The wonderful, wonderful cat
BY MEL BONDFIELD
To celebrate 100 years of Felix the Cat, we’ve reached into our magic bag of tricks to bring you some excerpts from the original cartoons.
Felix the Cat is widely considered the world’s first animated film star. He first appeared as 'Master Tom' in an animated short titled Feline Follies, released by Paramount Studios on 9 November 1919, a full nine years before Mickey Mouse’s debut in Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928).
Feline Follies was produced by Pat Sullivan Studios in New York. Sullivan was an Australian-born animator who started his career as a cartoonist before setting up his own animation studio in 1916.
There is still much debate over who originally created Felix the Cat. Many animation scholars attribute the character to Otto Messmer, one of Sullivan’s animators. However, Sullivan’s supporters claim Felix evolved from an earlier character of his who appeared in a short film titled The Tale of Thomas Kat (1917), two years before Feline Follies.
But one fact that is not in dispute is Felix’s enduring fame and status as a pop culture icon.
The first 25 Felix the Cat short cartoons were shown in theatres from 1919 – 1921. They are now available to view in the British Pathé collection, but the NFSA also holds copies of most of these in 9, 16 and 35mm film formats. We are sharing some excerpts in recognition of Felix’s 100th birthday.
Felix goes to war
The following clip is a short excerpt from Felix Turns the Tide (1922). Felix leaves his job at a butcher shop to join the army after reading the shocking news headline 'Rats Declare War on Cats'. But first he proposes to his girlfriend, Kitty, promising to marry her when he returns from war:
As was the case in many Felix films, recent social and political events are reflected in the plot points of this film. The full 10-minute animation explored many themes related to war and some scenes are quite strong for an animated cartoon.
Felix must be ruthless in order to defeat the rats and although he returns a war hero, he comes home to find Kitty has forgotten him and married another cat. The films ends with Felix having the last laugh, feeling he 'dodged a bullet' after seeing Kitty's litter of kittens causing chaos.
Felix calls a strike
The following short clip from Felix Revolts (1923) shows our hero fighting back against a council ban on cats, organising a strike which allows the rats in the town to run wild and wreak havoc on the townsfolk:
The underlying social and political commentary in this film is an honest reflection of the post-First World War era of worker unrest and the rise of unions.
Felix in a fix
Felix finds himself in in a few tight spots in this excerpt from Felix Hits The North Pole (1920). This early animation sequence is a lovely example of Felix cleverly using his tricks to get out of some sticky situations as he is chased by a sea lion and a polar bear:
By the mid-to-late 1920s, Felix had transformed and become more cartoonish – with a large head, big eyes and rounder tummy.
Interest in Felix dwindled somewhat during a difficult transition from silent film to talkies. However, his popularity has endured and he has enjoyed a number of revivals across print, television, film and merchandise throughout the decades.
The cartoons have mellowed over the years with his high-pitched voice, wide smile and bag of tricks making him into more of a children's character, but he still lays claim to a diverse and devoted worldwide fan base.