The Irrepressible Felix the Cat, 1924–1928like
A collection of rare silent cartoons
Presented at the 2012 SF Silent Film Festival
Essay by Russell Merritt
Felix the Cat was the most successful cartoon figure of the silent era. In his own time, he ruled animation as Chaplin ruled live-action comedy, Babe Ruth baseball, or Man o’ War horse racing. He was the mirthful personality kid, the effervescent trickster who could also play the lovesick Romeo, the lecherous sheik, or the doting uncle while still coming across as a loner. For almost ten years, from 1919 to 1928, he seemed to be everywhere—in cartoons that appeared at least once a month, in syndicated comic strips, in songs, and on products you could eat, wear, and bring home with you. Newspapers and magazines published his letters, conducted interviews with him, and starlets in photo spreads taught him to dance the Charleston and the Black Bottom.
But if he was a sensation, the public never knew (or, for that matter, much cared) how Felix films were made or who actually made them. The man who took the credit was Pat Sullivan, a businessman with feral sensibilities, a master showman, and former cartoonist who built the New York animation studio where Felix was created. The illusion was that, because he was the producer, Sullivan had created Felix himself. His name, and only his name, was on the films. But the true creative genius was a painfully self-effacing animator from New Jersey named Otto Messmer who slaved for years in anonymity, indifferent to whether he received credit or not. The result: while Sullivan basked in Felix’s glory, touring Europe as a celebrity and inventing tales of Felix’s origins, Messmer and his staff quietly produced upward of 150 Felix cartoons, at the rate of one and two a month.
By the time the first cartoon in our program, Felix Loses Out, was released (Janauary 1924), Felix was already five years old. He had grown from a burst of comic relief in a series of 1919 Paramount newsreels into a full-blown celebrity, and the Messmer signatures are by now on full display:
Felix the thinker who makes direct eye contact with the audience, pauses to think out his problem, and comes up with an ingenious Rube Goldbergish solution. Felix the “jazz baby” who sings and dances the latest Paul Whiteman novelty while stealing a riff from Keaton’s 1923 Our Hospitality. (Keaton returned the favor two years later with a classic parody of Felix in Go West.) And Felix the trickster, swindling a stereotypical Chinese store-owner out of cheese to shanghai a mouse. But the cartoon also shows important refinements in Messmer’s original design. Originally, Felix looked something like a cartoon fox, his face and body all angles and points, his nose at the tip of a snout. By 1924, however, that look had been replaced by the now familiar circular design with the rubbery body and wide eyes. It was the work of Bill Nolan, a celebrity guest animator who, with Messmer’s blessing, also devised the supple rubber-hose animation that gave Felix funnier, smoother movements.
Meanwhile, Messmer had discovered fantasy kingdoms, and, as Felix reached the zenith of his popularity, he was flying through space to strange planets and magic underworlds. To enhance Felix’s travels, Messmer constructed whimsical settings inspired mainly by Sunday comic strips and nursery book illustrations. Even when the backdrops are little more than simple line drawings, they can startle with strange juxtapositions. In Felix Trips Thru Toyland, Felix races past the silhouette of a lynched clown hovering over a chessboard. Toyland’s sky doesn’t simply feature stars and planets. A wooden duck floats past, followed by Japanese lanterns. Here and elsewhere, Felix is falling under the influence of Sunday comic strips like Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals, famous for their modish settings. Meanwhile, serious critics and artists like Gilbert Seldes and Béla Balázs began to see affinities between Felix and Cubism and Surrealism, and Paul Hindemith composed a suite “for Mechanical Organ” for him in 1927.
Felix’s endless inventiveness and magical solutions continued to rule the cartoons. But, as John Canemaker points out in his classic 1991 book on Felix, the design of individual scenes continually surprises the eye with their elegant beauty. The floating, flame-lit globes inside Felix’s ice cave in Eskimotive create a lovely futuristic scene. Even more impressive are Messmer’s kinetic effects in his fantastical battles. Felix’s violent encounter with the Martian nightclub bouncer takes on intergalactic proportions as Messmer pulls out all the stops. While Felix’s dance gets the moon, the forest, and even New York skyscrapers to shimmy, the fight triggers a full array of special effects: flash-frames, double exposures, lightning shifts in negative-positive polarities, step-printing, bursting captions, exploding abstract shapes. Eskimotive has a field day with Felix’s shifty eyes darting around in the dark, detached from the rest of his body, while Felix in Jungle Bungles brings Felix the self-reflexive Cat onto center stage. In a nod to the jungle pictures made popular by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, Felix takes his camera to Africa so that Messmer can play games with the cartoon wild animals and the images Felix shoots of them.
