Felix the Cat

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Felix the Cat

The creation of Otto Messmer (1892-1983) and Pat Sullivan (1885-1933), Felix the Cat first appeared as an animated cartoon character (under another name) in 1919 in Feline Follies. Felix had a lively personality, an expressive manner, and solved problems in a creative fashion. For this later facet of Felix's personality his creators took full advantage of the animation medium and metamorphosed body parts into useful tools. The first major funny animal character to star in a series of animated cartoons, Felix appeared in some 150 shorts in the 1920s before the introduction of new sound technology saw his popularity wane. Meantime, however, King Features had commenced a Felix the Cat comic strip in 1923 and his trademark likeness had been licensed to many products.

Not only was Felix the first star of animation, he was also the product of a particular business arrangement that would become commonplace in animation studios. Messmer and Sullivan were the creative force behind the character. Messmer, a talented artist, took creative control of the movies and Sullivan, a lesser artist but a driven entrepreneur, arranged distribution and licensing. Sullivan retained all rights for the character and for many years his was the only name publicly associated with Felix. Messmer remained an employee.

Messmer, the son of German immigrants, was born just across the river from New York in Union City. Before joining Sullivan he worked variously as a scene painter, cartoonist, and as an animator for Henry "Hy" Mayer. Sullivan, of Irish heritage, was born in a tough working class neighborhood of Sydney, Australia. After some limited success as a cartoonist, during which time he shortened his name from O'Sullivan, he departed Australia for London in 1907. By 1909 he was in New York where in 1911 he found work as an assistant to William F. Marriner on his comic strip Sambo and His Funny Noises. Felix would later demonstrate some of Sambo's trickster qualities.

When Messmer and Sullivan joined forces in 1916, the worldly Sullivan had established his own animation studio releasing Sammy Johnsin animated shorts based on the Sambo strip, but renamed to avoid litigation. Sullivan's studio, however, was put on hold in 1917 when he was convicted of rape and sentenced to two years in Sing Sing. Messmer went back to work for Mayer before being drafted. The two met up again in 1919 on Messmer's return from the First World War and Sullivan's release from jail. They collaborated on the aforementioned Feline Follies, which helped re-establish the Sullivan studio.

The 1920s were Felix's decade. Sullivan shopped his character around film distributors. Historian John Canemaker has estimated that some 30 Felix shorts were released through Famous Players Lasky from 1919-1921. In 1922, finding himself without a distributor, but with the ownership of an established character, Sullivan struck a deal with distributor Margaret J. Winkler and from 1922 to early 1925 her company distributed 50 Felix animations. In these years Bill Nolan influenced Messmer to soften Felix's features and a rounder Felix became the cartoon norm.

In 1925 Sullivan broke his ties with Winkler and signed a new distribution contract with Educational Films. Winkler turned to a young Walt Disney who had already turned out a Felix clone named Julius in a series distributed by Winkler. Disney's new character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, had many similarities to Felix. In 1928 Disney lost control of Oswald to Winkler and had to create a new character: Mickey Mouse.

Meanwhile, Felix had been licensed extensively to doll, toy, and pencil manufacturers, as well as cigarette companies. He was also the subject of popular songs and generated income for Sullivan from sheet music sales. The comic strip, which according to Canemaker was not widely popular, nonetheless appeared from coast to coast in the papers of William Randolph Hearst. Felix was also extremely popular in the United Kingdom and Sullivan's native Australia. In 1928 Felix was at the height of his fame. So ubiquitous was his fame and appearance that NBC used a Felix doll to test television cameras and transmission. In the strong visual presence of Felix lay the seeds of his downfall.

Disney's debut of Mickey Mouse in the sound film Steamboat Willie introduced a new dimension to animated shorts. Felix embodied the perfect characteristics for silent animation. To meet the challenges of sound he had to change, and the change undermined his character. Moreover, whereas Disney carefully pre-planned his animation to fit music and sound effects, the Sullivan studio, when it eventually introduced sound, did so as a post animation process. Inevitably the Disney product was superior.

By 1930 Felix had faded from the screen. Sullivan died in early 1933 from the effects of alcoholism. His heirs and lawyer briefly revived Felix in film in 1936, but the lackluster efforts were short lived. Felix lived on in a weekly and daily comic strips which ran to 1943 and 1967 respectively. He also appeared monthly in a Dell comic book. In 1959 Joe Oriolo revived Felix in a series of cartoons for television. Oriolo resurrected Felix again in another television series in 1982. Retrospectives of early Felix shorts were held at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977. In the late 1980s, Felix cropped up in a number of licensed merchandise ventures.

Felix is an icon of twentieth-century American popular culture. That he was created by an Irish-Australian and a German-American and was popular world-wide reminds us of the transnational character of popular culture in the twentieth century.

—Ian Gordon

Further Reading:

Canemaker, John. Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat. New York, Pantheon, 1991.