Felix the Cat, probably the greatest star of early film animation, began his escapades nearly a century ago. Older than Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, he was such a big hit on the flickering screen during the Roaring 20s that a young Walt Disney, then embarking upon a film animation career, never attempted to showcase a cat.
Felix The Cat
Cartoon Star Of Silent Cinema
Felix was as much the official mascot of that decade as Snoopy, Garfield and Big Bird are today - and for much the same reason. Each is a human-like animal who always manages to overcome the same every day problems and obstacles that defeat us mere mortals.
Felix reigns as one of comic arts greatest and most enduring feline stars. The phenomenal success of George Harrimans Krazy Kat may have paved the way, but Felix became immensely popular with movie goers by developing a unique blend of crafty craziness, derring-do, and exuberance.
Otto Messmer, working for the Pat Sullivan Studio, originated Felix in 1919. He came up with idea of film cartoons about a black cat for Paramount to use in its weekly Paramount Screen Magazine series.
Felix was an instant box office smash hit and quickly became the major focus of the Sullivan Studio. Messmer (1892-1983) remained the guiding force behind the cat, doing most of the story ideas and artwork, until the studio was disbanded.
In 1921, Sullivan signed with an independent distributor. Felix Saves the Day debuted the following year. More and more cartoons followed, and soon Felix merchandise of all types was being licensed. He went global and captured a worldwide following.
Famous he was, headlining hundreds of film cartoons produced in assemby-line fashion at the rate of two or more a month and holding down a premier spot in the Sunday newspaper funnies (also drawn by Messmer) for several decades.
Felix, with his famous invisible magic bag of tricks, remained one of Americas favorite imaginary characters for many years. His habit of walking back and forth, hands behind his back, trying to think through a perplexing problem and talking to audiences by flashing question and exclamation marks on the screen, became part of the legend.
Unlike the majority of cartoon characters created so long ago for the motion picture screen and the comic pages, Felix was not limited to a two-dimensional world. Along with Winsor McCays Little Nemo, he possessed super normal abilities.
He could soar into outer space, visit strange dream worlds, be transported anywhere on earth (past, present or future) and, most of all, be free of all restraints. If he found himself in a jam, hed simply think of a question mark, reach up for it, and then bludgeon his adversary with it.
Throughout most of the 1920s, Felix cartoons were distributed not only in the United States, but overseas as well, noteably in England, Spain and France. However, he was a silent-screen star. When movies began to talk, the cats days became numbered. Sullivan had steadfastly refused to use sound because of the expense, and such shortsightedness eventually proved disastrous. On Sept. 18, 1928, the last episode, appropriately named The Last Night, was released.
Messmer kept doing the newspaper comic strip. The studio did what work it could, living mostly off of Felixs film residuals from abroad. In 1933, Pat Sullivan died, and his studio and the Felix copyrights passed into the hands of disinterested relatives. In 1940, Otto Messmer left the work he loved more than anything else in life and became, of all things, a design animator for the famed billboards of New York Citys Times Square.
The core of Felixs enduring fame rests primarily upon the 300-plus cartoons, which played and replayed in theaters during the 1920s and then around the world for another 20 years. These silents were even used briefly by many local television Stations in the late 1940s. There were 20 Felix cartoons made with sound in 1960, but they fared poorly.
Comic books, Big Little Books, hardbound and softbound editions of all types of books and booklets have been published since the 1920s by countless printing houses. Many of them were reprints of the comic strips.
The least expensive and most available Felix collectibles are the many picture postcards published about him in his heyday. Two British firms, Inter-Art and Woolstone Brothers, under license from the Pat Sullivan Company, produced identical lengthy sets of more than 50 different designs. At least one edition of these was used to advertise movie house showings of the cartoon shorts.
Though color cards, Felix is still his eternal black and white. Illustrations portray him in a whole array of predicaments, often romantic or pondering his next move, accompanied by an appropriate caption. Some urge him to keep on walking, a favorite maxim of his that in the 1920s inspired the briefly popular song, Felix Kept on Walking. Several printing runs of these were made, including some in French and Spanish.
All of the Felix postcards were published in 1924 and 1925, and sales continued for many years afterward. Practically all of the cards collected today were imported into the U.S. in large numbers from England following World War II (especially in the 1970s).
Besides the tremendous output of Felix the Cat postcards by Inter-Art and Woolstone Brothers, there were at least two other publishers of this topic. One was Bamforth, which specialized in comic themes. Black-and-whites drawn by different artists, they carried no Pat Sullivan copyright notice. The other printer, Photochrom Co., marketed a set of color cards.
The cool cat with the giant-size personality enjoyed a short-lived resurrection in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A small number of childrens and novelty books were sold, as well as a limited run of Felix the Cat and Felix the Cat and Friends comic books. His appearance was modernized a bit. Copyright owners were Felix the Cat Productions Inc.
Felix the Cat may no longer be the star of cinema, the funnies or the toy world that he once was, but his memory is well-preserved by todays collectors of the namesakes many vintage postcards and other items.