Puzzles in Pop Culture: Felix the Cat

It’s fun to uncover little puzzly bits of history, but when history, puzzles, and entertainment intertwine, it always makes for intriguing viewing.

So when friend of the blog Darcy Bearman showed me a Felix the Cat cartoon from the 1920s that centered around an unsolved crossword puzzle, naturally I was intrigued.

It wasn’t hard to track down a copy, given how practically everything seems to be on YouTube these days.

Here are the official details:

Felix All Puzzled (1924)

  • Director: Pat Sullivan
  • Animator: Otto Messmer
  • Distributor: M.J. Winkler Productions

Originally Released on January 15, 1925.

Felix is hungry, but his owner won’t feed him until he finishes his crossword puzzle. And he’s fixated on the down clue that will complete the puzzle, “Vertical. Found chiefly in Russia.”

Pondering what the answer could be Felix, the cat laments that he could eat if only he could get to Russia and uncover the missing word.

A nearby mule kicks Felix all the way to Russia, seemingly out of spite — clearly a Moscow Mule — and Felix lands in a small hut. Momentarily mistaken for a bomb, he leaves the hut and heads into town.

He sees two Russians leaning over some papers, and presumes that the answer will be on those papers. But after sneaking into the building, he’s accused of spying, shot at, and chased out. As it turns out, these two men are plotting a revolution, and they toss bombs at Felix.

After avoiding several of them, Felix is blown into the air by the last one, and ends up back in America.

His owner, the ungrateful boor, immediately asks if Felix found the answer. He doesn’t ask how his trip was, or if he’s alright, or hey, can I get you a bite to eat after your mule-and-bomb-propelled world tour. What a jerk.

And Felix’s snarky reply turns out to be the correct answer.

Felix laughs. His owner does a little victory dance. And the cartoon ends.

Naturally, I can’t help but ask… DID YOU FEED FELIX NOW THAT YOUR PUZZLE IS DONE, YOU SELFISH DOOFUS? I mean, come on. It’s the whole reason that Felix bothers going to Russia. He wants to eat. Feed him!

But I digress.

You may have noticed that the cartoon is a little choppy. If you did, kudos to you. As it turns out, most of the copies of this cartoon that are in circulation are from a Kodascope print where several scenes were cut. Given that the original run time listing was 5 minutes, suddenly the choppiness makes sense.

A half-dozen sequences or so are missing from this version, and they explain some of the weirder moments in the cartoon. For instance, the mule kicks Felix because the question marks (from his attempts to figure out how to get to Russia) tickle the mule.

Additionally, if you were wondering why the first Russian Felix meets thinks he’s a bomb, it’s because he got a letter from the revolutionaries earlier that reads “Today, you die!” (Which is admittedly a little grim.)

Now, let’s talk about that puzzle.

TRIPPLE is a pretty strange 1-Across. A chiefly South African term for a horse’s gait (according to Merriam Webster, anyway), you can’t help but wonder if they simply misspelled TRIPLE.

But the rest of the puzzle is fairly straightforward. It’s a 7×7 grid with a few two-letter entries (which wouldn’t fly in most crosswords these days). The combination of EASTERS and EVADERS crossing at the S is admittedly underwhelming, but as far as I can tell

The only other entry that jumps out at me is NVA, but only because I wonder how it would be clued. It’s not like a 1925 cartoon would be referencing the North Vietnamese Army.

Upon further digging, I suspect this would have been clued referencing the National Vaudeville Artists, a union formed by Edward Franklin Albee. The clue “Theatrical organization” is used for NVA in a 1953 New York Times puzzle, according to XwordInfo.

Of course, with obtuse cluing like “Chiefly found in Russia,” even a small grid like this could prove to be a challenge!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Comic Strips

Two weeks ago, we took a puzzly detour into the world of comic strips and explored all the puzzly references we could find in the annals of Garfield publishing history.

