Sunday, February 26, 2006

Bold King Cole (1936)

Bold King Cole (A Van Beuren Rainbow Parade cartoon, 1936)
Dir: Burt Gillett
TC4P Rating: 6/9

I am struck by how many people I know who get Felix the Cat – the star of silent animated films, bad TV series, and endless merchandising – and the alliteratively similar but decidedly far more, er, sexually obsessed Fritz the Cat confused with one another. 

Surely it is the "F" at the start of their five letter first names and the fact that they are both "the Cats" that cause the initial mental switch-up. But many times in the past I have been confronted by normally sane people who ask me, straight-faced, "Which one is in that movie? The animated one?" Of course, there is no truly clear answer to such a question, unless you take "that movie" to mean “the feature film,” since most people tend not to think of what they would consider a mere cartoon (and thus simple child’s play) as a “movie”. They are wrong, of course… a film of any length is still a movie, no matter its content or its intent of distribution or lack thereof. But, naturally (because you are dealing with idiots), you have to respond "Oh, that's Fritz the Cat". Those same persons, invariably, have generally not actually seen Ralph Bakshi's film of Fritz the Cat (and even less have read R. Crumb's original comix) any more than they have actually seen a silent Felix the Cat. Most have tended to merely know good ol’ Fritzie from his film's reputation as a dirty, dirty movie. 

As for Felix, who can still be found all over the place on T-shirts and mugs and clocks and what have you, even in the 21st century, it almost seems as if many people are not even aware that Felix was ever actually in theatrical cartoons, so little are they seen these days. Even though the original “the Cat” has somehow remained a popular cultural figure since his creation, some people can't get his name right. Or mixed up with a different cartoon cat that likes to get wasted and have lots of sex with loose animal girls of various species with robust figures.

An attempt in the mid-1930s was made by the Van Beuren studios and directors Burt Gillett and Tom Palmer to revive the character of Felix in their Rainbow Parade series (sort of like Disney’s Silly Symphonies, Warner’s Merrie Melodies, MGM’s Happy Harmonies, or Fleischer’s Color Classics, only by Van Beuren instead; every studio that wanted to be a major player in animation had to have a color series like this at a certain point.). As Felix had previously been a silent figure, and since, apparently, dialogue just had to be assigned to the Cat, Felix was affixed with a not unpleasant but rather unmemorable voice filled with golly-gee, can-do boldness. 

At the beginning of the last of the three Van Beuren Felix shorts, Bold King Cole, the Cat is also possessed of a sassy tenor croon, which he accompanies with guitar whilst hanging in a tree, singing about Nature and Me, surrounded by the flowering buds and chirping birds of the forest. Then a lightning storm shatters the serenity, and, of course, the lightning focuses in poor little Felix. The lightning bolts shoot and jab him repeatedly; one bolt even lights his head up like a 40-watt bulb, complete with element (an effect which, it turns out, he can switch on and off with his nose, and does, through the remainder of the picture). The bolts eventually chase him out of the forest and to the seeming shelter of a nearby castle. It is a jarring but charming opening; in fact, the first couple minutes of this cartoon are quite memorable, and if the remainder of the film had retained this early sense of wonder, it would have been terrific. Instead, it becomes monotonous and silly in the worst way, which is truly unfortunate given the fact that the film is populated by fanciful notions of ghosts and their ilk.

The castle is inhabited by the frightened retinue of an equally timid but boldly boastful monarch, Old King Cole of nursery rhyme fame. But there is no pipe nor bowl nor fiddlers three in this tale; rather, Cole is an insufferable braggart who shouts loudly of his bravery to all who will hear, but in his heart he is as much of a chicken as the rest of his subjects. Felix bangs frantically on the castle door to gain entrance and relief from the attacking storm, and the King has to answer the door as no one else will. So the monarch seizes the opportunity to prove how tough he is to a total stranger. He quickly descends upon the rescued Felix with a flurry of loudmouthed boasts, but the ghosts of the figures in the castle's paintings are sick and tired of hearing his Royal Longwindedness and set out to do something to stop him. 

The ghosts capture the king in the dungeon and torturously pump the hot air out of him, all the while singing a song with the refrain, "You talk too much, you talk too much". They then force him to listen to his own voice to teach him a lesson. Felix sees that the lightning storm has continued unabated, and formulates a plan to save the king from the ghosts. He uses the arms of a suit of armor to attract and funnel an array of lightning bolts into the dungeon, destroying the ghosts for good. The king pumps his own hot air back into his frame, and acts satisfied at the return of his plumpness. Felix and Cole laugh and sing about how they are "not afraid of anything,” but then a pair of mice, for no apparent reason, decide to manipulate and stage a battle between two suits of armor, causing the "heroes" to hide in fear. The mice complete their melee and call a truce, and the King and Felix come out of hiding. The King crowns the cat "Prince Felix" and switches his nose to turn on the lightbulb effect. Felix does the same to Old King Cole, and they laugh as the picture closes.

I like the lightbulb idea, but I wish they had put it to some good use throughout the picture. I especially like some of the bits in the opening lightning storm, such as when a bolt saws through a cloud like a knife through a loaf of bread and unleashes a torrent of rain upon the Cat. I also like it when a bolt hits the back of the tree that Felix is sitting in, and the tree jumps like a startled man kicked or poked in the seat of his pants. Much like the same year's The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg, there is an epic feel to the backgrounds and direction that the story itself doesn't bother to carry off, and we are left yet again with a wistful sense of "what could have been" had the story department been stronger in their support of a character sorely in need of better development.

At least Felix gets made a prince at the end of the story. Luckily for him, this film was made in 1936, almost forty years before the Bakshi cat movie, so the King doesn't mix up the names and declare him "Prince Fritz". Then Felix would have no choice but to go and hump one or both of the battling mice, the ghosts would have an orgy with the castle residents, and the King would really have something new to brag about...

Now that I think about it, this might have been the direction Van Beuren should have taken. Ah, what could have been... they could have beaten Hefner and Flynt to the punch.

RTJ

[This piece was edited and revised with new photos on September 13, 2016.]

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