The Evolution of Felix the Cat
Felix The Cat
Felix the Cat was one of the pioneer characters in animation and one of the first, if not the first, animated character to possess a personality of his own. In the roaring twenties he was as big a celebrity as any of the silent film stars of his day and is rivalled only by Mickey Mouse (whom he proceded) in popularity.
Much controversy has surrounded the creation of the cat as Pat Sullivan, the producer of Felix the Cat films was also considered to be sole creator during his heyday and was for many years the sole owner of the creative copyright. Many years later however it came to light the timid cartoonist Otto Messmer was in fact the main creative force behind this lovable character.
Throughout his career Felix has evolved from the unknown, single-reel character Master Tom to the mischievous, well-rounded cat that is still well known today almost one-hundred years after he came onto the scene. We will see how these evolutions took place from the original silent reels for adults, to the talking cartoons for children that most of us are familiar with.
Feline Follies 1919
When Felix the Cat first hit the scene in 1919 in Feline Follies he wasn’t known as Felix yet, but as Master Tom and though he does look familiar many of us wouldn’t relate him to the feline character we know and love. However many of the trademarks of the superstar he would come to be were already quite evident in the animation.
For example, the exploitation of the impossible that Felix often used in later films can be seen when a little black mouse turns white after drinking white milk (to much applause from his mouse friends) and when Master Tom and his amour Miss Kitty use the musical notes from his banjo as vehicles for a joyride.
Another Felix trademark is the use and metamorphoses of his tail. In Feline Follies the black cat’s tail becomes a question mark in the first frame and later on is used as a toothbrush when he is getting ready for his date.
It is also clear that when he first made his debut that Felix was a cartoon meant for adults. His shorts were played in movie theatres before the invention of television alongside other silent films. The very adult plot points include a lover’s tryst, Felix’s fear of commitment and the cat’s own suicide in the end.
Felix Saves the Day 1922
By 1922 the cat officially had a name. Felix Saves the Day continued to show the mischievous personality of the cat although he still maintained an almost canine appearance that would later be rounded out.
Felix remains an extremely plastic character throughout his career, frequently switching between feline and human behaviour. Felix’s signature problem solving walk, with his head down and his hands clasped behind his back made it’s debut in this silent cartoon. We also see, not for the first time, the “happy dance” that we continue to see for years to come where Felix spins around with his finger held above his head like a maypole.
Felix the Cat - Dopes it Out 1924
When distributor M.J. Winkler took over the sales of Felix the Cat shorts (1921-1925) she demanded higher quality animation from Sullivan and his team. Winkler advertised the cat furiously and it was with her hard work that his popularity began to rise.
In the 1924 short Felix the Cat - Dopes it Out we can see that not only the quality of animation gone up but Felix has become the cat that we are familiar with today. It was animator Bill Nolan, who joined the Sullivan team and introduced the pipe-hose like limbs that bend in a rounded fashion. Nolan also introduced Felix’s rounded head, simply because he didn’t like drawing his more canine snout.
We continue to see the Felix trademarks such as the exploitation of impossible solutions: lighting a cigarette with a red nose, use of question marks and defying gravity. Though these things are common in the cartoons children watch today it was really Felix, and creators Messmer and Sullivan, who pioneered this kind of animation.
Though there is rudimentary use of sound in this short the animators continued to use speech bubbles when the characters needed to communicate. Again we see how clearly these cartoons are marketed to adults with themes such as suicide and alcoholism. “Cure for a red nose. Keep drinking and it will turn blue.”
Felix the Cat - Whoos and Whoopees 1928
This 1928 cartoon signals the beginning of the end for the silent film star that Felix had become. Though his image was all over North America and Europe the coming of the talkies and the success of Disney’s Mickey Mouse proved a huge hurdle for everyone’s favourite cat.
Whoos and Whoopees was Sullivan’s attempt at producing the cat with sound accompaniment. As you will see when you watch the clip the sound is still quite simple and poorly matched to the action. It was essentially a swan song for the famous cat.
We can also see that M. J. Winkler is no longer the producer, nor is she in charge of the heavy advertisement that contributed to Felix’s stardom. The move to Jacques Kopfstein was the result of a heated debate over a vaguely worded contract.
We can also the Miss Kitty from Feline Follies is still around. But now Felix is a married man. He is continually represented throughout the early cartoons as, first a bachelor, then a drinker and irresponsible husband, and later father.
Felix the Cat - Bold King Cole 1936
Between 1928 and 1933 Felix did poorly. He was buried by more technologically advanced cartoons such as Disney’s Steamboat Willie. Pat Sullivan died in 1933 of chronic alcoholism and Otto Messmer let the cat pass out of his hands.
Joe Oriolo and Burt Gillet revived Felix in the bright sound and colour of the late thirties and once again the cat found popularity. However he was much changed. In Felix The Cat - Old King Cole we can see that with new animators and a new production company (Van Beuren) came a cat somewhat more bound by the laws of reality. Messmer liked to let cartoons be cartoons, but in the colour and sound world of an older Felix his tail stays firmly on his rump and question marks and musical notes are no longer all-purpose tools.
Felix the Cat - The Magic Bag 1959
In the late 50’s and early 60’s the world was introduced to the Felix that most viewers would recognise today. His rounded body is perched on much longer legs, he carries a magic bag and is joined by a whole cast of accompanying characters.
His magic bag now serves the purpose that his tail and question marks used to, once again making use of the cartoon impossible. We even see him using his tail as a tool once again. But now, Felix is special and other character’s are amazed when he can do things that used to be mundane in the cartoon world.
Felix the cat is one of the most enduring cartoon characters of all time. He remains one of the most recognizable, and at 91 years-old, one of the oldest of famous TV stars. He lives on in films, comics and on TV reruns and will likely continue to be well-loved for years to come.