Uh-oh, it's here. A few of my friends have been awaiting and/or dreading the inevitable post on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. I've spent quite awhile chasing rare cartoons from this early Disney (and then Winkler, and then Lantz) series, and the character's a personal favorite, too: a feisty, often frustrated little guy who finds trouble by trying to be smarter and slicker than he actually is. Not so different from Bosko or the early Mickey, sure—but Oswald, a creature of the silent era, didn't have to stop everything to play music on barrels and lily pads twice a minute. In retrospect, it means that the films are less repetitive and have more time to spend on gags and story.
At the start, the series also benefited from Disney's drive to innovate: I'd argue that at the time, no other studio had both personality animation and production values at the same high levels. From my perspective, many outfits (Sullivan, Fleischer) had one but not the other.
Of course, I'll never claim any era of Oswald is gold. As with many pre-Tex Avery cartoons, the pacing can be sluggish. Sound later led to the same tedious songs and dances that so many studios employed. And from about 1931, Oswald lost his puckish nature and became just another leading man—eventually cutesy and dull, too, with his remaining good cartoons being good for reasons other than Oswald's presence in them. Avery's Towne Hall Follies (1935) is a clever short in which the rabbit could be damn near anybody, and would have been funnier as Bimbo.
Here's a cartoon from when Oswald was still somebody. Bright Lights (1928), with its elaborate stage show and multiple-character action, looks like the kind of picture that won audiences to the series and gave Charles Mintz apoplectic fits: why couldn't this be done cheaper? The rubes will never know the difference!
On DVD, Bright Lights was mastered from a print with many scenes that weren't in other surviving copies—but that appeared to be a bit out of order. For this version I've used a studio draft (thanks, Mark Kausler) to approximate what I think the original intent may have been. The music you'll hear concludes with Charles Dornberger and his orchestra performing "Tiger Rag"—you'll have to ignore the fact that the animals on-screen are lions and a leopard. And what better 1920s tune for an ape bandleader to conduct than "The Monkey Doodle-Doo"?
A tip of the hat, by the way, to blogger colleague Ryan Kilpatrick, who's just now blogging about the Oswald shorts at his Disney Film Project blog. Ryan is relatively new to 1920s Disney cartoons, and is introducing himself to them by experiencing the vast majority in chronological order—an experience that wouldn't have been possible just five years ago. Thanks to Leonard Maltin's Walt Disney Treasures DVDs (with help from Tom's Vintage Film silents collections!), it can be done today, and I envy Ryan for having the opportunity.
You can go here to buy the Oswald Treasures DVD: a project I was honored to consult on—and for which I didn't want to suggest that scenes be given an iffy reshuffling at the last second (Bright Lights was acquired very late in the game). A blog, on the other hand, is just the place for such gnarly science experiments.