Ten Fun Facts About Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Before Mickey Mouse was the big man on the Disney campus, there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Between 1927 and 1928, 26 Oswald shorts were made for Charles Mintz who contracted with Universal for distribution.
Describing Oswald, Walt said he was, “peppy, alert, saucy and venturesome…also neat and trim.” Disney historian David Gerstein elaborated on his personality, stating, “Imagine Mickey if he were a little more egotistical or fallible, or imagine Bugs Bunny if he talked the talk but wasn’t as good at walking the walk.”
The character was snatched away from Walt, along with most of his animation team (more about that in a bit) forcing him to create a new character. The result? Mickey. Not a bad rebound.
Why a Rabbit?
So, why exactly did Disney and Iwerks decide on a rabbit? On the one hand, you could just as easily ask, ‘Why not a rabbit?’ After all, Looney Tunes would later find massive success with Bugs Bunny. Still, why not go with a slightly more obvious character like a dog or a cat?
There were a wealth of popular feline characters at the time, including Felix the Cat and Krazy Kat. In fact, Disney had their own cat character named Julius who was in the Alice Comedies. Taking a look at Julius, you might even think he was related to Felix.
Taking all that into consideration, Charles Mintz and Universal decided that they needed a different animal as the lead in a cartoon.
How Many Oswald Cartoons are There?
This is a tricky question to answer, for a multitude of reasons. There were 190 cartoons made in the Oswald series. Of those, it was long believed that only 26 were made by Walt Disney. Remember how I promised to explain how the company lost the character?
Disney lost the rights to Oswald in 1928 and the next 25 were produced by Charles Mintz until he was unceremoniously terminated and replaced by Walter Lantz (who would later go on to create Woody Woodpecker), who is responsible for the rest of the pictures.
On the surface, that would seem to be the end of things, but as with everything involving Oswald, there was still more mystery. That leads us to our next item.
The Enduring Mystery of High Up
The film High Up is sometimes referred to as the 27th Oswald feature for Disney. This designation came about after the short was rediscovered in 2017.
There is reason to believe that Disney began production of High Up, but he did not complete work on the piece. According to noted Disney animation expert David O. Bossert, the short was directed by Rudolf Ising and Rollin Hamilton. However, Walt is still listed in the film’s credits.
So, what caused all of this chaos? How exactly did Walt Disney lose control of a character just as it was attaining ever greater heights of popularity?
It was all about the fine print. In March of 1928, Walt met with Charles Mintz, hoping to negotiate a more favorable contract for his continued work on the Oswald films. Instead, he was offered a worse contract, with the added information that Walt was technically a subcontractor of Winkler Productions. Shortly thereafter, Walt learned that as long as Mintz had a contract with Universal, he retained the legal rights to the character. Disney was left with nothing.
To add insult to injury, Mintz had secretly lured away the majority of Walt’s animation staff.
The Woody Woodpecker Polka
Oswald’s final appearance in a Universal cartoon took place in October of 1951, making a brief appearance in a cartoon titled “The Woody Woodpecker Polka.” However, fans of the original Disney character would be hard-pressed to place him in the short.
His look had changed drastically, resembling a cute (if somewhat generic) bunny with brown fur and dressed in overalls. A far cry from the character that Walt and Ub created.
A Disney First
Though Oswald was not Disney’s first star (that distinction belongs to Alice of the Alice Comedies) he was the very first character created by Walt to receive his own merchandising.
Those early bits of Disney-themed merch were a stencil set, a pin back button, and a chocolate-covered marshmallow candy bar.
The Trade of the Century?
When people tell the Oswald story, they typically like to include the idea that sports broadcasting legend Al Michaels was traded from ABC to NBC (which was a sibling company of Universal) as part of a deal that brought the legal rights for Oswald back to Disney in 2006.
As amusing as the idea is, it’s not exactly what happened. At the time, Al Michaels was broadcasting for Monday Night Football, which Disney had moved to ESPN. He wanted to move to NBC, and the Oswald deal was added in as a bit of PR. According to Michaels, “Some of Walt’s heirs had asked Bob Iger for years to bring Oswald ‘back home.’…Then someone came up with the idea that if we included Oswald in this deal, the press would lock on that aspect of the story and it would overshadow any suspicion of nefariousness. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Two Leading Ladies
Donald Duck has Daisy. Mickey Mouse has Minnie. But Oswald had…two sweethearts? His earliest love interest was known as Fanny Cottontail. Like Oswald, she was a bunny.
The other, and much better known, is a cat commonly called Ortensia. In the scripts, she’s often just referred to as, the girl, a nurse, Lady Love, or even Fanny or Miss Cottontail (despite the fact that she was not, in fact, a rabbit). The name Ortensia stems from the game Epic Mickey, which was released in 2010 and was chosen for alliterative purposes.
Get a Horse!
The year 2013 saw the debut of the cartoon Get a Horse! which was released along with the movie Frozen. While the plot primarily focuses on Mickey, Minnie, and Peg-Leg Pete, it features a brief cameo from Oswald. It was his first appearance in a Disney animated production in 75 years.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Many people are familiar with Hidden Mickeys, images of the world’s favorite mouse that have been cleverly hidden throughout places like the Magic Kingdom and other Disney parks. Less well-known is the fact that there are other character images hiding around the parks as well.
A silhouette of Oswald’s head can be seen in the walkway near Enchanted Tales with Belle. There is also a carved image of the lucky rabbit hidden in a bit of wood on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.