Though his popularity lasted less than a decade, Felix the Cat remains one of the seminal figures in pre-sound animation. The mischievous, clever cat appeared in over 150 animated shorts throughout the 1920s, many of which served to influence an entire generation of animators to come.
The origins of the character have long been questioned, as there are two men behind its creation: Australian producer/animation Pat Sullivan, and American animator Otto Messmer. Sullivan initially claimed credit for Felix, and as his self-named studio produced the cartoons, Sullivan’s name was the one that appeared on the title cards, and he owned the copyright to the character. Several years after Sullivan died in 1933, Messmer asserted that he was the one who had actually created Felix. The dispute continues even today, though it seems a majority of animation scholars now credit Messmer as the mastermind behind the cat. Still, Sullivan’s influence on the character’s popularity cannot be denied, as his aggressive marketing of Felix resulted in a boom of merchandise ranging from stuffed toys and figurines to clocks, making the cat one of the most recognizable stars in American film at the time.
Indeed, at the height of his fame, Felix the Cat rivaled his human cinematic counterpoints in popularity. Along with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Felix became a stalwart of 1920s comedy. In fact, Felix was largely based on the latter comedian; as Messmer once explained, in creating the cat, “I used the style of Charlie Chaplin and kept him alone in his antics, unhampered by supporting characters. Being a loner, he could roam to various locations, without being limited to any fixed place.”
It’s fitting, then, that a caricature of Chaplin appears in one of the best Felix shorts, 1923’s Felix in Hollywood. After Felix maneuvers his way to Hollywood, he sets about finding a job in motion pictures, demonstrating his “talents” in an effort to secure work. Finally, he pops off his tail (a typical bit of Felix shtick) and uses it as a cane: “Now here’s something original!” He launches into an imitation of Chaplin’s tramp … right in front of Chaplin. In a self-referential moment, Chaplin shouts at his feline impersonator, “Stealing my stuff, eh?” As Felix flees from the angry actor, the cat stops and glances at the audience: “That ruins my chance in the movies!”
In recent years, this cartoon has been recognized as the pinnacle of Felix’s adventures, earning a spot on Jerry Beck’s “50 Greatest Cartoons” list (at #50, it is the only Felix short to make an appearance). Felix in Hollywood is also notable for pioneering the idea of inserting Hollywood cameos into cartoons, something that was revisited often in later years by other animators including Disney and Warner Bros. Other stars who show up in this short include Gloria Swanson, Ben Turpin, Douglas Fairbanks, and William S. Hart–and even notorious film censor Will Hays, newly installed at the time as the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (now the MPAA), makes an appearance.
Felix’s popularity waned as sound cartoons emerged. The character, so adept at pantomime, did not adapt well to the new medium. After a dozen sound shorts were produced, Felix was retired. Though a sound-and-color revival was attempted in 1936 (without the input of Sullivan, who had since died, or Messmer, who declined to participate), it lasted only three cartoons. In the meantime, the character remained popular in a regular newspaper comic strip and a series of comic books (drawn mainly by Messmer), and eventually found new life on television in the late 1950s/early 1960s.