Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars
by John Cawley & Jim Korkis
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Felix the Cat

Superstar Summary
THE STAR: Felix the Cat
SIGNATURE: "Right-ee-o!" (and his walk)

KEY CREW BEHIND THE STAR: Otto Messmer (original director, writer, animator), Joe Oriolo (TV producer)

CAREER HIGH: THE FELIX THE CAT TV SHOW (1958) - It introduced his magic bag of tricks and established his image for today's audience, as well as rekindling interest in the classic silent shorts.

Felix the Cat is the original Cartoon Superstar. Created during the age of silent pictures, he is still known around the world today. This black cat with large eyes and a mouthful of sharp teeth certainly proved anything but bad luck.

Like a cat, and many of the other cartoon superstars, Felix had several lives. He was a star of silent theatrical cartoons and early comic strips. There was a brief period of sound cartoons then obscurity. Later TV stardom presented a Felix who was quite different from the famous silent cat. Finally, he starred in a feature which resembled a little of all his lives.

The silent Felix was one of the biggest screen stars during the 1920s. He was as well known and popular as such classic live comics as Chaplin and Keaton. As a silent comedian, Felix seemed to be a bit of both.

Like Chaplin, Felix had a definite personality. This personality was the key to Felix's success. Unlike so many of the other animated characters of the time, Felix was more than just a figure on the screen doing comedy. He would stop and think. He would pace back and forth, hands behind his back, head facing down, in his classic walk. He would look at the audience and wink a large eye. He had desires and morals. He even had a temper. Felix was like a real person and would solve problems with ingenuity and just a touch of mischief.

However, unlike Chaplin, Felix wouldn't settle for simple morality tales or camera work. Borrowing a bit from Keaton, Felix played with the aspect of film. The silent Felix cartoons featured wild angles, strange characters and preposterous stories. Only on rare occasion did these strange happenings get explained away as "dreams." Felix's world was definitely surreal, but for Felix it was merely real.

Anything could happen in a silent Felix cartoon. The cat might use his tail as a pencil (OCEANTICS), get mule kicked to Russia (FELIX THE CAT ALL PUZZLED), form his body into a suitcase (FELIX THE CAT GOES WEST), be attacked by eggs (FELIX THE CAT DINES AND PINES) or suddenly wake up in a haunted house (FELIX THE CAT IN SURE-LOCKED HOMES).

The early Felix was a cat most clever. Like T.S. Elliot's Mister Mistoffelees, Felix was a magical cat. As mentioned, he had more control over his body parts than a normal cat. (In fact in one cartoon, he is seen waking up and putting on his ears and tail, as if getting dressed.) In particular, his tail was detachable. He was able to use it as a club or a fish hook among other variations. It often emphasized Felix's feelings by becoming an exclamation mark. Felix seemed to be an embodiment of the "cat" spirit. Independent, resourceful, and a little mystical. No matter how surreal his adventures, Felix was always up to the challenge and often just as surreal.

Sometimes down on his luck, sometimes a house pet, and sometimes just a wanderer, the silent Felix was always in charge of his destiny. Like most Cartoon Superstars, Felix seemed largely unflustered by any adversary he might meet. Often, he laughed heartily several times during a cartoon because he enjoyed the oddity of it all.

Felix does differ from many other cartoon characters in his interest and activity in mating. Many a Felix cartoon revolves around him looking for a mate (such as FELIX THE CAT SWITCHES WITCHES) or dealing with his children (as seen in FELIX THE CAT IN FLIM FLAM FILMS). Few other characters had matrimony as regular a theme in their shorts.

When Felix came to TV, he became more Earth bound at least in personality. His design was simplified and made cuter. Though the TV Felix might travel to distant planets and battle such characters as The Master Cylinder, the tube cat was much more domesticated and older. He was now a responsible adult home owner. In TV Land Felix became more of a friend than an adventurer. The only clue to his surreal origins was his famous, magic Bag of Tricks. This along with his familiar cry of "Right- ee-o!" (and equally famous, "It's the pro-fess-or") are what Felix is most known for today.

The bag of tricks was a small yellow carpetbag with a repeating design of small black crosses. It could only be manipulated by Felix. Like Felix's body in the silent cartoons, the bag could transform into a myriad of shapes and functions.


Unlike many Cartoon Superstars, Felix's origin is clearly due to the artistry of one man: Otto Messmer. Messmer was an animator for Australian born Pat Sullivan during the early days of animation. Sullivan had seen Messmer's work when they were both using the Universal camera department for their separate films. Starting around 1915, Messmer worked on a number of shorts with Sullivan, including a series based on the popular live comic, Charlie Chaplin. However, he soon left the Sullivan studio because he was drafted (WWI). Upon his return to civilian life, he came back to the Sullivan studio.

When Paramount Screen Magazine called Sullivan and asked for some help preparing pictures, Sullivan told Messmer that he (Messmer) could submit something. What Messmer came up with was a short cartoon called FELINE FOLLIES (1919). It featured a black cat chasing mice.

Messmer later stated he had used a black cat because, "it saves making a lot of outlines and solid black moves better." Paramount liked the film and commissioned a second. Messmer went to work and produced MUSICAL MEWS featuring four cats singing on a backyard fence.

