Before Mickey, there was Oswald: By 1926, Walt Disney’s first series, the live-action/animation “Alice” comedies, had run its course. Under pressure from distributor Charles Mintz and Carl Laemmle of Universal, Disney and his artists created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927. Within months, Moving Picture World praised the cartoons’ “astounding feat of jumping into first-run favor overnight.” During the “Oswald” series, Disney’s talents as an organizer and story man began to emerge; his friend and head animator Ub Iwerks designed Oswald’s appearance and imbued him with a jaunty style of movement. But in 1928, Mintz took the character away from Disney. To replace Oswald, Walt created Mickey Mouse.
This important collection includes the 13 surviving silent “Oswald” shorts (of 26). Many of them feel like rough drafts for later Mickey cartoons. When Oswald enters a trans-Atlantic race in “The Ocean Hop,” the antics he performs in his airplane prefigure the ones in “Plane Crazy.” In “Sky Scrappers,” Oswald takes a job on a construction site where his girlfriend (an unnamed cat) sells box lunches, anticipating the Mickey and Minnie cartoon “Building a Building” (1933)—down to the opening shot of a dinosaur-like steam shovel at work. The silent “Oswald” shorts have rarely been seen since they were first released 80 years ago: Some viewers may grow impatient with these relatively crude cartoons, but they remain intriguing examples into Walt Disney’s early work.