remain aboard until he departed the studio in September 1929. He was replaced by Dutch composer David Broekman, better known for his work on Universal features such as the 1930 Academy Award-winner All Quiet on the Western Front.
A plug for Race Riot from the December 21, 1929 issue of the Universal Weekly trade magazine. Courtesy of Del Walker. Click to enlarge.
Perhaps the best move Lantz made in shaping his studio was acquiring Irish-American animator Bill Nolan whose résumé included inventing the "rubber hose" style of animation and streamlining Felix the Cat. Lantz needed talent to bolster his fledling operation and, like Disney, turned his attention to the East Coast. Nolan left Mintz's New York Krazy Kat studio the previous year. Disney approached him after that time; but the first offer Nolan accepted was Lantz's. Lantz had the advantage because he previously worked with Nolan in New York and the two were friends. In a sense, speedy animator Nolan became Lantz's Ub Iwerks. In addition, Lantz also came across several young and creative staffers who would later give his studio its unique character. Many such as Manuel Moreno, Fred "Tex" Avery, Ray Abrams, Clyde Geronimi, Laverne Harding, Sid Sutherland, Virgil Ross, Fred Kopietz, and Lester Kline started out as inbetweeners. Lantz's staff immediately got to work, turning out a handful of cartoons in late 1929. Race Riot, which premiered on September 2, 1929, was the first cartoon released by the studio.
The earliest Lantz Oswald cartoons from 1929 were built around set plots and stories, in the tradition of the earlier Disney and Winkler shorts. The conversion of turning the Oswald cartoons into musicals was a different matter completely. However, by mid-1930, Lantz and his staff achieved this goal. Unfortunately, in the process Oswald's personality became less consistent. It could and did change drastically to fit a particular gag. Lantz's musical directors changed as well. Replacing David Broekman, Lantz brought in James Dietrich, a member of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, making the jazz-era sound of the 1920s a quintessential element in the early Lantz cartoons. He remained as the permanent studio musical director until 1937.
The studio began to expand and change after Nolan became codirector and head animator in 1930. The Oswalds produced throughout this year featured Nolan's distinctly New York flavor of animation – wild, boozy, unpredictable and fundamentally abstract. Nolan pitched the most outrageous gags, while the rest of the animators created funnier and zanier humor in imitation. So it comes as no surprise to see a hippo customer shoving a horse down Oswald's throat, forcing him to assume its shape (The Hash Shop); Oswald singing a traditional German folk tune (The Fowl Ball); Oswald getting turned inside out by a vacuum (Henpecked); or Oswald tearing off Pegleg Pete's wooden leg and beating him with it (Alaska). Clearly, the gags in these films not only had a major New York influence but also foreshadowed the kind of off-beat humor that would later emerge at Warner Bros. in the late 1930s.
A gag concept for an Oswald cartoon c. 1931. Click to enlarge.
In 1931 Lantz faced economic difficulties and was forced to make cutbacks; shortening the lengths of his films and post-synchronizing a handful of the early Disney Oswalds. Another way out of the hole was to gain attention by creating a secondary series of shorts featuring a new star, Pooch the Pup. Lantz and Nolan would now divide the studio into two separate units. Lantz would direct the Pooch cartoons, while Nolan would work on the Oswalds.
The stories of the Oswald cartoons were basically just comprised of several gags wrapped around one simple premise. One of the most frequent gag-pitchers, animator Tex Avery, began to rise in prominence. By mid-1930, many Oswalds had already shown heavy Avery influences; The Singing Sap, Hells Heels, and The Prison Panic (all 1930) among them. Nolan noticed this trend and soon designated Avery and Ray Abrams as head animators on the Oswald cartoons (a promotion that would also be given to Manuel Moreno and Lester Kline on Lantz's Pooch cartoons). More Avery-flavored gags began to appear. In 1933's The Zoo, cruel zookeeper, Pegleg Pete opens a can of moths on a bear. The moths consume the bear's fur coat, leaving the bear in his underwear. Instead of the traditional shocked reaction, the bear looks at the audience and calmly states "Well, imagine that!" Such a classic deadpan gag would later be reused in one of Avery's later Warner efforts, Porky the Rain-Maker (1936).
In 1933 the Pooch series ran its course. Lantz returned to Oswald, but he and Nolan remained in charge of separate units – occasionally switching off, from mid-1934, as to which director managed which. As director, Lantz got off to a good start with the Academy Award-nominated Merry Old Soul (1933). Shortly after, however, Lantz's main objective became beating Disney, and as a result, many of his Oswalds from this period come off as too cutesy.
There continued to be exceptions, though. The cartoons Lantz directed with Nolan's animators tend to be funnier; Chris Columbus Jr. (1934) is a good example. The film involves another well-known Avery gag, where pirate Louie the Lug gets his wooden leg stuck in a lit cannon. Avery was assigned to animate a scene ten feet long – but ended up extending it to cover sixty feet of film!
