On February 6, 2006, in a trade described by film historian Leonard Maltin as something that has “never happened before and never will again,” ABC sports commentator Al Michaels, actual human, was traded from ESPN to NBC for a black-and-white cartoon character—Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. “Lo and behold we were able to negotiate a fair trade, and as part of the deal Oswald the Rabbit came back to Disney,” Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger said following the swap. “Little did I know how much attention this was going to get; the reaction was huge. Even Al Michaels sent me a note in disbelief that Oswald had gotten so much more attention than he had.” The story of how Walt Disney lost Oswald—and how he returned nearly 80 years later—is one of the more incredible sagas in animation history.
Back when Walt was still in Kansas City, Missouri, he and longtime creative collaborator Ub Iwerks created the first “Alice Comedy,” a short that combined footage of a live-action actress with an animated background and animated characters (It was a prototypical process that would later be used in Disney films like Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit). This pilot cartoon was never screened theatrically, but instead, presented to prospective investors and potentially interested exhibitors. Starting the following year, in 1924, Walt and Iwerks would produce the first of 56 installments of what would quickly be deemed the “Alice Comedies.”
By 1927 Walt was looking to do something else. He felt constrained by the mounting costs and technical limitations of the live-action-girl-in-a-cartoon-world conceit. “Walt wanted to eliminate the live action components that defined Alice,” according to animation historian Russell Merritt. Charles Mintz, an American producer and distributor who had handled the Alice shorts, had entered into negotiations to provide a new character to Universal Pictures (who were returning to animation after decades of dormancy). “They seem to think there are too many cats on the market,” Mintz told Walt referring to the plethora of feline cartoon characters at the time. “As long as they are doing the buying, naturally, we must try to sell them what they want.” Walt sent them sketches of rabbits. On March 4, 1927, Mintz signed an agreement with Universal, for 26 animated shorts starring a brand new character cooked up by Walt Disney—Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Mintz instructed Disney, Iwerks, and their small team, to “shoot the first picture as soon as possible.” They hammered out the first produced short, “Poor Papa,” in April, a little over two weeks later. “Walt surely recognized what a tremendous opportunity was being afforded him–making a major cartoon series for a major distributor–and how much a success would advance his career,” Disney biographer Neal Gabler said. The problem was that nobody was happy with the resulting cartoon, with Mintz complaining about the look of the character (he suggested Oswald be re-conceptualized as “young and snappy looking, with a monocle”) and Universal unhappy with the short’s perceived lack of form and story.
Walt agreed that the short—and more importantly, Oswald himself—needed work. While he didn’t take Mintz’s suggestion for a monocle, he did redesign the character, making him lighter and more streamlined. But more importantly, he didn’t want a “rabbit character animated and shown in the same light as the commonly known cat characters,” meaning he wanted to give the character a personality, which was a groundbreaking concept at the time. Walt wanted “to make Oswald peculiarly and typically OSWALD.” A major investment in story wouldn’t matter; to Walt’s estimation the short films that got bogged down in plot were the least successful. Instead, he wanted a feisty hero you could root for. “One of the things that Walt brought was to have the characters have real personalities that the audience could identify with,” Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, said many years later. “So many early cartoons were about the gags than about personalities.”
The idea of injecting personality into cartoons had been something Walt had been fighting for since the Alice shorts. And in the second produced short (and first film to actually be released), “Trolley Troubles,” you can see just how much personality Oswald could contain, as a besieged train conductor. Brilliantly animated by Iwerks with some astounding point-of-view shots and Iwerks’ crisp draftsmanship, the short sees Oswald dealing with all sorts of headaches. It was, again, completed in roughly two weeks (as most of the Oswald shorts would be), but the short was more finely honed and entertaining, with a greater emphasis on style and character. The trades of the time were rapturous. “Oswald looks like a real contender,” Film Daily enthused (as recounted by Gabler). “This series is destined to win much popular favor,” Motion Picture News echoed. Oswald was destined for superstardom.
Compared to Julius the Cat, the animated star of the Alice Comedies, Oswald was different than anything that came before him. “Oswald was far more conscious of his body than Julius, more capable of enjoying pleasure and suffering pain, and that his body was far more plastic than Julius’s, more stretchable, squeezable, and twistable, leading to more imaginative situations,” Gabler wrote in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Animator and animation historian Mark Kausler notes that, “Oswald was patterned very much after Douglas Fairbanks.” He points to a sequence in “Oh, What a Knight,” a memorable 1928 Oswald cartoon, where the rabbit interrupts his sword fight to go smooch his girlfriend. (Iwerks animated this part of the short, of course. You can tell by the evocative lighting.) “Principles of movement like squashing and stretching, surreal gags inspired by Felix the Cat’s ability to turn anything, including parts of his body, into tools and props, and experiments with perspective and point-of-view camera shots, all found their way into these simple black-and-white cartoons,” Maltin commented. (Those early cartoons, when Oswald was less bound by physicality, are the most surreal and exciting, with body parts frequently coming off and changing into various things.)
