OSWALD THE LUCKY RABBITOriginal Medium: Theatrical cartoons
Produced by: Disney
First Appeared: 1927
Creators: Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks
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An earlier Disney series, the "Alice" comedies, was
faltering, so the studio traded her in for a new character — one that, in appearance at least, differed from the Pat Sullivan Studio's Felix the Cat mainly in having long ears. The first Oswald cartoon was Trolley Troubles, released September 5, 1927. Between that year and the next, Disney's studio produced over two dozen black and white, silent Oswald cartoons, which were very favorably received by reviewers.
Even then, however, Disney constantly strove for higher and higher quality, and as a result, the cartoons became more and more expensive to produce. In 1928, Disney went to New York to approach his distributor, Charles Mintz (representing Universal Studios), about an increase in his budget. Mintz not only refused — he actually told Disney to accept a 20% cut in the budget, or Universal, which was the legal owner of the series, would give it to another studio.
Rather than accept the cut, Disney relinquished his creation, making Charles Mintz the first of many who thought, wrongly, that they could assume Disney's success simply by hiring or hijacking someone or something away from him. Mintz gave the series to his brother-in-law, George Winkler, who set up his own studio, manned by several ex-Disney animators, to produce new Oswald cartoons for Universal.
Within a year, Disney was back on top with Mickey Mouse, and Winkler was out of the picture. Universal opened a studio of its own, headed by Walter Lantz, so it was Lantz who finally inherited the character. Lantz's first big change was to add sound. Mickey Rooney (who already had a toon connection — he'd played Mickey McGuire of Toonerville Folks in silent comedies) was the first to do the character's voice.
An early highlight of Oswald's career in the talkies was in the live-action feature The King of Jazz (1930), which, by the way, was his first appearance in color. Oswald is a minor character in an animated song-and-dance number in which Paul Whiteman, who starred in the extravaganza, seizes a lion's crown to become the titular jazz king.
Lantz turned out Oswald cartoons by the dozen, all through the early and middle 1930s. By 1936, however, the era of rubber-limbed, Felix-inspired characters had run its course, and Oswald was re-designed into a more complex figure. He did not make this transition very smoothly, however, and faded from view a couple of years later. He made an appearance in the first Andy Panda cartoon, starred in one cartoon in 1943, and was a supporting character in another in 1952 — but his regular series ended in 1938.
In 1942, The Funnies, a comic book published by Dell Comics, changed its name to New Funnies and its content to stories about Walter Lantz's animation stars. Comics were thick in those days, so Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda weren't enough to fill it. And so, Oswald the Rabbit — minus the appellation "lucky" — got a new lease on life. A year later, he began making sporadic appearances in Dell's Four Color Comics. These continued until the early 1960s. In the comic books, Oswald had a pair of sons, Floyd and Lloyd.
Since the '60s, Oswald has been mostly dormant. As for his creator — Walt Disney seems to have done reasonably well without him.
But maybe that wasn't enough. In 2006, as part of a deal that involved Olympics coverage, several golf tournaments, and an Emmy-winning sportscaster's contract, the Disney organization wheeled and dealed with Universal to regain rights to Oswald. He may be a worthless, washed-up old toon, they seem to have thought, but he's our worthless, washed-up old toon.