Not one to be outdone by the National Library of Norway, the British Film Institute has discovered a lost Walt Disney film starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unlike Empty Socks, the short found last year in NLN’s subarctic bunker archive of nitrate films, there wasn’t even a 25-clip of Sleigh Bells known to survive. No part of Sleigh Bells has been seen since it made its original release in 1928.
The six-minute animation was found in the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted by a researcher searching the online catalogue. He recognized the name of the film as one thought lost. The print entered the BFI archive in 1981 as part of a collection of movies from a recently shuttered Soho film studio. It was titled and dated 1931, but had no references to Disney or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The title was generic enough to not ring any bells (pun intended) and the BFI doesn’t have the manpower to watch every one of the one million films in its archive, so it was just duly catalogued and socked away in storage.
In the movie Oswald skates and plays ice hockey on a lake accompanied by his interspecies lady friend, a cat named Ortensia who looks a little like Felix the Cat in a hat and skirt. It was drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (Ub did all of the drawing for Disney’s early characters; Walt had limited artistic talent) and Walt Disney under contract with Universal Studios which had hired the pair to get a piece of the lucrative cartoon pie. The Oswald films were Universal’s first animated pictures and while Disney had had some success with the combination of live action and animation in the Alice Comedies series, Oswald was his first big hit.
Unfortunately for Disney, Oswald wasn’t really his, not by law. He belonged to Universal and once the character proved to be a success, Charles Mintz, the producer of the Oswald pictures, wasted no time in planning Disney’s ouster. He stealthily poached all of Disney’s employees except for Ub Iwerks who was loyal to Walt and refused the job offer. Iwerks warned Disney of Mintz’s machinations but Disney handwaved away his concerns. It was only in the spring of 1928 when Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract that he finally realized Iwerks was right. Not only was Mintz not offering to increase Disney’s take on the popular cartoons, he told him he had to make more films for 20% less money. Mintz had no need to accommodate him since he had an experienced Oswald team ready to go without Disney.
Walt and Ub walked away and were all the better for it since the next idea they came up with was Mickey Mouse. Mintz’s production company took over making Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Universal until karma struck. The next year, Universal president Carl Laemmle fired the Mintz-Winkler studio and handed Oswald to Walter Lantz, a director Mintz had hired. Lantz produced Oswald cartoons until 1943 when the character was all but retired. He would go on to invent Woody Woodpecker.
In 2006, the Walt Disney company reacquired the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit property from NBC Universal. They were delighted, therefore, at the rediscovery of Sleigh Bells. Walt Disney Animation Studios restored the print and made a new film print of it as well as digital copies. The restored cartoon will be screened for the first time at BFI Southbank on December 12th, 2015, as part of It’s A Disney Christmas: Seasonal Shorts, a program of holiday-themed films from the late 1920s to the present.
Here’s a brief preview of Sleigh Bells released by the BFI:
Here’s a news story about the find that has some views of the film and its canister which look to be in surprisingly good condition.