Oswald’s popularity was immediate. Merchandise, including chocolate bars and pin-back buttons, were being sold across the country. By the end of 1927, Walt’s skeleton crew had grown to a 22-man operation, a testament to how well the Oswald shorts were doing. “Very quickly the Oswald cartoons became some of the most popular cartoons of the 1920s,” video game designer Warren Spector would later say. “Oswald was a big star.”
But things weren’t all rosy. As Gabler recounts, by early 1928, backdoor deals were already being fortified between Mintz and several of Walt’s animators to start a new studio and begin producing Oswald shorts independently of Disney (Iwerks refused). Walt couldn’t believe it and dismissed the idea out of hand. But on February 2, 1928, Mintz signed a new three-year agreement with Universal to provide Oswald shorts without Disney’s involvement. Walt still didn’t believe it and left for New York to negotiate his contract with Mintz. He was preparing to ask for larger budgets for each short (he always wanted to keep up a higher standard of production) and invited his wife Lillian along. Walt was so optimistic that he deemed the trip a “second honeymoon.”
When he arrived in New York, he first went to MGM, hoping to get a competing offer, and then went directly to Mintz’s office to, as Gabler said, “continue negotiations.” Mintz wasn’t willing to increase the budget for the shorts, instead offering less money (somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% less per short). “BREAK WITH CHARLIE LOOMING,” Walt wired back to Roy O. Disney, his brother and business partner. Preparing for a split, Disney also instructed Roy to work up “ironclad” year-long contracts for his animators, so that he wouldn’t lose them too. Of course, nothing would go as planned.
The following day at lunch, Mintz refused to talk business, but Walt knew that he had “something up his sleeve.” Mintz told Walt they would talk in his office the next day, at which point Walt telegraphed to Roy to get the contracts with the staff signed immediately. When Roy informed Walt that the animators had refused to sign, Disney finally realized that there had been backdoor deals going on. After another day of harried negotiations with Mintz, Walt told his old mentor Jack Alicoate (who had been intimately aware of the entire process) that he would try and make arrangements with Universal directly and cut out Mintz altogether. Walt met with Manny Goldstein, a Universal executive, who told him that he could start working on the Oswald pictures in a year, since they had just signed the new contract with Mintz. Goldstein also told Walt not to mention their meeting to Mintz. Walt was optimistic that they would “come out alright.”
Except that, as Gabler said, “Walt had underestimated Mintz and overestimated Universal.” In concluding the deal with the distributor, Mintz had granted no rights to the character Walt had created. Mintz offered him another deal, less than Walt wanted but still something, and said that he would take over the Disney organization and give both Walt and Roy a weekly stipend. Walt refused, marching back to Universal again, who offered to broker talks with Mintz. He told Roy that he would fight this fight, even if it took all summer and cost them everything.
A week later, on March 13, he would start his return trip to Los Angeles, distraught and almost entirely alone. “The eternally optimistic Walt Disney, who had ridden out crisis after crisis, had one terrifying thought: he would have to start all over again,” Gabler wrote. Of course, Walt’s biggest breakthrough would happen on the train back to Los Angeles. “The legend is on the train ride home he came up with an idea for a new character–Mickey Mouse,” Roy E. Disney later said. And it’s true–Walt would say that somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles, he came up with an idea that would eventually become the Mickey short “Plane Crazy,” inspired in part by Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight over the Atlantic. (There are elements of this same flight in some of the early Oswald cartoons; in one he takes off his ears and “rows” his plane like a canoe.) There are various stories as to how he came up with a mouse, many of them centering on his time in Kansas City, but it’s clear that mice always fascinated him; some prototypical mice characters can be seen in both the Alice and Oswald shorts.
Meanwhile, Charles Mintz and, later, Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz, would create brand-new Oswald cartoons through 1943. But none of these new cartoons had the charm, experimentalism, or lush animation of the earlier shorts (and, truth be told, many of the animators Mintz wooed from Disney would return to the company shortly after, including Ham Hamilton, who along with Iwerks animated some of the most memorable Oswald moments). The shorts became more topical, more gag-heavy, and strayed away from the original intention of giving the character depth and complexity. Most of these shorts were lost to history. While once a national star, Oswald faded from the public consciousness.
