Before Mickey Mouse, there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — Walt Disney’s leaner and meaner version of the popular rodent. Oswald fell into obscurity when most of the cartoons became scarce, and was considered lost after several decades after being acquired by Universal.
Almost 80 years later, Disney reacquired Oswald and slowly began to collect the old cartoons. Recently Dave Bossert, the creative director and head of special projects at Walt Disney Animation Studios, found two Oswald cartoons: "Poor Papa" and "Africa Before Dark." A couple strangers thought they may have stumbled upon something important.
Walt Disney ended up making 26 shorts starring Oswald, and “Poor Papa” was the first. It was made in 1927 and is one of the first ever Oswald cartoons Walt Disney created. The five-minute silent film came before Walt Disney hit it big with his Mickey Mouse cartoons.
Bossert says that when Walt Disney — who was a freelance animator in the '20s for Universal — pitched the silent cartoon “Poor Papa,” the studio wasn’t too happy with it.
"When you look at animation, it's art," says Bossert. "Why do some people love the 'Mona Lisa' and other people are like, ‘Eh, it’s OK’? And I think when Walt first created ‘Poor Papa’ — the first Oswald film — the distributor felt that Oswald looked a little old and rejected it."
The challenge of restoring these old films was only the beginning. Bossert brought in composer Mark Watters to do something that's never been done before: score these silent films.
"There’s never an original score written for these," Watters says. They were made before the invention of synchronized sound. "So these were sent out to movie theaters and the house pianist or house organist would play along with them. ... The idea of hitting things and precisely timing it so that you’re capturing the action was unheard of."
The term “hitting” is basically when there’s an action taking place on screen and the music creates the sound effect to go along with it. For example, if the character on screen is running around, banging on various household items, each action needs to be paired with a sound. Watters says:
Anybody can just count with the beats and hit whatever, but you wanna try to put it in a musical line in a way that sounds musical so that it’s like, ‘Oh my God, the animation is just fitting it just perfectly.’
Not all the music Watters composed is original. There’s one scene in “Poor Papa” where he was reminded of the film “Apocalypse Now,” when Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is playing as the helicopters are flying overhead, attacking the enemy shorelines.
In the case of “Poor Papa,” it’s a bunch of storks bombarding Oswald with bunnies.
"There’s a shot of the storks coming in holding dozens and dozens of rabbits," says Watters, "which is what the story is about — the enthusiastic reproductive rate of bunnies. So the storks are flying in and as soon as I saw that shot, I thought that’s 'Apocalypse Now' and I got to play 'Ride of the Valkyries.'"
Bossert says there's a timelessness when watching these cartoons.
"When you look at these early cartoons, there’s a surrealism to them," says Bossert. "There’s these gags that feel so fresh today for something that’s 85 or almost 90 years old, and it’s just wonderful to watch that."
They’re now bringing those roots into the present day. For the first time ever, “Poor Papa” will be screened with a live score this Saturday at the Ace Hotel — with Watters at the podium conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra — and the audience can see for themselves if this old cartoon still holds up.