Friday, March 03, 2006

Felix Finds Out (1924)

Felix Finds Out (A Pat Sullivan Comic, 1924, silent) 
Dir.: Otto Messmer
TC4P Rating: 7/9

An extremely impatient narrative, Felix Finds Out, released in 1924, seems to have committed to no certain plotline for the bulk of its length. It meanders here and there with only the slightest connection between its imaginative sections; it is only at the end does one realize that a) there is a purpose and goal in mind, and b) the film is, in essence, a shaggy dog story, and that the purpose and goal in mind is to get to a single punchline or concept, and that everything else that comes before it is just hay. This, of course, wins it a spot in my heart, which has an entire wing devoted to such trifles, including many stories and productions of my own, constructed in exactly the same freewheeling, ambling fashion.

Some would point at the film and its walking hot dogs, drunkenly personable moon, and human-like cat with the extremely prehensile and utilitarian tail, and describe the whole affair as being "surreal". This word is bandied out quite frequently, especially these days, when everything above and including standing on one's tippy-toes during urination is labeled "X-Treme"; similarly, it seems any random bit of weirdness is described as "surreal", as in "Wow, dude, that was surreal!" And they would be, generally, wrong in most circumstances. Merely weird or odd is not necessarily surreal, and as such, this film is not necessarily surreal. It never approaches the dreamlike state of which most surrealism is composed (at least, until the drinking scenes); while the film seems oddly contrived to fit three separate sections together, there is a common line of sense, mentioned through title cards representing the character's dialogue, that flows throughout the thing; and the switches between scenes are not that jarring as juxtapositions. There is a slight feeling of the film being composed of non-sequiturs, but by film's end, you realize that the filmmakers knew exactly where they were going and how they were going to get there. The true narrative path is actually just a slightly erratic line with a few charming bits of oddness thrown into the mix.

A kid named Willie is worried about completing his lessons in time for the school bell, but pal Felix the Cat discovers a nickel while Willie is busy studying. Willie decides they should buy a hot dog with the nickel. Felix is hungry (as usual) and agrees with him, and they run off to the hot dog stand. Once they spend their money, Willie at first refuses to share but then flips a coin to decide who gets the snack. The coin lands on its edge, so they decide to split it 50-50. The hot dog, laying on the ground during the proceedings, will have none of it. The hot dog barks loudly, stands up (who knew that they had thin little legs and feet, let alone that they could bark?), dances a hasty jig, bows to his pair of would-be devourers, and runs back to the hot dog stand from whence he came. He jumps back up on the counter and lays back down with his fellow hot dogs. (At this rate, the cart owner is never going to run out of supplies, but he is also never going to make a dime.)

Felix initiates a plan to capture all of the hot dogs by behaving in exactly the sort of way he never does: like an actual cat would. Felix lowers himself to the regular standards of his species and meows loudly and then struts in front of the hot dogs, who begin to growl and then give chase to Felix. Our hero runs into a doghouse, with the hot dogs fast on his trail, and they go in after him. A terrific though unseen battle takes place, and then Felix motions Willie to step into the doghouse. The two of them come out of the shelter with their happy stomachs full of the vanquished hot dogs.

The school bell then rings, and Willie suddenly realizes that he is in trouble for failing to learn his lessons. Once in class, however, Felix tries to help his pal out with his mathematics problems by sitting on the window sill and forming the answers with his amazingly talented tail. Luckily, both answers are of the single digit variety, so that Felix doesn't have to stretch his powers too much; unluckily, the teacher catches on to their little racket rather quickly. Because of this, Willie is given a tough homework assignment to do that evening. It turns out to be this question: "What makes the moon shine?" Finally, we understand the title of the film: Felix has to find out the answer to this question.

That evening, Felix goes to ask the Man in the Moon about the answer. The Moon is angry about being disturbed, and he frightens Felix at first when he moves in closer to the cat, but lightens up instantly because he is actually a jolly sort. Felix asks him what makes the moon shine, but the Moon only winks and laughs at him. Felix punches the Moon right in the nose, and the Moon drifts back up into the sky. Frustrated, Felix leans against a dead tree to ponder the question further;, but the tree begins to walk away! Felix follows the tree across the field, until the tree stops at a shack with a sign that reads "Try Our Moonshine". The tree knocks a branch on the wall, and then a window appears with a shady looking character in it. The tree asks for something with a dancing motion, and as the first window shuts and a second lower one opens, the man inside the tree costume pulls off his disguise and then ties it around his waist like an apron. He is clearly a bartender, and from out of the bottom window arrives a jug of moonshine. He picks up and kisses the jug, and then runs off.

Felix tries this same thing and is rewarded in the exact same way. He takes a swig from the jug, and almost instantly becomes drunk. He staggers and hiccups, and then a strange-looking, worm-like dragon briefly appears in his view. He takes another shot from the jug and is plagued by dots in his vision, and then the dragon reappears even larger and scarier than before. Felix takes several phantom blows at his non-existent opponent, but then something even weirder shows up: a large elephant (it would be pink, I presume, had the film been produced in color) with wings, and flashing, alternating stripes and dots. Felix tries to fight this aberration of nature, too, but the winged pachyderm disappears. He then staggers back to Willie's window, where the worried kid is still awaiting an answer to his homework. He asks Felix if he found out what makes the moon shine, and Felix responds, "Did I? I'll say I did!" He laughs uproariously, and the film irises out.

Silliness, but slyly innovative silliness from the early days of the cinema. It's amazing how much freedom Otto Messmer had with the character of Felix, who could prove to be most pliable to just about any situation in which they put him. There is no attempt in many of these films to affix any sort of coherent storyline to his adventures; mainly, situations are given simply so that the cat can pace and then think his way out of them. This is the true face of Felix the Cat, without a voice, and without a gimmicky magic bag of tricks; just a plucky cat with a sharp brain and an adaptable tail. (Why he needed a bag of tricks when he already had the tail is beyond me; I find the tail far more intriguing.) Cartoonists have tried to jam a lot more into some far less compelling characters. Felix, a major star already within the very adolescence of the American cinema, had everything you really needed…


[This piece was edited and revised with new photos on September 15, 2016.]

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