Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Get To Know Your Rabbit

Last night, finding myself with a little in-between time, I decided to give Universal's recent WOODY WOODPECKER AND FRIENDS CLASSIC CARTOON COLLECTION a whirl. What most attracted me on Disc 1 were the five vintage B&W cartoons featuring "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit," an invention of Walt Disney that he lost in the late 1920s when his distributor, Universal, decided to cut out the middle man and hire its own animation department. Disney took the basic template of Oswald, it appears to me, and used it to create the overnight sensation that was the star of 1928's talkie toon "Steamboat Willie" -- and the rest was history, a history that has largely forgotten Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Speaking for myself, I believe I had seen only one Oswald cartoon before last night -- 1932's "Mechanical Man" -- and it's not included here, so I tucked into the set expecting to be educated rather than entertained. Boy, was I wrong. I sat down expecting to watch only the first of these Walter Lantz-directed cartoons but Oswald held my interest firmly through all five of his animated adventures. The first, "Hell's Heels" (1930), is comparatively crude with a surreal (indeed barely perceptible) storyline and lots of image cycling, but it has charm and points of surprise -- it's like a trip to Wackyland before Porky Pig ever got there.
Its even more macabre follow-up, "Spooks" (also from 1930), is remarkable for including an homage to Lon Chaney's five-year-old PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which had been reissued a year before in a semi-sound version. (Chaney was still alive at the time of the cartoon's release; he succumbed to throat cancer a month after its premiere.) A character singing "How Dry I Am" taught me that the final line of that song is not the way it's usually heard when sung by drunks in the media -- the cartoon media, anyway; not "Nobody knows / How dry I am" but rather "Nobody seems / To give a damn." Today our American landscape is a veritable Beirut of F-bombs, but I can remember a time when even the word "Hell" was regarded as a word not to be spoken aloud outside the Sunday pulpit, so the very title of this cartoon is moderately risqué, but still more stupefying is a gag in which a black cat stiffens its tail erect and farts in the face of a skeleton.

Fred (later Tex) Avery was involved in animating a couple of these Oswald shorts, so we shouldn't be taken too offguard by things like this, but I was tickled when the third example "Grandma's Pet" (1932) incorporated not only Avery's trademark twists on beloved fairy tales -- in this case, "Little Red Riding Hood" -- but a hyperbolically surreal climax in which the Wolf (a perennial Avery character, of course) gains possession of a magic wand and uses it to transform Oswald's environment into a series of hilarious death traps. As if to further cement the cartoon's ties with Avery's later MGM masterpiece "Magical Maestro" (1952), Oswald gains control of the wand and turns the tables on his tormenter.

The last two Oswald cartoons, "Confidence" and "The Merry Old Soul"(both 1933), both find the Lucky Rabbit rallying to cheer audiences in the grip of the Great Depression. "Confidence" is the most amazing cartoon in this batch, opening with a dark spectral Depression arising from the steaming foment of a public dump and spreading its infectious gloom as it floats above a Fleischer-like, three-dimensional, turning globe. Oswald awakens one day to find his formerly happy farm animals "down in the dumps" and speeds off to fetch the doctor, who points to a posted image of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and says firmly, "HE'S the Doctor!" Oswald flies to Washington DC by ingenious means (I won't spoil it for you), where he cartwheels into the Oval Office (how else?) and is greeted by FDR, who stands tall (!) and comes out from behind his desk to swing his fists with gusto while delivering the pep talk of all pep talks. Duly energized, Oswald cartwheels back out and flies back home by even more ingenious means (that would be telling) to spread the miracle cure of "confidence," which he administers by syringe.

"Confidence" is a masterpiece, if a delusory one; one of those fascinating amalgams of animation and patriotism like Chuck Jones' Porky-Pig-meets-Uncle-Sam opus "Old Glory" (1939), but even more interesting because Oswald embodies such trusting, homegrown, corn-fed American optimism while confronting what we now know to be a false, propogandic image of a US President who had, in fact, been bound to a wheelchair since 1921 with paralysis from the waist down.

"The Merry Old Soul" tells the same story in essence, though in a more disguised manner, as Oswald is alarmed by a radio report that "Old King Cole's got the blues!" He scurries off to round up the country's greatest comedic masters -- including Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers (big-footed Greta Garbo sits this one out) -- and arrives with them at the castle, where Hollywood's assembled royalty seek to cheer the wan-faced King by any means possible, much to the conniving jealousy of his unfunny jester. When Oswald accidentally discovers that the secret to making the King laugh involves pie-throwing, the cartoon offers a valid historic explanation for the popularity of slapstick comedies in the 1930s and, in its hard-won wisdom about the need for comedy, anticipates to some extent the finale of Preston Sturges' SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS -- in which the laughs were generated, let us not forget, by none other than Walt Disney.

Speaking of Disney, one can't help but notice that there are a lot of little Mickey Mice running around and bouncing off of drumheads in these Universal cartoons. I don't know if Disney just wasn't big enough to be more litigious in those days, or if there existed in those times a greater brotherhood among different studios that made allowances for friendly jabs such as these. Disney's company reportedly recouped the rights to the Oswald character last year, but that doesn't explain how Universal is able to include a trademarked character here that people are now expressly verboten not to paint on their children's bedroom walls. Perhaps they're trading on Oswald's titular (but not always evident) luck?

I don't have the answer to this burning question, but one thing I do know: I want more Oswald cartoons! The list of "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoons on the IMDb amounts to 152 titles, but it doesn't include most of the titles included in this first set, so there must be even more where these came from. Happily, Walt Disney Home Video plans to release their own two-disc "Walt Disney Treasures" set of Oswalds on December 11, and I'm eager to be further educated and entertained by what it has to offer.

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