When I was a kid Felix the Cat was one of my favorite cartoon characters. He was fun and mischievous- you never knew what surprises would come out of the Magic Bag. As it turns out, he is one of the longest lasting cartoon characters in history!
One Very Lucky Kitty
In 1919 a black cartoon cat named Master Tom made his first appearance in a cartoon short called “Feline Follies.” It was produced by famed cartoonist and film entrepreneur, Pat Sullivan, and animated by a New Jersey cartoonist named Otto Messmer. The silent cartoon finds a prancing about on all fours (sometimes standing on his hind legs) trying to woo his girlfriend Ms. Kitty. He is a lovable character with a very expressive tail. Audiences loved the little black cat and so more shorts were produced. Master Tom’s name was changed to Felix by the third cartoon, “The Adventures of Felix.”
Quick Side Note…
There was a huge debate between Sullivan and Messmer about who created Felix the Cat. Sullivan told several different stories, most having to do with his wife’s love of stray cats. Messmer claimed to have created the black cat because it was an easy shape to animate. Despite the dispute, Sullivan owned the rights to Felix the Cat as Messmer was his employee. Sullivan maintained that he created Felix the Cat until the day he died. Messmer was later given the credit for creating Felix the Cat by his team of animators.
Back to the Story
By 1922 Felix the Cat had his very own cartoon series with a new short coming out every 2 weeks. While there are different stories about how Felix the Cat got his name, it is probably true that it was from the word for “lucky” in Latin. Felix the Cat was a character that was often deep in thought and who brought a lot of surrealism to the big screen. His series touched on all of the topics that were popular in the 1920’s including alcoholism, prohibition, ethnic stereotypes and flappers.Felix the Cat was even seen along side film legend Charlie Chaplin in a short!
The popularity of Felix the Cat boomed throughout the 1920’s. He is considered the world’s first famous cat and the first true cartoon movie star. His fame didn’t end on the big screen. A Felix the Cat comic strip began in 1923 and didn’t come to a halt for 20 years. It was syndicated in over 250 newspapers worldwide and translated into many different languages. There were clocks, dolls, Christmas ornaments, cards, toys, candy and more. Felix the Cat would even be the first image ever to be broadcast on television airwaves. Engineers from the RCA research lab used a 13 inch tall paper mache Felix the Cat doll on a phonograph turntable to help create the first transmission for NBC. He was the first balloon featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as well.
The Transition to Talkies
Things began to change for Felix the Cat in 1929 when Walt Disney debuted Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse ushered in a whole new era of film – the “talkies.” Silent films began to loose favor with audiences. The studio that helped to make Felix the Cat refused to make the transition to sound and the popularity of his films went down dramatically. Sadly, things got even worse when Sullivan’s wife committed suicide, sending him into depression and alcoholism that would take his life in 1933. Due to problems with the rights to Felix the Cat following Sullivan’s death, the original team had to close shop.
When Messmer finally obtained the rights to continue the series, he worked with a heavily Disney-influenced director to create a talkie version of Felix the Cat. Three shorts were produced in 1935 and they were not well received. The films didn’t have the same look or feel as the original silent Felix the Cat films; the surrealism was not as natural and Felix was not as much of a deep thinker. The films disappeared once again until the 1950’s.
Felix the Cat’s New Persona
Messmer had a protege that would take Felix the Cat to the next level. Joe Oriolo had been working in the shadows of Messmer throughout the 1940’s. Oriolo was known for his work on the animated series “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” He was given the go ahead to create a new look, new personality, and new characters for the relaunch of Felix the Cat on television. Felix the Cat was now trimmer, had longer legs, and was more mischevious and cunning than ever. Oriolo invented the famous Magic Bag and supporting characters Poindexter, The Professor, Rock Bottom, and Vavoom. The voice of Felix the Cat was done by Jack Mercer who was known for the Popeye cartoons. Oriolo created 264 five minute episodes that all made first run syndication starting in 1953 and ran for the next 20 years.
Joe Oriolo eventually handed over the reins of the franchise to his son Don Oriolo. Don was able to pick up right where his father left off. He wrote and produced “Felix the Cat, the Movie” in the early 1980’s which played on the Disney Channel for 10 years. “The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat” was another one of his projects. In 2002, TV Guide named Felix the Cat the 25th most recognizable and famous cartoon character in the world. In 2014 Dreamworks Animation purchased the rights to Felix the Cat, so more it looks like that Magic Bag hasn’t run out of tricks yet.
Have you ever watch a Felix the Cat cartoon?
Here’s a short clip of one of the early ones 🙂