In brief, producer Charles Mintz wrested control of the Oswald production staff in 1928, making Disney travel to New York to receive his ultimatum in person. Disney was devastated by the ensuing dissolution of his staff, but as fate would have it, he sketched Mickey Mouse on the train ride back to Los Angeles. The rest is the stuff of legend, a true story with a dash of myth-making and pixie dust.
From that point on, the Lantz narrative simply cannot compete with the grand strokes of Walt’s destiny, but in many ways Oswald perfectly reflects the state of American animation in the late 1920s. The ultimate winner of this high-stakes game was not easy to discern at the time. George Winkler, who ran Mintz’s Hollywood division, quite easily lured away most of Disney’s animators with the promise of a renewed contract on this cartoon series.
Oswald thus continued under Winkler, worked on by animators like Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, Friz Freleng, Tom Palmer, Ben Clopton, and Walter Lantz, who joined in 1928. At this point, Lantz did not have a strong influence on the series. Harman was the ranking production supervisor, and Lantz’s imminent advancement to the top of the Oswald unit was mostly the result of his effective “schmoozing” with Hollywood elite.
After all, during the immediate post-Disney period—and even when Disney was at the helm—there was nothing that particularly distinguished the Oswald cartoons. It was a successful series without necessarily being innovative. Felix the Cat remained the popular favorite, but there was still room for competition, and Oswald was very well animated for its time and the gags were appealing to moviegoers.
At this juncture, the recent rights jockeying to Oswald continued. Harman and Ising tried to outflank Mintz just as he had done to Disney, proposing to the distributor that they should produce Oswald during the next round of contracts. However, Harman and Ising failed to calculate that the on-going struggle over Oswald Rabbit was starting to embarrass the ultimate rights-holder, Universal Pictures.
As they agitated to win the deal, it clearly exposed the presence of middlemen in the making of this series. Universal studio boss Carl Laemmle let the Mintz-Winkler contract lapse, rebuffed Harman and Ising, and resolved to have Oswald produced cheaper on the studio lot, ending the distraction of subcontracting the series.
The role of Walter Lantz as counsel to Carl Laemmle in this decision is fascinating to speculate. Lantz had come to Los Angeles a year earlier at the urging of his friend, Bob Vignola. With Vignola’s generosity in hosting him, and bolstered by having a supply of money he had made at the Bray studio in New York City, Lantz was able to settle into a leisurely pace in which to find opportunities in Los Angeles.
Furthermore, Vignola was a genuine Hollywood player and introduced him to a lifestyle of casual acquaintance with movie stars and studio heads. Lantz frequented parties and even worked without pay as a gagman at the Mack Sennett studio to gain experience. A watershed event was his active part in driving producer Sam van Ronkel to a weekly high-stakes poker game. Lantz did not play, but he socialized with the producers there, among them Carl Laemmle.
Walter Lantz loved to recount this story by portraying himself as an innocent in Hollywood with the naïve good fortune of having the Oswald series fall into his lap by chance—right place, right time—but surely Lantz was ambitious and savvy enough to see the personal value of using this opportunity well.
Lantz, employed by Winkler on the Oswald cartoons, could even be perceived as something of an informant, given his opportunity to speak directly to Carl Laemmle once a week at this poker game. This would have afforded him the ability to color Laemmle’s judgment of the Oswald contract with Charles Mintz. One can easily imagine that Laemmle’s impression of expenses and ground-floor production on the Oswald shorts, if it was suggested by Lantz, would not have been the sort of access that Mintz or Winkler would wish an employee to provide, however casually, to a big client like the owner of Universal Pictures.
Despite the fact that Winkler’s contract was not renewed, there are not known accounts of him feeling betrayed the way that Disney felt about Mintz. Walter Lantz, throughout his career, maintained the respect of his peers and subordinates, and was considered a very considerate employer. In this case, as in others, Lantz used his salesmanship and geniality to his advantage.
Some of his well-connected friends suggested to Laemmle that Lantz had an impressive resumé of his own, as a former animation director in New York. Most likely, Lantz clinched the job by promising that the Oswald series could be made cheaper by producing it at Universal, and he had real experience with limited budgets, reliably turning out films at Bray for $1900.
He accepted a salaried position as head of the new Universal Cartoon Department. Since no animation staff existed, he needed to build it from scratch. George Winkler, operating from his studio on the corner of Western and Virginia Avenue, was obligated to finish the contracted run of Oswalds, even though he was aware that there was no renewal for 1929.
Lantz began contacting Winkler’s staff, offering them positions at Universal, and Manuel Moreno estimated that “one-third or one-quarter” of Winkler employees went to work for Lantz when production shifted to Universal City. Disney and Lantz both needed to quickly build up their studio operations, with each catching trains to New York City to recruit experienced animators. They were vigorously competing against each other, but it was a gentleman’s game.
Despite stories that Disney held grudges, he held none against his professional rival Lantz, even as they criss-crossed Manhattan trying to sign the same prospective employees. Disney was gracious when he heard that Lantz had taken over producing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The two Walts met up and had drinks together in New York, a moment of celebration just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929 would plunge the country into the Great Depression.
As it turned out, Walter Lantz played his cards well and had gotten Lucky. In fact, the many contracts that both Walt and Walter extended to animators in New York must have soon been seen as lifelines to a better life in sunny California. And the good fortune to produce the Oswald series for most of the next decade had quite literally been won by Lantz at a weekly poker game.