Felix the Cat is a cartoon character created in the silent-film era. His black body, white eyes, and giant grin, coupled with the Surrealism of the situations in which his cartoons place him, combined to make Felix one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in the world. Felix was the first character from animation to attain a level of popularity sufficient to draw movie audiences based solely on his star power.
Felix's origins remain disputed. Australian Cartoonist/film entrepreneur Pat Sullivan (film producer), owner of the Felix character, claimed during his lifetime to be its creator as well. American Animator Otto Messmer, Sullivan's lead animator, has more commonly been assigned credit in recent decades. Some historians argue that Messmer ghosted for Sullivan. What is certain is that Felix emerged from Sullivan's studio, and cartoons featuring the character enjoyed unprecedented success and popularity in the 1920s.
From 1922, Felix enjoyed sudden, enormous popularity in international Popular culture. He got his own Comic strip (drawn by Messmer) and his image soon adorned all sorts of merchandise from ceramics to toys to postcards. There were several manufacturers who made stuffed Felix toys. Jazz bands such as Paul Whiteman's played songs about him. The most popular song of 1923 was "Felix Kept On Walking", and further songs followed.
Nevertheless, Felix's success was fading by the late 1920s with the arrival of sound cartoons. These new shorts, particularly those of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse, had made the silent offerings of Sullivan and Messmer, who were then unwilling to move to sound production, seem outdated. In 1929, Sullivan decided to finally make the transition and began distributing Felix sound cartoons through Copley Pictures. The sound Felix shorts proved to be a failure and the operation ended in 1930 with Sullivan himself passing away in 1933. Felix saw a brief three cartoon resurrection in 1936 by the Van Beuren Studios, but the glory of the old days had disappeared during the cat's short-lived stint in color and sound.
Television would prove the cat's savior. Felix cartoons began airing on American TV in 1953. Meanwhile, Joe Oriolo, who was now directing the Felix comic strips, introduced a redesigned, "long-legged" Felix in a new animated series for TV. Oriolo also added new characters, and gave Felix a "Magic Bag of Tricks", which could assume an infinite variety of shapes at Felix's behest. The cat has since starred in other television programs and in a Feature film. Felix is still featured on a wide variety of merchandise from clothing to toys. Oriolo's son, Don Oriolo, now controls creative work on Felix movies.
On November 9, 1919, Master Tom, a character resembling Felix, debuted in a Paramount Pictures short entitled Feline Follies. Produced by the New York-based animation studio owned by Pat Sullivan, the cartoon was directed by Cartoonist and Animator Otto Messmer. It was a success, and the Sullivan studio quickly set to work on producing another film featuring Master Tom, The Musical Mews (released November 16, 1919). It too proved to be successful with audiences. Otto Messmer gave two different versions of how Felix got his name, the one on his official site ”Rejoining Sullivan with a great idea for a new character named Felix the Cat http://www.ottomessmer.com/, and the second that ”Mr.(John) King of Paramount Magazine suggested the name "Felix", after the Latin words felis (cat) and felix (luck), which was used for the third film, The Adventures of Felix (1919) (released on December 14, 1919).Pat Sullivan said he named Felix after Australia Felix from Australian history and literature. In 1924, animator Bill Nolan redesigned the fledgling feline, making him both rounder and cuter. Felix's new looks, coupled with Messmer's mastery of Character animation, would soon rocket Felix to international fame.
The question of who exactly created Felix remains a matter of dispute. Sullivan stated in numerous newspaper interviews that he created Felix and did the key drawings for the character. On a visit to Australia in 1925, Sullivan told The Argus (Australia) newspaper that "The idea was given to me by the sight of a cat which my wife brought to the studio one day." On other occasions, he claimed that Felix had been inspired by Rudyard Kipling's "The Cat that Walked by Himself" or by his wife's love for strays. Members of the Australian Cartoonist Association have demonstrated that lettering used in Feline Follies matches Sullivan's handwriting. Sullivan's claim is also supported by his March 18, 1917, release of a cartoon short entitled The Tail of Thomas Kat, more than two years prior to Feline Follies. Both an Australian Australia documentary screened in 2004 and the curators of an exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales, in 2005, suggested that Thomas Kat was a prototype or precursor of Felix. However, few details of Thomas have survived. His fur color has not been definitively established, and the surviving copyright synopsis for the short suggests significant differences between Thomas and the later Felix. For example, whereas the later Felix magically transforms his tail into tools and other objects, Thomas is a non-Anthropomorphized cat who loses his tail in a fight with a rooster, never to recover it.
Sullivan was the studio proprietor and — as is the case with almost all film entrepreneurs — he owned the copyright of any creative work by his employees. In common with many animators at the time, Messmer was not credited. After Sullivan's death in 1933, his estate in Australia took ownership of the character.
