Monday, December 17, 2007

Oswald the Missing Link

The new Walt Disney Treasures DVD release, The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, is a revelation on several fronts. While the films might not hit the heights of invention found in the Fleischer or Messmer silents, their overall quality is superior. These films can best be described as breezy. They are well animated for the time, packed with gags, and moving at a fast pace.

I have to admit to never thinking much of Disney's Alice shorts. The animation is stilted, relying heavily on cycles and re-use. The drawings and motion are hardly graceful. By contrast, the Oswald shorts are a major step forward. Dick Huemer said that the New York animators all paid attention to the Oswald shorts, realizing that Disney was doing superior work. With this series, Disney became a major player within the animation world.

As good as the shorts are, they (and the rest of silent animation) were behind what live action comedies were doing at the time. The stories are simple, often based purely on a setting. Oswald is not a particularly well developed character. I think that Messmer's Felix is still superior as a character, though the production values of the Messmer films are not up to the Oswalds.

In many ways, the animation of the late '20's is where live action comedy was at the end of the teens. The major growth in character comedy that took place in the 1920's didn't reach animation until the '30's at Disney and the '40's practically everywhere else. The Oswalds are not competition for the silent Laurel and Hardy shorts and certainly not for the silent features made by Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

The DVD set contains 13 Oswalds of the 26 produced. The remaining cartoons are lost, though there are hopes that more will turn up. Print quality is good to excellent, considering that Disney did not preserve these films as he did not own them. There's a fantastic piece of pencil test animation from a currently lost Oswald called Sagebrush Sadie. How often do you get to see 80 year old pencil tests?

Commentaries are by Mark Kausler, Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck and they identify animation by Hugh Harman, Ub Iwerks, Rollin Hamilton and Friz Freleng. The second disk includes the documentary The Hand Behind the Mouse about Ub Iwerks as well as 3 Alice cartoons and some early Iwerks Mickey and Silly Symphony cartoons.

One thing this set makes clear is that Charles Mintz was a greedy fool. He had a successful series on his hands and instead of giving Disney a modest increase in budget and letting the money continue to roll in, he wanted it all and took the series and the crew away from Disney. The irony is that he did Disney an enormous favour. Yes, Mickey Mouse resulted from losing Oswald, but the bigger lesson was that Disney never again trusted his business partners. He realized that they were all short term thinkers and that they underestimated his talent and ambition.

Had Mintz given Disney what he wanted, Disney would have been tied to Mintz, a producer whose films are relatively obscure. Mintz produced other cartoon series like Krazy Kat and Scrappy, but he was clearly not a creative producer. While Mintz was able to release cartoons through RKO, Universal and Columbia, they were not the studios with the best financial footing in the 1930's and Mintz never really cracked the big time. Who knows if Mintz would have had the foresight to allow Disney to make sound cartoons the way he wanted to? It's unlikely that Mintz would ever have approved the idea of an animated feature.

Oswald is the nexus of Hollywood animation. He is the missing link between Alice and Mickey, showing precisely where Disney animation was just before the sound revolution. He is also the hidden origin of the Schlesinger studio as Hugh Harman, Friz Freleng and Ham Hamilton all worked on Oswald before animating Bosko. Finally, Oswald is one conduit through which N.Y. animators began to flow west, with Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan inheriting Oswald after Disney's crew went elsewhere. There's an awful lot of history wrapped up in these films, so if you are interested in Disney or animation history, this DVD set is essential.


Thad said...

Mark- I agree with much of what you wrote. I know a lot of hard work went into finding these, and historically, they are tremendously important. But they're not something I'll be watching often or raving about.

I noticed that the drawing was a lot better and tighter in these than the Lantz Oswalds. But the Lantz Oswalds are weirder and funnier so they're more to my liking.

Nancy said...

The best thing about the Oswald disc is the Iwerks documentary. The live action footage shot at Kansas City Film Ad alone is worth the cost of the jaw was dropping and so were those of my students. After I showed part of it I explained that Pat Powers hired away Iwerks from the Disney studio, breaking up this beautiful friendship.
Who would think that modern students would utter audible gasps as they heard news that was nearly 80 years old?
Yes, Oswald is a Missing Link, but he did not evolve into Mickey. Nickey just has something more, from the first, than the rabbit character.