Ask anybody today to name a famous animated animal, and you’d probably hear answers like “Mickey Mouse”, “Peppa the Pig”, or even “Arthur (the Aardvark)”. But before any of these childhood mainstays dominated our screens, there was Felix the Cat.
Felix was beloved by audiences for cute appearance, curious attitude, and mischievous grin, and played a pivotal role in creating cartoon tropes we still recognise and love today. The decades of popular animation – for adults and kids alike – that followed could not have been possible without Felix’s trailblazing grin.
Felix the Cat was designed in 1919 by Pat Sullivan and Otto Mesmer, although his initial prototype “Master Tom” was the first to appear in the November 1919 Paramount Pictures shorts Feline Follies and Musical Mews. With the success of these silent shorts, Master Tom was officially redesigned and renamed as Felix, who made his debut in the December 1919 short The Adventures of Felix.
The Felix shorts were originally distributed by Paramount (1919-21), Margaret J. Winkler (1922-25), Educational Pictures (1926-28), and Copley Pictures (1929-30). As his fame grew and he gained widespread popularity, Felix began to appear in other mediums including a syndicated newspaper strip (1923-66) drawn by Messmer and later his assistant Joe Oriolo, and the Betty Boop and Felix comics (1984-87).
Felix merchandise was also everywhere during his peak popularity, from everyday appliances and toys to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. He was even selected as mascot of the U.S. Navy’s VB-2B (later VF-6B, then VF-3) fighter squadron, with their F-3 biplanes featuring a logo of Felix holding a bomb. Duing the first-ever TV transmission on NBC, a Felix doll was also selected as a test model – truly reflecting his superstar status.
Felix the Cat Fabric Doll
Year of Make: c. 1920s
Country of Origin: Germany
Early merchandise like this Felix the Cat Fabric Doll reflect the first designs of Felix, which was more fox-like with angular limbs and features. In 1924, animator Bill Nolan redesigned Felix to make him ‘cuter’ using softer lines, a round and rubbery head and body, and wide eyes. This made it easier for studios to animate Felix and has remained Felix’s design till today.
Makers such as Schuco hopped onto the Felix merchandise trend as Felix’s popularity grew, resulting in not just fabric dolls but tin toys, mechanical wind-up dolls, hand puppets, and other memorabilia such as perfume bottles and plates. These items were produced for both his original design and redesign, keeping up with Felix’s superstar status during the early 20th century.
With the death of Felix co-creator Sullivan in 1933, things got complicated. Coupled with the rise of “talkie” films and the emergence of rivals such as Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Felix’s star was beginning to fade.
In 1936, Van Beuren Studios finally got permission from Sullivan’s brother to license Felix to the studio, intending to produce new coloured shorts with sound. However, Burt Gillet (the head of Van Beuren’s staff) overhauled Felix’s old cheeky personality causing his popular appeal to diminish. The new shorts ended up being retired after just 3 unsuccessful productions.
It wasn’t till decades later that Felix would appear on-screen again, first in Felix the Cat (1958-60, created by Joe Oriolo) and then The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat (1995-97).
Controversy and Conflict
At times, Felix’s stardom seemed to be overshadowed by the conflicts between his co-creators. Sullivan and Messmer had a long-running dispute between who was the ‘true’ creator of Felix the Cat – especially since Sullivan, as studio proprietor, had automatic copyright to creative work done by employees such as Messmer.
After Sullivan’s death in 1933, his estate took ownership over Felix. However many Sullivan staffers have staunchly claimed that Messmer was the real brainchild between Felix. Many animation historians have also backed up the claim that Messmer was the real creator, as the one who drew and produced the bulk volume of Felix cartoons. Even Walt Disney paid tribute to Messmer in a 1955 program on animation history.
Legacy and Influence
Within the larger world of silent cinema at the time, animated and live-action films were generally grounded in real-world situations and plots. Felix the Cat totally upended this and ushered in the trend of modernism and surrealism in cartoon filmmaking – think objects popping in and out of existence, or an expressive tail that could ‘become’ items or even expressions (e.g. exclamation marks).
Common themes in Felix also echoed contemporary concerns like Prohibition, Roaring Twenties, and cultural touchstones like the Charleston. Some of these issues have sparked discussion and controversy in more recent years with some scholars discussing the influence of minstrel tropes on Felix’s design, but the character is still generally seen as a symbol of classic Americana.
In some circles, Felix has continued to become a niche pop culture icon. He had his own Wendy’s collaboration in the early 2000s and Felix-inspired fashion has even made it onto runways and magazines including Vogue and Cosmopolitan. For Felix’s 100th anniversary in 2019, Universal Pictures declared 9 Nov “Felix the Cat Day”. Limited-edition Felix merchandise was released including Pop! Funko figurines, Skechers shoes, and PEZ dispensers all themed after this iconic cat – and signalling he won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
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