Friday, October 21, 2005

Felix the Surreal

As far as I can remember, Trafalgar never came up in junior high or high school—its 200th anniversary is today -- and neither did the Gunpowder Plot -- its 400th anniversary is in a couple of weeks. They were probably considered strictly British affairs by US textbook writers, and besides, the Kings & Battles pattern of teaching history was already on its way out by the 1970s. I heard of both of these events on my own, but never really looked into Trafalgar in any detail until I visited Trafalgar Square and wondered why it was important enough to have its own large plaza in crowded London.

But there’s no excuse for the omission of the Battle of Trafalgar in The Timetables of History, a reference I’ve had on my shelf for years now. It has Austerlitz and Pressburg for 1805, but not Trafalgar. Go figure.

The other day I visited a certain enormous chain store, and on impulse I bought a few $1 DVDs, that is, public domain specials. One was a Bugs Bunny collection, mostly WWII vintage, at least one of which would never be shown on TV because of racial stereotypes.

Another disc is called Felix the Cat Woos Whoopee. I looked up some of the titles on the disc -- there’s nothing on the DVD box beyond the titles -- and found out that it contains cartoons made mostly in 1929 and ’30. By then Felix had been eclipsed by Mickey Mouse, and so in “Woos Whoopee” he’s taken to drink, whooping it up at the Whoopee Club with his other black & white, pre-talkie animal cronies. Staggering home (to a cat-wife waiting with a rolling pin), Felix hallucinates. A lamppost comes alive. Vicious animals emerge from nowhere. He’s speeding along in a racecar, then falling from a tall building.

By later standards, it’s primitive cartooning. Still, Felix seems alive, the surroundings surreal, and the entire package was so different than the cartoons I’m used to seeing that I couldn’t quit watching, at least for the span of one cartoon. Into the next cartoon, my attention began to wander. That’s about right, though, since they were meant to be seen one at a time, ahead of whatever flicker was showing that week.

Also, I wasn’t expecting that much. I have dim memories of the late 1950s Felix series repeated in the ’70s when I was a kid, and it never did much for me even then. I didn’t know about deus ex machina, but I knew that a bag of tricks was cheating. Before this week, I’d never seen any of these earlier versions of Felix, They must have been considered too old even for after-school or Saturday TV, or maybe the copyright hadn’t expired then and they were still locked away. Anyway, the older Felix had no bag of tricks in those days, just a dollop of the surreal.

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