Felix the Cat Gets Shipped to the Front

On a proto-pacifist animated film that forced viewers to look at the devastation of war.

By Donna Kornhaber

Monday, January 06, 2020

Felix the Cat holding a bomb on a Grumman F-14D(R) Tomcat at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, 2011. Photograph by Amaury Laporte. Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The origins of pacifist animation arguably lie in certain early acts of witness that appeared in the immediate aftermath of war—specifically in a number of cartoons that came out of the experience of World War I. It is not that these cartoons are themselves committed to a pacifist vision, though such viewpoints were widespread during the epoch after that terrible conflict. Rather, they handle the explosive material of wartime experience with a degree of unguardedness that cannot help but raise questions as to war’s purpose, whether such vexing questions were intentional or not. Made by animators with direct knowledge of the front, these films had not yet learned to constrain or conceal the act of witness at their core. They are what we might call proto-pacifist films—works that anticipate the approaches of pacifist animation even if they do not openly embrace such politics—and they were among the most popular animated films of their moment, made by some of the most important animators of the day.

The first and most important of these precursors is an animated short called Felix Turns the Tide, from 1922. Felix the Cat, one of the first major figures in animation’s long history of anthropomorphic everyman types and a direct forerunner to Mickey Mouse, is remembered today largely through the television reboot of the character in the 1950s, which still has a following among animation aficionados. But during the heyday of the original Felix film series in the 1920s, his cartoon stardom was second to none. Felix mania reached heights that can only be measured against the crazes inspired by certain other titans of twentieth-century global media, figures like Charlie Chaplin or the Beatles. “It is almost incredible,” wrote one industry observer in a trade journal in 1924, “but the most popular outstanding figure in the film trade at this moment…is Felix the Cat. Never in my short but eventful life in the film industry have I ever seen anything to equal Felix’s popularity, prestige, and general screen personality. Honestly, our stars in the flesh are unknown in comparison.” Even the king and queen of England were at one point seen carrying Felix dolls.

Fixed to no particular time or place, Felix had many different kinds of adventures over the course of the nearly two hundred films he starred in between 1917 and 1930. But no doubt one of the strangest of those adventures, and certainly the most harrowing, comes in Felix Turns the Tide, wherein the most beloved animated hero in the world at that time ventures not into some adventurous jungle or exotic new city but onto the battlefields of World War I, battlefields that are depicted in horrifyingly gruesome detail replete with heavy machine-gun fire, high explosives, and staggering mass casualties—heaps and heaps of lifeless cartoon corpses piled up on screen.

Animated depictions of World War I were nothing new to American audiences by the time that Felix short premiered in 1922. Almost as soon as the conflict in Europe began in 1914, American animators mined it for material: the Heeza Liar films from Bray Studios, the first true animated series from one of the first modern animation studios, started featuring its bombastic hero on animated European battlefields within months of the first shots being fired. And of course American screens featured animated propaganda films during the years of the country’s direct involvement in the war, starting in 1917—martial-minded shorts like How Charlie Captured the Kaiser or Our Four Days in Germany where known cartoon heroes like Charlie Chaplin’s animated alter ego or comic-strip icons Mutt and Jeff sallied forth to defeat the German enemy and did so single-handedly and with ease. But none of the animators behind those early films had any idea of what the combat experience of World War I was really like: by definition those wartime films were made by artists who remained on the home front. Never would those animators know the almost apocalyptic experience that Walter Benjamin evokes in his classic description of the epistemological shock encountered by the young men who went to serve in that very first modern war: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”

The situation would be vastly different with a postwar film like Felix Turns the Tide where the “destructive torrents and explosions” and the “tiny, fragile human body” that Benjamin evokes haunt every frame of the short.

Otto Messmer, the creator of the Felix character, was himself a combat veteran of the war. Deploying with the 104th Field Signal Corps out of Newark, New Jersey, in the spring of 1917, he spent about half a year in the trenches: a relatively short time, but an impactful one. His division suffered more than six thousand casualties in only five months of total combat, most of them in terrible close quarters fighting amid the woods and ridges of the Lorraine region in northeastern France. Born to German immigrant parents in West Hoboken, New Jersey, and himself conversant in German, Messmer was perhaps more sensitive than most to the absurdity and reciprocal horrors of a conflict in which he was sent to fight against the soldiers of his ancestral home. He would in fact speak of this very aspect of the war a lifetime later in interviews from the 1970s, where he recalled, in the words of his interviewer, “a German sniper shot out of a tree, who conversed with Messmer in German as he lay dying. The man showed the American soldiers pictures of his wife and children and offered them cigarettes and candies.”

