Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg (1936)

The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg (A Van Beuren Rainbow Parade cartoon, 1936)
Dir: Burt Gillett and Tom Palmer
TC4P Rating: 6/9

I'm going to say this right from the beginning: despite his obviously cute, sharp character design, and his apparent steady popularity for nearly a century, I think that most people, including those who dote on the cartoon kitty, have never actually seen a Felix the Cat cartoon. I mean, a real Felix the Cat cartoon -- one of the silent Felixes produced by Pat Sullivan and created by Otto Messmer in the 1920s, not the various television or merchandised bastardizations of Felix.

Myself, I have only seen a handful of these silent gems, but they are, quite often, brilliantly conceived and masterful. Would that I could say the same for the trio of Felix films that the Van Beuren produced in the 1930s in a vain attempt to revive the then-retired cartoon star, of which The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg was the initial offering. Co-directed by Burt Gillett, who helmed Disney's The Three Little Pigs and started a worldwide craze, and Tom Palmer, who didn't, the film is chock-a-bloc with good ideas desperate to become great, but undercut by a confusion of how to let the character breathe within the film. Rarely has a cartoon seemed so much like a classic, without actually being a classic.

The rather, by this point in time, Mickey Mouse-like Felix, who predates Mickey in actuality, runs a Relief Bureau in his village (a by-product of the Great Depression – look it up), aided by the mad egg-dropping abilities of the titular fowl. That everyone in the town doesn't just form a mob and bludgeon the cat to take all of the gold is further proof of his enduring cuteness. But everyone seems content to damage their country's economy by taking in their daily allotment of illicit gold from out of the ass of Felix's bird. A disguised Captain Kidd, who is quite like Pegleg Pete in both appearance and attitude (unsurprisingly), covets the goose for his own nefarious dealings, and breaks in on Felix's domicile to kidnap the bird. Despite Felix's toughness and best efforts at fending off the bully, Kidd bags the bird and makes off to his ship, singing a hearty pirate shanty called I Takes What I Wants, which carries over to his men once he boards the vessel. They sail off, leaving a distraught Felix behind on the dock, fretting over what he should do next.

That "next" turns out to be fashioning himself into a ball and firing himself at the ship via a cannon resting upon the dock, including pulling off his own tail to use as a matchstick to light the cannon. (It is one of the few moments in the film where Felix behaves as if he were the cat of his younger days.) He lands upon the deck of the pirate ship, and thus begins a fierce battle against the Captain and his pirate dogs. The men charge Felix, but he fires drinking mugs onto their faces with a cannon, and the Goose gets into the action by taking sword in hand and cutting a sail from the mast onto their heads. A further series of cannon shots traps the entire pirate crew in the hold of the ship. Captain Kidd and the brave Felix cross swords, and the action is swift enough to literally melt their blades down in their hands, and then the molten blades burn through the deck of the ship. The Captain chases Felix up into the rigging and makes several attempts to stab the hiding cat, but he only succeeds in cutting his own foothold and ends up hanging from the mast. Felix eventually traps the Captain for good, and then instructs the loyal Goose to turn the ship around for home. The picture concludes with Felix firing the entire stores of treasure from the ship through the skies to his village, where the citizenry rush about greedily taking in every coin that they possibly can, and then hoisting Felix up on their shoulders as their hero.

It seems thrilling, but it is never thrilling enough. It seems simple and clever, but it is too simple and never clever enough. Felix is appropriately spunky when called for, but you keep waiting for him to do more of the slightly surreal and oddball bits like the cannonball routine, and he never fulfills this brief potential. The pirate battle could be so much more engaging and witty, and while I know this film was released in the depressive American '30s, the Relief Bureau concept seems to have a sense of the overindulged. That said, it still feels like a classic, and there is enough here to allow the film to be enjoyed for what is on the screen.

There are several prize moments (I like the throwaway bits, like where Felix slides down the rope heroically, and his hands turn red from the brief rope burn, but then fade as he concentrates on his actions), the film has a nice visual depth in the backgrounds and sets, and the canvas on which the film plays out is impressively expansive for a 7-minute cartoon, bestowing an appropriate air of epic adventure on the tale.

All fine and well, but they should have worked more on developing Felix as a character to grow on, but here he is finally given a voice, and it's not bad, but it's not right, either. Instead of retaining some of the incredible sense of Chaplin-esque wonder that Felix thrived on throughout the '20s, they burned through their newly thin character in three visually sharp but story-short films (Van Beuren would close not long after, finding itself unable to compete against the bigger companies, and losing their studio-sustaining deal with RKO when Disney ran them out), and Felix was retired again until he was cleaned up and babied for television in the '60s, where he renewed his vampire-like popularity once more.

Badly edited and dubbed television cartoons (yes, I know those have their huge fans bent on uncritical nostalgia), but they are a far worse way to have gotten to know Mr, Felix the Cat than in these Van Beuren films, which may not be prime Cat but they are still bright and fun. But, all of you who claim to love Felix in any form, you should have met him back when he didn't talk at all. Now, that feline was a world-beater...

RTJ



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

No comments: