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Felix The Cat – Colin Cowles on LIAF’s 2010 Programme

Felix The Cat

Ninety years after our little metamorphic friend was created he still keeps on walking and, despite various attempts to re-create him with colour and sound, the original cartoons, with their flat perspective and at times crude animation, has never been surpassed.

Why not? Because they are inventive and demand attention. They capitalise on the visual image and that ‘what’s coming next’ factor – Felix changes himself into a walking stick or a bag, he lengthens his tail in order to reach for a bottle of milk and he uses the drawn exclamation marks on the frame to propel himself from another desperate situation. This reliance on the visual image, and the fact that the content is not closely synchronised with a sound track, seems to strengthen the quality of the films. In some ways the reluctance of the Sullivan Studios to adapt to sound, although leading in part to the demise of Felix, has in fact helped keep the cult status that he enjoyed in the first half of the 1920s. Of course there was no such thing as a silent film and there would be an organist or pianist improvising along with the image on the screen – live interaction was part of the art of the silent cinema.

There is much interest and intrigue centred around the creation of ‘Felix The Cat’. There is no doubt in my mind that the Australian Pat Sullivan was the creator of our little friend and that Felix’s development and animation was the work of the American animator Otto Messmer. ‘The Twisted Tale Of The World’s Most Famous Cat’ by John Canemaker (Da Capo Press New York) and the magazine ‘Films And Filming’, November 1974 issue (archive material) make an excellent introduction to this fascinating story. The programme of ‘Felix The Cat’ cartoons on screen gives clear examples of progressive changes in the early Felix. The years up to mid-1925, when Margaret Winkler was the distributor, were arguably the most creatively inventive; the years from mid-1925 to 1928 when distribution was by Educational Pictures Release saw notable changes such as far less ‘balloon titles’ and possibly less metamorphosis; and then up to 1930 with Copley Pictures Release obvious linking to sound caused the slowing of action and long repetitive sections.

Felix became a cult figure and for a time was the best known and best loved cartoon character being shown in thousands of cinemas worldwide. He assumed a character of his own and held a super-star status that equaled any of his human counterparts. His popularity held no age barriers. The films may be viewed on more than one level – the basic cartoon character and the various almost ‘slap stick’ situations can amuse all children but at times there is an underlying commentary that will engage the adult mind. Certainly, his ability to shrug off problems and always appear totally resilient and come out ‘on top’ is something to which we would all like to aspire. Felix’s co-stars, in all his films, never assumed an important role and were never developed in their own right – Felix was always the predominant character. His girlfriend/wife was Kitty; his kittens were Inky, Dinky and Winky; his parrot rival was Laura and his mouse enemy was Skiddoo. Over the years there have been many attempts to re-establish Felix starting with the RKO/Van Beuren colour releases of 1936, which, with the development of sound, gave Felix a voice. These were well made ‘pretty’ cartoons but they were nothing spectacular and Felix seems to have lost his pithy attitude to life.

Although all his films were always fantasy the slight attachment to reality give them some real significance, unlike the Van Beuren Releases that were simply fantasy. Only three films were made in this period. Later, the long running TV series of ‘Felix from Trans – Lux’ and then C B S’s series from circa 1959 to 1996 were popular though they never realized Felix’s original popularity, quite simply because the films were not as inventive. The recent re-release of many silent classics over the last few decades has opened the eyes of a wider audience to the quality of this era of cinema and it has been my experience that showing original ‘Felix The Cat’ cartoons has caused similar reactions – amazement at how such a simple, diminutive black and white figure can assume such a strong character, demanding attention when on the screen. There is no doubt Felix will live forever. There were over 175 Felix films produced between 1919 and 1930 and many have been lost. There are no libraries with complete collections and researchers such as the ‘Felix Guru’, David Gerstein, rely on the many amateur film-collectors piecing together sub-standard (non-35mm) film, at times creating complete prints lost to the profession. These films still surface today causing great excitement and full details and up-to-date lists may be found on www.felix.goldenagecartoons.com which includes the most comprehensive Felix Filmography currently available.

Colin Cowles, 2010

Recommended Reading for Research:

  • ‘The Twisted Tale of the World’s Most Famous Cat
    John Canemaker (Da Capo Press New York) ISBN: 0 -306 – 80731 – 9
  • ‘Nine Lives to Live
    David Gerstein (Fantagraphics Books, Seattle) ISBN: 1 – 56097 -308 – 0
  • ‘Felix The Black and White Catalogue
    C and T Cowles (Cottage Harmony/Woodspring, UK) ISBN No: 978 – 1 – 901084 – 73 – 3