1. Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar
Probably the most famous of the less famous Walt Disney characters, Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar go back to the stretch of brainstorming that produced Mickey Mouse. Created by Ub Iwerks—an old friend from Disney's Kansas City days who began the 1930s as Disney's chief animator, then became a rival, then ended the decade once again in Disney's employ—the characters were backgrounded when Disney determined that they lacked the mouse's star power. But they popped up in Mickey Mouse cartoons throughout the 1930s, and even overcame their interspecies barriers and fell in love.
Like a lot of the characters covered here, Clarabelle and Horace owe their relative obscurity in large part to Disney—the company, not the man—which is reluctant about keeping its history in the public eye. Where Warner Bros., MGM, and other cartoon studios have seen their shorts run ad infinitum on cable, Disney cartoons are seen much less frequently, and then only selectively. Since 2001, the terrific (though too quickly out of circulation) Walt Disney Treasures DVD series has reversed this trend, reminding viewers why Mickey Mouse became famous in the first place, and reviving some of his less famous, albeit decidedly funnier, friends.
In-house Disney historians say "It all started with a mouse," but had Walt Disney's original dream been fulfilled, his empire would've been built on the back of a little girl named Alice. The "Alice Comedies" series began in 1923 and blended live-action and animation, as the heroine disappeared into a cartoon wonderland, aided by a cat named Julius (who looked suspiciously like Felix). Winsor McCay and the Fleischer brothers pioneered the concept of inserting human characters into animated landscapes, but amid the polish Disney put on the concept, he held onto a sense of childlike delight in making a drawing come to life. The Alice shorts are simplistic, but they retain the natural wonder of handicraft.
3. Oswald The Lucky Rabbit
The Alice shorts gave way to the pure cartoon world of Oswald The Lucky Rabbit in 1927. Produced by Disney and his studio for Universal, the series became a popular success. But when Disney asked for more money, Universal balked. Because he didn't own the character, Disney had little recourse but to suck it up or finish his contract and try his luck elsewhere. He opted for the latter, leaving Oswald in others' hands. Universal kept the series going through the '30s, where Oswald worked in the shadow of his more popular successor, Mickey. The family resemblance is tough to deny, however.
Disney released an official straight-to-DVD sequel to Bambi in 2006, but the real follow-up arguably came in 1957 with Perri, a feature-length "true-life fantasy" that used documentary nature footage to tell a story based on a novel by Bambi author Felix Salten. Perri is a full-blown Disney movie, complete with a cloying song ("Together Time," a paean to mating season) and fantasy interludes that have our hero imagining the predators that are stalking him at night. And as for that hero? That plucky squirrel named Perri? No straight-to-DVD sequels for him, poor creature. Not even any doe-eyed stuffed dolls and bed sheets. Life is hard for the non-animated in the Disney kingdom.
5. José Carioca & Panchito Pistoles
In the early '40s, the U.S. State Department urged Hollywood—often with blank checks in hand—to make films that would improve relations between North, Central, and South America, in order to keep trade flowing during a critical period of World War II. Disney Studios responded with two feature films, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, which served as animated travelogues, touting the wonders of our neighbors to the south. Donald Duck played the accidental tour guide, joined in the first film by Brazilian parrot José Carioca and in the second by Mexican rooster Panchito Pistoles. The movies have a mixed reputation, and between José's cigar-smoking and Panchito's gun-toting, both characters have proved too politically incorrect to stay in the Disneyverse's inner circle. But they haven't disappeared, either. Both pop up in Disney comic books from time to time, and on the Disney Channel series House Of Mouse. And visitors to Epcot will see the two birds hanging around their countries' respective pavilions, shaking hands with children who don't understand why Donald looks so weird.
6. Peter Pig
Donald Duck made his cartoon debut in the 1934 short "The Wise Little Hen," as one of the title character's layabout neighbors. Donald went on to a long career in cartoons, engaging in all the antisocial behavior that his role-model pal Mickey had outgrown. Donald's pal, Peter Pig, faded into obscurity after a couple more appearances. It's tough to figure out why. He's almost as funny as Donald. Maybe the world found it easier to embrace a hotheaded duck than a grotesquely obese ( even by pig standards) beanie-wearing porker.
