01 May 2009

Oswald's Bright Lights, Big City

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.


CHEERpy TALK said...

interestingly different blog.

Unknown said...

You can place me squarely in the "awaiting" column -- this is exactly why I've been telling you (for years) to start a blog! :D

Chris Barat said...


Congratulations on the new blog!

"Of course, I'll never claim any era of Oswald is gold. As with many pre-Tex Avery cartoons, the pacing can be sluggish."

That's where I think this particular short came up a little... well, short. :-) The hootchy-kootchy (sp?) routine at the start and the gags involving the hanging Oswald's pants being pulled down went on a bit too long. Energetic stuff, though, with a few nicely risque gags that almost seem cute now.


Linda Glover said...

You know, after listening to that soundtrack, I've got this sudden urge to re-watch the Marx Bros classic "The Cocoanuts"!

BTW great blog, David!

Randy Skretvedt said...

Hello, David!
You don't know me, at least I don't think so, but we have a mutual friend in Mark Kausler and probably some other folks as well. I'm very much enjoying your posts here. I love old movies and music of the 1920s through the '40s--I wrote a book about Laurel & Hardy and for 26 years have produced and hosted a radio show devoted to music of that era. I think the hot rendition of "I Like to Do Things for You" from the Oswald "Radio Rhythm" cartoon is just about the greatest music ever recorded. (Well, okay, Bix's "I'm Coming Virginia," and then Laurel & Hardy background scores, but *then* "Radio Rhythm.")

Thanks for posting these articles--they're very entertaining and informative.

All the best--
Randy Skretvedt

Thad said...

Oswald sucks.

Joe Torcivia said...

Thad said: “Oswald sucks.

And, on MY Blog (http://tiahblog.blogspot.com/), he said that Freakazoid sucks!

That’s what I like about Thad… He doesn’t play favorites!

Matthew K Sharp said...

Good work on the remix of Bright Lights. Comparing it with the DVD release, it certainly does seem less disjointed in your version. More of this kind of work is needed to prove that silent films weren't as random and jumpy as they sometimes appear in available prints.

"Oswald, a creature of the silent era, didn't have to stop everything to play music on barrels and lily pads twice a minute"Too true. For all that the coming of sound was a great technological innovation, it sure dragged cartoon development to a halt for a few years.

Late last year I watched most of the surviving Disney films from 1920 to 1935ish in order. (Dammit, should have thought to blog the experience!) I was surprised at how good the Oswalds were getting and how much the films regressed storywise once dancing and singing was the new mandate. By the time I got to 1931 I was wincing each time a piano hove into view. And unlike the Fleischers or Harman-Ising, Disney didn't even use good songs.

P.S. So when are we getting the inevitable Flip post? I'm muchly looking forward to that!

ramapith said...

Matthew: So am I!


Cory Gross said...

Matthew K. Sharp said: "Late last year I watched most of the surviving Disney films from 1920 to 1935ish in order. (Dammit, should have thought to blog the experience!)"

That sounds pretty much awesome. What can I say, Main Street Cinema is one of my favorite attractions at Disneyland ^_^ And yeah, too bad you didn't blog it.

I wasn't introduced to how bad the 1931 Disney 'toons were until I was able to track down a copy of Mickey Mouse in Black and White vol. II, having missed out on Silly Symphonies and Black and White vol. 1. All I can say is, uh, Ub Iwerks was conspicuous in his absence.

Joakim Gunnarsson said...

Yes, the early Oswald cartoons are sooo much better than the early Mickey cartoons.
I just can't stand the sing and dance sequences of the early Mickeys, so I was surprised to see how good the early Oswald stuff was.
The Oswald box is really a true must have for anyone interested in the early days of animation and for every artist in need of inspiration.
But I guess the readers of this blog alredy knows that. ;)

ramapith said...

Cory, Joakim—

It is with great trepidation that I announce the following: despite liking Oswald shorts more than early Mickey musicales, I like the musicales too. Even those produced in (shudder!) 1931. I'm going to have some postings before long about the origins of some of the songs. You will feel compelled to kill me. Try to restrain yourselves.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Ub Iwerks' animation in the Disney Oswalds and first Mickey Mouse cartoons still entertains and looks great, in my book.

The Lantz-produced Oswalds of the first year or two of talkies are among my favorite cartoons. I love the way-out rubbery animation of Bill Nolan and utter cartoon universe bizarreness in such films as The Hash Shop, Mars and The Fowl Ball.

Seems the Lantz studio was among the first (after Disney) to start tempering the wilder aspects of their cartoons, and, unfortunately, that starts happening as early as 1931. Grandma's Pet is a 1931 (released in early '32) Lantz Oswald that keeps the "this is a cartoon - we can do anything we want and there doesn't need to be a reason" spirit going.

Matthew Hunter said...

I want to know where I can get that "Tiger Rag" recording you used to score the last part of the Oswald cartoon. "Awesome", "Bad ass", "rockin'"...are all understatements.

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