"When Bob (Disney president and CEO Robert Iger) 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," Walt Disney's daughter Diane Disney Miller said in a statement March 9th . "Having Oswald around again is going to be a lot of fun."

Disney animation didn't all begin with a mouse despite what Walt said. Which is why Disney fans this week were so excited that Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has finally come home to Disney. It's just another example of Bob Iger doing something right. In a complex deal with NBC Universal, The Walt Disney Company regained rights to Oswald the Rabbit and other concessions (that no one seems to want to talk about) in a transaction that permits sports commentator Al Michaels to contract with NBC.

The Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons were a series of over two dozen silent black and white cartoons created and produced by the Disney Studio between 1927 and 1928. Walt made these cartoons for Charles Mintz , who then worked through Universal , for distribution of these cartoons. When Walt discovered he didn't own the rights to the character of Oswald or the cartoons themselves during a business maneuver by Mintz, it led Walt to abandon the character and create Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney's animation career actually began in Kansas City, Missouri where he produced a series of "Laugh-O-Gram" cartoons that took classic folk tales like "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Cinderella" and updated them to a jazz age sensibility. Unfortunately, Walt's lack of business acumen resulted in the company going bankrupt.

In a desperate attempt to save the company, Walt did several experiments including a "sing-a-long" short and an animated film that combined a live action girl with animated characters. That film, "Alice's Wonderland," caught the eye of film distributor Margaret Winkler. The Disney Brothers Studio was formed in 1923 to produce a series of "Alice Comedies" which is the true beginning of the Disney animation empire. More than fifty cartoons in the series were produced and it was so successful that both Walt and Roy could afford to get married and build houses for themselves.

During this time, Margaret Winkler married Charles Mintz whose hardheaded business approach resulted in several confrontations with the Disney Brothers. The last "Alice Comedies" featured less and less live action and more and more animation as Walt's animators gained in expertise and Walt felt the "gimmick" of live action/animation in the "Alice Comedies" had run its course.

In 1927, Charles Mintz signed a deal with Universal Studios to produce a new cartoon series, which was to star a rabbit character. The name "Oswald" was reportedly selected by P.D. Cochrane, the head of Universal's publicity department. He gathered suggestions from people around the office including the secretaries and put them into a hat and drew out a name. Walt would later tell his daughter Diane how the name was literally drawn out of a hat which is why Oswald didn't follow the animation and comic strip convention of alliteration in a name.

Universal had not released a cartoon series in years and began to promote Oswald with extensive and enthusiastic ads in the trade press. Although the odd looking white rabbit in their earliest ads had not the slightest resemblance to the Disney-Iwerks design.

Universal did a marketing push on merchandise as well including a five cent marshmallow and chocolate candy bar made by the Vogan Candy Corporation of Portland, Oregon, The Philadelphia Badge Company issued a button with Oswald (the precursor to today's pin collecting), Universal Tag and Novelty Company offered an Oswald stencil set for drawing the character. The Disney Studio saw no royalties from this merchandise which didn't bother Roy Disney who said, "We are a movie studio not a toy store." The Disney Brothers were happy that the merchandise brought attention to the character so that audiences would ask theaters when they would be showing an Oswald cartoon.

Mintz offered Disney the contract to produce the new series, and Walt jumped at the opportunity. Ub Iwerks had been experimenting with a new way of designing characters for animation using circles which were easier to animate. If you look closely at the last few "Alice Comedies," the ears of the mice got longer and more pointed as Iwerks practiced with how to move rabbit ear shapes.

Disney sent Mintz a group of test drawings for the new character, which Mintz approved and copyrighted for Universal. Disney was given approval to produce a pilot cartoon for the new character, who was to be known officially as "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit".

The pilot, entitled "Poor Papa," was criticized by Universal executives because the Oswald character was not cute or likeable enough. The memo from Universal included the phrase: "With the exception of Chaplin, important movie comedians are neat and dapper chaps." The Oswald that Iwerks had originally designed had overalls and a more dumpy, scruffy shape in keeping with the plot of the cartoon where Oswald is overwhelmed with a multitude of newborn children. The concept, of course, was the belief that rabbits had a tendency to multiply abundantly. This was a storyline Walt would refine for a later Mickey Mouse cartoon entitled "Mickey's Nightmare."

Mintz advised Disney to design the character so he was "young and snappy looking with a monocle." (While Universal had declared that "Poor Papa" was "unrelease-able", Mintz later released "Poor Papa" in an attempt to keep up with the deadline schedule set by Universal.)

Disney's head animator, Ub Iwerks ignored Mintz's suggestion but refined the character's appearance so that he appeared younger and more vital. In fact, this new design had many of the same design elements that we associate with the early Mickey Mouse. A s the series progressed, Oswald became more and more the prototype for Mickey in terms of design and early personality.

The second cartoon, "Trolley Troubles," was acceptable, and premiered on the Fourth of July, 1927 to terrific reviews in the trade press. Motion Picture World gushed that:

"Oswald series has accomplished the astounding feat of jumping into the first-run favor overnight."

"Trolley Troubles" was inspired by the very popular comic strip Fontaine Fox's "Toonerville Trolley." There is a scene where Oswald removes his foot and rubs himself for luck. Animation Legend Friz Freleng animated it. "And I was questioning, 'What do I show when his foot's taken off, do I show a bone in there or what?' And Walt joked about it and of course, he never thought of it either. Nobody had thought of it," groused Freleng in an interview late in his career.

Why did Oswald rub himself with his foot? It never seems to occur to anyone that Oswald is a "lucky" rabbit because he has four lucky rabbit feet. Having a rabbit foot was a lucky charm for folks in those days and the custom lasted through the Fifties when the novelty feet were sometimes colored in a variety of shades like green or orange to increase sales. And, yes, you could actually feel the foot and the claws underneath the hair.

