On September 5, 1927, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit debuted in the animated short “Trolly Troubles.” The short, which clocks in at a little over six minutes, was the creation of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, who chose a rabbit to differentiate their character from the glut of animated cats on the market. “Trolly Troubles” is springy and funny, with a lot of mileage wrung from Oswald’s gaggle of children (he is a rabbit after all). While Disney and Iwerks only completed 26 Oswald shorts for Universal Pictures, the character would become incredibly important to Disney (and later the company he would form), inadvertently leading to the creation of Mickey Mouse and, years later, becoming part of the oddest “trade” in modern entertainment history, only to seemingly be forgotten about once again.
The true original Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon was actually completed early in 1937 and called “Poor Papa.” But Universal and producer Charles Mintz, who had worked with Walt on the live action/animation hybrid “Alice comedy” shorts, weren’t happy with the initial Oswald foray and refused to release it. Mintz demanded the character be redesigned (he wanted, for some reason, to have Oswald sport a monocle), which Walt agreed to (minus the monocle) but disagreed with Mintz’s direction that the shorts simply be designed for a series of hilarious gags. According to Neal Gabler’s great Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Walt wanted Oswald to have a distinct personality and made it a point “to make Oswald peculiarly and typically OSWALD.” According to Gabler, Disney struggled for something different: “gags that weren’t impacted on Oswald, as gags were in most cartoons, but instead arose organically from him – from who he was.”
Almost immediately critics and audiences warmed to Oswald – they loved his offbeat design, with his long, expressive ears and how fitfully and artfully executed the shorts were (incredibly, there were nine Oswald shorts released in 1927 alone). The success of the Oswald shorts was enough so that Walt and his brother and business partner Roy could hire more animators (their company swelled to 22 people) and buy plots of land on Lyric Avenue in Silver Lake. But while this success was great for Walt, Roy and Ub, behind the scenes chaos was brewing.
In early 1928, Mintz, tired of Walt’s demands and in disbelief of his actual talent, began negotiating for more Oswald shorts without Walt. George Winkler, another producer on the shorts, began making arrangements with some of Walt’s artists to join the new venue (Iwerks wouldn’t budge). Unaware of the treachery (or perhaps willfully ignorant), Walt took a trip to New York to renegotiate his contract as Mintz was in the process of signing another deal with Universal for additional Oswald shorts. Instead of offering Walt a raise, Mintz only offered the negative costs, about $1,000 less than the brothers were already making, and Walt scrambled to get his bearings, frantically telegraphing Roy but generally keeping positive. Even after he found out that many of his animators had been scooped up from underneath him, he worked to make a separate deal with Universal, going around Mintz. But Mintz had signed a new deal with the studio and Universal was ruthless. Walt wouldn’t own the character he had created for the studio. What’s more Universal suggested, as a way of salvaging things, for Mintz to take over the studio from Walt. It was the last straw. Walt vowed to never work for anyone again and to own everything he created.
On the train ride back to New York was where, probably apocryphal legend has it, he came up with the idea for Mickey Mouse. But Walt did come up with Mickey Mouse shortly after the Oswald deal collapsed, even while he was under contractual obligation to finish the Oswald shorts. And Universal would continue to produce Oswald shorts until the end of the 1930s, with nearly 200 shorts to his name. By the time Universal was done with him he would be indistinguishable from the character that Walt and Ub had created – he was in full color (his overalls were red) and he looked weirdly realistic, in a sugary cereal salesman way.
But this was not the end of the saga of Disney and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
According to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons by the great Dave Bossert, when Bob Iger became COO and President of Disney in 2000, he took a crash course in Disney history. And one of the things he learned about was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. “I read about Walt and the origins of the company and learned the details of Oswald and Mintz,” Iger told Bossert for the book. “I was completely familiar with the story.” In 2005 Iger was named the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. According to Bossert, “he had a list of things he wanted to accomplish and one of them was to bring Oswald back to the company.”
In 2005, the stars would weirdly align. That was when the network broadcast rights to NFL games were set to expire and when NBC outbid ABC to air Sunday Night Football. (Monday Night Football would stay on the Disney-owned ESPN.) While some commentators left for NBC, others stayed at ABC. Under contract with ABC was Al Michaels, a valuable and well-regarded sportscaster. When Iger found out that Michaels wanted out, he came up with an idea: ask for Oswald.
“Some at NBC/Universal didn’t even know they owned the character it had been dormant so long,” Bossert writes in the book. In the end, Disney was able to get the rights to the original 26 Oswald shorts that Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks had worked on, along with an odd mishmash that included “rights to Ryder Cup matches (along with paying a rights fee), Olympics highlights and expanded highlights from Notre Dame football, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness through 2011” (according to ESPN). Uh cool. Michaels wryly noted at the time: “I’m going to be a trivia answer someday.” The deal came a week after Iger had agreed to pay $7.4 billion for Pixar Animation Studio, so it likely got lost in the noise from that, much more high-profile acquisition. But combined the two deals established less than a year into his tenure that Iger was going to run Disney like a portfolio manager. In the years since, Iger would solidify this reputation by making even more lucrative deals for Marvel, Lucasfilm and Fox.
But just because Disney now owned the rights to the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons didn’t mean that they had all of them. And in 2011 Dave Bossert got a call.
“I was sitting in my office and I read an article about a lost Oswald film called ‘Hungry Hobos’ which had surfaced and was being sold at a Hollywood memorabilia auction. Just as I finished reading that article my email dinged and it was an executive with a question about Oswald,” Bossert told me. “And I answered the question and said, ‘By the way this lost Oswald cartoon surfaced, I think we should buy it.’ And he said, ‘Oh okay.’” The executive got Bossert some money and Bossert bid (and won) the lost short up for auction. But instead of being the end to something, it wound up being the beginning. “After that I thought, Well if there’s one that surfaced there must be other missing cartoons that are out there,” Bossert said. He then explained to me that in the 20s and 30s, Disney rented out 16mm films (“It was like that period’s home entertainment”) and not just in America, but all over the world. “So all of the Oswalds had French and Spanish and Italian and German versions of them,” he said.
Bossert knew that the deal Disney had made with Universal was, to say the least, incomplete. “When Disney got the rights to Walt’s Oswalds from Universal in the infamous trade, there was only 13 prints that Universal had, 13 titles. And essentially there were 13 missing,” he said. So Bossert embarked on an obsessive quest to track down the missing titles and complete the collection. When Bossert left Disney, he had managed to find “six and a half.” Where was “the half?” Well, as he explained some of the shorts would get edited in foreign markets; occasionally they would be trimmed for content but more often than not they would be spliced into several smaller shorts, turning a 6-minute film into a few 2-minute films. “In 2018 a 2-minute portion of ‘Neck in Neck’ surfaced in Japan and the guy that had it was in his 80s and purchased it in the early 1950s and it was purchased under the title ‘Speedy Mickey,’” Bossert said. “You thought you were getting a Mickey cartoon but it was 2 minutes of Oswald’s ‘Neck in Neck.’” Still, he took the two minutes. This archeological animation expedition eventually became the book Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons, which is very essential.
There are still six Oswald shorts that are still missing – and possibly a seventh. “There is a 27th cartoon called ‘High Up’ that has Walt Disney’s name on it as director. They might have been working on ideas for the second 26 because he thought he was going to get it. That material may have gone over to the Oswald Cartoon Studio and they completed it or completed his idea,” Bossert said. “We don’t know enough about it. So everybody says there’s 26 but there’s this 27th that we need to know more about.” And just because Bossert is no longer at the company, the hunt is still very much alive inside of him. On his website, Bossert has a Patreon page to help fund his investigation. And he’s optimistic that the other lost installments will be found. “I’m convinced that some of them are still out there,” he said.
And you’d think, with all of the wrangling that it took to finally rehouse Oswald, Disney would be putting a little more oomph behind the character. But largely they have failed to capitalize. Oswald appeared as a sort of villainous Mickey doppelgänger in a series of videogames called Epic Mickey, some of the shorts were collected into a limited edition (and now long out-of-print) DVD collection in 2007 and Oswald has a cameo in the 2013 Oscar-nominated short “Get a Horse” and several of the new Mickey Mouse shorts by Paul Rudish (although some of the latter appearances are almost subliminal they’re so discreet). Also Oswald has a presence in Disney California Adventure in Anaheim, although Disney has weirdly regulated him to a meet-and-greet character next to a gas and service station that bears his name. You know, everyone’s favorite auto mechanic rabbit Oswald. If you search for “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” on Disney+ you will sadly come back empty-handed.
Hopefully at some point Disney will get behind Oswald in a much bigger way. Bossert referred to Oswald as “representative of a major cornerstone of the foundation of the company” when speaking to me and it’s true – it was a character that was deeply important to Walt, was taken away from him, inadvertently led to the creation of Mickey Mouse (and to Walt’s generally close-looped approach to business and finances) and returned to the company in a spectacularly odd and singular way. Oswald’s homecoming should be celebrated and his status as a Disney icon maintained with all the love and care that Mickey Mouse is afforded. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is lucky to be back in the Magic Kingdom.
For more Disney goodness, check out my deep-dive into the making of the film Atlantis: The Lost Empire.