Are there many people that don’t know who Mickey Mouse is? Even the simple circle with rounded mouse ears on top makes people think of Mickey Mouse, and the ear hats are a very large part of the Disney theme park experience.
Before Mickey, there was someone else. Another character that Walt Disney had created. Before Mickey, another character was destined for greatness.
Before Mickey, there was Oswald.
Back in 1927, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks had been working on a series of cartoons called Alice Comedies. Their distributor, Charles Mintz, was unhappy with the production costs for those cartoons, and was interested in creating a character they could sell to Universal, who was looking to create cartoons to play with their films. Disney then signed a deal with Universal, and a cartoon rabbit was created. Universal drew the name “Oswald” out of a hat, as they were given the right to name their new cartoon star.
After the first Oswald cartoon was created, Universal rejected it because they didn’t like how old he and sloppy the character was. The second cartoon, Trolley Troubles, featured a younger, cleaner version of the character and was an instant hit when it was released on September 5, 1927. They created 26 Oswald cartoons over the next few months, of which only 13 have survived until today. Oswald was different from most of the cartoon animals at that time, actually having a personality of his own. Physical comedy was his specialty, and he’d take advantage of situations to solve problems. Like other early cartoon characters, he could be squished like rubber.
A success, but Walt wanted more.
Walt Disney was noted for always wanting higher quality work in his cartoons. In the spring of 1928, he traveled to New York to speak with producer Charles Mintz about getting a higher budget for the cartoons. Mintz not only refused, but also informed Disney that just a few months prior, in February, he had negotiated employment agreements with all of Disney’s animation crew, with the exception of Ub Iwerks. Ub refused to leave Disney’s side and Oswald was destined to continue without either of the character’s creators.
It was after this event, on the train-ride back to California, that Mickey Mouse was born. In fact, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy, was created, followed by Steamboat Willie, which was released first. Mickey Mouse cartoons were instant hits with audiences, and the character began to eclipse Oswald in popularity almost immediately. Universal Studios resumed creating Oswald cartoons, creating a further 142 over the next decade. Oswald was even given a voice, with multiple voice actors providing the character’s dialog. One such voice actor was Mickey Rooney!
The return to Disney.
It wasn’t until 2006 that Oswald found his way home. Disney CEO Bob Iger initiated a trade with NBC Universal in February of that year. The Walt Disney Company acquired rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and a few other minor assets in exchange for sportscaster Al Michaels. Universal transferred the Oswald character copyright to Disney, and Disney then released Al Michaels from his contract, allowing him to sign with NBC. The deal only included the cartoons created by Disney, but the character and any future projects can only come from Disney.
Oswald was given a voice from Disney for the first time as well, as Frank Welker provides Oswald’s dialog for the Epic Mickey video games. You can also find an increasing amount of Oswald merchandise at Disney parks and beyond, with Oswald ear-hats, t-shirts, Pop Vinyl and more.
I’m fully expecting Oswald to appear in some of the new Mickey Mouse cartoons at some point in the near future as well. It’s about time that the character becomes part of the family of characters alongside Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, Daisy and Pluto.
In fact, Disney Japan made a cartoon for Christmas that was released in December.