The level of craftsmanship and storytelling continued to improve in the cartoons which also began to increase the cost of the cartoons. The animators began to rely less and less on model sheets. To this time, most animation had been done by tracing the characters from the model sheet. Disney animators began to rely less on them except for the design of the characters, and draw in a more freehand style which gave the animation a more fluid and "realistic" style. Another change was that, although the storyboard method was still years in the future, the shorts began to be scripted. This gave the animators more specific directions to go in, rather than just general spoken ideas. Several gags in the cartoons were later re-done in early Mickey Mouse cartoons. In fact, Walt's script for "Steamboat Willie" references a gag from "Tall Timber." (Even Peg-Leg Pete popped up occasionally as a villain for Oswald.) Walt even began the practice of "pencil testing" animation with this series.

In 1928 with the popularity of Oswald increasing, Disney went to New York to approach his distributor, Charles Mintz (representing Universal Studios), about an increase in his budget. Mintz not only refused but he actually told Disney to accept a 20% cut in the budget, or Universal, which was the legal owner of the series, would produce it on its own using Walt's own animators who had signed contracts with Mintz. Only Ub Iwerks had refused to sign.

Disney refused, and, after completing all the cartoons agreed to in the original contract, saw control of the Oswald character revert to Mintz. (During this time, in secret, Walt and Ub worked on the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, hiding the work from the animators working on the Oswald cartoons.).

Mintz gave the series to his brother-in-law, George Winkler, who set up his own studio, Snappy Productions. (The story of these "lost" cartoons have been recounted by David Gerstein, author of the outstanding "Mickey and the Gang," in his excellent on-line article, "Of Rocks and Socks: The Winkler Oswalds [1928-29]" .)

The motives for Mintz's action are debatable. Certainly, as a businessman, he was concerned about the rising costs of the cartoons for what he felt were unnecessary improvements and Walt was certainly a "loose cannon" maverick that Mintz was having greater and greater difficulty controlling. Mintz also knew that many of Walt's animators were upset by Walt's authoritarian style and would welcome a more "business-like" approach. In addition, it was not unusual at this time for the characters to be owned by the studio and not by the creator.

Mintz's studio animated several new Oswald cartoons, but the project fell through when Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising went to Universal to try and convince the studio to put them in charge. Universal, tired of all these politics, decided to produce the series in-house with director Walter Lantz taking charge.

Lantz, a friend of Walt's, contacted him to see if this would cause Walt any concern. Walt, who was now successful with Mickey Mouse, gave Lantz his blessing and told him there would be no hard feelings. Mintz was out in the cold and many of the animators, including Harman and Ising, found work at Warner Brothers creating the first "Looney Tunes" and Merrie Melodies".

Lantz working with animation legend Bill Nolan (who was just as fast and talented as Iwerks) turned Oswald into a cuter and more appealing character, and the series continued in production until around 1938. Lantz's cartoons included several remakes of some of the original Disney cartoons. Lantz's first big change was to add sound. Mickey Rooney was the first to do the character's voice. In 1942, a newly redesigned Oswald (now gray and with two nephews) began appearing in several DELL comic books through the early 1960s.

Walt divided his animation staff into two separate units so that two pictures could be produced at once. (One unit included Ub Iwerks and Friz Freleng. The other unit was headed by Hugh Harman and Ham Hamilton.) The Oswald cartoons ran at the Colony Theater in New York. It was the same theater that would showcase the debut of Mickey Mouse.

Here is a listing of the release dates of the Disney "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoons. How many of these still exist in any form is a topic for another column. Remember the head of Universal, Carl Laemmle, is the guy who when he needed a bonfire for a scene in one of his "talkies" told his assistants to pull out some of the silent films that were loaded with silver nitrate and toss them onto to the fire so it would glow brighter. The only reason some of these Oswalds exist at all is thanks to television. In the Fifties, several studios, including Universal, put a soundtrack onto to the silent cartoons and sold them to television.

-- 1927 --

Trolley Troubles (September 5, 1927)
Oh, Teacher (September 19, 1927)
Great Guns (October 17, 1927)
The Mechanical Cow (October 3, 1927)
All Wet (October 31, 1927)
The Ocean Hop (November 14, 1927)
The Banker's Daughter (November 28, 1927)
Empty Socks (December 12, 1927)
Rickety Gin (December 26, 1927)

-- 1928 --

Harem Scarem (January 9, 1928)
Neck 'n' Neck (January 23, 1928)
The Ol' Swimmin' 'Ole (February 6, 1928)
Africa Before Dark (February 20, 1928)
Rival Romeos (March 5, 1928)
Bright Lights (March 19, 1928)
Sagebrush Sadie (April 2, 1928)
Ride'em Plow Boy (April 16, 1928)
Sky Scrappers (April 1928)
Ozzie of the Mounted (April 30, 1928)
Hungry Hoboes (May 14, 1928)
Oh, What a Knight (May/June 1928)
Poor Papa (June 11, 1928)
The Fox Chase (June 25, 1928)
Tall Timber (July 9, 1928)
Sleigh Bells (July 23, 1928)
Hot Dog (August 20, 1928)

FYI for those of you JHM readers that will in the Orlando area this coming Saturday, February 18th, Disney historian Jim Korkis will be the guest speaker for the World Chapter meeting of the National Fantasy Fan Club. Where Korkis will be talking about the silent films of Walt Disney. I'll bet he'll even be mentioning Oswald.

Jim is actually an original member of the NFFC, one of the first to join when the group was first organized in Southern California nearly twenty years ago. Over the years he has given presentations to the Southern California and Central Florida chapters just like so many other memorable Disney cast members.