I was happily surprised to see Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as part of Disney’s 100 Years of Wonder merchandise at Magic Kingdom’s Emporium this week. I knew that Oswald was Walt Disney’s creation before Mickey Mouse and that Walt Disney didn’t have the rights to Oswald due to some bad business relations, but little did I know of all the real-life drama involved in Oswald’s history. However, it is great to know that this story has a happy ending.
Who is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit aka just “Oswald” is an animated character created by Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks. Oswald first featured in the short film called Trolley Troubles in September 1927. Oswald is known for his ability to disassemble and reshape his body parts as he wants. He is believed to be the first animated character to demonstrate human-like emotions. Oswald was known for being haughty, feisty and overzealous, which made him get into some funny situations that everyone loved to watch.
How It All Started
In the early 1920s, Walt Disney was very active in his career as an animator in his own studio along with Ub Iwerks, and during this time period they created the first Alice Comedy short film, Alice’s Wonderland. After completing the film, their studio went bankrupt and they were forced to shut it down. Luckily, Walt was able to save some money by working as a freelance photographer. With that money, Walt bought a one-way train ticket to Los Angeles, California to live with his uncle Robert and his brother Roy.
In California, Walt continued to send out proposals for the Alice Comedy film hoping to land a distribution agreement. He finally got a deal with Winkler Pictures, led by Margaret Winkler and her fiancé, Charles Mintz and the Alice Comedy became a series.
Then in early 1927, Charles Mintz asked Walt and Ub Iwerks to create a cartoon character he could sell to Universal Pictures since Universal wanted to restart their cartoon business and needed a character of their own. Walt began working on the character shortly after he opened their studio Disney Brothers Studio in Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles. In their studio, Walt and Ub Iwerks worked on the animations and Roy worked more on the business side of things.
Photo: Walt Disney (Right) and Ub Iwerks (Left)
At the suggestion of Carl Laemmle who is Universal's founder, Walt made this new character a rabbit. Universal's publicity department chose the name of the new character by drawing it out of a hat filled with little pieces of paper.
The first Oswald cartoon however was not well received by the Universal executives and by Charles Mintz. They said that the character looked old and not what they were looking for. Walt and Ub Iwerks then created a younger and neater version of Oswald for their next cartoon short film called Trolley Troubles. This new version was well received and Universal released it to theaters on September 1927.
Walt started to worry and become afraid that Charles Mintz would not renew their contract, mostly because Ub Iwerks had told him that he knew that George Winkler, who was Charles Mintz's brother-in-law and also worked with them, had been going behind Walt’s back and hiring his animators to work for Winkler Pictures and that he was doing this per Charles Mintz’s request.
Once Walt knew that things were being done behind his back which sounded like plans to get rid of him, he traveled with his wife to New York to find other potential distributors for the Disney Brothers Studio cartoons, including Fox and MGM, prior to meetings with Charles Mintz for any contract discussion.
To make matters worse, the overall economy was not doing well which Charles Mintz tried to use to his advantage. In the contract renewal discussion, Charles Mintz wanted Walt to accept a 20% pay cut and he thought Walt would accept knowing that he had hired most of Walt’s animators behind his back. To Charles Mintz’s surprise, Walt decided to not enter into an agreement which meant that he would have to leave Oswald behind since Walt did not own any rights to his creation instead Winkler and Universal owned the rights. They continued to release Oswald cartoons after Walt’s departure for another few years until another one of Walt’s creation would take on the world.
Photo: Charles Mintz
The Happy Ending
Disney’s CEO Bob Iger had said that he wanted to bring Oswald back to Disney and many people were happy about that. Then in early 2006, The Walt Disney Company received the rights to Oswald from NBCUniversal as part of a deal in exchange for sending sportscaster Al Michaels from Disney's ABC and ESPN to NBC Sports. The deal included the rights to the character and all the short films made by Walt Disney.
To welcome Oswald back home, a line of special merchandise was released at Disney Stores nationwide and a Walt Disney Treasures DVD set was released compiling all of the surviving Oswald cartoons produced by Walt Disney.
In December 2022, Walt Disney Animation Studios released a brand-new animated short film called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This was included as part of Disney’s 100 years on Wonder celebration and also is Disney’s first Oswald cartoon in 95 years, the short shows Oswald’s crazy attempts to enter a movie screen to reunite with his love, Ortensia.
Now in 2023, you can see Oswald the Lucky Rabbit proudly displayed all over Disney. He’s a big part of Disney’s 100 Years of Wonder and the new Oswald merchandise is beyond amazing. Something positive that I see from the drama in Oswald’s history is that he now represents that no matter how cruel the world can be, the right thing always happens at the end.
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