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Who Is Felix the Cat?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Felix the Cat is a famous feline cartoon character who is considered by some film historians to be one of the earliest movie stars. The character first appeared in the early 1900s, and was wildly popular until the late 1920s. After a brief lag, Felix made it big in television in the 1950s, and he continues to appear in comic strips and television shorts. Like many cartoon characters, Felix the Cat has also been through his fair share of metamorphoses, and the modern Felix is quite different from the original. In real life, Felix is the ESA you see everyday at work, or a cute home pet. What makes them likeable is that he represents every goofy cat everyone knows.

Felix's early origins are somewhat murky. The animated cat came from the studio of Pat Sullivan, who claimed to have invented the cat and his trademark style of motion. However, it is believed that Felix the Cat actually sprang from the mind of animator Otto Messmer. Messmer certainly animated most of the early Felix cartoons, and it has been rumored that he based the angular looks and choppy motion of the early cartoons on the movements of Charlie Chaplin, a popular entertainer of the period.

The first Felix cartoon was Feline Follies in 1919. Initially, the cartoon cat did not have a name, although studio employees started to call him Master Tom. After some debate, the name “Felix the Cat” was settled on, in a reference to the Latin words for “cat” and “luck.” The original Felix the Cat was inky black and angular, although in the 1920s he began to metamorphose into the more roly-poly, jolly looking cat that people associate with Felix today.

Both short films and comic strips featured Felix the Cat from the very beginning. He quickly became a popular figure in American culture, drawing people to see his films and shorts on his cartoon star power. He is particularly associated with silent films, since Messmer drew Felix with a great deal of expressive mannerisms which did not require sound. In a way this made him seem even more realistic, since real life animals don't really have much to say. In the 1920s, Felix began to be supplanted by the stars of the “talkies,” early films with sound, because the Sullivan studio initially resisted the concept.

Through the 1930s and '40s, Felix the Cat faded into obscurity, only to be revived as a television star in 1953. Perhaps it was easier to absorb the idea of a smart cat while in the comfort of your home instead of in full films. The 1953 Felix was accompanied by a broad cast of characters, along with an assortment of gags such as a “Bag of Tricks.” Felix cartoons can often be found on television, and in the 1990s the original Felix the Cat shorts also experienced a resurgence in popularity, as people became interested in the origins of the lovable cartoon cat. We can just imagine the implications of such move, for instance, making ESAs an endearing thought especially for kids who love cartoons. While more people are familiar with Mickey Mouse than Felix the Cat, rumor has it that Mickey's original creators initially intended to make another cartoon cat, but they felt that Mickey could not compete with Felix, the original cartoon superstar. Nowadays, some people find comfort in non cartoon versions of Felix, like emotional support animals. It just goes to show how much humans value love that come from selfless pets.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon209297 — On Aug 26, 2011

anon12086 says "it has recently been discovered that all through the animation the lettering is by Pat Sullivan". This is not true. It has been claimed that the lettering is by Sullivan, but on very little evidence. A few vague similarities have been stressed, but the most notable feature of Sullivan's handlettering, the convex curves on the letter "A" is entirely absent from the lettering in the films: when not absolutely straight, there is a tendency to the concave on the right hand side of the "A." For myself. I take this as very strong evidence that it is not Sullivan's hand on any of the lettering in the drawings.

Pat Sullivan had been assisting William Marriner on a strip featuring an afro american boy ("Sambo and his Funny Noises" - cringe making title! – featuring a black kid who, although drawn as a typical stereotype of the period, was an engagingly entrepreneurial boy whose schemes comically backfired. The white kids in the strip were either coerced into being his assistants, or stood back and laughed when things went wrong, but Sambo was definitely the prime mover of the strip). When Marriner died in 1914, Sullivan joined Raoul Barre's animation studio and in 1916 started his own animation studio to make a series based on the "Sambo" strip. ("Sammy Johnson", a version of the character's real name in the strip.)