It was not until many years after Sullivan's death that Sullivan staffers such as Hal Walker, Al Eugster, and Sullivan's lawyer, Harry Kopp, credited Messmer with Felix's creation. They claimed that Felix was based on an animated Charlie Chaplin that Messmer had animated for Sullivan's studio earlier on. The down-and-out personality and movements of the cat in Feline Follies reflect key attributes of Chaplin's, and, although blockier than the later Felix, the familiar black body is already there (Messmer found solid shapes easier to animate). Messmer himself recalled his version of the cat's creation in an interview with animation historian John Canemaker:
Many animation historians (most of them American and English) back Messmer's claims. Among them are Michael Barrier, Jerry Beck, Colin and Timothy Cowles, Donald Crafton, David Gerstein, Milt Gray, Mark Kausler, Leonard Maltin, and Charles Solomon (historian).
Regardless of who created Felix, Sullivan marketed the cat relentlessly, while the uncredited Messmer continued to produce a prodigious volume of Felix cartoons. Messmer did the animation directly on white paper with inkers tracing the drawings directly. The animators drew backgrounds onto pieces of Celluloid, which were then laid atop the drawings to be photographed. Any perspective work had to be animated by hand, as the studio cameras were unable to perform pans or trucks. Messmer began a Comic strip in 1923, distributed by King Features Syndicate.
Popularity and distribution Rectify
Paramount Pictures distributed the earliest films from 1919 to 1921. Margaret J. Winkler distributed the shorts from 1922 to 1925, the year when Educational Pictures took over the distribution of the shorts. Sullivan promised them one new Felix short every two weeks. The combination of solid animation, skillful promotion, and widespread distribution sent Felix's popularity soaring to new heights.
By 1923, the cat was at the peak of his film career. Felix in Hollywood, a short released during this year, plays upon Felix's popularity, as he becomes acquainted with such fellow celebrities as Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, and even censor Will H. Hays. His image could be seen on clocks, Christmas ornaments, and as the first giant balloon ever made for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Felix also became the subject of several popular songs of the day, such as "Felix Kept Walking". Even Paul Whiteman, the king of jazz himself, did a bit on the frisky feline. Sullivan made an estimated $100,000 a year from toy licensing alone. With the character's success also emerged a handful of new costars. These included Felix's master Willie Brown, a foil named Skiddoo the Mouse, Felix's nephews Inky, Dinky, and Winky, and his girlfriend Kitty.
Most of the early Felix cartoons mirrored American attitudes of the "Roaring twenties". Ethnic stereotypes appeared in such shorts as Felix Goes Hungry (1924). Recent events such as the Russian Civil War were depicted in shorts like Felix All Puzzled (1924). Flappers were caricatured in Felix Strikes It Rich (also 1924). He also became involved in union organizing with Felix Revolts (1923). In some shorts, Felix even performed a rendition of the Charleston (dance).
References to Alcoholism and Prohibition were also commonplace in many of the Felix shorts, particularly Felix Finds Out (1924), Whys and Other Whys (1927), Felix Woos Whoopee (1930) to name a few. In Felix Dopes It Out (1924), Felix tries to help his hobo friend who is plagued with a red nose. By the end of the short, the cat finds the cure for the condition: "Keep drinking, and it'll turn blue."
In addition, Felix was one of the first images ever broadcast by Television when RCA chose a Papier-mâché Felix doll for a 1928 experiment via W2XBS New York in Van Cortlandt Park. The doll was chosen for its tonal contrast and its ability to withstand the intense lights needed. It was placed on a rotating phonograph turntable and photographed for approximately two hours each day. After a one-time payoff to Sullivan, the doll remained on the turntable for nearly a decade as RCA fine-tuned the picture's definition.
Felix's great success also spawned a host of imitators. The appearances and personalities of other 1920s feline stars such as Julius of Walt Disney's's Alice Comedies, Waffles of Paul Terry's Aesop's Film Fables, and especially Bill Nolan's 1925 adaptation of Krazy Kat (distributed by the eschewed Winkler) all seem to have been directly patterned after Felix.
Felix's cartoons were a hit with the critics as well. They have been cited as imaginative examples of Surrealism in film entrepreneurmaking. Felix has been said to represent a child's sense of wonder, creating the fantastic when it is not there, and taking it in stride when it is. His famous pace—hands behind his back, head down, deep in thought—became a trademark that has been analyzed by critics around the world. Felix's expressive tail, which could be a shovel one moment, an exclamation mark or pencil the next, serves to emphasize that anything can happen in his world. Aldous Huxley wrote that the Felix shorts proved that "What the cinema can do better than literature or the spoken drama is to be fantastic."
