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Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Entry updated 6 October 2021. Tagged: Film.

US animated film shorts (1927-1938; 1943). M.J. Winkler Productions (1927-1929), Walter Lantz Productions (1929-1938). Created by Walt Disney. Directors include Walt Disney and Walter Lantz. Writers include Walt Disney, Walter Lantz and Victor McLeod. Voice cast include Pinto Colvig, Bernice Hansen, William Nolan and Mickey Rooney. 193 6-9 minute episodes, silent until February 1929, then with sound. All but three black and white.

The Walt Disney Company – their main creative force being Disney and Ub Iwerks – had produced the moderately successful "Alice Comedies" (1923-1927), very loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice, which combined live action with animation. These were made for M.J. Winkler Pictures, which in 1927 asked Disney to create a new series that could be sold to Universal Pictures: the result was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The Walt Disney Company produced the first 27 shorts, then Winkler Pictures (as they were now known) signed up most of Disney's animators (though not the loyal Iwerks) and made the cartoons themselves; this lasted only a few months, as Universal had the same idea, turning to an in-house studio (which eventually became Walter Lantz Productions) to make them. Disney responded by drawing a mouse.

Typically, the plots were fairly straightforward: in a world of anthropomorphized animals, sentient objects and elastic Physics, our hero faces some adversity in work or romance that is nearly always overcome. For the first couple of years the animation was simple, its backgrounds usually comprising sparse line drawings, but improving until a decline in the Winkler Pictures era followed by recovery under Walter Lantz Productions. Disney's Oswald resembled contemporary successes Felix the Cat (see the Felix the Cat film entry) and Krazy Kat – but with rabbit ears. Ironically his similarity to Mickey would increase in others' hands – until December 1935 when he became a white rabbit and the series was renamed "Oswald the Rabbit". Oswald's personality was initially quite lively, but from about 1934 he and the stories became increasingly bland and gentle: this was most likely a reaction to the Motion Picture Production Code (better known as the Hays Code) that had hamstrung Betty Boop's career.

The talking animals make the series Fantasy, but there are occasional sf tropes. The most frequent was Robots or robot-like machinery (see Automata; Machines), though the term used was "mechanical". In "The Mechanical Cow" (1927), Oswald lives with a robot cow that manufactures and dispenses milk, which Oswald sells to the locals, one of whom is kidnapped: Oswald and cow rescue her, then are chased by the villains ... who end up falling off a cliff into the mouths of sharks. In "Mechanical Man" (1932) a Scientist creates a robot, whose violent nature leads him to declare it "needs a human heart" (arguably to make it a Cyborg), and so he kidnaps Oswald's girlfriend: Oswald rescues her and the robot is eaten by a goat. The "Mechanical Handy Man" (1937) features Oswald's Invention, a multi-purpose birdlike robot that tries to milk an unwilling cow. Less clear-cut robots are the mechanical horse in "Ozzie of the Mounted" (1928) and the building site machinery in "Skyscrapers" (1928), the latter behaving like animals (a rock eating excavator shovel clearly excretes its meal into a dump truck).

In their early years the Walter Lantz Productions shorts could be visually surreal and the Humour eccentric (see Absurdist SF); it is possibly significant that one of the animators was Fred "Tex" Avery (see Warner Bros. Cartoons). In the Horror-themed "Spooks" (1930) the Phantom of the Opera murderously pursues Oswald, but when he finally catches him simply cracks a joke, narrows to a vertical line and vanishes: Oswald turns and smiles to the camera and the curtain falls. The screwball "Mars" (1930) has Oswald kicked into the sky, where he bounces off the Moon, lands on a witch and her broom, who drops him off on Mars: here he meets the planet's King and many bizarre chimeras (see Aliens), and is chased by a fierce, many-legged giant head. Oswald escapes both it and Mars's atmosphere by using a springboard, riding back to Earth on a Comet: this short might have inspired the classic Warner Bros. cartoon "Porky in Wackyland" (1938). In "Sky Larks" (1934), Oswald and a friend fall asleep in a cinema whilst watching a newsreel of Auguste Piccard's Balloon ascent into the stratosphere: they dream of visiting Mars, whose ruler is war-like and whose inhabitants are living Weapons.

The Walt Disney and early Walter Lantz shorts can be entertaining, or at least interesting; the other eras, less so. [SP]

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