Krazy Kat: The Stork Exchange


So, International Film Service and then Bray Productions took shots at adapting George Herriman’s great yet obscurant comic strip Krazy Kat to silent animation, with results that I would describe as successful cartoons but not really Krazy Kat. And yet a third series of cartoons based on the never-all-that-popular comic strip was created in the mid-to-late 1920s, still before the successful introduction of sound to motion pictures. This one ran at least 97 pictures, if Wikipedia’s filmography hasn’t got errors in it.

This installment, “The Stork Exchange”, was originally released the 17th of December, 1927, something you might have guessed from the Charles Lindbergh joke in it. I think it’s a reasonably solid silent cartoon: Krazy wanders into the Stork Factory where babies get made, is for faint reasons put in charge of it, and struggles to do so. To add to the historic interest this was a “lost” film, believed destroyed sometime around 1948 when its producer, Margaret J Winkler, disposed of old nitrocellulose-based film stock of stuff people weren’t watching anyway. A copy was found in 2004 at a British Film Institute archive.

The version I have embedded here, from YouTube, features a generic soundtrack featuring what sound to me like Les Paul-ish strumming around songs I can’t really name. The opening one I think of as “Mother Gooseland” because of a Betty Boop cartoon, and the closer seems to be “Listen To The Mockingbird”, for what that’s worth.

But as an adaptation of the comic strip? The example here doesn’t give much reason to think anyone involved with it knew there was a comic strip. Why even bother calling it Krazy Kat? The answer that seems obvious to me involves two facts. One: the first of this series of Krazy Kat cartoons, animated by Charles Mintz’s studios and distributed by M J Winkler, was released on the first of October, 1925. Two: “Felix Dopes It Out”, the last Felix the Cat cartoon distributed by Winkler, was released on the 15th of August, 1925, with the most successful silent cartoon star going to Educational Pictures from the week after that.

With that, suddenly, a lot of the cartoon makes more sense, starting with why there should be a third string of Krazy Kat cartoons at all, and then why they should be about a plucky character with a certain drive that I just don’t see in the comic strip character, and why they should embrace silent-cartoon conventions like everything in the world being animate or potentially so, and why something like the fable of storks bringing babies should bring someone to a cloud-based factory where raw ingredients are ground together into babies. As a Felix the Cat cartoon — well, I admit I’m not a connoisseur of Felix, and a more serious fan might have stronger feelings. But as a Felix cartoon this feels to me like a pretty decent installment, interesting and well-paced and even plotted better than the average silent. I wonder if Ignatz Mouse appears in any of the cartoons.

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Felix the Cat Switches Witches


So I know it’s the time of year for Christmas In July, but I couldn’t think of any good and plausibly public domain cartoons with Christmas themes, so here’s a fair Halloween one instead. It’s Felix the Cat Switches Witches, a remarkably short (three and a half minutes) cartoon from 1927, originally silent (the version embedded here plays the song “Mysterious Mose” over it, which is familiar to me from the Fleischer Betty Boop cartoon of that name), and is pretty much a string of metamorphosis gags even before Felix finds the witch. There is a bit near the start featuring a black guy getting scared by Felix, but it’s not as bad as “1920s cartoon featuring black guy getting scared at Halloween” might make you fear.

Felix the Cat: Astronomeous


I guess that I’m in a Felix the Cat mood this month, or at least it’s easy once you see one to see others popping up in YouTube. So let me play with that. For today here’s Astronomeous (that last syllable is supposed to suggest the sound a cat makes), from 1928, and it’s an extremely early sound cartoon. That is, the sound is just awful, but, please listen with sympathy: it’s kind of amazing there’s sound at all.

As ever, though, when you mix a silent- or near-silent-era cartoon with the heavens you’re in for a strange, surreal ride. Why shouldn’t the rings of Saturn be host to a bicycle race? Why not have a hammer monster of Mars? Why not punch a shooting star that’s terrorizing the king? Add to this mix some really quite good perspective shots — it’s not all characters moving in straight lines, camera left to camera right — and it’s a pretty sound six minutes, forty seconds.

Felix the Cat Monkeys with Magic


The title for this Felix the Cat cartoon might set up some disappointment, as it turns out the title card means the verb form of “monkeys”. Ah well. It’s a cartoon that’s got a number of pretty good gags of the kind that 1920s cartoons excelled in, especially in visual tricks and in metamorphoses. It does have a rather dreamlike plot: the sense I get is the creators were trying to think of things where Felix could use a wave of the hand to do something, and if that means the viewer looks down a moment and looks back up and suddenly there’s a bear chasing Felix and then a cow turns into a car, well, that’s just the sort of world Felix lived in.

Felix the Cat: Felix the Ghost-Breaker


This morning I’d like to offer the 1923 Felix the Cat short, Felix the Ghost-Breaker. I admit part of what interests me about this is that it’s not hard to see the premise — Felix the Cat runs across some ghosts, and takes on the job of ridding a farmer’s house of them — and imagine the Fleischer Brothers cartoon that’d be made from it. But Pat Sullivan Cartoon studios made more measured, more orderly cartoons than the Fleischers did, and the plot takes priority over ghost-and-haunting jokes, down to an ending that’s funny for its lack of connection to the plot and for the somewhat-modern pop-culture joke it makes me think of.

Nevertheless, I’m amused by the whole short, partly because I like the rhythms of silent-era cartoons, and the impressive look they have from being done in literally black and white, no greys. The short also features one of the conventions of silent cartoons, that of word balloons popping out of the characters’ mouths, a gimmick that really connects you to the comic strip forebears and that reminds you that comic strips didn’t really get word balloons so they looked right until about the 1940s.

There are also several nicely creepy moments; for my money the best of them is a scene with a skeleton seen in the darkness. Curiously, Felix is almost a passive observer for about two-thirds of the cartoon’s runtime.

Felix the Cat: Felix in Fairyland


For this Saturday morning I’d like to offer Pat Sullivan’s Felix in Fairyland. Felix the Cat is one of those cartoon stars who managed to become so famous in his prime that he’s been kind of remembered ever since even though there hasn’t really been a lot to remember him for in a lifetime. There’ve been revitals in the 1950s and 1990s, and a direct-to-video movie in 1991 that featured some staggeringly ugly computer animation, but I can’t say any of it since the 1930s has been all that interesting. Nevertheless, he’s still somewhat recognizable, and gets rated as among the top cartoon characters of all time, so, why not look to one of the originals?

This nine-minute short, as promised, sends Felix to a fairy-tale land after an act of kindness, and once there he stands up for Little Miss Muffet and then comes to the aid of the Little Old Woman Who Lives In A Shoe. Cartoons would do a lot of fairy-tale fracturing and recombining in decades to come, and I’d be surprised if this were the first cartoon to do that, but it must be among the earlier ones since cartoons were only something like two decades old at this point.

The cartoon shows its age, in ways besides being silent. The worst of these ways is the pacing, as it takes its time establishing stuff and making sure everyone knows the setup. Felix doesn’t even get to Fairyland until two and a half minutes in. But the best of these ways is in the loose way that anything can be anything else, given a moment to change. Reality could be a very fluid thing before animation got very good at telling stories, and before sound and color added a kind of heavy reality to objects. When it was all black ink and white background, a spider could be a witch and Felix could climb a ladder of his own question marks with dreamy ease.