In the course of compiling those comics, I stumbled across many others that referenced crosswords and other puzzles. As it turns out, plenty of iconic comic strips have had something to say about puzzles. It makes sense, really, given that crosswords and comic strips are both synonymous with reading the newspaper every day.

So naturally, I couldn’t resist putting some comic strips aside for the PuzzleNation readership to enjoy.


We start off today with this Fred Basset comic strip, wherein a mischievous dog saves the most important part of the paper for his owner.

In this Beetle Bailey strip, we’re not only reminded of the true power behind the General, but of the power of crosswords to eat up your free time.

In the Peanuts comics, many of Snoopy’s best jokes are visual gags, given that most of the other characters can’t understand him. In this case, the joke is on us, as Snoopy and Woodstock crack a curious crossword entry together.

Calvin and Hobbes also had their fun with filling in crosswords, as Calvin takes his usual outside-the-box approach and applies it to our favorite puzzles. (He’d clearly be a whiz at Double Trouble and other crossword variants.)

In this strip by artist Dave Coverly, he reimagines crosswords in an earlier era. (And makes me wonder what an all-symbol crossword would be like.)

There’s a marvelous sense of accomplishment that comes with solving your first crossword. In this comic from Mother Goose and Grimm, the celebration is a bit more enthusiastic.

Many comic strips have fun with the difficulty of crosswords or the wordplay involved in the cluing. But this one by J. Gravelle presents the trouble you can get into by making assumptions while letters are still missing.

In this comic from John Deering’s Strange Brew, the human condition — and the rat condition — are summed up in one poignant quote.

And speaking of The New York Times crossword… we’ve all felt like this at one point or another.

Finally, we get a little meta with this one. But it makes sense, given that the funnies page and the daily crossword are usually in close proximity.

I hope you enjoyed this brief sojourn into comic strip — and puzzle — history. Do you have any comic strips mentioning puzzles that we missed? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Garfield

Puzzles are ubiquitous. Once you start looking around for them, you’ll find them in every nook and cranny of popular culture.

Sometimes, they’re the basis for an entire episode of television, as in Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Parks and Rec. Sometimes, they serve as a linchpin metaphor, as they did in Sleepy Hollow. Other times, they’re good for a funny aside, as in Gilmore Girls, or as a prop to reveal deeper character insight, as on The West Wing.

Over the years, I’ve seen puzzles incorporated into storytelling in dozens of ways. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to stumble across puzzle references where I least expected them: the funny pages.

Yes, they’re such a part of the cultural fabric that they’ve even infiltrated comic strips.

The other day, I stumbled across this Garfield comic strip from last year:

Now, it’s meant to be funny, but I think any puzzler who has stood onstage in front of a whiteboard at ACPT, Lollapuzzoola, or another crossword tournament would agree with Jon over Garfield here.

That was one example. As it turns out, when you start digging, you find crossword gags strewn through the Garfield comics.

Like this one from November of 2005:

That’s a pretty simple gag, but it’s also a nice bonding moment for Jon and Garfield, as Jon’s rampant procrastination dovetails nicely with Garfield’s bottomless love for Italian food.

Jon has less luck making a puzzly connection in this comic from February of 1998:

If you ask me, a cookie and a crossword puzzle sounds like an excellent way to spend time with someone interesting. But I’m biased. I love cookies.

And as you can see in this comic from February of 1979, Jon’s crossword struggles have been an ongoing issue for decades now:

But it’s not just crosswords. Sudoku has gotten a fair amount of attention in the Garfield strip over the years. That’s understandable, as it’s one of the most recognizable pencil-and-paper puzzles in the world.

And as someone who isn’t the fastest Sudoku solver in the world, this series of comics from January of 2010 (an entire week’s worth!) speaks to me. I get it, Jon. I get it.

Honestly, it makes sense that Odie would have Sudoku wired. He’s a puzzle dog. He’s been appearing in crossword grids for years.

There’s a lovely callback to that previous crossword gag.