In 1928, Educational ceased releasing the Felix cartoons and several were reissued by First National Pictures. Copley Pictures distributed them from 1929 to 1930. He saw a brief three-cartoon resurrection in 1936 by the Van Beuren Studios (The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg, Neptune Nonsense and Bold King Cole), but the glory of the old days had disappeared during the cat's short-lived stint in color and sound. Sullivan did most of the Marketing for the character in the 1920s.
Felix as mascot Rectify
Given the character's unprecedented popularity and the fact that his name was partially derived from the Latin word for "lucky", some rather notable individuals and organizations adopted Felix as a mascot. The first of these was a Los Angeles Chevrolet dealer and friend of Pat Sullivan named Winslow B. Felix who first opened his showroom in 1921. The three-sided neon sign of Felix Chevrolet, with its giant, smiling images of the character, is today one of LA's best-known landmarks, standing watch over both Figueroa Street and the Harbor Freeway. Others who adopted Felix included the 1922 New York and aviator Charles Lindbergh, who took a Felix doll with him on his historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
This popularity persisted. In the late 1920s, the U.S. Navy's Bombing Squadron Two (VB-2B) adopted a unit insignia consisting of Felix happily carrying a bomb with a burning fuse. They retained the insignia through the 1930s when they became a fighter squadron under the designations VF-6B and, later, VF-3, whose members Edward O'Hare and John Thach became famous Naval Aviators in World War II. After the world war a US Navy fighter squadron currently designated VF-31 replaced its winged meat-cleaver logo with the same insignia, after the original Felix squadron had been disbanded. The carrier-based night-fighter squadron, nicknamed the "Tomcatters," remained active under various designations continuing through the present day and Felix still appears on both the squadron's cloth jacket patches and aircraft, carrying his bomb with its fuse that has yet to burn down.
Felix is also the oldest high school mascot in the state of Indiana, chosen in 1926 after a Logansport High School player brought his plush Felix to a basketball game. When the team came from behind and won that night, Felix became the mascot of all the Logansport High School sports teams.
The Pop punk band The Queers also use Felix as a mascot, often drawn to reflect punk sensibilities and attributes such as scowling, smoking, or playing the guitar. Felix adorns the covers of both the Surf Goddess EP and the Move Back Home album. Felix also appears in the music video for the single "Don't Back Down". Besides appearing on the covers and liner notes of various albums the iconic cat also appears in merchandise such as t-shirts and buttons. In an interview with bassist B-Face, he asserts that Lookout! Records is responsible for the use of Felix as a mascot.
From silent to soundRectify
With the advent of The Jazz Singer (1927 film) in 1927, Educational Pictures, who distributed the Felix shorts at the time, urged Pat Sullivan to make the leap to "talkie" cartoons, but Sullivan refused. Further disputes led to a break between Educational and Sullivan. Only when Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie made cinematic history as the first talking cartoon with a synchronized soundtrack did Sullivan see the possibilities of sound. He managed to secure a contract with First National Pictures in 1928. However, for reasons unknown, this did not last, so Sullivan sought out Jacques Kopfstein and Copley Pictures to distribute his new sound Felix cartoons. On October 16, 1929, an advertisement appeared in film entrepreneur with Felix announcing, Jolson-like, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"
Unfortunately, nothing good was heard from Felix's transition to sound. Sullivan did not carefully prepare for Felix's transition to sound, and added sound effects into the sound cartoons as a post-animation process. The results were disastrous. More than ever, it seemed as though Disney's mouse was drawing audiences away from Sullivan's silent star. Not even entries such as the off-beat "Felix Woos Whoopee" or the Silly Symphony-esque April Maze (both 1930) could regain the franchise's audience. Kopfstein finally canceled Sullivan's contract. Subsequently, he announced plans to start a new studio in California, but such ideas never materialized. Things went from bad to worse when Sullivan's wife, Marjorie, died in March 1932. After this, Sullivan completely fell apart. He slumped into an alcoholic depression, his health rapidly declined, and his memory began to fade. He could not even cash checks to Messmer because his signature was reduced to a mere scribble. He died in 1933. Messmer recalled,
In 1935, Amadee J. Van Beuren of the Van Beuren Studios called Messmer and asked him if he could return Felix to the screen. Van Beuren even stated that Messmer would be equipped with a full staff and all of the necessary utilities. However, Messmer declined his offer and instead recommended Burt Gillett, a former Sullivan staffer who was now heading the Van Beuren staff. So, in 1936, Van Beuren obtained approval from Sullivan's brother to license Felix to his studio with the intention of producing new shorts both in color and with sound. With Gillett at the helm, now with a heavy Disney influence, he did away with Felix's established personality and made him just another funny-animal character of the type popular in the day. The new shorts were unsuccessful, and after only three outings Van Beuren discontinued the series.
