Everyone knows Mickey Mouse. The character was the first big success for the Disney Company, and has remained the de facto mascot for the studio ever since. But if history had worked out a little differently, audiences might not know of Mickey at all.
In the 1920s, Walt Disney had already established a reputation for himself in Hollywood: he was simply out of his element as a businessman, but to his credit, he was very passionately creative. He had stopped production on the Alice Comedy shorts, due to financial and technical issues, and even before 1927 he had financially killed one studio. Along with his partner and chief animator Ub Iwerks, Disney sought new opportunities for animation, and coincidentally sought work just as Universal Studios decided to get into the cartoon short business. They needed a headlining character, and Disney needed a success; for all concerned, it was a match made in heaven - at least initially.
Iwerks animated a short cartoon called Poor Papa, and also designed the adventurous, slapstick-comedic Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Universal rejected it, citing poor production quality and sloppiness; the overall design and age of Oswald were other things that they took issue with. Disney and Iwerks went back to the drawing board, making Oswald's appearance neater and younger; accepted by Universal, their second short Trolley Troubles, launched a smash hit series. During the greater part of 1927, Oswald was a genuine rival to popular characters like Koko the Clown and Felix the Cat.
Attempts at a better financial contract was negotiated between Disney, the producer Charles Mintz and the Universal company in 1928. But with the economy in a downturn, Mintz only offered Disney a 20% cut of the profits. While he did promise large bonuses if the studio's finances turned around, Walt refused to take the deal. He severed the partnership with Universal, losing most of his production staff; on the train ride back to Los Angeles, Disney meditated on the problem and became determined to create a new character that he would own completely.
But that wasn't the end for Oswald; Hiring former Disney employees, Mintz opened a studio which continued to produce the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. Animator Walter Lantz (who would become famous in his own right for creating Woody Woodpecker) was hired in 1929 to produce the series; after getting Disney's blessing, Lantz oversaw 142 Oswald cartoons, giving the character white gloves, larger eyes, and shorter ears. Overall, the character starred in 194 shorts over several decades, with his last being The Egg Cracker Suite in 1943. Characteristically, he was especially popular in Italy and Mexico in comic book issues, and was one of many Disney characters to cross over successfully between genres.
In 2006, Disney arranged a trade deal with NBC Universal for a number of assets, including the rights to Oswald. The Lucky Rabbit was re-acquired by Disney in exchange for sending popular sports reporter Al Michaels to NBC Sports. The studio gained back the rights to the 26 shorts originally made by Disney and Iwerks; the character made a special appearance at both DisneyLand in California and Disney World in Florida to celebrate the agreement. Disney executives have maintained that they have big plans for the rabbit, who was such a vital stepping stone on the road to Walt's success. Without losing the rights to Oswald, Disney wouldn't have needed to come up with a new character and Mickey Mouse never would have existed.
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