In summer 1928, as Jungle Bungles was released, Felix started his crash. The talkie revolution caught Sullivan unprepared, and, when the studio refused to invest in sound, Felix lost his distributor. Within months Felix was devoured by a mouse who proved a master of the new era. As a cartoon series, Felix fell almost as quickly as he had come into prominence. Jungle Bungles was one of the last Felix cartoons made. After that, the studio subsisted mainly on reissues released with crude music tracks, interspersed with occasional new titles. Felix faded into the backwash of the silent era, eclipsed by Mickey Mouse, and was finally relegated to a minor position as a comic strip and Dell comic book. There was a revival TV cartoon series in 1959, but he never enjoyed his popularity of the 1920s.
Today, most people have never seen Felix on a screen. His silent cartoons are rarely shown, and almost never in their original format. When the Sullivan studio collapsed, the Felix silents, so fiercely protected by copyright enforcers during their first run, scattered into the spinoff markets of nontheatrical and home distribution. So they survive almost entirely in the limbo of substandard gauges: condensed 9.5mm Pathé Kodascopes, reissued 16mm and 8mm prints. With no studio archive to protect them, almost all the original negatives were lost or destroyed. But thanks to the sustained efforts of museums, public archives, and private collectors, we can catch a glimpse of what we’ve been missing. At last, Felix returns to the big screen, belly laugh and all.
FELIX LOSES OUT Directed by Otto Messmer. Animation staff: Bill Nolan, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett. Ink and paint staff: Jack Bogle. Camera: Alfred Thurber. Produced at 47 W. 63rd St., New York City. Released by Margaret J. Winkler, 15 January 1924. 35mm print courtesy of Library of Congress
FELIX THE CAT TRIPS THRU TOYLAND Directed by Otto Messmer. Animation staff: George [Vernon] Stallings, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett. Ink and paint staff: Al Eugster. Produced at 47 W. 63rd St., New York City. Released by Educational Film Exchange, 20 September 1925. 35mm print courtesy of George Eastman House
FELIX THE CAT FLIRTS WITH FATE Directed by Otto Messmer. Animation staff: George [Vernon] Stallings, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett. Ink and paint staff: Al Eugster. Produced at 47 W. 63rd St., New York City. Released 24 January 1926. 35mm print courtesy of George Eastman House
FELIX THE CAT IN BLUNDERLAND Directed by Otto Messmer. Animation staff: George [Vernon] Stallings, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett. Ink and paint staff: Al Eugster. Produced at 47 W. 63rd St., New York City. Released by Educational Film Exchange, 7 February 1926. 35mm print courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive.
FELIX THE CAT WEATHERS THE WEATHER Directed by Otto Messmer. Animation staff: George [Vernon] Stallings, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett. Ink and paint staff: Al Eugster. Produced at 47 W. 63rd St., New York City. Released by Educational Film Exchange, 21 March 1926. 35mm print courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive
FELIX THE CAT IN ESKIMOTIVE Directed by Otto Messmer. Animation staff: Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett. Ink and paint staff: Al Eugster. Produced at 47 W. 63rd St., New York City. Released by Educational Film Exchange, 19 April 1928. 35mm Copley reissue print courtesy of Library of Congress
FELIX THE CAT IN JUNGLE BUNGLES Directed by Otto Messmer. Animation staff: Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett. Ink and paint staff: Al Eugster. Produced at 47 W. 63rd St., New York City. Released 22 July 1928. 35mm Spanish version (as La extraña aventura) courtesy of Library of Congress
Professor Russell Merritt teaches film history at UC Berkeley and has written two books about Walt Disney cartoons.