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 the Cat!

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 Slumberland.

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 responsibility.

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 Making."

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 production.

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 Chaplin.

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 on Walking.

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 endure.

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 / pringle@csse.monash.edu.au
Kally Mavromatis / kallym@sprintmail.com
Copyright © 1999 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431