Finally, Jon triumphs! I admire both his resilience and his unwillingness to give up. Though, given that it took a week to complete a Sudoku, maybe Jon should stick to other puzzles.

Heck, our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have the perfect book for him to try out.

[All images are courtesy of Garfield.com.]


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First Look: Puzzle, A Film About Finding the Right Pieces

[Image courtesy of Steven Teagarden.com.]

Satisfaction. Nothing encapsulates the feeling of completing a puzzle quite like the word “satisfaction.”

Whether we’re talking about crosswords, brain teasers, mechanical puzzles, or jigsaw puzzles, it’s a gratifying feeling to write that final letter, place that final piece, make the final twist/move/connection and unlock the solution.

“When you complete a puzzle, you know you have made all the right choices.” That idea is at the heart of a new movie coming out next month entitled Puzzle.

[Image courtesy of IMDb.]

From one of the press packets for the film:

Agnes, taken for granted as a suburban mother, discovers a passion for solving jigsaw puzzles, which unexpectedly draws her into a new world – where her life unfolds in ways she could never have imagined.

The film stars Kelly MacDonald (who you might know from Brave, Boardwalk Empire, Gosford Park, or Trainspotting), Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, In Treatment, and Jurassic World), and David Denman (The Office, Angel, 13 Hours, and Logan Lucky), but even from the brief glimpses offered in the trailer, this is clearly Kelly MacDonald’s show.

Transitioning from a warm reception at Sundance to wider release in July and August, the film looks like a wonderful character piece, a nice bit of counterprogramming after the usual summer blockbuster fare.

I’m looking forward to seeing the film when it’s released — it opens July 27th in select theaters — and I’ll write a full review for the blog when I do.

But in the meantime, check out the trailer, and if you’re intrigued, spread the word.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Challenge: Champs Vs. Stars

One of the first reality TV shows to make an impact was MTV’s The Real World, which debuted back in 1992. A show wherein seven strangers would live together in a house and have their lives and interactions taped, it is credited with helping launch the modern reality TV genre.

In the decades since, one of the show’s longest-lasting spin-offs has been The Challenge, a competition show where former Real World alums and other reality show figures compete against each other in physical and mental games, both individually and as teams. There is also a social element to the show, as players form alliances, scheme against other competitors, and often vote out players at regular intervals.

As you might expect, puzzles have worked their way into The Challenge from time to time. Memory games, sliding tile puzzles, and variations on the Tower of Hanoi puzzle.

The most recent iteration of the show, The Challenge: Champs Vs. Stars, pits celebrity guests (athletes, reality stars, actors, etc.) against some of the top competitors from previous seasons of The Challenge. Each player earns money for a certain charity as they win challenges and outmaneuver their opponents.

At this point in the game, there were four teams of two remaining: the all-stars team of Louise and Casper, the all-champs team of CT and Tony, the star/champ team of Kailah and Drake, and the star/champ team of Wes and Robert.

In last week’s episode, as the four teams arrived, there was a puzzly surprise waiting for them: the Text Tile Challenge.

In teams of two, the competitors had to roll a giant crate across a length of beach — one player lifting and rolling the crate while their partner scrambled atop it to avoid falling to the ground — until they reached an empty grid.

An empty crossword grid, complete with clues. (Technically it’s a criss-cross, but hey, most non-puzzlers don’t know the distinction.)

The competitors then broke open their crates to retrieve lots and lots of letter tiles, which then had to be placed into the grid.

The teams had varying strategies. CT and Tony opted to just fill in words as fast as they could, choosing to ignore that other competitors could cheat by looking over at their board. (Kailah and Drake, in fact, did precisely that, stealing looks at everyone’s boards in order to make up time.)

Louise and Casper, on the other hand, laid out their tiles in the sand, spelling words out and eliminating tiles, but not making it as easy for other players to cheat off them.

The criss-cross itself was pretty underwhelming, consisting mostly of straightforward clues for contemporary slang and Internet terms, like NO FILTER, THIRSTY, WOKE, and SHADE.

