Felix the Cat is a cartoon character having a black body, white eyes, a giant grin, and a noticeable mischievous personality. The character is anthropomorphic and was created in the silent movie era. Felix is known to be one of the most recognized cartoon characters in theatrical history.
On November 9, 1919, a prototype of Felix, named Master Tom, was introduced in a Paramount Pictures short film titled, ‘Feline Follies’. It was directed by cartoonist and animator Otto Messmer, and was produced in Pat Sullivan’s animation studio in New York.
The film became a success, and work soon started for the production of another film featuring Master Tom. The second film was named ‘Musical Mews’ and was released on November 16, 1919. This film was also a success among the viewers.
The name Felix, as claimed by Otto Messmer, was suggested by John King of Paramount magazine and was taken after the Latin word felis which means cat, and felix which means happy. The character was introduced with the new name in the third movie, ‘The Adventures of Felix’. The third movie was released on December 14, 1919.
In 1924, the character of Felix was redesigned by animator Bill Nolan to give it a rounder and cuter look. The new-look gave Felix a new boost in popularity.
The origin of Felix the cat has remained controversial. Pat Sullivan claims to be the one to give birth to the character of Felix, and doall the main drawings for the series. He said that the idea for the character came from a cat that his wife brought with her to the studio. Messmer, on the other hand, has put forward claims that he was the one who solely drew ‘Feline Follies’ from home.
Pat Sullivan owned the animation studio and as a result, had ownership of all the creative work done by his employees. As a common practice of the time, Messmer was not given any credit for the cartoon series. After Sullivan’s death, several of his staffers, and even his own lawyer, gave credit to Messmer for his work on the cartoon series.
Animation historians such as Michael Barrier, Jerry Beck, and several others have backed Messmer’s claims. No one, except for animators in Australia,have argued on behalf of Sullivan. Messmer focused on producing blocks of Felix cartoons while Sullivan marketed it persistently.
Paramount Pictures was the initial distributor of the Sullivan films from 1919 to 1921. The shorts from 1922 to 1925 were distributed by Margaret J. Winkler. The distributors were promised one new short every two weeks. The mixture of above par animation, intense promotion, and widespread distribution became the reason behind an increase in the series’ popularity.
By 1923, Felix reached the height of his popularity and fame. A short film later that year was released named, ‘Felix in Hollywood’. The story of the film revolved around Felix getting acquainted with his fame and meeting fellow celebrities. Felix also became the theme behind many popular songs of the time such as ‘Felix Kept Walking’ by Paul Whiteman.
Felix also became quite popular among the critics. His famous walking style – hands behind the back, head down, deep in thought, became a trademark. Felix was shown to have a tail that would change form in different situations. It could be a shovel one moment, a pencil or an exclamation mark in the next. Sullivan made a whopping $100,000 a year from toy licensing alone.
In 1928, Educational Pictures stopped releasing the Felix cartoons, and several were reissued by First National Pictures. During 1936, a three-episode resurrection of the series was done by the Van Beuren Studios.
Felix as a Mascot
The popularity of the character, Felix the Cat, made several imminent organizations and individuals to adopt it as a mascot. The first of these adoptions were made by a Los Angeles Chevrolet dealer and a friend of Pat Sullivan. Others who took Felix as a mascot were the New York Yankees, pilot and actress Ruth Elder, etc.
In the late 1920s, the US navy bombing squadron adopted an insignia where Felix the cat was shown as happily carrying a bomb, with a burning fuse, in his hands.
A deal was signed between Messmer’s assistant, Joe Oriolo, and Pat Sullivan’s nephew, to produce a new ‘Felix the Cat’ series. Later, Felix starred in two-sixty television cartoons produced by the Famous Studios. The reboot, however, wasn’t much of a success.
In 2004, Felix was ranked at no. 89 in a poll conducted by the British Television channel. The poll was to find out the 100 Greatest Cartoons.
Felix The Cat was the first animated character to attain a level of popularity enough to draw movie attention. It is one of the few cartoon series that reached great heights of popularity in a very short span of time.