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Exclusive Interview with David Gerstein - Animation Historian

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Neil Middlemiss, Jan 28, 2016.

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  1. Message #1 of 1 Jan 28, 2016
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2016
    Neil Middlemiss

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    As part of the exclusive digital bonus materials available with Walt Disney’s release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (check out Matt’s review here), a rare Oswald the Lucky Rabbit animated short titled Hungry Hobos (1928) will be included. Hungry Hobos was thought to be lost, but was discovered in 2011 in a private vault in England.


    Home Theater Forum recently had the pleasure of speaking to noted animation historian David Gerstein to discuss the history of Oswald the Rabbit and the discovery of Hungry Hobos. The short, “overseen by Walt Disney in 1928 as part of a distribution deal with Universal Pictures, was the 20th short film (out of 26 made by Disney) starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a long-eared precursor to the more famous Mickey Mouse (who appeared for the first time later that year in “Steamboat Willie”). The film follows the misadventures of Oswald and his roughneck pal, Putrid Pete, as they ride a freight car loaded with animals and devise ways to cook a meal using the tools at hand. When a policeman chases them off the train, the duo poses as a hurdy-gurdy man and a monkey as part of their escape.”


    Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is available on digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere now, and will be available on Blu-ray beginning February 2, 2016

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    HTF: Any time a film or short thought lost to history is discovered, it sends ripples through enthusiast and fan communities, and finding an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit short that was thought lost is just one of those such discoveries. How important is it, a discovery like this?

    David Gerstein: Well, in the bigger picture, the survival of an individual Oswald cartoon, or a Mickey cartoon, or Donald Duck cartoon might not mean the world to animation history. But the Oswald cartoons, in my mind, occupy a very special place. At the time that they were made, the Disney studio was functionally the nucleus of several different studios: the people who later made the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies shorts were there, but the future founders of the later Warner Brothers studio were there too, and the nucleus of what evolved slowly into the Walter Lantz sound cartoon studio was there: several Disney people who went on to produce Oswald cartoons without Walt later on, who stuck with them into the Walter Lantz era.

    Essentially the Disney studio in its Oswald era was the source of several later studios, and it's wonderful to see all of this talent at work at the same place. So many great people were working on these Oswald shorts every time another one is located, it's just all the more exciting. Here's another work from so many greats.

    HTF: I've seen a clip of Hungry Hobos, but if you would, tell me what it is you learned from discovering and watching this particular short about that time; about the character; about how he was treated and really about how he was different from who Mickey Mouse would become, because there's quite a lot in common between the two, appearance-wise certainly. But they're really very, very different characters, with Oswald, of course, being much less happy-go-lucky.

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    David Gerstein: Mickey Mouse, at his most nuanced, isn't exactly a happy-go-lucky character either. He's an enthusiastic character with a bit of a young boy to him; but he's not exactly a näif - he's not always a do-gooder. As a Disney comics writer and editor with Mickey Mouse over the years, I might opine that Mickey creates humor by bravely struggling through danger with comic embarrassment along the way. Imagine if you were saving somebody from kidnapping or some other disaster: you were very serious about your goal, but as you were legitimately being a hero and running to your friend's rescue, you had to run up a down escalator with a volley of tomatoes and eggs raining down on you from above. Mickey is a hero in an unfair world.

    If Mickey creates his humor by bravely struggling through danger. Oswald creates humor by being overconfident he's got a big ego. He wants to be clever and lucky and charming, but while he's called "Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit," I'd say a good 60% of the time it's bad luck [chuckles]. I'd say Mickey is what happens when a legitimate hero is faced with crazy obstacles; Oswald is what happens when an antihero really wants to be a hero, but sort of can't help who he is at heart.

    HTF: Can't help getting out of his own way.

    David Gerstein: Mickey and Oswald definitely share a lot. But Oswald comes from a slightly more radical place. Mickey comes because Walt and Ub said, "Hey, look at Doug Fairbanks. What, if our next hero had a little bit of that?"

    When Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho and Steamboat Willie were first released - the first Mickey cartoons -- I've read a review in one of the film journals of the time that said, "Here's another adventure of Walt Disney's new demon hero." Maybe Mickey is a demon hero and Oswald is more of a heroic demon?

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    HTF: [Laughs.] What a strange way to characterize Mickey Mouse.

    David Gerstein: I don't think either one of them is really a demon. Neither one of them is a mean-spirited character, but Mickey comes from a more naturally heroic place by design. And Oswald is more of an antihero. Look at Hungry Hobos, he's on the run from the law the lawman in that cartoon -- his name is Sheriff Crabb in another cartoon -- Oswald has more than once been on the run from Sheriff Crabb or opposed to him in some way, so basically it was rather typical for Oswald to be the run from authority figures

    For Mickey to go up against an authority figure - he's more often going to go up against a visibly corrupt one: like, say, Pegleg Pete in some kind of an official role. Pete has actually been a sheriff in a cartoon, and Mickey has been acting against him; but we can easily buy that Pete in a role like that would be more than a little corrupt.

    With Oswald, opposition to authority comes a little bit more because silent era funnymen, pure antiheroes, were just commonly on the run from the law. You'll get a cartoon like The Chain Gang where Mickey, admittedly, is in a bit of an Oswald-like role. He's a member of a prison gang, and it's not explained in the cartoon how Mickey got in jail or what he did to land in trouble. But at the same time, Disney was also producing comic strips that showed Mickey jailed on false charges. He's had an adventure and the bad guys have framed him for something. Mickey might be a convict for a while, but we can't forget that he's there by accident; Oswald is a little bit more devil-may-care, defying the law on purpose. But it's just the way they shook out.