Although Casper and Louise’s technique was good, and they were the first team to get their crate to the grid area, CT and Tony ended up completing their grid first, and achieving victory.

In the end, CT and Tony would choose Casper and Louise to go into elimination, and the remaining three teams voted Kailah and Drake to join them, meaning that Wes and Robert were safe, and made the finals alongside CT and Tony. The winner of Casper and Louise vs. Kailah and Drake would be the third and last team in the finals. The loser would go home.

Honestly, if the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is looking to beef up the level of competition, this might be a cool place to start. If nothing else, it would make for one heck of a pairs challenge.

Although this wasn’t the most difficult puzzle-based event I’ve seen in previous editions of The Challenge, it was a nice variation and certainly kept the competitors on their toes. I look forward to seeing if there are any puzzly obstacles awaiting the three teams that’ll be competing in the finale of The Challenge: Champs Vs. Stars.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Plus Will Shortz!)

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

In our Puzzles in Pop Culture series, we’ve featured shows as diverse as Gilmore Girls, NCIS: New Orleans, The West Wing, Hell’s Kitchen, and Parks and Recreation.

But oddly enough, the puzzliest show in the series has proven to be Brooklyn Nine-Nine, FOX’s hit sitcom about a New York precinct and its oddball collection of detectives. Not only did they pose a diabolical seesaw brain teaser in one episode, but crosswords were at the heart of another key moment in the show just last year.

And today’s post marks the show’s third appearance. Join us as we delve into “The Puzzle Master,” episode 15 of season 5.


The episode opens with detective Amy Santiago passing the sergeant’s exam and doing a dorky dance. Good start.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Her fiance, fellow detective Jake Peralta, has a doozy of a last case for he and Amy to solve as detectives. He presents her with a serial arson case that seem to be connected to the Saturday crossword puzzle. Amy, as a crossword fiend, is overjoyed.

Two different buildings have been set ablaze on two consecutive Saturdays, each with a puzzle left at the crime scene. The only other clue is a note sent to the puzzle’s “author” — not constructor, oddly — Melvin Stermley.

Amy immediately geeks out, mentioning that Stermley once created a puzzle where every word in the grid was the word “puzzle” in a different language. Jake then mentions that Stermley himself is coming in to help them with the case.

[Image courtesy of Brooklyn Nine-Nine Wiki.]

While Jake expects Melvin Stermley to be “a massive dork,” he turns out to be a handsome Hollywood tough guy type. Jake is instantly jealous. (For a nice bit of insider fun, Stermley is played by David Fumero, the husband of Melissa Fumero, who plays Amy Santiago.)

Amy has set up a display with both of Stermley’s puzzles connected to the fires, and the trio begin searching for leads. When Jake asks if he has the typical physique of a puzzler, he mentions that each puzzle only pays a couple hundred bucks, so he makes most of his money modeling. (No doubt a common response you’d get from any top constructor, right, folks?)

They read over the arsonist’s letter again: “Your clues I discombulate, to teach you to conjugate. The fool who fails to validate will watch as I conflagrate.”

Stermley suggests that they look at the answer grids of his puzzles for clues. Amy then jumps to anagramming some of the answer words. (The puzzler notes that Amy Santiago anagrams to “o, nasty amiga” and Jake Peralta to “eat a jerk, pal.”) Amy and Vin decide to split up the odd and even clues, leaving Jake out.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Getting nowhere with the anagrams, they wonder if “conjugate” in the arsonist’s letter means they should focus on the verbs, “the second best form of speech, after prepositions.” Jake suggests a different path, starting with possible suspects who don’t like Stermley, and the puzzler mentions the crossword night he’s hosting at a local bar. “It’s a total puz-hang,” according to Amy, and a good place to start looking.

