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Felix the Cat

Entry updated 4 October 2021. Tagged: Film.

US animated film shorts (1919-1930). Pat Sullivan studio. Created by Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan. Directed and written by Otto Messmer. 180 episodes (4-11 minutes), all but 12 silent; 15 silent episodes were reissued with sound 1929-1930. Black and white.

Felix was the most popular animated character prior to the rise of Mickey Mouse, and an early example of the successful merchandising of film-related Toys and songs. There is some dispute over who created Felix, but the director and writer Messmer shaped his personality, writing and storyboarding his adventures, and whilst it is possible that Sullivan was responsible for the original design, it looked nothing like the familiar, rounder, large-headed Felix, the result of a redesign by animator Bill Nolan in 1924.

The protagonist, a cat, was originally called Master Tom, only becoming Felix in the third short, The Adventures of Felix (1919). Early on his adventures are fairly dull (aside from committing suicide in the first), though the malleability of objects and the solidity of question marks is already in evidence. The surrealism (see Absurdist SF) increased to become the series' hallmark, particularly visual puns. Felix's tail transforms; holes are portable; exclamation marks become propellers to make a flying machine; a tiger's stripes are removed to make a ladder; Felix detaches the horn from a hippopotamus (sic) to play as a musical instrument. In Comicalamities (1928) Felix interacts with the cartoon's artist, including borrowing their eraser and pen to draw a more attractive face on another cat.

Felix Doubles for Darwin (1924) has Felix reading that "The Evolution Society offers a large reward for proof that man comes from monkey." So, travelling by transatlantic cable to South Africa (see Transportation), he arrives as Morse code, becoming the letters FELIX, which merge to form him. Visiting his destination Ape Town, he shows a monkey (see Apes as Human) pictures of a Modern Statesman and of Modern Cake-Eaters (a contemporary slang term for effete young WASPS), asking, "Are these your relatives?" Greatly offended, the monkey and his relatives angrily chase Felix back to America; when a human friend asks him, "Well, do we come after monkeys?", he replies, "The monkeys come after us!" and continues fleeing.

During Felix Finds Out (1924) he calls the Moon down from the sky and, casually leaning on it, enquires what makes it shine? When it proves uncooperative he punches it on the nose. In Felix Trifles with Time (1925), despairing of the present, Felix Time Travels to the Stone Age (see Prehistoric SF) by bribing Father Time – who asks him to turn around and then whacks him on the head (nevertheless it is made clear that the visit is not a dream). On arrival he interacts with cavemen and is then pursued by Dinosaurs – evading one by dropping a rock from a cliff into a lake and using the resulting water plume as a parachute.

Felix Germ Mania (1927) has a Scientist testing his reducing and enlarging formulas on Felix (see Miniaturization). In Astronomeous (1928), Felix as a cat politician (see Politics) makes a speech to rapturous applause, arguing the future lies in space. Then he fires an arrow into the sky, puncturing the tyre of a cyclist on Saturn's rings (see Outer Planets) ... who angrily pulls up the rope attached to the arrow, with Felix holding onto the end. After beating up Felix, the cyclist throws him on to Mars: here he meets Robots and the King of Mars (see Aliens), who sends him to a scientist to be studied. Felix saves the King from a falling Star, which he sends to Earth with a message saying everyone should come to Mars – which all the cats do, to the King's dismay. In Felix the Cat Flirts with Fate (1926), Felix courts a Martian.

There is occasional Satire and references to contemporary events: for instance, "Astronomeous" concerns the Presidential hustings for the 1928 US election, with Felix apparently a candidate. It is not always clear whether a scientific error is deliberate or not: Felix in the Bone Age (1922) has a museum exhibit stating a dinosaur is from 5,000 BC – which might reflect Messmer's own beliefs or be a mistake or a joke; whilst in Futuritzy (1928), Astrology (see Pseudoscience) and Astronomy are conflated when an astrologer is a Professor who looks at the stars through his telescope to tell fortunes (inaccurately, as it turns out).

From today's perspective, the surreal moments still amuse, though the Humour and storylines can be repetitive; inevitably, the animation now seems primitive although there are often nice touches. However, in the 1920s Felix was inspirational: Aldous Huxley opens his essay "Where Are The Movies Moving?" (July 1925 Vanity Fair) with "In the course of one of his adventures, my favourite dramatic hero, Felix the Cat, begins to sing ... a stream of crotchets and semi-quavers comes gushing out of his throat ... [which he fits] together into the most ingenious little trolley or scooter." Huxley delights in "forgetting their [the notes] symbolical significance and concentrating exclusively on their shape ... there is no improbability, no flaw in the artistic logic ... for the dramatist of the screen, this sort of thing is child's play." This leads to his overall conclusion: "what the Cinema can do better than literature is to be fantastic." (see Fantastika).

Felix has had several revivals, though without Messmer's or Sullivan's involvement; these were all aimed at children, rather than the family audience of the original series. The first revival was brief, with three colour shorts in 1936. Longer-lasting success came with the Television series Felix the Cat (1958-1962) in 260 episodes, in which his Shapeshifting Magic Bag of Tricks made its first appearance. This series is very different from the original and is not memorable. Later came The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat (1995-1997), whose 21 episodes are more eccentric and make it the best of the revivals. An Anime followed, the self-explanatory Baby Felix (2000-2001) with 65 episodes. There have been two films, the very unsuccessful Felix the Cat: The Movie (1988) and the direct-to-video Felix the Cat Saves Christmas (2004). There were also Comic strips and comic books 1923-1966 and (co-starring with Betty Boop) 1984-1987, as well as a 1992 Videogame. [SP]

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