Oswald the Lucky Rabbit - DVD set review

From July 7, 2012

Score: A+
This set was released in 2007, after the Disney Studios gained the rights to the Oswald character that Walt Disney himself had been swindled out of back in 1928. You can still get this set new for around $25 (most of the WD Treasures are insanely expensive, like around $150 USED and more than $200 new). If you're super-frugal, you can find all 13 surviving Oswald shorts on 
So who the hell is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit? He was the first character that Walt Disney made. His pictures were distributed by Universal. At that time, the distributor owned anything they distributed, as such, Disney never had the rights to his own character. So he later made Mickey Mouse, who is essentially Oswald with round ears. Although, in reality, Disney made Mickey up, but didn't design what he looked like. That task fell to a man named Ub Iwerks (I'll deal more with him in a few paragraphs). 
It's really interesting to see these old cartoons. Only 13 of the original 26 survive because Universal didn't keep track of their prints or take care for the ones they had. Many of the shorts were 35mm copies of 16mm originals in either private collections or museums from around the world, we are told in the audio commentaries. 
When you think of a silent film, you think of no voices, only a music track. Well, back in the 1920s, animated films were truly silent, they didn't even have music. Animated films would often be shown with a pianist playing music live. As such, the Disney Studios hired a guy who wrote olde-time music for the Oswald shorts on these DVDs.
Oswald has some great characterization in many of these short films. He can also remove parts of his body, no problem. He can pull off his own foot and kiss it for good luck. Someone can punch him in the face and his head goes flying off, and Oswald just pops it back on. When he sees his girlfriend--sometimes a cat, sometimes a rabbit herself--Oswald doffs his scalp and ears . When Oswald is shot by a canon he breaks into pieces, only to be shaken up in a martini shaker by a war nurse and remolded into his former self. She shouts: "Oswald!" and he awakens. Great stuff. Oswald's shadow can even swordfight for him. Cool.
I think the best thing in the set--and what the rest of my review is about--is a great documentary film called 'The Hand Behind the Mouse - The Ub Iwerks Story' by Ub Iwerks' own granddaughter Leslie Iwerks. 
NOTE: You can view this film for free here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xnpkgt_the-hand-behind-the-mouse-the-ub-iwerks-story-part-1_shortfilms
Notable Quotes from the film:
• Roy E. Disney: "[Ub Iwerks] animated Mickey. He is the guy, really, and even Walt started admitting that towards the end, that without Ub there wouldn't have been a Mickey."
• John Lasseter: "He's the guy who first drew Mickey Mouse"
• Chuck Jones: "For me the most important thing about Ub Iwerks was that he got me interested in animation"
• Animation historian: "We know his work, but we don't necessarily know the man."
• Leonard Maltin on the partnership of Disney and Iwerks: "I think they had a great working relationship... without Ub, Walt probably couldn't have done some of the things he did. Without Walt, Ub's inventions wouldn't have been put to such good use. So, that's a perfect match up." 
So who the hell is Ub Iwerks? And what kind of a name is that anyway? Well, he was born to Dutch and German parents at the turn of the century. Ub's father had a name that was just as odd: Eert Ubbe Iwwerks (sic). (Btw: Iwerks' mother was 26 when he was born... his father was 57). Iwerks' father later left the family when Ub was only 14. 
Iwerks met Walt Disney at a company in Kansas City when they were both 18 years old and (with the exception of a 10-year period from 1930-1940) the two worked together until Disney died in 1966. Their first company was called Iwwerks-Disney Commercial Artists and only lasted a month. 
After working for the Kansas City Slide Company (where they learned all about the film process as well as the animation process), they started another company: Laugh-O-Grams. Here Disney and Iwerks made the so called Alice Comedies, wherein a live action girl played around in an animated world (in a reversal of Koko the Clown cartoons of the 20s where an animated clown ran around in the real world). Iwerks developed the process used in those films. Laugh-O-Grams eventually ran out of money and Disney moved from Kansas City to California to start a company with his brother Roy: The Disney Bros. Studios in 1923. They soon called in Ub Iwerks and it was at this point that Walt Disney stopped animating. 
That's right, before Mickey Mouse, before Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney stopped animating. He never drew either Oswald OR Mickey. I never realized that until recently, and I think that most people don't realize that either. Disney may have come up with the idea of Mickey Mouse, but it was Ub Iwerks who designed and animated him.
Soon, Universal Studios contacted Disney and Iwerks to develop a character for them to star in a series of shorts: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. They made 26 episodes; only 13 still remain today, the others have been lost to time. 
In 1928, Disney travelled by train from CA to New York to ask for more money from their distributor. Disney was soon told that Oswald belonged to the distributor and that Disney would be taking a 20% cut in pay. Disney and Iwerks bolted and began developing Mickey Mouse for their new company 'The Walt Disney Studios'. While developing Mickey's first cartoon--'Steamboat Willie'--Ub Iwerks supposedly worked as fast as possible, cranking out 700 drawings a day! (As an artist, I know what a crazy amount of drawings that is.)
At some point, Disney started futzing with Iwerks' animation and timing a little too much for Iwerks to stand and in 1930 he left the Disney Studios. He started a new company and developed new characters: Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper. The new cartoons made a lot of money in the beginning and started the careers of animators such as Chuck Jones (of Looney Toons and Tom & Jerry fame). 
After a few years, Iwerks' cartoons started losing money, mostly--according to the film--because Iwerks' films focused on solid animation and new animation techniques whereas Disney's cartoons focused on character development and personality. Also, Iwerks' cartoons were satirical of everyday life such as the politics of the time and the Depression and so forth and that just didn't ring true with audiences of the time.
After 10 years, Disney asked Iwerks to come back to the studio and he did, at the time that the US government had taken over the studio in the early 1940s to produce war and propaganda films ('Victory Through Air Power', one of my favorite films by Disney, was done at this time).
• Iwerks apparently developed the following technology: 
• The forerunner to Disney's much-touted Multi-Plane camera
• The process of photocopying animators' pencil artwork directly to cels, beginning with '101 Dalmatians'. 
• The Sodium Traveling Matte Process used in 'Mary Poppins' and Hitchcock's 'The Birds' for which Iwerks won an Academy Award
• The anamorphic lens for widescreen films
• A perspective camera used for effects in 'Darby O'Gill and the Little People'
• The split screen technique used in the original "Parent Trap'
• One of the first three-camera electronic editing systems
• The wet-gate printer that eliminated scratches on films
• The 360 degree motion picture screen used originally at Disneyland (and still in use at EPCOT
• A photo-electric control system used in the Disneyland audio animatronics
• Three dimensional projection processes such as those used in the Haunted House ride