Apr 4, 2014

The morning after . . . with Felix the Cat

Dan Streible writes on April 3, 2014:

A lovely symbol of the morning after Orphans Amsterdam. Tulips (orange, no less) outside the houseboat Anna, on (in?) which Bill Brand and I stayed during the symposium. A nice 20-minute stroll to and from EYE each day and night.

along Brouwersgracht

More news, follow-up, and documentation coming to this blog soon.  But for now it must be said that Amsterdam and EYE were ideal hosts for NYU's Orphan Film Symposium. And the event itself was a grand success. Exciting rediscoveries, premieres of new works and new restorations, captivating presentations, eclectic (very) variety of content, lots of surprises, happy serendipities, genuine joy, and dare we say love amongst the symposiasts / orphanistas.

Let me take this first reawakening moment to recount just one of the rewarding rhymes that played out, connecting beginning and end in serendipitous manner. It involves animation legend Felix the Cat.  Neither screening was on the original 'run of show' (or draaiboek, they/we/Anna Dabrowska say in Dutch).

At the Monday morning Orphans Orientation on Obsolescence, I opted to begin with a screening of the four minutes of outtakes from USC's Fox Movietone News Collection piece catalogued as Josephine Baker Visits Volendam (Aug. 24, 1928, viewable via the MIRC DVR). It was too apt not to show. Greg Wilsbacher kindly scanned the 35mm.

Courtesy of University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections

The story of how the fun Baker footage got to South Carolina includes a story of its origins from an Amsterdam-based company called Mac-Djorski-Films. Turns out that Djorski was a pseudonym used by George Debels, a pioneer of Dutch animation. And that EYE has put a few of his early works online at Film in the Netherlands). After opening night, I decided we needed to see a sampling of Debels animation after seeing Josphine Baker on the big screen. So I took the liberty of cribbing from the site and making a slide that included this 18 seconds of digital video:

On the left is a clip from Een avontuurtje in 't luchtrium (An Adventure in the Skies, 1919), an advertising film for E.L.T.A. -- Eerstte Luchtverkeer Tentoonstelling Amsterdam [the First Aviation Exhibition Amsterdam] -- which was also one of the earliest Dutch animated films. On the right is an excerpt from Debels/Djorski's 1923 film advertising Niemeyer pipe tobacco. Both short silent movies are viewable in complete form at filminnederland.nl.

The latter has its own serendipitous connection to Orphans at EYE, in that it features Debels' rendering of Koko the Clown, a creation of Max Fleischer;  EYE's day-long "Celebrate Cinema" on March 30 featured a screening of Koko's Queen (Fleischer, 1926). The latter was one of two films preserved through the National Film Preservation Foundation's newly announced repatriation partnership with EYE to identify silent American films thought lost but actually surviving in the Netherlands archive. The other, Clarence Cheats at Croquet (a Thanhouser Co. comedy, 1915), was presented by Ned Thanhouser at both Celebrate Cinema day and the Orphan Film Symposium.

Curiously, Debels not only copies Fleischer's Koko in his tobacco ad, he also has Koko introduce Felix the Cat -- who in turn draws the various men who enjoy smoking Niemeyer tobacco. A creation of animators Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer, Felix was (like Koko) first seen on screen in 1919. He was a popular movie star throughout the 1920s, recognized even then as a veritable sine qua non for the art of the motion picture (see the cover of Donald Crafton's great book Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928). Never mind that this is Debels/Djorski's unauthorized drawing of Felix selling tobacco. A Felix it is. 

On closing night, the closing act was Dennis Doros & Mary Huelsbeck (WCFTR), with an hour of seldom-seen and never-before-seen works by American maverick Shirley Clarke, a preview of more of Milestone's Project Shirley releases. The material comes mostly from the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. More surprises! Including Shirley Loves Felix, a video (repeat: video) production in which Clarke performs while talking about the images upon which she is superimposed -- a copy of her prized film print of a Felix the Cat cartoon. The undated video was produced during her time on the UCLA faculty (1975-85). The on-screen Shirley tells us how she perpetually watched Felix to lift her spirits. And then, from Milestone Cinematheque, an inspired idea: an HD edition of her 16mm print of Felix Out of Luck (1924) from daughter/video artist Wendy Clarke -- with a newly added music score, selected from the unreleased jazz recording sessions done for Shirley Clarke's first feature film, The Connection (1961).

From Milestone's Kickstarter page for Portait of Jason, with Shirley's handwritten note:

       When I was still a young girl, I had about twenty Felix the Cat toys, from tiny wooden ones to large stuffed Felixes that my parents brought back from France. I had a Felix the Cat costume that my French governess made for me to attend a girlfriend's costume party. Also, I had a 16mm film by Otto Messmer called Felix Out of Luck. So, I would sit watching my Felix film in my Felix the Cat costume, surrounded by my entire collection of Felix the Cats. 
       -- Shirley Clarke quoted in The New American Filmmakers Series, no. 39, Whitney Museum of American Art, Dec. 5-27, 1987.

 * * * * * * * 

Photo from Radio Age (April 1956), harvested from the awesome Lantern <http://lantern.mediahist.org>.

I don't know if Clarke had it in mind, but the connection between video signal and the 1920s popularity of Felix reminds me how RCA's first experimental television broadcasts fed a test image showing a papier-mâché Felix rotating on a turntable.  I should also note that my slideshow was informed by a richly illustrated essay by Mette Peters.

PPT slide no. 20 of 48 (March 31, 2014)

I was not previously familiar with her work, but was glad to have credited it on screen -- since it turned out she was in the audience. She too works at EYE. So many talented people there! The full article is online. Mette Peters, "Het animatie maakproces in het archief. De vroegste Nederlandse animatiefilms [The Animation Creation Process in the Archive: The Earliest Dutch Animation], TMG, Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis [Journal of Media History], vol. 15, no. 1 (2012):  www.tmgonline.nl/index.php/tmg/article/view/6/55