This post is part of the Shorts Blogathon, hosted by the queen of all things silent film related, Fritzi Kramer. Check out her Movies Silently website to dig into other bite-sized goodness!
Ever since Disney reacquired the rights to the character back in 2006, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has made a quasi-comeback, at least in the world of video games and critical limelight. When most think Disney history, they begin their examination with Mickey Mouse’s debut in the late 1920s, but by the time Walt Disney and his collaborator Ub Iwerks came up with the character, they had already had years of experience in animation behind them, dating back to the early 1920s with the Laugh-O-Gram series. The two found moderate success with their Alice Comedies, which featured a cute live-action girl in an animated world; however, it wasn’t until the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit that Disney would taste major success. I won’t go into how the character was taken from Disney or how he lost every animator on his team save for Iwerks to their producer, Charles Mintz; God knows, other folks online and off have explained it better.
One thing which fascinates me about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is how distinct he is from his successor, Mickey Mouse. While there are obvious design similarities, the characters are quite different. Examining these contrasts is especially delicious when you take into account how many of the early Mickey Mouse shorts are just remakes of Oswald’s Disney material, some more obviously than others. Plane Crazy shares the premise of The Ocean Hop; the same applies to All Wet and Wild Waves. The Oscar-winning Building a Building is a close remake of Sky Scrappers. I could go on all day about the differences in characterization and gags in all of them, but for now, let’s focus on one rich example: the difference between Oswald’s Oh, What a Knight and its remake, Ye Olden Days.
[Quick note: Oswald’s feline love interest never had a stable name; back in the 1920s/1930s, it was usually given as Sadie or Kitty, but ever since the Epic Mickey video game series, she has been rechristened Ortensia. I will refer to her by her modern name just for simplicity’s sake.]
Both shorts share the same general plot: Oswald/Mickey is a wandering minstrel who falls in love with fair damsel Ortensia/Minnie, who is being held prisoner by her father. The story ends with a gag-filled sword fight and the young lovers living happily ever after. Aside from one or two shared gags, this is where the comparisons end.
As mentioned previously, Oswald and Mickey are distinct characters, though both have a touch of the silent cinema swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks in them. The most oft-mentioned difference is their approaches to romance. Oswald is a rather amorous character, having two love interests in Ortensia and the rabbit Fanny during his Disney run; the Epic Mickey games subtly highlight this trait with the existence of Oswald and Ortensia’s 400 plus bunny children. Oh, What a Knight makes this quality a huge source for gags. Oswald and Ortensia are unable to keep their lips off of one another, with steam emitting from every kiss and Oswald returning to get more sugar in mid-sword fight. In contrast, Mickey is much more boyish in his romantic interactions with Minnie (save for his infamous behavior in Plane Crazy), saving the smooches for the end of the short, in this case, discreetly behind a fan.
The way the romantic scenes play out in general are quite different; both shorts share a piece of business, but pull it off with different tones. The basic business is that the girl blows a kiss from the balcony, the boy reacts, and then defies physics to reach the balcony. In Oh, What a Knight, this romantic gesture is a gag: Ortensia kisses the air, puts the kiss in her fist, and winds her arm like a pitcher on the field before throwing the kiss to Oswald, where it smacks him on the lips and sends him reeling. This amuses Oswald’s donkey; Oswald tells him to shut it, then ties a rope to the donkey’s tail and somehow throws it to the balcony edge. The donkey wags his tail and Oswald rides up the rope as though it were an escalator.
Ye Olden Days paints this moment with a sense of whimsy and emotional sincerity. Minnie kisses a flower and tosses it down the Mickey, who’s standing on a tree branch. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he leaps from the branch and practically glides up to the window. Less funny and certainly less complicated than the aforementioned business of the Oswald short, but better in keeping with the tone Ye Olden Days is going for: it wants to be more than just eight minutes of laughs by incorporating more feeling and drama into the mix. Not that Oh, What a Knight’s lack of ambition makes it inferior; remember, these are two shorts that, while sharing the same theme and general story framework, want to achieve wildly different ends.
On another note, Oswald is also much more confrontational than Mickey. He’s perfectly content to settle things with his fists, whereas the more good-natured Mickey is more laidback and usually tries to solve issues with his wits. This is displayed in the climactic scenes of both cartoons: while Oswald has a few tricks up his furry sleeves, it’s Mickey who predominantly makes use of ways to outwit his enemy without engaging him head on with a weapon.
The Oswald cartoon is above all else concerned with stringing one gag after another than story or character, and it packs all of this comic business within a tight structure. In the essential book on silent era animation, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928, Donald Crafton breaks down the “classical” structure of the Disney Oswald cartoon: the introduction, a comic episode, a romantic interlude, the confrontation with the villain, and then the climax and conclusion (294). Knight follows this structure exactly.
This is all there is to the plot. The majority of the run time focuses on all the silly things Oswald does while dueling Pete in the tower. Aside from Oswald, none of the other characters are given much personality at all.
By 1933, the Disney studio’s ambitions had extended beyond the realm of gags; there was more of an effort to tell stories and focus on character. Ye Olden Days is essentially a mini-musical with a plot that’s a little more intricate than just “good guy beats bad guy and saves the girl.” For one thing, there’s a larger cast: we have Mickey as the underdog hero, Minnie as the damsel in distress, Pete as the king, Clarabelle as Minnie’s handmaiden, and Goofy as the villainous suitor for Minnie’s hand (in 1933, he was christened “Dippy Dawg,” but I’ll keep things simple and just call him Goofy). Though it’s surreal to see Goofy as an antagonist, and even more so as a romantic rival for Minnie of all people (or… mice, I guess), all of these cartoon stars are ‘cast’ perfectly in their roles.
The Mickey version takes the bare-bones narrative of the original cartoon and amps up the stakes by fleshing out the story. The father-king doesn’t just stand in the way of the central romance; he’s both comic and threatening, almost having poor Mickey guillotined before Minnie begs for his life (let’s just ignore the fact that the guillotine wasn’t even invented until the eighteenth century). The drama is much higher; by introducing a princely rival and putting his life at stake, Mickey is more of an underdog than Oswald was in his short. This aspect of the character is what made him so appealing to the Depression era audience; it’s also what makes the Mickey cartoons of the early 1930s so much more interesting than the majority of the character’s later ventures, where his good nature was not paired with suitable scenarios which brought out this underdog quality.
One other obvious difference between the two shorts is the musical aspect of the Mickey cartoon, pretty obvious given this is a sound film and musicals were popular in the early 1930s. While not as catchy as the numbers in Building a Building, which is the best Mickey “musical” short in my opinion, the songs are nice and move the plot along swiftly.
But lest we forget, there is one thing that those Disney folks never lost sight of in the transition from silence to sound, from rabbit to mouse: butt-related humor forever.
For all their differences in characterization and storytelling concerns, the Oswald and Mickey series are great fun and feature a good deal of the Disney staff experimenting with the medium. It’s easy to just view all of it as a playground for ideas and concepts to be put to “better” use in the studio’s famous feature films, but that’s ignoring the art of the short film, of the freewheeling animated short films of Hollywood’s classical period. So, if you haven’t already, sit back and enjoy some classic Disney goodness courtesy of YouTube.