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    HTF: Do you know how this short was found? Was there an effort to locate it or was it happenstance that it was discovered?

    David Gerstein: The Disney studio's always making an effort, together with researchers and scholars around the world, to find more of the Oswald cartoons. Essentially, when Disney required the rights to the character, they made the discovery that Universal no longer had all of the Oswald cartoons. To locate more, it was a matter of talking to collectors and also studying the films' original release schedules. Because in foreign countries, there were not cartoons called The Mechanical Cow, Hungry Hobos, and Tall Timber. There was a cartoon called "Der verrückte Kaninchen Oswald und seine Kuh" -- The Crazy Bunny Oswald and His Cow -- which is what The Mechanical Cow was called in German. There was a cartoon called "Storskogen," which is what Tall Timber was called in Norwegian. Essentially, not a lot of film archives around the world believed that they had the Oswald cartoons in hand, but if we were to figure out what they were originally called in foreign countries, then more of them began to turn up.

    HTF: And it's incredibly important that shorts like this and films from the early time, and really films through the twentieth century-- I had the chance to speak to Robert Harris. He does film preservation, and he worked with CBS and restored My Fair Lady to a gorgeous, pristine looking high-definition release which just came out, and the efforts they went through to painstakingly restore frames and to the best of their ability, preserve the art form for generations to come. As we get further into the 21st century, people's personal connections to some of those films from the 40s, and the 50s, and the 60s, we get further and further away from that. And we're quite away from personal exposure to shorts like Hungry Hobos. But it's incredibly important for posterity and for people to understand the art form and the craft, and to preserve those things, that we do as much as we can to find them. And then there are people like you who research, study and understand these things. And I find the title ‘Animation Historian’ fascinating, and that has to be one of the most fun jobs on the planet. How did you come to be an animation historian?

    David Gerstein: Well, it's one of several things that I've done for Disney and its licensees. I'm also a comics editor. But to be an animation historian, my colleagues and I -- Jerry Beck, Tom Stathes, Michael Barrier -- grew up being fascinated with classic comedy and anything creative from the past. While I might not want to live in the past -- racism and sexism were more severe 100 years ago -- I'm fascinated with the pop culture of the past and the aesthetics of the past. Even the food of the past. I like the idea of being able to see what other generations found fine, and found artistically pleasing. And it's always fascinating for me when a vintage creation is revived and catches modern attention.

    Disney has done some new projects with Oswald since recovering him. He's co-starred with Mickey in a video game series vaguely, Lord of the Rings crossed with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, called Epic Mickey. Kids who have discovered those games have discovered the Oswald films, and it's fascinating to see that Oswald is a genuinely popular character with kids today. If you ask a high schooler if they know Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a surprising number will say yes. And so essentially there is just something vital about these characters that, when presented the right way, would absolutely connect with all ages.

    And that goes against bottom line thinking; ten years ago, everyone was still trying to be the new Ren and Stimpy, and say that "well, classic cartoons are passe." While I may be interested in the next Adventure Time, or the next Kim Possible or Phineas and Ferb, I'm also very interested in the fact that when we're exposed to classic 1920s cartoons, they get just the same electric reaction from all ages that they ever have. The best animation is really timeless.

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    HTF: Well and that's an excellent point. The finest animation is timeless. I have a three-and-a-half year old son and I've watched modern cartoons appropriate for his age, but I've put them on the television and he's been fascinated by the colors and the action. And I've shown him older cartoons, not necessarily classic in the truest sense, but certainly ones from the 70s that I would have grown up watching in the 80s, and he can be just as fascinated. With traditional animation being such a rarity these days, and rediscovering the classics that's like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as they appear or reappear in the higher definition medium of Blu-Ray and digital formats, it is a great way to remind the world of the beauty, of the craftsmanship of this medium. But how do you feel about the current wave of animation, both on television which uses more traditional mediums as well as a lot of CGI on television - but there's a lot of CGI animated films that are popular at the movie theaters. How do you appreciate where the pop culture animation world is today in contract with the medium, or how was it produced in the past?

    David Gerstein: Unlike some animation fans and scholars who focus on a preferred era, I would say that I'm interested in cartoons as produced in any style, and from any period, as long as they include some honesty, some guts, some humor, some characters one can identify with a little bit -- rather than simply trying to be cool or trying to be what's "in." I'd be rich if I had a nickel for every cartoon that gave its star character sunglasses, or a flowered shirt, skateboard or surfboard, and what's really 1990s jargon, and thought, "we've got a cool character here." Or for every cartoon that starred a character decked out in blues, pinks or purples -- stereotypical little boy or little girl colors -- and defined this as sweet and charming. But you don't create coolness and you don't create sweetness by saying you're going to do it. The creation process has got to be something more natural.

    The best cartoons of any period, and the ones that still connect with kids at all ages today, regardless of what era they came from, are the honest cartoons; and to my great pleasure, Disney and others that are bringing a lot of honest cartoons today. The new Mickey cartoons that are being produced by Paul Rudish, Stephen DeStefano, and others for TV and online use now, they're crazy and they're outrageous, but they come from an honest place.

    HTF: Wonderful. David, I appreciate your time today, very much appreciated, fascinating conversation. Thank you very much.

    David Gerstein: Thanks so much to you too.
     
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