Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has somewhat of an unusual history – people likely recognize him as a sort of “predecessor” to Mickey Mouse, although Oswald enjoyed a cinematic career that lasted from 1927 to 1943. In 1927, Disney and Ub Iwerks stopped production of the Alice Comedies; their distributor, Charles Mintz, recommended creating a new character for Universal, and Iwerks developed Oswald for the company. The very first short that Iwerks and Disney created for Universal, however, didn’t pan out – Universal’s executives felt that Oswald was old, so Iwerks returned with a new short, Trolley Troubles, which became Oswald’s inaugural outing.
By this point in time, sound-on-film had yet to catch on, with The Jazz Singer (1927) being the first successful example of the practice (with experiments existing before then), and cartoons emulated their live-action counterparts in this regard – Oswald debuted during this period in cinema’s history, when films still didn’t have their own on-screen score to accompany it. Musicians in the theater, usually playing piano, provided the score; when sound became the norm for cartoons in the 1930s, music would replace sound effects, as one can see in later Disney shorts.
Since this was made before the transition to sound, however, Trolley Troubles has no synchronized audio track; the short is basically a vignette where Oswald conducts a trolley, encountering many mishaps along the way. Characters like Oswald and Mickey became popular characters partially for their flexibility – they could appear in a variety of narratives, with each short being self-contained, and Oswald shows that narrative versatility here and in later shorts. Trolley Troubles doesn’t have an overarching story, but it doesn’t really need one; the short succeeds on the merits of the physical comedy shown within it, and Oswald shows his comic chops with physical humor (such as him briefly removing his foot in order to kiss it for good luck). Like Popeye after him, Oswald shows how animation can explore new frontiers in physicality – he’s not limited in his movement, and can achieve things humans cannot.
Oh Teacher introduces Oswald’s first love interest, Francine “Fanny” Cottontail; she would later be replaced by Ortensia after All Wet. Fanny’s debut shows her as the object of affection for both Oswald and an unnamed bully; the bully, a cat-like character, easily trounces Oswald initially, but ultimately gets his just deserts when he throws a brick intended for him away, only to have it return (via drain pipe) and hit him in the head. Viewers might notice a music track with this – Walter Lantz Productions (originally called Universal Studio Cartoons before it severed ties with the company in 1935) reissued this short in 1932 with added audio, and this version is the one extant. The music accompanies the action shown on screen – everything has some sort of musical association, as even though the characters move their mouths on occasion, they do not actually speak (not audibly, anyway).
Oh Teacher exemplifies the physical humor of the decade – the bully, for example, ties a question mark to a tree in order to knock Oswald off his bicycle, while Oswald later uses the word “help” (shouted by Fanny while she’s in the lake) as a horse in order to come to the rescue. Such visual gags are rare these days, if ever utilized at all; the heyday of this style of humor was in the 1920s and 1930s, with characters such as Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat and even Popeye using it for full comedic effect. Modern cartoons seem to have more realistic movement, mimicking live-action fare more closely than 1920s-1930s fare – this may be unfortunate, because animation allows for a lot of creativity, and focusing on more “realistic” trends leaves such versatility behind.
In The Mechanical Cow, Oswald receives a new antagonist, another unidentified character who plans to abduct Fanny for his own nefarious purposes; at the same time, he again shows his range as a cartoon actor by working as a farmer with a mechanical cow that dispenses milk. The cow in question likely plays to increasing industrialization in the 1920s and the the fascination with robots – live-action works such as Metropolis showed the viability of robots in fiction, illustrating concerns for the mechanization of the workforce (Metropolis‘ robot, after all, incites resistance in the workers, who work literally underground so that the rich have nicer lives). Here in The Mechanical Cow, the robot becomes part of the comedy – a robot can have as much personality as its human (or humanoid) counterparts, showing a full range of emotions and treated as a character in his/her own right.
The final short examined here, Great Guns!, shows Oswald going to war; with World War I still a recent memory in the minds of movie-goers, this likely played to that, reminding people of the travails of war while still being humorous. Notice how, in the final screenshot above, Oswald rides a cannonball; one does not see that sort of visual humor today, as sound became much more vital to to animation process. Oswald’s travails in this short really do emphasize the visual nature of the medium – when he’s fighting the mouse, for example, the two use their planes to wrestle, a great reminder of how animation could be utilized to suspend reality.
One may also notice the phrase “A Winkler Production” opening this short – this refers to Charles Mintz’ brother-in-law, George Winkler, who received control of the animation department when Disney broke ties with Universal. In 1928, Charles Mintz exercised his control by attempting to force Disney to accept a budget cut; when Disney refused, Mintz instead transferred the department to Winkler and saw Disney leave the company for greener pastures (making Mickey Mouse along the way). Thus, by May of that year, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks had no involvement in Universal’s Oswald shorts; Oswald would remain with Universal for years, with shorts produced until 1943.