Monday, June 6, 2011

Whoeth be the Captain Ersatz?: The Pegleg Pete cloning

Once you start getting into the works of Walt Disney from the 1920s, you notice a thread starting from the Alice shorts all the way up to Mickey Mouse: Pegleg Pete. Starting with 1925's "Alice Solves the Puzzle", Pete antagonized Alice and Julius as a bear. He went on to become a dog in Oswald shorts, starting with "The Ocean Hop". Of course, as we all know, Pete finally became a cat, and Mickey's rival, in "Gallopin' Gaucho".

But when Universal took Oswald away from Walt in 1928, it would seem that they assumed Pegleg Pete belonged to them as well. I noticed this when I started looking for post-Disney Oswald shorts on YouTube. That's him in 1929's "Yanky Clippers". Notice the peg leg?
So what was happening? Both Walt Disney and Universal were using pretty much the same character, only that they were different species.
This all begs the question: Who technically owned copyright to the character? Was Pegleg Pete included in Universal's copyright papers, and did Disney just not know that they owned him? If so, how did Universal not notice? Or did Walter Lantz's team just assume that he came with the package, even if he was technically not included in their copyright?
Of course, eventually Universal stopped using their version of Pete, and Disney was able to claim copyright of the character without anybody noticing the similarity. It's obvious who was using the character more effectively, and Disney's Pete overshadowed Lantz's attempts by a millionfold. But it still strikes me as very odd that Universal potentially owned copyright to the character for about eighty years, and either handwaved Disney's version because they gave up on Oswald, or didn't notice somehow.

If I may be even geekier, if we think in terms of the universe seen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Bonkers, it makes you wonder who was the original Pete. In that world, was Disney's Pete the clone because Universal owned the original, or did they sneak him out of the studio? Is Universal's Pete the clone because Disney managed to take their Pete with him?
Actually, I find the first explanation more likely: Why wouldn't Universal claim copyright to Pegleg Pete? It makes me think that Disney's Pete is actually a clone that outlived the original.

It also makes you wonder- if Disney made new Oswald cartoons today, who would be the villain? In many ways, Oswald has as much right to claim Pete as his rival as Mickey does.


  1. An interesting clue might be seen here:

    This comic strip ad seems to be the first-ever Disney item to publicly name the cat version of Pete (I'm aware of no aniamted cartoon literature predating it), and it calls him not Pete, but "Terrible Tom." It dates from January 1930.

    Pete didn't actually appear in the strip itself for a couple of months, though. When he did appear, in April 1930, he was called Pegleg Pete.
    Also in April 1930, promotional literature for the Mickey cartoon THE CACTUS KID apparently called its Mexican version of Pete "Pegleg Pedro," though I haven't seen this firsthand.

    So—while we have no proof of anything (yet), one could make a case for Disney initially presuming "Universal owns the name Pegleg Pete, so we'd better call our new cat version something else," but then later deciding to keep the old name after all.

    Universal's Pete is certainly called Pete as late as 1931; sometimes Putrid Pete, an alternate nickname originating in the Disney Oswalds.

  2. Wow, that's really interesting. I think you may be right- that seems to indicate that Disney was originally tiptoeing around possible copyright infringement claims from Universal. Wonder what made them change their minds?

    I really appreciate your comment- I'm a big fan of your blog.