Could Oswald the Lucky Rabbit have been bigger than Mickey?
- 3 December 2012
- From the section Magazine
From Trieste to Timbuktu, millions would instantly recognise Mickey Mouse. But if a business deal hadn't gone awry in the 1920s could Disney's most iconic character have turned out to be a rabbit called Oswald, asks Helen Soteriou.
Although Walt Disney laid the foundations of a multi-billion dollar empire, 85 years ago he had a rather chastening experience.
His business baptism of fire revolved around a battle over a rabbit.
He had been producing the Alice Comedies, a series in which a little girl filmed in live-action entered a cartoon world and interacted with the characters.
"The Alice Comedies had been successful enough, but by 1927 Walt had tired of the live-action/animation format and ended the series so that he could make a new series of all-animated films," says author and film historian JB Kaufman.
The new animated star shouldn't be feline, Walt's distributor insisted "there are too many cats on the market". There was Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat, the cat in Walt's own Alice pictures, and a few others. They decided on a rabbit instead.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was born.
The "lucky" part referred to the superstition around rabbit feet. In one of the early films, Oswald pulls off his own foot and rubs it for luck.
The choice of Oswald as a name came because Walt allowed the Universal executives to choose it. The story goes that they pulled names out of a hat, Kaufman says.
The image and characteristics of Oswald didn't come easily to Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks, and it took a couple of attempts to get this character right.
"I am sorry that the first Oswald was such a keen disappointment to everyone . . . This work was animated by a man of experience [Ub] whom I am willing to put alongside of any man in the business today," Walt told Charles Mintz, his distributor.
"Hereafter we will aim to [make] Oswald a younger character, peppy, alert, saucy and venturesome, keeping him also neat and trim."
Oswald came before his "half-brother" Mickey, but the similarities are obvious.
"They are not too far apart in their physical characteristics, but I think in personality they were more alike in the beginning," says Becky Cline, the director of the Walt Disney Archives.
"Mickey was a little more naughty and frisky then than he was now. Mickey is more of a gentleman than Oswald was. Oswald was kind of a rogue. He was a lothario."
Despite initial success, Oswald was not to prove a long-term asset for Walt. Within a year, Oswald's distributor Charles Mintz had forced Walt out and taken over the rights to the series.
Not one to dwell on disappointment, the Disney creator moved on from the blow. Diane Disney-Miller, Walt's daughter, says he was spurred to create Mickey. He had said "to Hell with all the lousy Oswalds. When we develop Mickey, we'll lick 'em with quality," she recalls.
Biographers have suggested Walt did not have a natural head for business, but the then 26-year-old learned a bitter lesson from the Oswald episode. From that point on there were no more middlemen.
After being snatched away from Walt, Oswald still enjoyed success.
The Disney studio had made 26 pictures with Oswald. Over the following year an interim crew produced 26 more. Then Walter Lantz took over the series and, over the next 10 years, produced more than 150 Oswalds of his own.
Then there was a drift into obscurity. While Mickey imagery proliferated, Oswald was forgotten by many.
What happened next perhaps goes against the received wisdom that there is little room for sentimentality at multinational corporations.
The Walt Disney Corporation bided its time for 78 years. Then it got Oswald back.
In February 2006, Disney chief executive Bob Iger orchestrated a swap with Universal. The rights to Oswald were regained in exchange for sending sport commentator Al Michaels to NBC.
As Walt's first character, Oswald still had special significance for one of the world's most powerful brands.
Now the character features in the Epic Mickey series of video games, the latest instalment of which - Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two - has just been released. The plot of the games revolves around a world inhabited by 80 years of "forgotten" Disney characters.
Oswald already features in Disney merchandise and can be spotted by the eagle-eyed at the theme parks.
"There is always a market for new things. Oswald is so old, he's new again," says Jerry Beck, animation historian, author and blogger at Cartoon Brew.com.
"He represents that optimistic era of early animated cartoons, but doesn't come with the 'family friendly' baggage of Mickey Mouse. We have no expectations for Oswald, so the studio can use him in new ways."
Not everyone is a Disney fan, but it's hard not to marvel at the sheer enormity of the proliferation of Mickey Mouse, backed by a marketing juggernaut.
It is strange to think that the same machine could have been applied to an entirely different character.
But Mickey was always a better candidate for world domination, suggests Dr Todd James Pierce, who co-runs the Disney History Institute website.
"For many people his image is tied to the sensation of childhood. His durability is important in a transient world where books, TV shows, and films last a few years and then are cast out into the dustbin of history."
There is something intrinsically marketable about Mickey Mouse, but it's not easy for people to put their finger on exactly what that is.
"Walt Disney himself was at times confused by the enduring popularity," says Pierce.
"The Mouse has radiated goodness and optimism during the most violent and turbulent period of human history, 84 years that have included one world war, a great depression, and endless conflicts.
"In its purest sense - freed from his corporate owners - Mickey Mouse is an icon of the generosity and good spirits."
Maybe the rabbit rival could never have been as pervasive a figure in popular culture.
The character may still prove popular in Japan at least, where Universal marketed toys shortly before the Oswald handover.
Oswald products in Japan now have the tagline: "Surely Lucky, Always Lucky".
The motto of the story is surely that massive corporations still remember the ones that got away.