Felix the Cat - Silent Star of April 1999
by Kally Mavromatis
He was the world's most famous cat, the first cartoon star who was
created and developed for the screen, and the first to become a
licensed, mass merchandised character. He's our favorite feline, Felix
Felix first appeared in 1919, and was the creation of
Otto Messmer. Messmer was born in West Hoboken (now
known as Union City) New Jersey on August 16, 1892. As a child he
attended Holy Family School, where he was encouraged to draw. After
school, Messmer took a correspondence art course, as well as attended
the Thomas School of Art on 23rd Street in New York. Despite his
work-study program with the Acme Agency illustrating fashion
catalogues, his heart was with cartooning, and it was around this time
that his brother took him to see Winsor McCay's
vaudeville act in New York featuring his animated films, beginning with
Little Nemo from his comic strip Little Nemo in
In 1912 Messmer saw McCay's
How a Mosquito Operates,
and in 1914
Gertie the Dinosaur, with its
combination of live-action and animation. Encouraged, he began
contributing his own comics to the papers, including Fun, the
Sunday comics supplement to the New York World. In addition, he made
the rounds of the studios, interviewing as a set painter.
Jack Cohn, then at Universal, was looking to expand the
studio's animation output, liked what he saw of Messmer's comics, and
on December 21, 1915 signed him to make a test film.
Returning home to work on his assignment, Messmer, unaware of cel
technology or the peg system for proper registration, painstakingly
drew a character he named Motor Mat, a fearless automobilist using a
lightboard built by his father. While Motor Mat was never released,
Cohn was pleased with Messmer's work, showing it to
Pat Sullivan, an animator who had worked with
Raoul Barre, inventor of the peg system, and
Henry "Hy" Mayer, a well-known cartoonist. Both expressed a desire to work with
Messmer, but he opted to work with the more-famous Mayer, making
The Travels of Teddy, based on Mayer's friend Teddy
Roosevelt. The successful completion of Teddy gave Messmer confidence,
and once the project was over, he went to see Pat Sullivan at his
studio at 125 West 42nd Street.
Pat Sullivan had been cartooning and animating for a few years by the
time Messmer came to see him. Born Patrick O'Sullivan in Sydney,
Australia in 1885, Sullivan's early years were described as "a damned
hard struggle." He had had a few comics published, and at age 20 left
for London. The years there were even harder, so to make ends meet he
often performed on the stage. He was not as successful there, either,
and so in 1909, on a job tending mules being shipped to America, he
jumped ship in New York. After a brief career in boxing, Sullivan
landed a job with the McClure Newspaper Syndicate as assistant to
cartoonist William F. Marriner and his Sambo and His Funny Noises
strip. After Marriner's death in 1914 Sullivan continued to draw Sambo,
but it was dropped by the end of the year. In 1915 he was working at
one of the earliest animation studios, Raoul Barre's Animated Cartoons,
Inc., where he worked with the now universal peg and cel system.
Now on his own (no longer leasing space from Universal's Fort Lee
studio), Sullivan had contracts with Efanem Film Company and Edison for
advertising and split-reel entertainment shorts. He animated the Sambo
character, calling him Sammy Johnsin to avoid copyright infringement,
and produced nine shorts between March and December 1916.
In 1916 Sullivan received a commission from Universal for a two-minute
prologue to their
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
called Twenty Thousand Laughs Under the Sea. As Sullivan grew
increasingly busy with business, Messmer assumed most of the creative
In 1912 Messmer had met Anne Mason at Midland Beach on Staten Island, a
happy marriage that lasted for fifty-nine years. But Pat Sullivan was
not as fortunate, and on May 10th 1917 he was arrested for the rape of
an underage female. He made a quickie marriage to Margaret (Marjorie)
Gallagher on May 21, 1917 and was indicted the next day of rape in the
second degree. While Sullivan served his 1-2 year sentence at Sing
Sing, Messmer returned to work for Hy Mayer. But Messmer was soon
drafted and fought in Europe until his return home May 28, 1919. In the
meantime, Sullivan, who had been released after serving nine months,
had returned to the studio and announced his return to "Cartoon
With Messmer back from the war they returned to making animated short
parodies of travelogues for Triangle Films and cartoons based on
Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character. One day in 1919, the studio was so
busy it almost turned down a request from Earl Hurd, director of the
Paramount Screen Magazine, a weekly news-travelogue-cartoon compilation
that accompanied a feature film to fill in for a tardy animator.
Sullivan told Messmer to do it on the side, and to save time he made
the cartoon's hero, a cat, all black. Titled Feline Follies, the
cartoon did so well that Paramount ordered a whole series.
And thus was Felix the Cat born. Originally Master Tom, by the third
film he was Felix, a combination of feline and felicity. A good-luck
cat, Felix brought good luck to people in trouble, a theme upon which
the series was based. Despite being Messmer's creation, Sullivan took
all the credit for Felix, signing a two-year contract with Famous
Players-Lasky for one Felix cartoon a month. Messmer hired Hal Walker
as an assistant in 1920, and the studio moved to 66th Street and
Broadway, the current site of the Julliard School of Music to begin
When Adolph Zukor decided to close down Paramount Screen Magazine
because it was too costly, Sullivan realized with a shock that the
copyright to Felix belonged to Famous Players-Lasky. According to
Sullivan, in a drunken stupor, he went to Zukor's office and, after
urinating on his desk, demanded back the rights to Felix. Disgusted,
Zukor phoned his attorney and arranged the transfer.
