Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Legacy of Oswald

So, with all the Oswalds finished, what have we learned so far about the Disney Studio? Nothing life changing, but there are some interesting things to note.

First of all, there is definitely a sophistication and design to the storytelling in the Oswald shorts that was mostly lacking in the Alice Comedies. Shorts like Sky Scrappers or Rival Romeos have a clear beginning, middle and end, with a quick and easy to follow plot. There may be gags throughout, but they serve the purpose of the story, and are not entirely superfluous.

In later years, many at the studio would remark that “story is king.” I think you’ve started to see that develop in the Oswald shorts. During the early Mickeys that I have seen, the storytelling is not as good, which is interesting to note. That’s something I’ll keep an eye on as we begin the black and white Mickeys.

Second, character design, after the first few Oswalds, took leaps and bounds in this series. Julius and friends in the Alice shorts were good characters, but mostly either derivative of Felix the Cat (Julius) or copies of previous works of Walt’s (the Laugh-O-Grams). Only in the Oswald series do you see original characters being designed and created by the studio. Oswald and Sadie are both great designs, and the various iterations of Pete are leaps and bounds better than in the Alice shorts. Ub Iwerks, is primarily to thank for this, I would imagine, but certainly the other animators carried the design through, which allows for a great consistency in these shorts.

Finally, and probably most important – Oswald is a character, not just a tool for gags. This is hugely important to me. The Disney animation style is designed around personality animation, which is making the audience forget that these are drawings and imbuing the characters with real thoughts, feelings and emotions. Every once and a while you got a glimpse of that with Julius, but Oswald truly makes that premise real.

When Oswald is wooing Sadie, he is not just exuding heart symbols from his body, but you see the emotion on his face, in his posture and his actions. When Pete is clobbering Oswald, you see Sadie’s emotions as she fears for her sweetheart. That’s the true genius of Disney, and what makes their animation stand out to me. Certainly, it’s not at the level it will get to with the features, but the foundation is being laid in these Oswald cartoons.

So, the Oswalds pave the way for the Mickeys, and the real expansion of the Disney Studio. Today, Oswald is finally back home at Disney, after years of being at Universal. For those who don’t know the story, after a successful run of shorts with Charles Mintz, the distributor of Oswald, Walt ventured to New York to do a new contract. Only then did he discover that all the animators, except Ub, had defected and signed contracts with Mintz, so Walt no longer owned Oswald or his creators.

For a while Oswald cartoons were produced by Universal, and eventually the product was handed over to animation giant Walter Lantz. And, only a few years ago, when Universal, now owning NBC, wanted a new announcer for Sunday Night Football, they traded Disney/ABC the rights to Oswald for the contract of Al Michaels, in my favorite trade ever.

As for Walt, next for him was Mickey Mouse, his most popular creation. But that is a story for another time.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.


  1. Nice post, Ryan! The Disney Oswald series represents a real turning point and is well worth studying for anyone who thinks that Disney animation 'started' with Mickey Mouse and everything before was just crude and simplistic. One little thing that's worth pointing out though is that Disney didn't quite lose all of his animators apart from Ub. Les Clark and Wilfred Jackson stuck with Disney as did Johnny Cannon (the last of whom I know little about, but I think he worked for Disney until at least 1940).

    Now we've reached this junction, there are a few other things, relating to Oswald and his animators after they parted ways with Walt, that may be of interest. First up are the 'Winkler Oswalds' these are the first Oswald cartoons made without Disney (the earliest of which were released, but not made, before the final Disney ones). You can read about them at Pietro Shakarian's and David Gerstein's (who else!) site:

    Next up are the Oswald cartoons made at Lantz which you can read about here:

    A quick search on YouTube or Daily Motion will uncover some examples of the post-Disney Oswalds.

    Another thing worth mentioning are the early Warner Bros. Cartoons. Established by Harman and Ising, some of these cartoons contain very similar scenes to the Disney Oswalds. Check out "Big Man from the North" and "Ups and Downs" to see what I mean:


  2. Thanks, Mac. I have to get a lot of Mickey stuff done in the next week, because I'm off to Walt Disney World after Memorial Day, but maybe after that, I'll check out these other Oswalds.

    I did know about Les Clark, but not Jackson or Cannon. That's interesting.


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