Ask the Archivist: FELIX
About two weeks ago, our friend, Fearless Freep, asked about Felix the Cat, so I’ve pulled together some stuff from when the strip was new and Felix was making a name for himself in the 1920s. The story of Felix’s early years is kind of grim one, though.
Felix began as an animated star, although he was not the first to transcend the screen to the page. That would be the obscure Col. Heeza Liar strip by J.R. Bray in 1916. Felix was created by pioneer animator Pat Sullivan in 1919. The famed cat was one of those innovational characters that caught the world’s imagination. He was famous for doing all sorts of signature gags and bits of business that could only be done in animation, like forming his tail or a question mark into a hook, cane, tire or whatever he needed at hand. He also had a unique turn where he broodingly hangs his head down, hands behind his back, and takes to rigid pacing back and forth. It became known as a doing a “Felix.” A hit tune of the early 1920s was “Felix kept on walking.” Licensing went wild, too, with all kinds of puzzles, dishes, post cards and dolls being produced. A Felix Doll was famously the object focused on during the early NBC television experiments in 1928. If you check out the Google images page for FELIX THE CAT DOLL you can see some that are truly horrible and frightening.
Most cartoonists are industrious, creative people who have a sense of humor. Without these attributes it would seem impossible to get very far. Pat Sullivan was a bad man, a miserable individual of whom nobody seems to have a decent opinion. In the early 1900s he left Australia and took on several U. S. cartooning jobs, most notably as apprentice to Billy Marriner, a well-known talent of the time, whose “Sambo and His Funny Noises” was the top offering of the McClure syndicate. After Marriner died in a fire in 1914, Sullivan became involved in early animation. He was fired from Raoul Barré’s company for incompetence. He worked for a short time at the Hearst-Vitagraph cartoon unit, but he started his own studio in 1917, at which he got a great contract to add animated segments to the Paramount Screen Magazine. (In the 1912-20 era, animation was often seen as a supporting segment in newsreels and “magazine”-type short films.) However, during that time, he was convicted of raping an underage girl, and spent nine months behind bars. At the studio, he had an assistant named Otto Messmer. “Otz” was a dynamic individual, a perfect fit for animation and the man responsible for the ascendancy of Felix. The cartoon that is regarded as Felix’s debut was “Feline Follies” (1919).
Years later, Messmer and others claimed he actually created Felix, but this is not likely. Alhough Sullivan invented the character, he did little to make him work. Messmer and the others that worked for him did the work of the actual production, with Sullivan contributing nothing. He was never sober enough to do anything but start raging arguments and sleep in his office. He was a mean drunk, often firing his staff in big public scenes, although he was so sloshed he couldn’t remember from one day to the next and the fired personnel just kept on working. At home, he was so cruel to his wife, Marjorie, that she leapt out a window of their New York apartment in 1932.
In August, 1923, a comic strip version of Felix appeared, distributed by King Features. This, too, was guided by Otto Messmer. By now, everything Felix was seen in his distinctive style. Sullivan’s own was rather plain. Even when he ghosted for Marriner, one can see the difference. The early Felix, before Messmer’s influence, has an almost square head, leaving some fans to dub him “FrankenFelix”.
The strip was at first a Sunday only, and very few papers tried it then. In fact, as far as can be discerned, the first few appeared only in a London paper. The daily was launched in May 1927, and in them, they based the first year or so on the film stories, broken down into a daily “reel.” The first one was based on “Pedigreedy” (1927). Just as in the Sunday, Felix pulled off his fantastic gags that one might have doubted would work in print. Surprisingly, they do, and I’ve selected some examples here. Jack Bogle, another of the studio’s artisans, was doing most of these.
The fabulous feline was pretty much the top animated star of the silent screen, but what happened to him? Perhaps if you’re a James Cagney fan you will recall in Footlight Parade (1933) when he’s confronted with a talking movie for the first time, he ironically says “Talking pictures is just a fad!” You might think this was just a farcical Hollywood overstatement—who could ever think that something as wonderful as talkies could just go out of style? That’s like saying we’ll get over airplanes and go back to covered wagons, or something. Ah, but Pat Sullivan was such a man. He had no interest in Talkies—he refused to budge. His distributor, the incongruously named Educational Pictures Corporation, anxious to now offer talking products and keep the lucrative franchise going, told him to tool up for sound or they’d dump him. He didn’t, they did, and Felix vanished from the screen just as his talking competitors took over. I wonder if a fully talking Felix might have stifled Mickey Mouse’s meteoric success.
Way past too late, all the major studios had a talking cartoon line to offer, leaving few options for the Sullivan studio. A pathetically small distributor named Copley Pictures Corporation put out several Felix cartoons in 1928-31, but they seem to be regular silent cartoons with a sound track added later. I don’t know if that’s actually so, or they just had no aptitude for doing a better job.
By then the studio really only functioned to produce the comic strip and licensing endeavors. Sullivan talked publicly of a new series, but finally, cirrhosis, syphilis, pneumonia and some say insanity, brought him down in February 1933.
A new beginning looked bright for the animated Felix in 1936, when the VanBuren studio put out new, full color titles with special musical scores written for them, but the VanBuren studio lost their distributor (RKO-Radio) to Walt Disney, and they went bankrupt overnight, and all their films became instantly public domain. (Theirs were the first package of cartoons on TV).
The Felix strip lasted though several more decades, the Sunday until 1943, the daily to 1967. The final artist on it was Joe Oriolo, who not only drew the by-then gag-a-day comic, but also brought Felix the animated star back with the baby boomer favorite TV cartoon series in 1960. If you are old enough, you’ll recall the new Felix, with his magic bag, which could have anything needed in it, and his enemies “The Professor” and his dog-faced bodyguard “Rock Bottom.” Also you’ll ponder the tidal wave of licensing it brought. A final (so far) series of 21 cartoons was made in 1995 by Film Roman and shown on CBS.
Now, it's on to our Mail Bag.
To Timothy Fisher-
I enjoy discussing obscure titles from the past, sharing a small look into what has interested me for so many years. The subject of comics is a vast one, that nobody can ever know all of. Whereas there are devoted fans who know the most esoteric stats of baseball or science fiction lore, comic strip history, despite being composed of specific names, dates and places, is even now not completely known. Even into my sixth decade of collecting and documenting them, there are still new items to find. I deal specifically with our syndicate’s past here, but another site that looks at the larger world of old strips from all companies, even long-defunct ones, produced by the distinguished Alan Holtz, is available here:
To Katherine Collins-
Your praise of Bill Griffith and Zippy is duly noted. You ask if there’s still any geniuses at this moment, outside of Griffy or Robert Crumb. My humble opinions don’t count for much, but I’m sure if you ask the Zipmeister himself, he’d probably pick Jeff Keane.
The KFS Archivist.