In 1921, Sullivan tried to interest Harry Warner in distributing the
Felix series. While Warner was uninterested, his secretary, Margaret J.
Winkler, was. On December 15, 1921, she and Sullivan signed a contract,
making her the first female producer and distributor of animated films.
In February of 1922 she left Warner's and set up shop as an independent
distributor, with its cornerstone the Felix the Cat series. But M.J.
Winkler demanded better quality from Sullivan, and got it, in the form
of improvements in story, photography, and animation.
Felix Saves the Day was the first film to be distributed under the new
arrangement, and by April of 1922, Winkler had created a PR bonanza,
securing distribution to 60% of the country, including Canada. In 1922
Sullivan and Winkler released Felix All at Sea (May), Felix in Love
(June), Felix in the Swim (July), Felix Finds a Way (August), Felix Get
Revenge (September), Felix Wakes Up (September), Felix Minds the Kids
(October), Felix Turns the Tide (October), Felix on the Trail
(November), Felix Gets Left (December).
Despite their simple titles, the Felix cartoons were full of visual
puns, imagination, and other humorous details. Felix was the first
animated character that was intelligent, in that he contemplated
problems and found solutions unique to the world of animation, where
the impossible reigns supreme. On September 12, 1922 Winkler and
Sullivan extended their contract and Winkler negotiated for
international distribution through Pathe.
With a contractual obligation of double the output of 1922, the studio
doubled in size, moving to 47 West 63rd Street. The studio also hired
Bill Nolan, formerly of Barre's staff and considered "one of the
fastest animators who ever lived." In order to save time, Nolan made
changes to Felix, including rounding some of Felix's angles and
eliminating his snout. The resulting kitty was more cuddly and more
sympathetic and, more importantly, easier and faster to draw.
In many of his films, Felix got to spoof the movies, and in Felix in
Hollywood, he is the pet of an out-of-work actor. Once in Hollywood, he
ditches his owner to pursue his own career at Static Studio. Here he
meets Gloria Swanson and is taught to cross his eyes by Ben Turpin.
Hearing a cry of help from Douglas Fairbanks, who is being attacked by
giant mosquitoes, he takes a gun from William S. Hart and kills the
insects, delighting Cecil B. DeMille who signs him to a contract. At
one point Felix detaches his tail and performs a pantomime of Charlie
The public loved him, and Felix's output continued with Felix Revolts,
Felix Strikes It Rich. In 1923 he became a comic strip, running until
1943. Despite his film popularity, the strips were never as popular as
the cartoons themselves, perceived as "advertising" for the films. With
the release of the films in Europe through Pathe, Felix became
world-famous, even hitting the music charts with 1923's song Felix Kept
Felix continued to fly high, with his picture emblazoned on everything
from stuffed cats to the side of an F-3 fighter plane. He continued his
popularity throughout 1925-1928 with Felix the Cat Trips Through
Toyland, Felix Trifles With Time, Felix Finds the Rainbow's End, and a
parody of Chaplin in Felix the Cat in the Cold Rush, Eats Are West,
Felix in Two Lips Time, Felix Shatters the Sheik, Felix Hunts the
Hunter, Felix Trumps the Ace, Felix Dines and Pines, Pedigreedy, Felix
Hits the Deck, Flim Flam Films, and Comicalamities.
However, as sound began to creep into films, noticeably Walt Disney's
new Mickey Mouse cartoons, Sullivan hesitated, taking a "Why change?"
attitude. When he finally decided to add sound to some old and new
Felix films, the work was sloppy, compared to Disney who carefully
analyzed, frame by frame, the marriage of sound to action. By 1931
Felix's prime had passed, replaced by a new king of cartoons and
character licensing: Mickey Mouse.
Sullivan's alcoholism and fast living caught up with him, and he died
February 15, 1932. . Throughout, Sullivan had taken credit as Felix's
creator, spreading a story of how his wife brought him an alley cat
that became the model for Felix. As the character was resurrected for
television, producer Joe Oriolo was careful to give credit to Messmer.
Once again Felix became a pioneer, this time reaching a new audience
through the medium of television. Redesigned with longer legs than his
film incarnation, Felix was accompanied on his new adventures with
bulldog Rock Bottom, the mad Professor, and his smart young nephew,
Poindexter, and his now-infamous "Magic Bag."
Otto Messmer, basking in the recognition long denied him, died on
October 28, 1983. His character lives on, appearing on everything from
t-shirts to coffee mugs to stuffed animals. His appeal continues to
Sources: The 50 Greatest Cartoons as Selected by 1,000 Animation
Professionals, Jerry Beck, editor; Felix: The Twisted Tale of the
World's Most Famous Cat, by John Canemaker.
GLen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1999
by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis