Before there was Mickey Mouse there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and these are his adventures.
In 1927, Walt Disney created a new animated character by the name of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Working together with longtime friend Ub Iwerks, the two worked to create the first Oswald movie for Universal entitled Trolley Troubles and soon Oswald became a hit. In the film, Oswald worked as a trolley car driver and was faced with a number of situations that he had to work his way through. While transporting a bunch of baby rabbits over a damaged and warped track he had to find ways around a stubborn cow and goaded a Billy goat to ram the trolley up a steep mountain. It was the beginning of what looked to be a long and successful endeavor, but the sensation would not last.
When Charles B. Mintz, a producer at Universal, demanded that Disney accept budget cuts on the cartoon despite its popularity, Disney refused before learning Mintz had already hired away most of Disney’s animators before making his demands. Iwerks refused to accept the buyout and remained loyal to Disney and the two started their own company and soon came up with a replacement for the popular Oswald. That replacement was a character named Mickey Mouse.
The footage remained separated from the Disney Corporation over the years until a very strange trade occurred. When ABC lost its contract for National Football League broadcast rights, Al Michaels, who had recently signed a long-term contract with ESPN, was interested in rejoining broadcast partner John Madden at NBC for a Sunday night package. To appease the announcer, Michaels was traded from Disney’s ABC and ESPN to NBC Sports in exchange for a number of minor assets belonging to NBC Universal, including the rights to Oswald. The deal included the rights to the character and the original 26 short films made by Disney. Rights to the Universal-produced Oswald films and other related products weren’t included.
The Walt Disney Treasures releases include so many wonderful films from the Disney vault and this set is possibly the most anticipated of them all. Disney’s Oswald films had not been seen by most people and is one of the characters the few that had gave up any hope of seeing again. This Oswald DVD set includes 13 of the Disney created episodes as well as a number of great special features.
All the movies are supplied with new scores composed especially for this release. As you would expect from the time period, all the movies are silent films and I think the new scores work splendidly with the original tales.
As for the cartoons themselves, they compare favorably to the silent films by Buster Keaton and Oswald is almost an animated version of that classic comedian. The stories are all a product of their time with all the problems you would expect including racism and the different values that came from living in a different time period. It is important to understand when you sit down to watch these films they are a part of history and should be judged as such.
The second film, Oh Teacher, tells the story of a love triangle where Oswald tries to win over his love, who has been stolen by trickery. It is after Oswald seems to have beaten up his adversary that the girl falls in love with him again. I guess the message is that violence is the answer and will solve all problems. In the third film, Great Guns!, Oswald joins the war and, in the irony of all ironies, ends up battling a mouse who is flying a bomber. I was surprised at the levels this film reached as we actually see what I can only guess is an anteater get blown to pieces. I suppose that nothing ever dies in these films because even when Oswald gets his head blown off it just pops back on. The anteater’s feet run off after the rest of its body is destroyed, so I guess all is well. I am not really sure who these animated films were geared for.
There are so many creative aspects in the animation during these films. The uses of words in these silent films are so inventive as well. An example is when a girl yells for help, the word HELP appears. Oswald grabs the word out of the air and turns it into a horse to ride on his way to save her. This is done many times throughout the episodes proving that everything you see onscreen is important to the story, whether it is characters, words or even just drawn lines. The use of smart jokes is also used well, such as the rabbit’s propensity to procreate. You see so many baby rabbits popping out that you know that is being insinuated.
I think it is best that you forget the fact they are animated films and look at them as solid examples of the great comic silent films of the era. I think the stories and gags of these animated features are equal to even the great films by Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The vaudevillian aspects of the situations that Oswald finds himself in, the troubles and exasperation of the character himself and the creative ways that he finds to escape his predicaments makes these films wonderful additions to the silent era of films, animated or not.
The discs are presented in the tin box that you have grown used to from the Walt Disney Treasures collection. They come with a certificate of authenticity, as only 120,000 copies were released. There was also a card included that presented six still images from one of the “missing” Oswald cartoons, Sagebrush Sadie. Finally, there is a booklet with an introduction from film critic Leonard Maltin.
The restoration is simply amazing and everything looks crystal clear on all the movies. The new score provided by Robert Israel sounds great as well
Oswald Comes Home is a fourteen minute featurette that explains the story of Oswald’s creation, loss and eventual return to Disney. It includes great interviews with the children of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks and is a nice companion piece explaining the history behind the character.
There are also a number of audio commentaries. Animator Mark Kausler (Beauty and the Beast) talks over three films, including The Ocean Hop, Oh, Teacher and Oh What a Knight. It is nice to listen to Kausler talk because he is so respectful of the animation on these classic movies, showing nuances that I would not have thought to look for. He is also very knowledgeable concerning the animators of the past and gives fun antidotes as he talks about the various animators’ work. He also talks about the importance of pantomime in the silent era and points out numerous moments it is used in the films. Leonard Maltin joins Kausler on the talk track for Oh What a Knight. Maltin is there to provide small quips and comments and ask questions of the animator. Jerry Beck from cartoonbrew.com does commentary on three films including Ozzie of the Mounted, The Fox Chase and Bright Lights, Maltin joining him on the later. Unlike Kausler, who talks about the animation process, Beck talks more about the history surrounding the films, which Maltin seems more comfortable with.
There is also a fragment of the lost film, Sagebrush Sadie. It is an animated storyboard showing a few short clips that were found. Rounding out the first DVD is a gallery showing vintage advertisements, posters and various stories about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
The second disc presents a feature length documentary introduced by Leonard Maltin about the life and work of animator Ub Iwerks. This documentary, The Hand Behind the Mouse was directed by Iwerks’ daughter and is a labor of love going into great detail the importance of Iwerks to the great Disney legacy. Also included on the disk is various films in a section called The Works of Ub Iwerks. This section is split up into two sections. Before Oswald includes films from the Alice series (Alice Gets Stung, Alice in the Wooly West and Alice’s Balloon Race) and After Oswald includes three cartoons including the very popular Mickey Mouse film Steamboat Willie.