The old saw about cats having nine lives gains some validity when one reaches an age that would be extraordinary for a human. And Felix the Cat turned 100 years old on Nov. 9.
Of course, Felix is a cartoon cat, but even so he remains easily recognizable with his image on numerous sorts of merchandise and new animated TV series and feature films while his contemporaries such as Bobby Bumps, Colonel Heeza Liar and Dinky Doodles are remembered only by animation scholars.
Felix first appeared as Master Tom in a film entitled “Feline Follies” — segment of the “Paramount Screen Magazine,” a weekly compendium of news, travelogues and cartoons accompanying feature films.
The film and the character were created by Otto Messmer, chief animator in the studio of expatriate Australian animator Pat Sullivan, intended as a one-shot entry in the Screen Magazine. In it, Master Tom sometimes walks like a real cat on four legs but also walks on just two to woo Miss Kitty White; and he demonstrates features that will be intrinsic to Felix: his tail turns into a question mark to show he’s puzzled, for example, and he turns notes emanating from his banjo into a scooter. The one-shot nature of the cartoon, though, becomes clear at the end when he opts to gas himself rather than face life with Kitty White and her 15 black kittens.
But audiences liked the cartoon — it was funny and the cat represented a change from the standard mischievous little boy and bumbling adult humans who populated the cartoons of the time. Consequently, Paramount asked for more from Sullivan, so a new series was launched, with the cat’s name changed to Felix, also at Paramount’s impetus.
Although Messmer created Felix, it was Sullivan’s name, as head of the studio, which appeared on all the cartoons and Sullivan who claimed all the credit for Felix in his press interviews.
Sullivan, like many of his fellow newspaper cartoonists, had made the transition to animation in the mid-1910s with a variation on his comic stirp character, a little black boy. Both the strip and the animated cartoons were racist by anyone’s standards. Sullivan’s studio also did a series of Charlie Chaplin cartoons, using photos supplied by Chaplin himself to capture him in characteristic poses.
Both those cartoon series had their influence on the later Felix cartoons, but Messmer made Felix a black cat simply because it meant not having to bother with drawing outlines in the character and it was easier to animate. Those considerations as well as Felix’s outstanding popularity meant that funny animals in cartoons of the 1920s were also primarily black.
Walt Disney in particular followed Messmer’s lead with Julius the cat (an obvious Felix imitator) in his “Alice in Cartoonland” series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and of course Mickey Mouse.
The Felix cartoons were intended for adults rather than children and dealt with an array of adult themes — alcoholism, marital discord, anarchists, the Russian revolution, flappers and the crossword puzzle craze that swept the nation in the 1920s, to name just a few. Felix communicated his thoughts and feelings to the audience via facial expressions, gestures and even written notes.
The humor often plunged into the surreal. Felix seemed aware of his being a cartoon character in a cartoon world and was able to manipulate elements in the drawings for his own ends. If the pointed tower on a distant castle looked like an inverted ice cream cone, Felix could defy perspective to grab it and have it become an ice cream cone. A dotted line showing his sightline toward a meal just out of reach could become a tool to acquire it. When a chicken he had been battling retreats to the apparent safety of a small pond, Felix uses the outline of the pool as a lasso to capture the chicken.
In the first few films, Messmer drew Felix with an angular face and body. When Bill Nolan, one of the best animators of the day, joined the Sullivan studio and worked on Felix, he had drawing his sharp-edged muzzle, so he eliminated it and gave Felix a rounder head and body, and Messmer went along with that new design.
Felix became the first real cartoon star, recognized around the world and merchandised aggressively. His luster began to fade, though, with the coming of sound and — somewhat ironically — a mouse. Sound made Mickey Mouse an instant hit, but Sullivan was reluctant to move into sound, and when he did it was just to add sound effects to his films — too little and too late.
Sullivan died in 1933 as a result of years of alcohol abuse and venereal disease. The rights to Felix went to his family in Australia, and Messmer could not make more Felix animated cartoons. Later in the 1930s, the Van Beuren studio was contracted to give Felix a voice in three color cartoons, but they also changed his personality to that of a simple bland funny animal, and the series was not successful.
Messmer did keep up Felix’s image and personality, though, in a comic strip. Later in the 1950s, a TV series of Felix cartoons, done by Joe Oriolo, who had worked with Messmer on the comic strip, changed Felix’s ability to manipulate the drawings he inhabited to Felix having a Magic Bag of Tricks, which could transform into whatever he might need for his current adventure.
In addition to being the first cartoon superstar, Felix became the first cartoon to be produced and distributed by the first woman producer and distributor, Margaret Winkler, who also subsequently handled Walt Disney’s pre-Mickey cartoon series (and kept pushing him to improve the quality of his animation). Felix was also the first cartoon character to appear on television. In a 1928 experiment, RCA transmitted a 60-line image of a 13-inch papier mache Felix doll rotating on a record player turntable.
So you could say Felix has had a few lives in his hundred years. In his 80’s he even become young again. In 2000, Don Oriolo, Joe’s son, working with Japanese anime studios, produced a “Baby Felix” series of 26 episodes, which has seen distribution mainly in Europe so far.