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Wednesdays with Wade: Save Oswald

Wednesdays with Wade: Save Oswald

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Like many other Disney fans, I am excited that the Walt Disney Company has reacquired the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, my joy is dampened somewhat by the fact that the Disney Company will probably never release a DVD with all the Disney Oswald cartoons.

Starting a petition won't help. Neither will harassing Bob Iger. Nor will trying to convince Roy Disney to revive his "Save Disney" site and re-title it "Save Oswald."

The simple truth is that of the twenty-six Oswald cartoons written and directed by Walt Disney that only eleven are still known to exist and of those eleven, the Disney Company only has seven. The Disney Company received a 35mm print of the first Oswald "Trolley Troubles" from Universal in the early 1970s. However the other six cartoons were borrowed from private collections and were all in 16mm and had to have new 35mm negatives and prints made of them.

So the Disney Company has "Trolley Troubles," "Oh Teacher," "Great Guns," "The Mechanical Cow," "The Ocean Hop," "Bright Lights" and "Oh, What a Knight."

The George Eastman House has a copy of "Sky Scrappers" that they screened at the Museum of Modern Art. "All Wet," "Rival Romeos" and "The Fox Chase" are all in private collections. There have been rumors that a fragment of "Ozzie of the Mounted" is also in a private collection as well as "Hot Dog" and "Ride 'Em Plowboy." But those rumors haven't been confirmed since film collectors have learned to be very cautious about revealing even the public domain treasures in their collections.

Some of the those Oswald cartoons that have survived are in pretty bad shape.

The only reason that some of these silent Oswald cartoon still even exist at all was because that in 1931 due to budget restraints and schedule challenges, Walter Lantz who was then producing a new series of Oswald cartoons for Universal had to post-synchronize several of the early Disney Oswald cartoons for re-release to fill gaps in the production schedule. James Dietrich did the soundtracks.

These Oswalds were later used by a company called Guild/Firelight during the early Fifties. They distributed a large selection of black and white Lantz sound shorts to television and home movie markets. Apparently, the Oswalds made in 1929 were excluded as were all of the Oswalds produced in the 1930s up to "The Singing Sap" but at least six of the cartoons distributed were from the Disney Oswalds.

There is an urban legend that Walter Lantz won the ownership of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from the owner of Universal, Carl Laemmle, in a poker game in the Thirties. The actual truth is that when Laemmle left Universal, Lantz was clever enough to see that Universal would probably eliminate the cartoon studio so he re-negotiated his contract so that he became an independent producer supplying Universal with animated shorts and that the copyrights and trademarks for all of the characters he had worked on including Pooch the Pup and Oswald the Rabbit would belong to him.

So for decades, Lantz was the owner of Oswald. In 1984, he sold everything back to MCA/Universal but remained very active until his death consulting on how his characters from Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker to Oswald the Rabbit would be used in theme parks, comic books, merchandise, video, etc.

According to the survey of the Library of Congress of the United States, about eighty percents of silent movies produced in the Unites States have already been lost or in un-restorable states. Another survey claims that about ninety percent of silent movies produced before 1930 have been lost.

With each passing year, that percentage increases. There are several reasons for this sad situation that may have robbed all of us Disney fans from ever seeing a complete collection of the Disney Oswald cartoons.

Silent cartoons were produced in small quantities and then those prints were circulated to theaters in the United States and then later shipped overseas until the prints often just fell apart or were never returned. When the "talkies" era came into vogue, silent films were considered worthless and then later when color became standard in films, the black and white films became even more worthless.

During the silent era, cellulose nitrate film was used for the majority of films. It is a highly flammable and unstable compound, with a life span of between thirty and eighty years. "Gertie the Dinosaur" in a complete form only survives because there were multiple copies of it and the cans containing the film were opened in a barrel of water so the film wouldn't burst into flame. The decomposition of nitrate film cannot be halted, although in the right conditions, it can be slowed so that a safety copy can be made.

Cellulose Nitrate was first used as a base for photographic roll film by George Eastman in 1889 and was used for photographic and professional 35mm motion picture film until 1951. It is highly inflammable and also decomposes to a dangerous condition with age. When new, nitrate film can be ignited with the heat of a cigarette. Nitrate film burns rapidly, fuelled by its own oxygen and releases toxic fumes.

Many films were lost in studio fires caused by this decomposition. Some films were destroyed deliberately for their silver content while others were just allowed to decompose due to simple neglect and lack of interest.

Universal which distributed the Oswald cartoons dumped its entire collection of its remaining silent films in 1948 to free up storage space for its new films, and all of Samuel Goldwyn productions were supposedly destroyed to save money on insurance premiums and storage costs.

There are other reasons why films disappear. When Walt Disney decided to make "Swiss Family Robinson," he bought up the rights to the 1940 version produced by RKO and confiscated all known prints so there wouldn't be comparisons to his remake. This used to be standard operating procedure at all the major studios, and accounts for many missing films which is one of the reasons the silent version of "Peter Pan" disappeared from public view for decades.

Although the nitrate negative of the original "Swiss Family Robinson" was destroyed in a fire years ago, Scott MacQueen, who was at that time the Disney film archivist, was able to get an original 16mm copy from a private collector and also located a 35mm print he found in another archive and was able to piece together a complete, fairly good looking master copy of the film. Of course, the Disney Company has no plans to actually do anything with the film.

Scott MacQueen would be the perfect person to supervise the finding and restoration of the Oswald cartoons but Disney didn't realize what a treasure they had in MacQueen who had located the only known copy of Walt Disney doing Mickey Mouse's voice on camera, restored "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" and so many other accomplishments that have enriched Disney Heritage during his twelve years with Disney.

MacQueen's expertise, contacts with other archives, enthusiasm and knowledge of Disney were not appreciated as Buena Vista Home Video and Disney fans benefited from his time consuming detective work. Today, Scott is appreciated and thriving and the Disney Company has lost a valuable resource. Unfortunately, some Disney leaders today still actively discourage cast members from sharing their knowledge and insights of Disney history and denies the Company and its cast members the benefits of that expertise.

Hopefully, the Disney Company bringing Oswald home means there may be a new era coming where knowledge of Disney history will be rewarded and treasured. For now, you may see pins and merchandise and more of Oswald the Rabbit but you won't see a DVD with all of Walt's Oswald cartoons.

This column is actually a plea to those film collectors who may have some of the missing Oswalds to bring them out of hiding for the rest of us to enjoy.

If you are really concerned about disappearing cartoons, then I would suggest you visit this website.

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