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"Oswald": Now We’re All "Lucky"

by on February 5, 2008

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, surely, must have been one of the more challenging projects to cross the desks of Disney’s renowned marketing department. True, the company has in its “Walt Disney Treasures” format a product line designed to carry this kind of specialty content. But in Oswald we’re not talking about a famous, world-beloved character or a series of shorts with obvious, cross-generational appeal. But Oswald and his cartoons (or some of them, at any rate) were retrieved from NBC-Universal at no small cost to the Disney conglomerate, and there were strong cultural reasons—of sentiment and reverence for the past—to give them a proper home video release.

Fortunately, the Disney folks who put this collection together did their usual terrific job. While The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the tin-wrapped Disney Treasures collection issued late last year by the Disney home entertainment arm, probably won’t be for casual buyers, it will certainly be worth more than its modest purchase price to Disney aficionados and completists. No one pampers its fans like Disney, and with this release Disney continues to do right by them.

That’s because the company has basically chosen to release an intelligent, well-crafted documentary set on what one might call the Iwerks/Disney Brothers era: that pre-Mickey period before the Disney company had finally gelled as “The Walt Disney Company.” More than a set of cartoons, it is a careful and informative exploration of Disney prehistory, presenting the company and its style in their natal state.

And what can the casual but interested fan—the sort of viewer who wants to learn about such things without sitting through a seminar—learn from this set?

Well, the first thing you might notice (even before loading up the bonus material) is how much better—how much fleeter, funnier, and more energetic—these silent cartoons are than the early sound cartoons that came after. “Steamboat Willie” (helpfully provided in this set as one of three sample post-Oswald Disney shorts) may have historical interest, but it’s a dreadful cartoon: slow, ponderously literal, begging to be satirized. “Skeleton Dance” (also in this set) cycles boringly through a handful of clever bits. But the Oswald shorts, though produced earlier, feel closer to the spirit of the late thirties or even the early forties: not being weighed down by a soundtrack, the animators were freer to zip from gag to gag (and through them) at the quicksilver speed of their own imaginations. “Plane Crazy” (the third post-Oswald short, and originally a silent) shows all the lessons that Ub Iwerks, the animator, had learned, honed, and refined while working on the Oswalds: it’s a simple but fun story with lots of action and strong characters engaging in attractive roguery, all drawn in a strong but pleasing graphic style. The Oswald shorts, serially, show these elements emerging and coalescing into the style that, once married to Disney’s post-sound technical experiments, would dominate the Golden Age of cartoons in the Forties and early Fifties.

“Trolley Trouble,” the earliest cartoon on this set, is the simplest, but in many ways the most beautiful. It is little more than a series of sight gags as Oswald tries to navigate his trolley car of passengers over hills, through tunnels, and past recalcitrant livestock, but it features line work so clean and uncluttered, and animation so liquid, that it almost looks avant-garde. It helps in no small part, of course, that this is one of the best-preserved prints on the set, but I doubt even a bad print could dampen its liveliness and elegance of expression.

Subsequent cartoons add more detail to the characters and to their backgrounds, so that they lack the severe grace of “Trolley Trouble,” but they also begin layering in more complex story points. “Oh Teacher” sticks Oswald onto one point of a romantic triangle and features some subtle but highly readable pantomime: At one point Oswald plucks the petals off a flower in a game of “She loves me, she loves me not.” Because this happens before the story has properly started, the viewer might miss what’s going on, but for the exuberant delight Oswald shows when a petal says “She loves me” and his disgust and repugnance when it says “She loves me not.” Those expressions, more than anything else, tell us what he is up to in that early scene.

Oswald begins to acquire a character in “Oh Teacher”; by the time of “Rival Romeos” he and his emerging antagonist, Putrid Pete, have personalities strong enough sustain the cartoon’s ironic ending: After their quarrels have driven the girl into the arms of with a third rival, Oswald and Pete exchange a glance, and Oswald offers his own ass up to Pete for a good kick. Pete obliges, and then ruefully presents his own fundament for a hard kick. As presented, though, it is a personality moment, not merely a slapstick one, and funnier as such.

The action in the cartoons also becomes more supple and exciting as the series develops. The out-of-control-trolley gags in “Trolley Trouble” eventually become the fairly complex combination of car chase and running gun battle in “The Mechanical Cow” and then turn into the fast and fluid ballet-work of “Oh What a Knight.” That short pretty much shows Oswald at his height: a smart, puckish adventurer who can best the overgrown bully in a swordfight, and do so while still taking quick breaks to smooch the princess. Commentators have compared it (and Oswald) to his live-action contemporary, Douglas Fairbanks. That’s good enough as far as it goes, but Iwerks and his team were sufficiently skilled at the slapstick stuff to bear comparison with Chaplin as well.

The most startling cartoon on the set, though, has to be “Tall Timber,” with its uncanny anticipations of Avery and Clampett. Without being complicated, it still manages to be the most complex and personality-driven of the Oswald stories. It’s just him, a gun, and a flock of screwy ducks battling it out in the wilderness. Lacking a definite antagonist, Oswald has to suggest personality all by himself, and his alternating expressions delight, alarm, surprise, frustration, and determination come easily and naturally. The short, of course, hasn’t the ferocity that Clampett gave his cartoons a decade later, but it has a lot of the same grace and assurance. If nothing else, “Tall Timber” can give you the startling impression that the invention of sound interrupted—and nearly derailed—an evolution that might have brought to fruition several years in advance the manic, anarchic invention of the Leon Schlesinger studio.

Not content simply to present these newly rescued and restored cartoons, Disney has also used this set to release The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story, a feature-length documentary on Walt’s long-time associate. This loving, informative, and generally clear-eyed appreciation of the animator and inventor, produced and directed by his granddaughter Leslie, does an excellent job of elevating a man not often given his due. The Disney enterprise, it is made clear, would likely have foundered at the start if Walt hadn’t brought his old friend back to rescue the “Alice” series, and he would have been left high and dry several years later if Iwerks hadn’t stuck loyally to him after Pat Powers tried stealing the Disney staff away. The documentary’s weakest spot is probably in its overview of the Iwerks studio he briefly headed in the mid-Thirties. It makes the point that, even more so than Disney, Iwerks was a breeding ground for talent, but the film doesn’t do as much as it could have to describe and analyze that studio and its output. It also, probably out of necessity, glosses briefly over the technical work Iwerks did after he returned to the Disney studio. But Hand Behind the Mouse is always graceful, often witty, and thoroughly interesting.

Among its extras, the set comes with commentaries by Mark Kausler, Leonard Maltin, and Jerry Beck on six of the shorts. These are as informative as they can be within the space of six minutes, which, admittedly, means they are not terribly illuminating at all, although Kausler does best simply by using the time to point out which artists likely animated which scenes and describe how he is able to make those educated guesses. There are also the three post-Oswald bonus shorts, three pre-Oswald “Alice” shorts, and a rather too-self-congratulatory documentary on how Disney went about reacquiring the rights to the Oswald property.

General audiences—parents with small children—probably can safely pass this set by, even though its cost is not onerous. Even casual Disney fans would probably not find themselves pulling it down out of their collection very often. But anyone who is interested in Disney, in the history of the studio and the development of its personality, must look at this collection at least once. And it’s evidence of how much talent there was at the early studio, and of how eager they were to entertain, that even as a history lesson the contents of this set will provide its students with unabashed delight.

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