Sunday, 23 May 2010

Trolley Troubles

Above, from the New York Public Library’s digital gallery, a postcard of the Mt Lowe Railway in California. Added: a larger image of an almost identical photo at the Beinecke Library.

Below, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in Trolley Troubles, from 1927.

Trolley Troubles was the first cartoon to be released featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Oswald is the missing link of animation evolution. Created by Walt Disney and Ubbe Iwerks, he was clearly derived from Felix the Cat, then animation’s biggest star, via Disney’s own Julius the Cat. Oswald featured in 26 silent short cartoons by the Walt Disney Studio before Disney lost control of the character to distributor Charles Mintz one year later. That defeat led Disney to create - with Iwerks - the character Mickey Mouse.

Now what I find curious is that to my eyes Oswald was the better designed character. If survival of the fittest depended purely on design, then Oswald would have reigned supreme, and Mickey would have languished. Mickey is a much more awkward character - an oversized mouse, in his first released cartoon Steamboat Willie he dwarfs a parrot, and later of course the mouse towers over his pet dog. As a rabbit his size would have made a little more sense. And Mickey’s ears are bizarre. Even as artistic standards rose to ever greater heights in the Disney studio in the 30s and 40s it proved impossible to animate those ears in three dimensions. They are flat symbols of ears which must rotate around the horizon of Mickey’s head rather than maintain a fixed placement on its sphere.

But what ensured Mickey’s survival was not physical appearance, but brains - Disney’s brains. Disney was smarter than every other animation producer, and with that brain the mouse, like that odd-looking Homo Sapiens before him, went on to triumph.

Some links:

A few years ago the Disney studio bought back the rights to the original Disney/Iwerks Oswald shorts, and they’ve since been released on DVD.

Jerry Beck of Cartoon Brew has information about Oswald on his Cartoon Research site.

There’s a very good book on pre-Mickey Disney films: Walt in Wonderland.

Eddie Fitzgerald also takes a look at Oswald in relation to the theory of cartoon evolution on his Theory Corner blog. It seems that in the 1930s, despite having possession of a vital Disney creation in Oswald, animation producer Water Lantz ruined the character’s comic potential by aping newer Disney cartoons like the Silly Symphony Funny Little Bunnies.

Here’s a couple of pages on Ub Iwerks, designer of Oswald, Mickey, and Flip the Frog. Ub Iwerks was an amazing animator for the time, and some have tried to portray him at the primary creative force behind the launch of the Disney Studio. But, watching the cartoons he produced away from Disney, I feel there is something vital missing from them.

Michael Sporn has a post on the Toonerville Trolley newspaper cartoon that undoubtedly inspired Oswald’s trolley film, and on the wonderful Van Beuren animated adaptations of Fontaine Fox’s creation. There were also earlier live action Toonerville Trolley shorts, but these I have not seen.

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