Animator Ray Abrams' business card from the Lantz studio c. 1931. Courtesy of Bill Abrams. Click to enlarge.
As for Nolan himself, he continued directing in good form for a while. Confidence (1933), for instance, is a patriotic classic. In it, the Great Depression haunts the world, leaving Oswald's chicken ranch in horrible condition. After searching wildly for a doctor, Oswald finally decides to ask President Franklin D. Roosevelt for a solution. Roosevelt gives Oswald great encouragement to spread 'confidence' throughout the entire country. Unfortunately, Confidence was one of Nolan's last hurrahs at the studio. As time went on, Lantz began to consider Nolan's rubbery style of animation outdated. Then came a serious rift. Manuel Moreno told Milt Gray and Michael Barrier that Nolan "didn't get the deal he was supposed to get, and that Lantz forced him out to replace his directorship with less expensive directors." Tom Klein points out that "Nolan's contract was either not renewed, or a renewal was offered at a lower wage than Nolan found acceptable." For whatever reason, Nolan left the Lantz studio in 1934, his last Oswald being Spring in the Park. He would move on to become head animator on a series of cartoons based on the Skippy comic strip. After this, he found work at the Charles Mintz and eventually Fleischer studios.
With Nolan's departure, Lantz now had control of all the animators, regrouped once more into a single unit. But the unit did not stay together for long. After codirecting at least two Oswalds with Lantz in 1935 (possibly The Hillbilly and Towne Hall Follies), Tex Avery left the studio – taking with him key ex-Nolan animators like Sid Sutherland, Virgil Ross, Joe D'Igalo, and Jack Carr. Lantz himself would instigate other sweeping changes at the time. Carl Laemmle was recently forced out of Universal and a power struggle ensued. Capitalizing on the chaos, Lantz asked permission to split his studio off from the greater company, and on November 16, 1935, the arrangement took effect. It was also now that Lantz named the talented Victor McLeod his top storyman, a position McLeod would retain until 1940. Another major change came when Lantz assigned Manuel Moreno to redesign Oswald, because "Disney was also changing his characters." The result was a cuter, white-furred, and more lifelike rabbit.
Moreno's Oswald c. 1936. Click to enlarge.
Unfortunately, the cartoons with the "new" Oswald were not as appealing as the previous ones had been, and the least interesting element was Oswald himself. With the product slowly becoming bland and unfunny, new supporting cast members were added to spruce things up. The first of these was Elmer the Great Dane, Oswald's dog – Lantz was fond of Great Danes himself so the choice of breed was obvious. Next came the Stooge-esque monkeys called Meany, Miny and Moe (who had a small, but successful run in their own series). Other costars included Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, and Phooey the ducklings, Snuffy Skunk, and the Dumb Cluck – a character devised by Charles Bowers during his brief stay at the studio in 1937. However successful these new characters were, they could not disguise the fact that Oswald wore out his welcome at Universal.
By the late 30s, Lantz needed not just supporting characters, but a new star. At first, Andy Panda was it; then, in Andy's fifth cartoon, the public would be exposed to a certain screwball woodpecker named Woody. All things considered, though, Oswald was not washed up completely. Lantz decided to give the rabbit one last encore in 1943 with The Egg-Cracker Suite – the 195th Oswald cartoon to be released. And while Oswald left the screen after that, he continued on as an active star of Walter Lantz comics; joining Lantz's top-notch stars of the time, Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, and Chilly Willy.
An Oswald comic book cover. Click to enlarge.
The comics added some new elements to Oswald's life. Starting out in 1942, the rabbit's print run initially depicted him as a humanized stuffed toy in the Winnie the Pooh mould. Like Pooh, Oswald lived in a forest with toy pals – Toby Bear, Maggie Lou the wooden doll, and Hi-Yah Wahoo the turtle Indian. The Pooh parallels vanished, though, as Oswald and Toby soon moved to an all-funny-animal city. Later, Toby too disappeared, and Oswald became guardian of two adopted sons, Lloyd and Floyd. In this final form, the rabbit's adventures continued to be a part of Lantz comics as recently as 1991.
In terms of post-1943 animated apprearances, Oswald was featured in a handful of Lantz-produced Auto-Lite commercials in 1951-52 alongside Andy Panda. The rabbit also made a cameo appearance in 1951's Woody Woodpecker Polka. The early 1950s also saw a large package of black and white Lantz cartoons – including most Oswald releases from The Singing Sap onward – released by Guild/Firelight to the television market. The series may have played in some markets into the 1960s. After that time, the Oswald shorts had little to no domestic television or home video exposure. However, in the 2000s, this trend began to change.
In February 2006, as part of a deal to secure sportscaster Al Michaels for NBC Sports, NBC Universal sold or sublicensed the 26 Disney-produced Oswald cartoons to The Walt Disney Company. Disney also acquired character rights to its version of Oswald. There is no doubt that Disney has big plans for the rabbit. In December 2007, fully restored prints of the existing Disney Oswalds were released on DVD as part of the Walt Disney Treasures series. In addition, Disney also began work on a new line of character merchandise and has included Oswald in the 2010 Mickey Mouse video game Epic Mickey for the Wii console.