In order to get some help, he hired other animators, including Otto Messmer - who actually got a credit for a Sullivan Studios film called "Chestnuts" (1916) which was a series of single panel cartoons (culled from old magazines) with some animated elements.

In March 1917, Sullivan's studio released a cartoon called "The Tail of Thomas Kat," in which a cat loses his tail to a determined chicken, and is mocked by a dog, but when the dog has a tin can tied to his tail, the cat sees that being tailless has its advantages.

Sullivan's studio released 22 cartoons that year, many of which were credited to other animators. So it is quite possible that Sullivan could have animated this film. No copy is known to exist so we have no way of knowing what the cat looked like.

This is the only Sullivan Studios cartoon to feature a cat as the central character until "Feline Follies"(1919). A few featured dogs, but most centered on human characters.

In the autumn of 1917, Sullivan was jailed for nine months (alleged rape of an underage girl) and the studio closed. It reopened on his release in 1918, with Messmer as chief animator, starting a series based on a cartoon caricature of Charlie Chaplin, just named "Charlie", as no permission had been sought to use Chaplin’s likeness. Sullivan now concentrated on the managerial and promotional side of the business, as it was important to re-establish distribution for his product.

There is no reason to doubt that Sullivan assigned Messmer to make "Feline Follies"; we cannot tell whether or not he suggested the subject matter.

That the cat in "Feline Follies", named as "Master Tom", was based on "The Tail of Thomas Cat" is unlikely. Too much time and too many other film had flowed under the bridge by then. Calling a tom cat "Thomas" is hardly original, which is why, when Sullivan realized he had a new starring character in his stable, he renamed him Felix.

It is certainly true Messmer developed all the mannerisms that personified Felix - the surreal use of his tail as a prop (along with anything else handy on screen!) and especially his trademark pacing up and down while deep in thought. (It may be noted that none of these traits actually occur in "Feline Follies." The success of this film initiated the "cat" series, but his character was as yet undeveloped.)

By Felix's heyday in the 20s, Sullivan had given up animating altogether, in order to focus on running the studio, promoting his films and doing marketing deals.

Although Messmer's claims came after Sullivan's untimely death, they were supported rather than refuted by other animators from Sullivan's studio.

Doubtless, Messmer had exaggerated his case a little - one person's view is always slightly distorted - but against that Sullivan's claims to have created Felix were made purely for the sake of promotion. (And quite rightly too - it was his studio, and Felix was his big star. It was important that the public associated Felix with the studio head.)

It is a pity that Sullivan’s supporters have tried to claim him as the true animator of the early Felix films, which is demonstrably not the case, instead of researching his true part in the nurturing and exploitation of his star property. Without proper marketing, Messmer’s work might never have reached a wide audience, and the name of "Felix the Cat" might never have resonated round the globe.

By anon12086 — On Apr 29, 2008

Pat Sullivan created his cat with Thomas the Kat the prototype for Felix in 1917. Otto Messmer made the claim that he created Feline Follies in his own backyard all by himself. But it has recently been discovered that all through the animation the lettering is by Pat Sullivan. Sullivan was reprising Tom soon to be called Felix. Writing in The Sydney Mail on July 1, 1936 Australian cartoonist, Kerwin Maegraith - a friend of Sullivan’s - quoted him saying it came from Australia Felix (Happy Australia) the name of a Henry Handel Richardson book. Richardson, who in reality was Ethel Florence Lindesay Robertson, had been working on the book in Australia in 1912 and had completed it in London in 1915. It was published in 1917 with quite respectable sales.

The term had first been used by Major Thomas Mitchell, when describing land he explored in central Victoria in 1836. It was also used in Richard Howitt’s Impressions of Australia Felix in 1845 and in the name of Australia Felix Monthly Magazine in 1849.

Maegraith also quoted Sullivan saying he drew Felix in solid black after the boxer Peter Felix who had fought for the NSW heavyweight championship the year Sullivan left Sydney. He always appeared in black, frightened children and apparently left an impression, as heavyweight boxers can. Messmer made his claim a long time after Sullivan's death. Sullivan could not defend himself.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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