Entertainment icon Walt Disney was born 109 years ago Sunday, and one of his early creations is back on the scene in a surprising way. Susan King and Geoff Boucher take a look at the unlikely 21st century revival of Oswald the Rabbit.
Epic Mickey, the much-anticipated new video game from Disney, has two venerable characters sharing the spotlight — Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Rabbit. That first little guy needs no introduction, of course, but who exactly is Oswald, and what is his history with Walt Disney, the American entertainment icon who was born 109 years ago Sunday?
The answer to that question leads back to the early Hollywood days of Disney, not long after he headed west to Los Angeles from Kansas City, Mo., and brought along the family of a young star named Virginia Davis, who starred in his silent-film “Alice” comedy shorts, which were distributed by Margaret Winkler and her company, Winkler Pictures.
Winkler had been a pivotal early figure in Disney’s success story, but it was the business team of her husband, Charles Mintz, and her brother, George Winkler, that inked a deal with Disney and Universal Studios mogul Carl Laemmle to launch a cartoon series featuring a rabbit. The endeavor would have a bumpy start and a sour ending for young Disney.
Disney created Oswald with Ub Iwerks in 1927, and the first cartoon, “Proud Papa,” was really more a “sad dad.” The Universal leadership was not impressed with the production values, and the character left them cold. The animation team went back to the drawing board and came back with a more polished product and a rabbit of true appeal in the cartoon “Trolley Troubles.” The work paid off too.
Through 1928, Disney and his team made 26 black-and-white animated silent shorts. Oswald proved so popular that merchandise was made — there were Oswald chocolate-covered marshmallow candy, stencil sets and a pin-backed button.
But Oswald hopped right out of Disney’s life in 1928. The cartoons were already viewed as costly, but Disney wanted more money to improve the product. Disney flew to New York to make his case, but he was in for a rude awakening. Mintz had no interest in budget increases; in fact, he wanted just the opposite — cutbacks. If Disney didn’t want to play along, well, Mintz made it clear that he controlled the rights to the bunny, and Disney was expendable. Mintz had quietly signed most of Disney’s employees to new contracts to cut him out of the picture.
Disney and Iwerks left in frustration and looked for a new path and a new character. They found him quickly and delivered a thunderbolt moment in pop-culture history with “Steamboat Willie,” released in November 1928. The cartoon gave the world a jaunty little fellow named Mickey Mouse, who would be given voice by Disney himself for close to two decades.
And what of Oswald?
In a wry twist, Mintz and Winkler also lost control of Oswald, and Laemmle handed the reins to Walter Lantz, who would go on to Woody Woodpecker fame and who animated the films beginning in 1929 with “Race Riot.” Lantz made some 140 Oswald cartoons over the next decade, though the character looked less and less like Walt and Ub’s rabbit.
Oswald lost the long, tube-sock ears and donned a shirt, shoes and even white gloves. His fur morphed from black to white. Oswald gained a voice too, as animation followed “Steamboat Willie’s” pioneering course into sound, and a young Mickey Rooney handled the duty in 1931 and ’32. Oswald made an appearance in the 1951 Lantz cartoon “The Woody Woodpecker Polka” and then faded to black even as his spiritual half-brother, Mickey Mouse, surged to unmatched heights.
No one would have been surprised if Oswald had never been seen again. But Robert Iger, who took over as chief executive of the Walt Disney Co. in 2005, made it one of his priorities to reconnect the company with its traditions in more ambitious and unexpected ways. That led in 2006 to Oswald becoming a true Disney character — the lucky rabbit was among the assets the company acquired from NBC Universal in a deal that let sportscaster Al Michaels leave ABC and ESPN and sign with NBC.
Disney also secured the rights to the 26 vintage Oswald cartoons made by Walt. Those Oswald shorts were released on a special two-disc DVD, and Oswald merchandise began hitting stores and the Internet in late 2007. The rabbit has even appeared at Disney World, although you have to wonder if any youngsters in the park could have identified him. That’s changing now, though, with Epic Mickey, which puts Oswald front and center in a story where he is presented as the head of Wasteland, a sort of bizarro version of Disneyland. And, for once, he can actually compete with Mickey. In the game, the inhabitants of the dark and shabby Wasteland have been discarded and forgotten but still have a chance for great adventure — just like Oswald himself.
— Susan King and Geoff Boucher
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