Messmer’s sense of the war as being an unmitigated disaster for all involved is everywhere apparent in a short like Felix Turns the Tide. After a series of brief opening scenes in which Messmer dutifully positions the war as being both just and honorable—the rats have made an unprovoked attack on the cats in what is billed as “World War One and a Half,” and Felix heroically comes to the defense of his beset species after securing permissions from his employer and proposing to his sweetheart—the tone of the film dramatically and unalterably shifts. The early scenes in Felix Turns the Tide, like most scenes in the Felix shorts, are rendered in simple ink on white paper with a level of outline and abstraction that more closely resembles a newspaper comic strip than the detailed drawn worlds of later cartoon heroes. In contrast to these early scenes’ sparse visual aesthetic, however, the first scenes of battle are positively teeming with activity and action in every section of the frame, all of it calculated to shock. Instead of finding himself deployed into a fantasy realm of wish fulfillment where the enemy crumbles instantly, Felix stumbles into a cartoon version of actual combat, a realm of unmasked atrocities marked by a pervasive sense of hopelessness. No sooner does our hero arrive at the front with his fellow recruits then we are confronted with unsettling depictions of those same enlisted cats being shot and blown up by the well-fortified rats, who easily defeat multiple waves of assaults using nested artillery. Literally everyone with whom Felix entered the war is killed within the first few seconds of combat, their bodies seen exploding into the air.

The unavoidable persistence of the dead cartoon bodies is one of the most visually disturbing aspects of the film, a far cry from those more common animated worlds where vanquished figures simply fall out of view or disappear. To actually be dead is to actually have been alive, and Messmer never lets his viewers forget the carnage that is the actual work of war. In fact, he explicitly demands that we pay attention.

“Look!!” the feline general commands Felix after their numerous attempts at attack have been defeated; he directs the hero’s gaze to a field strewn with the slumped and crumpled bodies of dead cats. “Look again!!” he says in the next moment, directing Felix to look at yet another field, yet more corpses—hundreds of little identical Felixes, all dead.

Realism was one of Messmer’s primary goals. He alternated black and white backgrounds between frames to create a disorienting flicker reminiscent of bomb blasts, and for explosion effects he poured white salt onto a special black card under the animation camera to create the illusion of smoke and debris. The pockmarked landscape and, most of all, the rows upon rows of dead bodies stand as a stark statement against the kind of bodily elasticity and physical impunity one typically associates with cartoons, Felix’s especially. Offering his viewers very little aesthetic protection against the graphicness of his images, Messmer forces them to gaze upon what the war has wrought: he is literally commanding them all to look, demanding that they bear witness to a version of what he himself had seen four years before in the trenches of France.

It is a visually shocking series of moments. But what is perhaps even more remarkable within the short is the narrative breakdown that Messmer allows around these images, the degree to which he lets Felix’s entire enterprise come extremely close to failure.

“We’re licked unless we get reinforcements!” the feline general informs Felix: the entire cat army has been killed, only the general and Felix are left. All those dreams of heroism by all those enlisted cats have led to nothing but slaughter. The rescuers must now themselves be rescued, a humiliating and desperate position. Felix does in the end succeed, but his titular tide-turning is accomplished via a deus-ex-sausage that is so unexpected—and so outlandish, even within the already gonzo world of the short—that it essentially begs not to be taken seriously as a point of narrative resolution. Unable to take the rat’s great citadel, Felix’s battlefield innovation is to call for backup from the butcher shop where he used to work. He telegraphs his old boss back on the home front, who wires over a brigade of sausages that manages at last to take the hill. As historian of animation John Canemaker writes of the scene, “The sight of Felix leading a battle charge on an enemy fortress followed by hundreds of wiener warriors ranks as one of cinema’s great absurdist images.” And the absurdity only deepens when one considers that the battalions Felix has enlisted to ensure his final success are made up of the very foodstuffs it is his job to butcher and sell back home—that they are literally made up of dead meat, things once living that have already been killed. It is a dark commentary indeed on the nature of being a soldier, a kind of backward literalization of the common metaphor by which a combat situation is likened to being a sausage grinder. Felix wins the day by literally reanimating an army of the already dead.

Inevitably, the sausages’ battlefield success generates even more piles of casualties: instead of fields full of dead cats, we now see another field overflowing with rat corpses. The sausages seem to suffer not a single loss in their grand offensive. But they don’t need to: their very personages embody the bloody and chopped-up status of the expendable combat soldier. Felix hasn’t exactly won the battle; he has merely managed to replace his own side’s literal losses with a potent metaphor for that same carnage.

Felix Turns the Tide never ventures into overt pacifism. Metaphors aside, Felix ultimately triumphs, and the short ends with him at the head of a grand parade, one that evokes the “Spirit of ’76” iconography of the American Revolution, a flag-bearer, a drummer, and a flutist all marching down the center of the street. The ostensible message is that Felix is a hero and has bravely done his duty even under the most trying of circumstances. Of course, whether the outcome was worth the carnage remains an open question that Messmer’s film introduces but never resolves. The film’s powerful act of witness, metaphorically invoking the vast scope of the horrors that Messmer himself encountered on the battlefield via a world of cats, rats, and sausages all vulnerable to mechanized mass casualty, is in a sense too weighty for the rather flip preparatory and concluding segments of the film. What is a parade compared to a slaughter?


Reprinted with permission from Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary: War and the Animated Film by Donna Kornhaber, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2020 by Donna Kornhaber. All rights reserved.