The cat's comebackRectify
In 1953, Official Films purchased the Sullivan-Messmer shorts, added soundtracks to them, and distributed to the home movie and television markets. Messmer himself pursued the Sunday Felix comic strips until their discontinuance in 1943, when he began eleven years of writing and drawing monthly Felix comic books for Dell Comics. In 1954, Messmer retired from the Felix daily newspaper strips, and his assistant Joe Oriolo took over. Oriolo struck a deal with Felix's new owner, Pat Sullivan's nephew, to begin a new series of Felix cartoons on television. Oriolo went on to star Felix in 260 television cartoons distributed by Trans-Lux starting in 1958. Like the Van Beuren studio before, Oriolo gave Felix a more domesticated and pedestrian personality, geared more toward children, and introduced now-familiar elements such as Felix's Magic Bag of Tricks, a satchel that could assume the shape and characteristics of anything Felix wanted. The program is also remembered for its distinctive theme song written by Winston Sharples:
- Felix the Cat,
- The wonderful, wonderful cat!
- Whenever he gets in a fix,
- He reaches into his bag of tricks!
The show did away with Felix's previous supporting cast and introduced many new characters. These include the sinister, mustachioed Professor; his intelligent but bookish nephew Poindexter (with an IQ of 222); the Professor's bulldog-faced, bumbling sidekick Rock Bottom; an evil, cylindrical robot and "King of the Moon" named The Master Cylinder; and a small, unassuming and friendly Inuit named Vavoom, whose only vocalization is a literally earth-shattering shout of his own name. These characters were performed by Voice actor Jack Mercer.
Oriolo's plots revolve around the unsuccessful attempts of the antagonists to steal Felix's Magic Bag, though in an unusual twist, these antagonists are occasionally depicted as Felix's friends as well. The cartoons proved popular, but critics have dismissed them as paling in comparison to the earlier Sullivan-Messmer works, especially since Oriolo aimed the cartoons at children. Limited animation (required due to budgetary restraints) and simplistic storylines did nothing to diminish the series' popularity.
Today, Oriolo's son, Don, continues to market the cat. In 1988, Felix starred in his first (and only) feature film, Felix the Cat: The Movie, in which he, the Professor and Poindexter visit an alternate reality. The film was a box-office failure. Additionally, it was not even released until 1991. In 1995 to 1997, Felix appeared on television again, in an off-beat series called The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat. Baby Felix followed in 2000 for the Japanese market and the direct-to-video Felix the Cat Saves Christmas. Oriolo has also brought about a new wave of Felix merchandising, everything from mugs to a video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Since the publication of John Canemaker's Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat in 1991, there has been a renewed interest in the early Sullivan-Messmer shorts. In recent years, the films have seen lots of VHS and DVD exposure, most notably on the Presenting Felix the Cat compilations from Bosko Video, Felix! from Lumivision, Felix the Cat: The Collector's Edition from Delta Entertainment, Before Mickey from Inkwell Images Ink, the recent Felix the Cat and 1920's Rarities from Thunderbean Animation. Messmer Felix comic compilations have also begun to emerge including Nine Lives to Live: A Classic Felix Celebration by David Gerstein and more recently The Comic Adventures of Felix the Cat from Determined Productions.
- Canemaker, John (1991): Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat. Pantheon, New York.
- Crafton, Donald (1993): Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898–1928. University of Chicago Press.
- Gerstein, David (1996): Nine Lives to Live. Fantagraphics Books.
- Barrier, Michael (1999): Hollywood Cartoons. Oxford University Press.
- Beck, Jerry (1998): The 50 Greatest Cartoons. JG Press.
- Culhane, Shamus (1986): Talking Animals and Other People. St. Martin's Press.
- Gifford, Denis (1990): American Animated Films: The Silent Era, 1897–1929. McFarland and Company.
- Maltin, Leonard (1987): Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. Penguin Books.
- Solomon, Charles (1994): The History of Animation: Enchanted Drawings. Outlet Books Company.
- Patricia Vettel Tom (1996): Felix the Cat as Modern Trickster. American Art, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 64–87
- Animation in the United States during the silent era
- Kit-Cat Klock
- Winsor McCay
- Dan Voiculescu
- The Official Felix the Cat Website
- Public Domain Felix cartoons on Archive.org
- Clues contradicting the Messmer and Canemaker account of the creation of Felix
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2004, Rewind "Felix the Cat" (Concerns the dispute over who created the character.)
- State Library of New South Wales, 2005, "Reclaiming Felix the Cat"(PDF exhibition guide, including many pictures.)