By John C. Alsedek:
"Felix the Cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat.
Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks.
Felix the Cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat.
You’ll laugh so much your sides will ache, your heart will go pit-a-pat!
Watching Felix, the wonderful cat."
As mentioned in the last column, Felix the Cat was the very first television personality. Which made a lot of sense back in 1928, given that the cartoon feline was one of the most widely recognizable characters of the time. But for those of us in the year 2023, Felix is one of those mysterious artifacts of a bygone era—someone we recognize but don’t know why. So, let’s take a look at the story behind this anthropomorphic kitty.
Felix the Cat first came into being on November 9, 1919, when "Master Tom" (the prototype of Felix) made his debut in the Paramount Pictures cartoon short Feline Follies. He was a hit with audiences, a second short (Musical Mews) was created; that one was also a hit, and by the third short, creators Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer had themselves a franchise. They also had a new name for their feline star: Felix.
(Before I go any further, I should mention that there is some level of controversy over whether it was cartoonist Patrick Sullivan or animator Otto Messmer who first thought of the character. The evidence points toward Messmer, but both sides have significant arguments, and I don’t think it’s been conclusively proven one way or another.)
Paramount Pictures distributed Felix the Cat shorts for the first two years, then were succeeded by M. J. Winkler Pictures (which later became Screen Gems) from 1922 until 1925. It was then that Sullivan and Messmer entrusted Felix to Educational Pictures, an outfit best known to that point for its landmark Buster Keaton shorts. They worked out an agreement to produce one new Felix short every other week; this steady flow of new material, combined with a rounder, friendlier character redesign that became his "classic" look, really took Felix’s popularity to new heights. Both charmingly surrealistic (Felix’s tail could assume a wide variety of shapes and perform many different tasks) and in tune with many of the period’s issues (such as Prohibition and labor unions), it appealed to both the average person and critics alike (the great English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley was a big fan). There was a Felix the Cat comic strip running nationally, Felix the Cat toys, Felix the Cat–themed songs. The New York Yankees adopted him as a mascot in 1922. Heck, pilot Ruth Elder even took a Felix doll with her in her 1927 attempt to duplicate Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. The quizzical black cat was a legitimate sensation.
But by the late twenties, Felix’s popularity was on the decline, due in large part to the arrival of the "talkies" and a certain cartoon mouse named Mickey. Walt Disney had introduced the new character in the 1928 short Steamboat Willie, and Mickey was soon making the silent shorts of Felix look like yesterday’s news. At first, Sullivan and Messmer resisted the switch to sound but finally gave in and started producing talkies through Copley Pictures in 1929. But there were significant production issues with adding sound effects in post-production, and even when those were ironed out, the newer offerings from Disney and other studios had grabbed the public’s interest. Felix’s time had passed, and the shorts ceased production in 1932. With Patrick Sullivan dying of alcoholism-induced pneumonia a year later and the company in shambles from years of neglect, that seemed to be it for Felix the Cat.
There was a three-film comeback for Felix in 1936 by Van Beuren Studios, which had finally been able to obtain the rights from Sullivan’s estate. The three shorts were directed by Burton F. Gillett, who had been recruited from Disney following his success with the Silly Symphonies series of shorts. Felix was voiced by radio actor Walter Tetley, who would go on to voice Sherman in the Mister Peabody segments on the great Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. But Van Beuren Studios lost their contract to provide cartoon shorts to RKO Pictures, and Felix the Cat’s return to the big screen came to an end. There was still a Felix cartoon strip running daily, but his moving picture days were at an end.
Or were they? Felix still had seven lives left, and he used one of them in 1958 when he made his move to the small screen. Joe Oriolo, a cartoonist perhaps best known at the time as the co-creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost, obtained the rights to do a new Felix the Cat series for television. Distributed by Trans-Lux, this Felix was a big hit and would end up starring in 260 episodes that would run in syndication well into the 1970s. It was this iteration of Felix that introduced his "Magic Bag of Tricks," which could assume the form of whatever Felix happened to need at that particular moment. Most of the storylines revolved around plots by the nefarious "The Professor" and other no-goodniks to steal said Magic Bag of Tricks, and while critics felt that the show didn’t stack up all that well against the old theatrical shorts, kids were the target audience—and they loved it.
Since then, Felix the Cat has had a few more lives, including the Betty Boop and Felix comic strip (1984—1987), The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat (CBS, 1995–1997), Baby Felix (NHK Japan, 2000–2001), and his first feature-length film, 1991’s Felix the Cat: The Movie. And there is reportedly still another Felix the Cat series in development by Wildbrain Ltd., a Canadian animation studio and production company.
Throughout this time, the Oriolo family has been Felix’s champion, even after selling his rights to Dreamworks in 2014. We’ll be looking at the careers of Joe Oriolo and his son Don next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.