The Many Lives of Felix the Cat

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Today is Mae Questel’s birthday (for my full article on that squeaky voiced pixie go here). While it’s well known she provided the voices of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop in Fleischer cartoons, it’s probably lesser known that in 1936 she was also the voice of Felix the Cat. 

I originally thought of putting my Felix the Cat post in the Forgotten Shows of my Nonage series. The television cartoon version was one of the first TV shows I can remember watching. This would have been around 1970, when the episodes were about ten years old. But my investigation of silent comedy brought me into contact with the original Felix, and I’ve learned about more recent versions as well, so it seems appropriate to tell the entire Felix story.

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The original Felix was a product of the Pat Sullivan animation studio, although there is some contention about whether Sullivan or one of his employees created him (many credit Otto Messmer, Sullivan’s chief animator). A comic strip artist from Australia, Sullivan had set up his own studio in 1916. A protoype version of Felix called “Master Tom” had debuted in the short Feline Follies (1919), released through Paramount.

The short was so successful the studio sought many more films starring this cat character. Felix the Cat became one of the fads and crazes of the 1920s, with Felix toys and merchandise, a Felix comic strip in the paper, and hundreds of silent Felix shorts in the cinemas. The original Felix was kind of a wild, fun-loving character, frequently shown as coming home drunk from partying, fully in the Prohibition era spirit.

Sullivan resisted the advent of sound, and only the success of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and the threat it posed to his supremacy in the cartoon field prompted him to start incorporating it. But the results were not good. Rather than scripting them with dialogue and conceiving them with sound from the very beginning, Sullivan merely added sound after the fact to his usual cartoons.

Felix rapidly declined in popularity. Sullivan died in 1933. In 1935 the series was briefly revived by former Sullivan staffers working for Sullivan’s brother. This was the version voiced by Questel. But this edition was not a success. Here’s one of those color, talking “Felixes”:

Felix remained popular over the next couple of decades in the comic strips and in his own comic book.

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Then in the mid 1950s they began screening the old Pat Sullivan shorts on television. This breathed new life into the old cat. Starting in 1958, Otto Messmer’s former assistant Joe Oriolo (creator also of Caspar the Friendly Ghost) created 260 new Felix shorts for Trans-Lux, specifically geared toward the children’s market on television. These were the cartoons I watched as a kid. They featured Felix and his Magic Bag of Tricks battling the evil Professor. Introduced with a catchy theme song (“Felix the Cat! The wonderful, wonderful cat!”) and also punctuated at the end by Felix holding his belly, laughing and saying “Righty-o!”)

What I did not know is that Felix has been revived several times since then. There was a feature length movie released in 1991. And a new children’s tv series that ran from 1995 to 1997 called The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat. Other movies have followed: Baby Felix and Felix the Cat Saves Christmas, which I’m afraid don’t sound very promising.

And (of course) he has an official web site. Here it is: http://www.felixthecat.com/

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