Perhaps the biggest surprise of the recently released "Woody Woodpecker and Friends" DVD box set is the inclusion of several Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons produced by Walter Lantz between 1930 and 1934. These cartoons, unseen by many decades and unavailable on home video, have reached the strong cult status among the small circle of initiated cartoon fans. With the recent reacquisition of character rights by Walt Disney studio, there was a fear that Lantz Oswald cartoons might remain forever in a legal limbo. Luckilly, that's not the case, and I hope that more of these cartoons will eventually become available, because in my opinion they belong among the most unique and inventive cartoons of the early 30s (and much further).
You can read the whole turbulent history of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit on the excellent The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia web site.
The man who's most responsible for peculiar qualities of these cartoons was animator/co-director Bill Nolan, a veteran from the pioneering days of animation (he started in 1912). Nolan worked at Barre, Bray and Hearst studios, animated on Felix the Cat for several years, and also served as a director and producer on Krazy Kat cartoons during the second half of 20s.
Nolan was a fast and skilled animator, often compared with Ub Iwerks. He was also a fearless experimentator, a real early 30s precursor of Rod Scribner and Jim Tyer. His style can be described as the most extreme version of rubber-hose animation, and many of his scenes assume an almost abstract quality.
Despite being produced on the West Coast, Oswald cartoons boosted a strong New York influence (courtesy of Nolan). However, Lantz and Nolan almost immediately developed their own particular kind of nightmarish surrealism, quite different from anything produced at New York or Hollywood studios. These "stream of consciousness" cartoons had absolutely no real plots, just the most basic premise that served as an excuse for some of the strangest and most bizarre gags and drawings. Another interesting element is the sketchy background style, unseen in other cartoons of that time. Some of the background drawings remind me of George Herriman's Krazy Kat comics, or Cliff Sterrett.
I hope you'll enjoy these screenshots from "Hell's Heels" and "Spooks" (both cartoons from 1930). Perhaps they will inspire some young aspiring cartoonists... I would really love to see somebody today trying to adopt and further develop this fascinating and forgotten animation style.
Beside the titles included on Woody DVD set, I've seen only 12 Oswald cartoons so far. Does anybody have a larger quantity of these cartoons and wants to trade them for some other rarities? Anybody who's interested can contact me by using the e-mail address on my blog profile (look for Hammerson).