The story of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cast a mighty shadow over twentieth century cartoon lore, but most of his animated shorts were produced by Universal, not Disney. In fact, if one thinks of the legal freeze that persisted between these two studios for so many decades—keeping Oswald exiled from public view—then the back lot of Universal City served as a strange kind of purgatory for the character.
As I mentioned in my last post, Oswald has had his share of recent headlines, but it’s also been a year of milestones for Universal Studios, from its record-breaking box office numbers (Summer: Jurassic World) to the international excitement surrounding ‘Back to the Future Day’ (October) to the centenary of its official opening by founder Carl Laemmle (March). Scrubbed from the centennial reporting of this anniversary, though, was an earnest squaring of just how ominous that 1915 event turned out to be.
Standing next to Laemmle at the opening celebration one hundred years ago was Pat Powers, who held at 40% share of the studio interest and was actively muscling to force the boss out of power. Against this backdrop of corporate treachery, the two men were all smiles for the cameras as more than 10,000 people descended on the huge sprawling lot to enjoy a day of free entertainment at Universal Pictures.
The anecdote that gets widely mentioned was a flood carried out for spectators by diverting water through a Wild West set. The rush was bigger than anticipated, pouring out on to the grounds and even into the standing area where people watched the set get washed away. Laemmle himself is said to have jumped on top of a parked car to avoid the deluge, but many other guests were not so lucky. Fortunately no one drowned, and it was just a lot of wet clothes and muddy shoes to contend with, perhaps inaugurating Southern California’s first theme park ‘splash zone.’
Such a recklessly planned flood apparently did not deter another huge crowd from arriving the next day to watch barnstorming pilot Frank Stites perform an aerial stunt for the production of a war movie. A long wire was stretched over a span between two hills. Attached to it was a dummy airplane that was released across the zipline while a film crew and the assembled audience watched below. Here is an exerpt from the book Early Universal City by Robert Birchard:
“At the signal of a director on the ground, [Stites] was to buzz the mock enemy plane and drop a prop bomb. The replica plane moving along the wire was filled with explosives that were set off as Stites’ bomb of cloth and twine fell. In the concussion from the explosion, Stites lost control of his plane, which plunged into freefall. He attempted to jump to safety but did not survive the 60-foot fall.”
There are competing accounts of how exactly Stites ended up falling for that last stretch. Some felt that either the turbulence of the blast-force or a sudden draft had caused a final pitch that threw him out of the plane. In either case, his velocity would have been breakneck, and the stunt was arranged such that the careening plane smashed down close to the crowd. It must have been nauseating and gruesome to witness Frank Stites, his body free from the craft, impacting the ground just before them.
The week-long festivities at Universal were summarily canceled. A pall had been cast over the studio, like a horror that could not ever be mentioned again. The next day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the pilot’s “spinal column was driven into his skull,” but the trade papers avoided details of the story. This was gentlemen’s business—something this shocking was not good for the whole movie industry. As sensationally grim as Stites’ death was, it largely faded from public notice, except for the 10,000 eyewitnesses who were surely haunted by the memory.
Rival studios regarded it as a bad omen for Universal. It doesn’t take a terribly superstitious person to receive news like this and imagine that Universal Pictures was cursed. One can even speculate how the aftermath was played by Pat Powers. Did he use the disastrous incident to further question the judgment of Laemmle? As for the boss, he famously took comfort by surrounded himself with loyalists and family members—inspiring the poet Ogden Nash to write, “Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very big faemmle”—and given circumstances, it might have been his survival impulse.
Eventually the studio found its groove and moved past 1915 to pursue continued success, using its expansive lot within the Cahuenga hills to meet the demanding slate of its movie releases. However, creditors always seemed to be knocking at the gates. The intrigue and corruption there was rife, and it seems appropriate and karmic that the eventual dispute over the rights to Oswald was later settled by Laemmle bringing production of the character into the fold at Universal City.
Oswald, despite the “Lucky Rabbit” moniker, was himself a bit cursed. His arrival there was marked by the debut of Mickey Mouse and the advent of talkies, which hastened another financial hit to Laemmle. Not only were these new synch-sound movies expensive, but the necessity of having a quiet set had ended the cash flow of paid visitors watching the movies being filmed. There was also the matter of transitioning Oswald to a talking and singing cartoon character. Mickey’s swift rise in popularity certainly came at Oswald’s expense.
Universal survived again with the success of its monster movies. Frankenstein. The Mummy. Dracula. And before those, the Phantom of the Opera. However, nothing could deeply turn around the declining fortunes of the studio. By 1936, Laemmle’s long-standing battle to hold on to his company finally ended. He was forced out. Oswald too was cast out of favor and was fast becoming just a footnote in film history. The Lucky Rabbit was not only cursed, but now he was a captive in the vaults of a studio that had its own curse.
Throughout its first century in the movies, Universal has perhaps been more of a survivor than a bona fide King of Hollywood, even though its constant ability to persevere has made it special. By gritting it out and making enough blockbusters and classics, it has earned its place among the Hollywood heavyweights. It also has been a kingmaker, the place where cinema legends like Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg made their best (and often scary) movies. Lastly, it is the studio where Woody Woodpecker long ago replaced Oswald as its cartoon mascot.
Perhaps the inertia of all those decades finally began to shift when a clever executive deal returned the Oswald rights back to Disney in 2006. Not long after that, Universal took a chance on a new approach to its own cartoon franchise. When Despicable Me ultimately was released, it created the perfect new star-making vehicle for funny little yellow guys called “Minions”. And if you believe in karma, then here’s one for you: the cold storage of Oswald was a kind of sepulchral curse. He remained there like a trapped spirit.
One hundred years later, look at how robustly that curse has been lifted. Universal currently leads all studios in year-to-date box office, holding down a staggering quarter market share. It is easily the most profitable year in the studio’s long history, even outperforming Disney-Pixar for the world’s biggest animated hit of 2015 in Minions. These are boom times for a studio that once seemed barely solvent. If only Ogden Nash had penned a different and more prophetic verse all those years ago: “Uncle Carl Laemmle/Set Oswald Raebbit free.”