7. Foxy Loxy
As America entered World War II, Disney shifted its focus to wartime efforts, producing training films like "Food Will Win The War" and "Four Methods Of Flush Riveting." The shift was made for patriotic reasons, but it also opened up a crucial new revenue stream after the relative failure of Fantasia and Bambi helped put the brakes on feature-length Disney cartoons. But not all the efforts were for instructional purposes. Disney also kept civilians involved in the war with propaganda cartoons like "Der Fuehrer's Face" (in which Donald Duck has a nightmare that he lives in Nazi Germany) and "Chicken Little." The latter adopts the famous fable into a story about the importance of staying on guard against enemy efforts on the home front. Here, the enemy takes the form of Foxy Loxy, a villain who begins a campaign against a peaceful barnyard using techniques borrowed from Mein Kampf—here changed to a book simply called Psychology.
8. Alexander de Seversky
Walt Disney was so impressed with the arguments aviation pioneer Alexander de Seversky advanced in his 1942 book Victory Through Air Power that he rushed an animated feature version into production, drafting de Seversky for talking-head interludes. It's one of Disney's least-known yet most entertaining feature films: a superior piece of wartime propaganda that starts with a brief history of manned flight, then makes a persuasive case for bolstering our air force to weaken German and Japanese supply lines. (It's especially fascinating for the utter divorcement of military strategy from moral concerns; de Seversky sounds almost envious when he details the Nazi game plan.) But why did Disney stop at one film starring de Seversky? Why not a sequel, based on de Seversky's Electroatom Corporation, dedicated to defending against nuclear annihilation by extracting radioactive particles from the air? Victory Through Vacuuming!
9. Robert Benchley
Like de Seversky, Benchley only appeared in one Disney feature—the thrown-together, behind-the-scenes 1941 "documentary" The Reluctant Dragon—though he had a long pre-Disney career as a published humorist and the star of a series of dryly comic "how to" shorts. In The Reluctant Dragon, he plays "himself," wandering lost through the Disney studios to keep an appointment with Walt. The film was made on the quick to recoup some revenue lost when the war deprived Disney of key foreign markets, and it was released during an animator's strike, which made the mostly live-action footage seem unintentionally opportunistic. But Benchley is a delight, falling into the mode of his well-known movie character: a kindly, erudite, somewhat misbegotten "expert." When Benchley died four years later, his Hollywood popularity was in decline, though in some ways, his warm onscreen persona lived on via TV in the person of Walt Disney. Disney didn't play hapless, but otherwise, he was every bit Benchley's doughy, mustachioed middle-class gent.
As the Disney enterprise grew, it became harder and harder for Walt to stay involved in all aspects of its operations. The 1935 short "The Golden Touch" marked a return to a more hands-on role. An adaptation of the King Midas story, it found Disney surprisingly unable to reach the high standards he demanded of his animators. The gags are labored, the story talky, the animation strangely lifeless, and the characters unappealing. None were less appealing than Goldie, the curse-bestowing sprite who looks like a long-lost ancestor to a Keebler elf and sounds like a long-lost ancestor to Alvin And The Chipmunks.
11. Professor Owl
The 1953 3D short "Melody" was intended to kick off of a whole "Adventures In Music" series, walking viewers through music history and theory. But only one other was ever produced: "Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom," an early Cinemascope effort from the same year. Both are hosted by the blue-coated, bespectacled Professor Owl, an authoritative little bird who stands in front of a classroom full of like-minded feathered friends and delivers lectures in rhyme, with a dash of jive-speak. The two shorts share some of the loose, funky animation style of the UPA studio—a shop founded by ex-Disney animators, as it happens. And though both remained beloved by Disney scholars and music buffs alike, "Melody" and "Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom" didn't do enough business in their day to defray the costs of their experimental techniques. So somewhere in the storage warehouses of Disneyland, a Professor Owl costume lies crumpled in a box, molting.