Even people who aren’t fans of classic animation know at least a little bit about the character known as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. He was originally created by Walt Disney for Universal Pictures. After a somewhat successful run with Oswald, however, producer Charles Mintz decided that Disney should be rewarded with a 20% pay cut. Disney ended up leaving behind the character he created, along with animator Ub Iwerks. The two men then created a little guy named Mickey Mouse, and the rest is history. Universal, however, continued to make Oswald films, eventually turning the series over to future Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz. Today we’ll look at an Oswald short made under Lantz that has an appropriate feel for our October series…1930’s Spooks.
The cartoon begins with a skeleton like creature emerging from a graveyard before finding his way to a theater. The spectre wears a mask and manages to make his way backstage. There he encounters a female cat, who appears to be Oswald’s girl, preparing to sing. Problem is, her tongue is literally tied in knots. The lovestruck phantom, however, helps her out by stuffing a phonograph into her skirt.
The cat is now intrigued by this strange figure and, despite his warnings, decides to try and get a peek under his mask. This does not go over well. The phantom turns on the cat which means it’s now up to Oswald to save her. However, he not only has to deal with the phantom, but also with a giant spider and several dragons.
Spooks plays off of the Phantom of the Opera story and does a fairly decent job parodying the story as well as the 1925 Lon Chaney film version. The scene in which the cat removes the phantom’s mask is a particularly fun salute to the classic silent film. Story is not typically a high priority in early cartoons such as this, but Spooks manages to be fairly solid in that department.
Where the film struggles a bit is in the animation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s decent. However, it lacks that…well…Disney touch. Even in their very early cartoons, there is a sense of inventiveness that defines Disney and Iwerks’ films. We don’t get that here. Animation from this era had a tendancy to repeat sight gags at least twice, in Spooks Lantz repeats one gag involving a dragon not two, not three, but four times. Walter Lantz, the other “Walt,” though quite talented seems to be struggling to emerge from Disney’s shadow here. For lack of a better word, the animation feels a bit more flat than what Iwerks was able to achieve with the Lucky Rabbit. The animation under Lantz’ direction is very solid, but is just not quite there.
Given the unique history of the Oswald character, his films are interesting to look at. Spooks does demonstrate some of what made the character popular in the first place, yet also shows why his shorter-eared cousin had much more longevity.