Nevertheless, the fate of the 26 Winkler Oswalds and the 140 Lantz Oswalds remains in question. Universal included eleven Lantz Oswald shorts in its Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection DVD series – six on volume one released in July 2007 and five on volume two released in April 2008. That said, the chosen cartoons comprise just a handful, with more than 125 staying on the shelf. Meanwhile, the Winkler shorts seem to have slipped through the cracks entirely, with no release plans imminent at all.
Overall, however, one thing is certain: with a career spanning countless adventures, twists and turns, Oswald remains one of the most memorable and important characters in American animation history.
: Trolley Troubles, Oh Teacher!, The Mechanical Cow, Great Guns!, All Wet, The Ocean Hop, The Banker's Daughter, Empty Socks, Rickety Gin
: Harem Scarem, Neck 'n' Neck, The Ol' Swimmin' 'Ole, Africa Before Dark, Rival Romeos, Bright Lights, Sagebrush Sadie, Ride 'Em Plowboy!, Ozzie of the Mounted, Hungry Hoboes, Oh What a Knight!, Poor Papa (pilot), The Fox Chase, Tall Timber, Sleigh Bells, Hot Dog, Sky Scrappers
: High Up, Mississippi Mud, Panicky Pancakes, Fiery Fireman, Rocks and Socks, South Pole Flight, Bull-Oney, A Horse Tale, Farmyard Follies
: Homeless Homer, Yanky Clippers, Hen Fruit, Sick Cylinders, Hold 'em Ozzie, The Suicide Sheik, Alpine Antics, The Lumberjack, The Fishing Fool, Stage Stunts, Stripes and Stars, The Wicked West, Ice Man's Luck, Nuts and Jolts, Jungle Jingles, Weary Willies, Saucy Sausages
: Race Riot, Oil's Well, Permanent Wave, Cold Turkey, Pussy Willie, Amature Nite, Hurdy Gurdy, Snow Use, Nutty Notes, Ozzie of the Circus
: Kounty Fair, Chilly Con Carmen, Kisses and Kurses, Broadway Folly, Bowery Bimbos, The Hash Shop, The Prison Panic, Tramping Tramps, Hot for Hollywood, Hells Heels, My Pal Paul, Not So Quiet, Spooks, Cold Feet, Snappy Salesman, Henpecked, The Singing Sap, The Detective, The Fowl Ball, The Navy, Mexico, Africa, Alaska, Mars
: China, College, Shipwreck, The Farmer, The Fireman, Sunny South, Country School, The Bandmaster, Northwoods, The Stone Age, Radio Rhythm, Kentucky Belles, Hot Feet, The Hunter, Wonderland, The Hare Mail, The Fisherman, The Clown
: Grandma's Pet, Mechanical Man, Wins Out, Beau and Arrows, Making Good, Let's Eat, The Winged Horse, Cat Nipped, A Wet Knight, A Jungle Jumble, Day Nurse, The Busy Barber, Carnival Capers, Wild and Woolly, Teacher's Pests
: The Plumber, The Shriek, Going to Blazes, Beau Best, Ham and Eggs, Confidence, Five and Dime, The Zoo, The Merry Old Soul, Parking Lot
: Chicken Reel, The Candy House, The County Fair, The Toy Shoppe, Kings Up, Wolf! Wolf!, The Ginger Bread Boy, Goldielocks and the Three Bears, Annie Moved Away, The Wax Works, William Tell, Chris Columbus Jr., The Dizzy Dwarf, Ye Happy Pilgrims, Sky Larks, Spring in the Park, Toyland Premiere
: Robinson Crusoe Isle, The Hillbilly, Two Little Lambs, Do A Good Deed, Elmer the Great Dane, Springtime Serenade, Towne Hall Follies, At Your Service, Bronco Buster, Amateur Broadcast, The Quail Hunt, Monkey Wretches, Case of the Lost Sheep, Doctor Oswald
: Soft Ball Game, Alaska Sweepstakes, Slumberland Express, Beauty Shoppe, The Barnyard Five, Fun House, Farming Fools, Battle Royal, Music Hath Charms, Kiddie Revue, Beach Combers, Night Life of the Bugs, Puppet Show, The Unpopular Mechanic, Gopher Trouble
: Everybody Sing, Duck Hunt, The Birthday Party, Trailer Thrills, The Wily Weasel, The Playful Pup, Lovesick, Keeper of the Lions, The Mechanical Handy Man, Football Fever, The Mysterious Jug, The Dumb Cluck
: The Lamp Lighter, Man Hunt, Yokel Boy Makes Good, Trade Mice, Feed the Kitty, Happy Scouts
: The Egg-Cracker Suite
: King of Jazz
: Fireman's Picnic
: Snuffy's Party
: The Woody Woodpecker Polka