Before Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created a character that was going to be their main star.
In 1927, because of cost and technical restrictions, Disney and his chief animator Ub Iwerks decided to end their work on the Alice Comedies series in search of new creative opportunities. Coincidentally, Universal Studios wanted to get into the cartoon business and needed a cartoon character of its own. So Disney’s distributor Charles Mintz told Disney and Iwerks to create a new character they could sell to Universal. Wanting to make cartoons with an all-animated look, Disney signed a contract with Universal Studios leading to the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Universal’s first cartoon series.
So why the rabbit? Well, at the time cats, were the popular animal in cartoons (Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat, etc.) so Walt and Ub created the Lucky Rabbit. The name Oswald was actually selected by Universal, and was drawn randomly from a hat.
The first cartoon that Oswald was set to appear in was Poor Papa, but it was rejected by the Universal studio heads for its poor production quality and the sloppiness and age of Oswald. Walt of course never stopping, with Iwerks, created a second cartoon titled Trolly Troubles which featured a much younger and neater Oswald. The short was released on September 5, 1927. This officially launched the Oswald series and at the time was Walt’s most successful creation to date. Poor Papa would go on to be released a year later, but redone and renamed, Mickey’s Nightmare.
In the spring of 1928, Walt went to New York City in hopes of negotiating a new deal with his producer Charles Mintz. Due to financial problems, Mintz would only settle to pay Walt 20% for the films. There was larger sums promised based on the success of the cartoons. On a side note, do you recognize the name Charles Mintz? You probably do, as he was the villain in the Disney/Pixar film Up. Walt was angered by this and decided to just quit his job. It was then that Walt no longer had the rights to his newest star Oswald. It was on the long train ride home that Walt came up with the idea to create another character and retain the rights to it for himself. Walt and Ub would work together to develop the new character in secret as they didn’t want any word to come out about what they were doing. At the time, I doubt they ever realized the impact that character would have on their lives. The character they created was none other than Mickey Mouse, who would go on to be the most successful cartoon character of all time.
Without Walt and Iwerks creating Oswald, Mintz opened his own studio consisting of former Disney employee’s and then he sold the cartoons to Universal. After producing 9 cartoons, Universal terminated Mintz’s contract, opting to have the Oswald cartoons produced right on the Universal lot instead. In all, there would be a grand total of 194 Oswald cartoon’s created between Walt, Mintz and Universal.
In 2006, Bob Iger wanted to get the rights of Oswald back to the Disney company. The rights were owned by NBC Universal. In one of the craziest trades I have ever heard of, NBC Universal traded the rights to Oswald, along with the original 26 short films made by Disney (namely, most of the Oswald films produced from 1927 to 1928). Disney’s part of the trade, was to release Al Michaels from his contract and allow him to sign with NBC Universal to rejoin his former broadcast partner John Madden at NBC for the Sunday night NFL package. The rights to the Winkler and Lantz/Universal-produced Oswald films are kept by Universal and other related products were not included, and therefore Oswald appears in both Disney releases and in Universal’s Woody Woodpecker and Friends collection. Iger had been interested in the property because of an internal design document for a video game, which would ultimately become Epic Mickey. Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, issued the following statement after the deal was announced:
“When Bob was named CEO, he told me he wanted to bring Oswald back to Disney, and I appreciate that he is a man of his word. Having Oswald around again is going to be a lot of fun.”
In January 2007, new Oswald merchandise would start making it’s appearance and in December of that year a 2 disc DVD set of Oswald’s cartoons was released. You can even get your own Oswald ears to wear around the park. Oswald was one of the stars in the Epic Mickey video game. The story line is centered around the world “Wasteland” and it is similar to Disneyland but for forgotten Disney characters, including Oswald, who rules the place. Oswald fashioned it after Disneyland, but he put images of himself in the place of Mickey in the statue with Walt Disney and other places throughout the town. Oswald dislikes Mickey for stealing his popularity that he felt he deserved.
Eventually Mickey and Oswald reconcile in the game as brothers and everything is fine again. Now Oswald is a part of the Disney parks as you can see him in most merchandise stores and he is even a character you can meet in Tokyo Disney. Hopefully he will make his way to Disneyland and Walt Disney World soon. We’re glad to have him back!
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