The Rabbit and the… Beanstalk?

Back from its longest sabbatical ever, The Forgotten looks at the strange case of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Over at the Notebook.

I feel I should start writing about weird-ass thirties cartoons more regularly. It’s easy, and deeply satisfying.

6 Responses to “The Rabbit and the… Beanstalk?”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    The human posterior was, literally, the butt of most slapstick humor in live action as well as cartoons. Injuries that would look horrific if inflicted on other parts of the body register as more of an indignity when applied to the seat. Also, its display or exposure was usually a laugh (underwear on adult characters and cheeks on little kids are everywhere). Disney may have been a bit more emphatic about the cuteness of behinds, but he was not alone by any stretch.

    The head is the second most popular target, and there you need to imply the result is a not-unpleasant dizziness and/or outrage rather than pain and damage. The Famous / Paramount cartoons kept forgetting this, and would draw Katnip, Bluto and others in disturbing agony. If somebody takes a finger in the eye, you better show both eyes are okay in the next shot. You don’t want to see Ollie with an eyepatch. A peculiar cartoon convention is to have a character meet offscreen misfortune and instantly reappear covered with bandages and maybe a cast or two, as if there were fast-working paramedics at the bottom of the cliff.

    Early cartoons are like early comedy, with random impossibility instead of random kicking and thrown objects.

    Lantz, over time, remade Oswald as a cute little “real” rabbit (Mickey retained his iconic black color and pale face despite a similar evolution). He seemed to very consciously lower his profile, perhaps because Universal owned him (Lantz was in fact an independent contractor for many years, briefly moving to UA at one point). In the end Oswald was most visible in comic book stories licensed by Lantz; his final incarnation was an affable kid/teen rabbit similar to late-period Mickey Mouse comic books.

    What became Pegleg Pete began in the Oswald cartoons and carried over to the Mickey toons (with Lantz using pegleg villains as well). The story is, as Disney’s animators became more proficient, they made Pegleg Pete’s movements more realistic. With comic exaggeration it looked physically painful, so Pegleg Pete became the bipedal Black Pete, and finally just Pete. The concurrent newspaper strip had Pete telling Mickey he’d acquired a fine new artificial leg and the matter was closed.

  2. revelator60 Says:

    You should! I love the early Oswald cartoons, and their presiding genius was Bill Nolan. He was already a master in the field (Disney had tried hiring him) when he joined Lantz—Ub Iwerks was his only competition as the fastest animator around. Nolan was the father of rubber hose animation and redesigned Felix the Cat, giving the character his modern rounded look. A while back I uploaded his book “Cartooning Self-Taught” to the internet archive (https://archive.org/details/Nolan.zip/v2)

    “Wonderland” has some decent gags, but they’re derivative of earlier Oswalds and the film is from the beginning of Oswald’s decline, when Lantz decided to ape Disney by sacrificing gags for cuteness and musical numbers. I find that the further Oswald’s design drifts from the Iwerks/Disney original, the worse the cartoon.

    But from 1929 to 1931 the Oswalds under Nolan’s direction were wilder and funner than the Mickey Mouses. Highlights include “Permanent Wave,” “The Hash Shop,” “Hell’s Heels,” “Spooks,” “My Pal Paul” (all online). They were a last hurrah of the boozily surreal humor of silent animation, where every part of the world was subject to limitless metamorphoses and character’s bodies were treated like a cross between raw beef and silly string.

    The Oswald series was terrific even before Avery became a major player as animator, gag-man, and unofficial co-director. He later directed two Oswalds in the mid-30’s, but by then the series was on life support. Fortunately two cartoons from Oswald’s prime will be included in Criterion’s upcoming release of “King of Jazz.” One will certainly be the twisted “My Pal Paul” (the other might be “Africa”). Perfect accompaniment for the charmingly bonkers main feature.

  3. Iwerks’ work is weirdly charmless a lot of the time, but his figures and vehicles have a marvelous three-dimensionality (or I guess four-dimensionality as they also have the illusion of movement in time). Nolan I didn’t know at all — revelator, can you confirm if he’s a different guy from the Fairbanks editor?

    I’m involved with the King of Jazz release, hopefully, so I can’t wait to see what the cartoons turn out to be.

  4. revelator60 Says:

    Nothing I’ve read about Nolan mentions a Fairbanks connection. I can’t entirely rule out the idea that he could have been moonlighting, but he would have been supernaturally busy if so. I’ll ask some genuine animation experts to make sure.

    Two other Nolan links of interest–an article on “My Pal Paul” by animation scholar Tom Klein (https://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/paul-whiteman-tops-a-jazz-rabbit-1930/) and the late animator Michael Sporn on Nolan’s technique (http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/?p=4981).

  5. At the end of this toon,”The dead giant’s feet are inexplicably transformed into a kind of maypole for the ensuing festivities.” Reminds me of the ending of a later Disney short, which I think also has Mickey, that is another retelling of the Jack and the Giant story, Where at the end the hapless, kind of simple minded giant is only left unconscious. His snores blow into a windmill which powers an amusement park.
    And, in the first couple of Woody cartoons, Mel Blanc does the voice of the crazy woodpecker. And then he left and was replaced by Mrs Lantz.

  6. I always heard that Woody’s laugh was based on Mrs. L’s, so maybe Blanc was instructed to impersonate her. Just in the recording studio, I mean. I’m not suggesting anything weird.

    We have to assume Mickey’s giant is in a persistent vegetable state, so that his snores will power the windmill indefinitely with no risk of his awakening and wreaking horrific revenge on the countryside, a la Into the Woods.

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