"Hungry Hobos," a 1928 Walt Disney animated short film that was considered lost for decades, will screen Saturday at UCLA as part of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's 24th annual Silent Film Event.
The short, which predates Mickey Mouse and stars the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, is one of the earliest Disney cartoons.
Staff at the Huntley Film Archives, a stock footage company in England, found a 16-mm print of the movie in a vault there in 2011, surprising many in the animation community who assumed it had been destroyed like so many silent-era films.
"It's like somebody finding a Van Gogh in their attic," said Dave Bossert, producer, creative director and head of special projects at Walt Disney Animation Studios. "This cartoon as far as we know hasn't been seen in over half a century."
In the five-minute, 21-second film, Oswald and his friend and nemesis Peg-Leg Pete are hobos riding on a train and playing checkers when hilarity ensues — sight gags involve a wayward chicken, an angry sheriff and a monkey with an organ grinder.
The cartoon, which will have what Bossert is calling its "re-premiere" Saturday before a screening of Buster Keaton's 1923 silent comedy "Our Hospitality," holds a significant place in Walt Disney lore.
Disney directed 26 Oswald cartoons for Universal Studios before quitting that company — and leaving behind the popular, floppy-eared character — over a contract dispute in 1928. It was on the long train ride back to Los Angeles after resigning from Universal in New York that the animator created his signature character, Mickey Mouse.
Oswald belonged to Universal for 78 years until the Walt Disney Co. reacquired the rights in 2006 in an unconventional trade for sportscaster Al Michaels. (Michaels went from "Monday Night Football" on Disney's ABC to NBC, which is owned by Universal's parent.)
But the 26 Oswald shorts that Disney had directed himself were produced on the highly flammable nitrate film used in the silent era, and many had been considered lost or destroyed.
At the time Bossert read about the discovery of "Hungry Hobos" in England, the Walt Disney Co. owned 14 of those Oswald shorts. Walt Disney Animation Studios President Ed Catmull and General Manager Andrew Millstein had told Bossert that they wanted to track down more.
(The recovery and restoration of the short is part of a studio-wide emphasis on its own history, and an effort to reignite interest in classic Disney characters — Oswald appears in Disney's 2010 video game "Epic Mickey." A new but vintage-looking Mickey Mouse short called "Get a Horse," featuring the voice of Walt Disney, is premiering next week at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France.)
The studio bought "Hungry Hobos" anonymously in a Hollywood memorabilia auction for $31,250 and digitally restored the 16-mm print, a process that involved repairing broken sprocket holes and warping, and removing dirt and scratches.
"You don't want to make it rock-solid perfect cause then it's not of the era," said Bossert, who has overseen the digital restorations of Disney features such as "Bambi," "Cinderella" and "Snow White." "We left in some picture weave and light flicker that's indicative of that time period. We mitigated it, but didn't remove it."
Disney also commissioned a new score for the short film by Emmy-winning composer Mark Watters, who served as musical director for the Disney Channel series "Have a Laugh," a three-year project to restore and record 60 Disney shorts from the 1930s and '40s.
Watters will conduct the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's performance of his score Saturday night.
According to Bossert there is at least one other "lost" Oswald short that Disney is aware of, but its owner is demanding what Disney considers too much money to purchase it.