While waiting in line outside the bar, Jake is disappointed no one is dressed like The Riddler. Amy points out someone wearing crossword-patterned pants. (Again, a common sight at the ACPT.) They chat with one of the other people in line, a woman who jokingly refers to Stermley as her future husband.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Before anyone can enter, they have to solve one of Stermley’s puzzles. Amy is tasked with anagramming the phrase “MEET A BRAINIER STUD, A” into the name of a place in the world. (Jake’s jealousy is piqued by the anagrammed message, of course.)

She quickly solves it — UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — and heads inside. But when Jake tries to follow, he discovers he has to solve a puzzle of his own to get in. The phrase “SAD ANUS LOSER, I GO IN” must be anagrammed into a film based on a classic book. Cut to Jake sneaking into the bathroom, because he couldn’t solve the anagram.

(It was DANGEROUS LIAISONS, by the way.)

While Jake waits in the bathroom for his pants to dry — he stepped into the toilet while climbing down from the window — two puzzle fans come in, discussing Stermley’s mad puzzle skills and how “Sam” must be pissed, as Stermley replaced him doing the Saturday crossword, bumping him down to work in Parade Magazine.

They mention Sam’s toughest clue, “a 5-letter word for a game popular in nursing homes,” to which Jake replies “BINGO.”

[Image courtesy of AV Club.]

Jake mentions it to Stermley, who says Sam Jepson is one of his best friends and has been out of town for weeks. Jake still thinks Jepson is a solid lead.

Amy and Stermley, meanwhile, have realized that both targeted buildings were at the intersection of numbered streets, and those numbered intersections also point to letters in Stermley’s puzzles: M and A. They plan to build a trap into Stermley’s next puzzle to catch the arsonist.

When given a choice between Jake’s approach and Stermley’s, Amy opts to go with the puzzle trap.

Back at the precinct, Amy has determined that the most common letters in people’s names that follow MA are L, X, R, and T — Malcolm, Max, Mark, and Matthew, for example — so Stermley constructs a puzzle using only one of each of those letters. (A pretty daunting challenge, but definitely doable — especially if the cryptic-style crossword grid on the board behind Amy is the puzzle in question. It would have fewer intersections.)

Amy plans to stake out the intersections for each of those four letters, assigning one of them to Jake. (Jake, meanwhile, makes a secret plan to have Charles stake out Sam Jepson’s apartment.)

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Charles spots Sam on the move — played by crossword guru Will Shortz, no less! — and Jake leaves his assignment to intercept. He and Charles follow Sam, who sits at a corner and eats soup, then calls his Mom. It turns out he has been out of town, only having returned tonight — and his marriage proposal was rejected. Bummer.

Jake returns to his assigned intersection, and the building is on fire. He has missed the arsonist.

Amy is understandably upset with Jake when they’re back at the office. Jake confesses he’s jealous of Stermley and doesn’t want Amy to wake up one day, regretting not marrying someone as smart as her. She reassures him that he’s a brilliant detective and that’s why she wants to marry him.

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

Jake has a epiphany, realizing that the arsonist’s name isn’t what’s being spelled out, it’s the word MARRY. (The word “conjugate” in the letter also pointed to marriage.)

And who wants to marry Stermley?

The woman in line at the bar on crossword night.

Jake and Amy bring the woman in, and it turns out the full message she intended to spell out with her fires was “MARRY ME OR ELSE I WILL KILL YOU, YOURS FOREVER, HELEN GERBELSON.”

That would take SO MANY FIRES. (I imagine she’d have to burn down several buildings more than once, given the sheer repetition of letters and the relatively few options for numbered streets.)

But, in the end, the arsonist has been caught, thanks to the power of puzzles and good police work.

[Image courtesy of Lauren Leti’s Twitter.]

Overall, I thought this was a very fun episode of the show. The anagram gags were the puzzly highlight, though I confess, I thought they’d do more with the Will Shortz cameo.

Here’s hoping there’s a crime at the Brooklyn Nine-Nine equivalent of the ACPT next year!

Also, as someone who has seen ARSON in a thousand grids, it is funny to see someone finally link the word and the act in a puzzly way.


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