80 years after Oswald was lost, ESPN gained the rights to broadcast Monday Night Football, while NBC acquired Sunday Night Football, anchored by John Madden. “At the 2006 Super Bowl, a colleague informed me that Al Michaels wanted to get out of his ABC contract so he could join Madden on the Sunday night team. If true, this was a big development, as Al had been with ABC for 30 years,” former ESPN president George Bodenheimer wrote in his book Every Town is a Sports Town. “Sure enough, when we spoke after the game, he told me it was true.” Bodenheimer then got a call from Iger, explaining that he’d be willing to let Michaels go if Bodenheimer could deliver Oswald the Lucky Rabbit back to Disney. “Who or what is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?” Bodenheimer asked Iger, who told him about Oswald’s legacy and importance to the company. Bodenheimer then called Dick Ebersol, his counterpart at NBC. “I’m willing to talk to you about letting Al go to NBC, but I gotta have Oswald the Lucky Rabbit back,” Bodenheimer said. Ebersol had never heard of Oswald either but Bodenheimer filled him in, restating Iger’s commitment to having the character return to Disney. “Within a week, Ebersol had run the traps at NBC’s sister company, Universal, received approval, and the deal was worked out,” Bodenheimer said in his book. And like that, Oswald was home.
“I wanted to complete Walt’s mission. I knew there was an empty spot in his heart since Oswald left,” Iger said later. “There was something about bringing Oswald back that seemed right. So the move was meant to do something that was positive for Disney’s culture and to tap into that legacy.” In a press release, Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s daughter, said, “Having Oswald around again is going to be a lot of fun.” Shortly after the deal was made, Michaels showed a great sense of humor regarding the trade. “”I’m going to be a trivia answer someday,” Michaels quipped.
By the end of 2007, Oswald merchandise had already hit the market: French clothier Comme des Garçons released a line of T-shirts inspired by the character, and Walt Disney Home Entertainment issued a new edition of the popular Walt Disney Treasures series titled The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit—a limited edition two-disc DVD set that featured Oswald and Alice shorts, commentary about the character, a featurette about his return to the company, and a feature-length documentary about Ub Iwerks directed by his granddaughter, Leslie, called The Hand Behind the Mouse. Figurines and plush toys popped up in the Disney Store and in the Disney Parks. Slowly but surely Oswald was making his way back into the pop culture consciousness.
But the biggest reintroduction of Oswald would come in the form of the ambitious video game, Disney Epic Mickey. Plans for the game dated back from at least 2003, and soon visionary video game designer Warren Spector, who also happened to be a lifelong Oswald fan, was brought onboard to actualize the project. Disney Epic Mickey would feature a new version of Oswald, one who felt jaded and abandoned, and part of the game’s narrative would be Oswald’s redemption. “When they said, ‘You’re going to have the opportunity to present Oswald onscreen in the first new Disney story since 1928,’ I mean, what an honor!” Spector said around the time of the game’s release.
Disney Epic Mickey (and it’s sequel, Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two) brought Oswald to modern audiences. It was in these games that Oswald’s girlfriend, a cat, was officially named Ortensia (other girlfriends in the original shorts included Fanny and Sadie) and was where his new voice could be heard, courtesy of frequent Disney voiceover artist Frank Welker. It’s also interesting to note that the Oswald ears, now commonly sold in the Disney Parks around the world, originated as a promotional item for the second video game. He became a part of comic books and children’s literature. And in 2014 (a year after he popped up in the Oscar-nominated animated Mickey short “Get a Horse!”) began to make appearances at both Tokyo DisneySea and Disney California Adventure Park (where an entire store is filled with Oswald merchandise, including brand new Ortensia ears). Earlier this year, in Zootopia, keen-eyed viewers could see an Oswald stamp on an abandoned subway car. The message was clear: Oswald was here.
What’s so interesting about Oswald is that even after Walt lost him, he continued to be influential. Several of the shorts that Walt created with the character were essentially remade as Mickey Mouse shorts, and the boondoggle with Mintz led to Disney’s fierce protection of his characters and intellectual property. And the shorts themselves are really, really good. They’re wild and unhinged and hilarious and shaped Walt’s vision. “There’s something so pure about them. They’re good. They’re simple, both in terms of message and in terms of animation itself,” Iger said. “But you can see early signs of genius.” Russell Merritt, an animation historian, said that the shorts were instrumental. “I think the most exciting thing is to see the way Disney’s sense of story develops,” Merritt said. And Roy E. Disney still sounded dazzled, shortly after Oswald returned home. “The amount of work they did and the level of it was astonishingly good. And turning them out at some incredible rate still amazes me.” Oswald is a character that might have been gone but he was never forgotten, and now that he’s back, he’s taken his place as a historically important character finally getting his time in the spotlight, thanks largely to a video game, a sportscaster, and a very unique trade. Quite frankly it’s a story surreal enough for an early Oswald short.