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Saturday Matinee

Disney Cartoon #50: "The Mechanical Cow" (October 3, 1927) - published December 17, 2011

by Albert Gutierrez

There are many ways I could try and commemorate Saturday Matinee's fiftieth article. Instead, we'll go for a low-key celebration and take a look at another Oswald cartoon. I've had him on my mind a lot these past couple weeks; I guess you can say it'll be A Very Oswald December! This week, we'll look at "The Mechanical Cow," one of the few Disney-Oswald shorts that is in the public domain.

The short opens with three sleeping figures: a mechanical cow, Oswald, and an alarm clock. The alarm clock is the first to awaken, ringing much too loudly for Oswald. He attacks it, trying to shut it off, and the two fight for a bit before Oswald manages to shut it off. However, the alarm clock uses its spring to punch Oswald in the face. Oswald's about to punch back when he sees what time it is on the clock. He rushes over to the mechanical cow and tries to wake it up. Oswald manages to pull the entire bed out from under the cow, and prepares her for the morning. The cow stretches a bit, and has to be dragged by Oswald to a ladder. The ladder leads to a slide that sends the pair downstairs. Oswald and his cow then go about the town, calling out "Milk! Milk!" They come across a mother and baby hippo, who are looking to buy some milk.

Oswald and his cow set themselves up like a filling station, and Oswald then uses a ruler to measure how much milk is inside the baby hippo. He then attaches a hose to the baby and pumps in the milk direct from his mechanical cow. Filled and satisfied, mother and baby wave goodbye as Oswald and the cow continue on. Meanwhile, Fanny Cottontail is walking on by and catches Oswald's eye. She needs a bucket full of milk. Oswald manually pumps it himself, then abandons the cow to flirt with Fanny. When the cow follows Oswald and Fanny, Oswald gets mad and sends it away.

Soon, some evil furry creatures (for the sake of writing, I'm calling them wolves) kidnap Fanny, and Oswald must run to save her. He gets help from his faithful mechanical cow, who picks up Oswald and chases after the wolves in their car. None of the wolves' weapons are a match for the resourcefulness of the mechanical cow, and Oswald soon rescues Fanny. They turn in the other direction and run away, but the wolves follow. When the mechanical cow reaches a cliff, Oswald and Fanny tumble to the depths below. Luckily, Oswald grabs onto a branch, with Fanny grabbing onto him. The car with the wolves then plummets into the waters below, where they presumably are eaten by the sharp-teethed fish. The splash of water sends Oswald and Fanny back up to the cow, and the three ride away into the horizon.

It would be very easy for someone to dismiss silent cartoons as formulaic and lacking in character. After all, silent cartoons rely more on visual gags than dialogue. The larger-than-life situations aren't meant to be taken seriously, are they? But when you watch something like "The Mechanical Cow," you can sense that there is more than just the flash-in-the-pan comedy and derring-do of its spunky little star. As a product of the silent era, Oswald thrives entirely on the visual, but these visuals can still help develop his personality. The opening gags with the alarm clock establish that he certainly is NOT a morning person. While the struggling with the clock does seem a bit overdone, it can still be taken seriously. Audiences can sympathize and even relate to his morning routine.

Likewise, the relationship that Oswald has with Fanny and his mechanical cow is done through familiar concepts and gags that would be repeated with the Mickey-Minnie-Pluto trifecta in later years. This is the mechanical cow's only appearance, but it retains a very loyal and helpful personality. It's very much like Pluto, but with some larger-than-life features (extendable neck, ability to switch head and tail to run the opposite way, etc.). Fanny does not get much screen time here, but then again, neither did Minnie. Yet both are important in Oswald and Mickey's lives, they're always worth the rescue. That's why audiences love seeing the little guy rescue his damsel in distress. These are characters you want to see rescued, no matter how many times the filmmakers will change the settings, villains, methods of kidnapping, reasons for rescue, etc.

As mentioned last week, Disney released the surviving Oswald shorts in "Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." I erroneously said it was released in 2008, when the set actually came out in 2007. After covering "All Wet" last week, I found myself rewatching the entire disc several times over throughout the following seven days, hence why we get another Oswald this week. His shorts are so easy to just fall right into, you can sit down and watch them in a row without realizing how much time has passed. It's a pity so few of his Disney shorts exist, which is all the more reason why Disney should start making more. Imagine how great it would be to sit in the theatre for the next Disney Animated Classic, and be treated to a brand-new Oswald cartoon Especially if it preserves...


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