Felix was not only the first animated cat, but also the first to be broadcast on TV.
Animated cats became popular on the big screen with Felix the Cat, the back-and-white feline who to this day can be found on clocks and all sorts of merchandise worldwide. The precocious feline first pounced on audiences in 1919, a full nine years before Mickey Mouse made the scene. So far, the cat has had eight lives and is poised for a ninth. (Technically Krazy Kat came first, with a series of crudely made shorts in 1916-17, but these had limited distribution and failed to have an immediate cultural impact.)
Originally named Master Tom, Felix made his debut in Feline Follies, a short made in New York City for Paramount Studios. The name Felix was used later in December 1919 in The Adventures of Felix. Just like with the name, the look of the frisky feline underwent an evolution. He at first alternated between walking on all fours and upright, and had smaller eyes and more black fill than the later more famous rendition. He was soon upright all the time.
The authorship of Felix is a bit of a dispute. Australian cartoonist and studio owner Pat Sullivan claimed to have come up with the idea and the name, as Australia Felix was a historical name for a region in southeastern Australia. Sullivan also previously made cartoons with an African American stereotype, but these had distribution problems in the American South. He turned to a less controversial black cat instead.
Illustrator Otto Messmer, though, long claimed he was the driving force behind the birth of the character. He tried unsuccessfully to get legal control over the property for many years.
In any event, the cat got a second life after being redesigned in 1924 by Bill Nolan and became the wide-eyed charmer that we all now know, with a shorter snout and broad grin. Felix became the first animation star, and all manner of products were sold ranging from metal toys featuring Felix on is scooter to dishware and wall decorations. During this era he appeared on the side of one of Charles Lindbergh’s planes and made similar appearances as a mascot.
He also made his first TV appearance, presaging his later fame. A doll of Felix was used as the subject of the first ever television experiment in 1928, due to his high contrast and broad features. The doll, rotating on a turntable, was broadcast to test receivers.
But the second of his nine lives was a short one. Pat Sullivan was reluctant to jump on the new-fangled sound bandwagon, while rivals like Walt Disney, Max Fleischer and the major film studios of the time rode the sound wave. Disney, Fleischer and the studios all talking animals with music and sound effects.
Sullivan’s belated efforts at sound effects were a bit crude, and he lost his distribution contract. A series of misfortunes befell Sullivan at the same time, and he turned to drink. He died in 1933 leaving a legal, accounting and physical mess behind. Several studios saw the untapped potential for Felix the Cat, if the character was handled properly, but it was far easier to make new characters than sort out the cat-astrophy left behind.
In 1936, the small Van Beuren Studios got permission from the Sullivan family to use the character, and put a former Sullivan staffer in charge of the new episodes. This third phase for the character totaled three shorts, but they were not popular and a fourth one never made it off the drawing board. Felix catnapped throughout the 1940s, which was a heyday for most cartoons, with Disney, MGM and Warner Bros doing their best work. A newspaper strip and comic books, though, ran in various incarnations until the mid-1960s.
Felix’s fourth life began with television. A company that dealt in educational films, Official Films, reworked the old material with new soundtracks and began to sell them to TV and to people with home projectors. But the number of old episodes was limited.
Famous Studios was a bit more ambitious. They got permission from the Sullivan family to make new use of the character. Joe Oriolo, who had worked on the Felix comic strips and other projects alongside Otto Messmer, signed on to oversee the new episodes. Famous Studio, which had been taken over by Paramount in the 1940s, now changed its name to Paramount Cartoon Studios. They controlled among other properties, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop.
Felix in this fifth phase underwent another big transformation to make him more palatable for children. When cartoons were made for the cinema, they often had double-edged humor for the adults and their children, as both were watching. With TV, the adults tended to plop the kids in front of the electronic babysitter so there was no need to have a second level of adult humor.
Felix acquired a magic bag of tricks, which became the center of most of the plots of the new material. There was a new theme song and a cast of recurring characters who try to steal the magic bag or cause other trouble that Felix needs to resolve.
As was the case with other made for TV cartoons, the animation was done cheaply with simple backgrounds and fewer drawings. A total of 126 cartoons were made in the new format. They were also dubbed into Japanese and where a huge hit there. These have run on TV ever since.
Joe Oriolo’s son Don continued to promote the character after Joe’s death in 1985. Don worked with animators in Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria on a feature film called Felix the Cat: The Movie. This seventh incarnation as a feature move star was completed in 1987 but not shown to the public until 1988 at a festival. It had a small theatrical release in some parts of Europe, but went direct to VHS tape in the US in 1991. Throughout the decade it aired frequently on Disney’s new cable channel.
The eighth life came with a new series called The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat in 1995, which ran for two seasons with 58 episodes. Don Oriolo was executive producer. The series followed the format of the previous one, with the magic bag and various villains, but a bit of ’90s attitude added. It was followed by another series, Baby Felix, which was produced in 2000–01 by Don Oriolo and made in Japan. A rather predicable TV special called Felix the Cat Saves Christmas went direct to DVD in 2004.
Talk of ninth incarnation has popped up, with Canadian company WildBrain set to make new episodes but so far nothing has materialized.
For more tales of illustrated cats, check out our stories on British painter Louis Wain, Austrian-American author Käthe Olshausen-Schönberger, post-card illustrator Eugen Hartung and flip book pioneer Wanda Gág.
Main image: Felix the Cat drawn by Otto Messmer, Pen and black ink. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Frank Jewett Mather Jr.