The head of Paramount saw something in the black cat character and signed the Sullivan studio to produce a series of shorts in August 1919. Paramount's John King coined the name of Felix basing it on "felicity" (which means good luck) and "feline" (meaning cat). Traditionally, a black cat meant bad luck. By early 1920, the contract was expanded and the press release clearly promoted Pat Sullivan's Felix the cat. This contract called for one short every four weeks. (Sullivan didn't begin copyrighting the films until the mid-twenties, so it is difficult to date many of the early titles.)

Initially, Messmer did all the animation himself, though he did have assistants and a cameraman. He thought up the stories, did the animation, and even drew the posters. Messmer also created the Sunday comic pages which ran for years after the film series disappeared.

The shorts proved immediately successful with both audiences and critics. Theaters reported that the films often gave the audiences non-stop laughs. Critics were amused with the astonishing visuals served up by Messmer.

Messmer discussed how he viewed Felix's role in the shorts. "I had that kind of feeling, like Chaplin, that no matter how big the picture was he [Chaplin] stood out. He attracted attention, the other guys in the stories didn't. So I figured the same way with a cat." Later it was reported that Messmer and Sullivan based Felix on the Rudyard Kipling short story "The Cat that Walked by Himself" (first published in 1902).

In 1922, Sullivan sold the series to Margaret Winkler, a lady who sold films on a state by state basis. (This generally meant more money for the film maker.) In 1924 production was stepped up to one every two weeks. At this point Messmer began to bring on additional animators. Key to this new group was William Nolan. (Nolan eventually left to head up a new series of Krazy Kat cartoons in 1926.)

Messmer's original Felix design was very angular. This rough edged alley cat was quite different (in appearance) than what is generally recognized as Felix. It was Nolan who took these shapes and rounded them out. This made Felix both easier to draw and more visually appealing.

However, Messmer continued to be the driving force. Whereas Sullivan was busy making deals and selling the property to a large number of licensees, Messmer ran the studio. One employee reported how Messmer thought up each short, giving key drawings to the animators. He would then animate and discuss new ideas out loud. He even went to the bank for payroll.

When the Winkler contract was up, Sullivan went with Educational Pictures in an even more lucrative deal. (It was reported the Messmer was producing the films for around $3,000 each while the Sullivan studio was making over $12,000 on every film.)

By 1926, Felix had hit his stride. Educational Pictures was advertising him heavily, merchandise was appearing, even songs were being written about him. Some historians have stated that Felix was the most popular film star next to Chaplin. Like the best of Cartoon Superstars, Felix was loved by all ages.

Messmer later talked about what he thought was the reason for Felix's success. "I used an extreme amount of eye motion, wriggling eyes and turning his whiskers, and this seemed to be what hit the public - expressions!" Messmer also gave Felix a boylike quality. "I think instead of just having him chase a lot of things around and bumpin' each other, which might be funny, I made him act as a little boy would wonder... how high is that star, how deep is the ocean, what makes the wind blow? I used all those things for a theme."

Like many stars of silent films though, Felix was not quite ready for the changes that would take place with the advent of sound. Though Felix had conquered many a mouse in his films, it was a rival studio's mouse that eventually claimed the first life of this classic character.

In 1928 sound was becoming more and more established. Disney had made a big success with Mickey Mouse. Messmer and Educational talked with Sullivan about going to sound, but Sullivan was unconvinced. When Educational discovered that Sullivan would not produce sound films, they dropped the studio and Felix.

Sullivan, who had reportedly become less and less involved with the business and more involved with his outside activities, suddenly found no studio interest in his star. He began to set the wheels in motion to start a new studio in California which would include sound cartoons when his wife died in a tragic accident in 1932. Less than a year later, Sullivan himself died of pneumonia.

It had allegedly been stated many times during their relationship that Sullivan would leave the studio to Messmer. However, upon the death of Sullivan, it was discovered he had no will. Messmer stated many studios were interested in the Felix property, and had hoped to deal with him. Unfortunately, Messmer was merely an employee and had no legal claim to the character. Felix ended up being owned by distant relatives of Sullivan in Australia!


The first studio to obtain the rights to Felix for a new series was the Van Bueren studio. This small New York outfit had previously done the (human) Tom and Jerry cartoons. By the mid- thirties, they had decided to buy known properties rather than develop their own. Their first two purchases were Toonerville Trolley, a popular comic strip of the period, and Felix the Cat, which was still being run as a comic strip. (The silent Felix's were also being run with newly recorded muscical sound tracks in some theaters.)

Van Bueren's key creative person at the time was Burt Gillett, the director of Disney's THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. He, along with Tom Palmer, oversaw production of the three Van Bueren Felixes: FELIX THE CAT AND THE GOOSE THAT LAID THE GOLDEN EGGS, NEPTUNE'S NONSENSE and BOLD KING COLE. These three 1936 shorts featured only some of Felix's original personality. The street smart character was eliminated. He was now no different than other animated animal characters.

Van Bueren's entries were more story and production driven. Felix, originally a bit of a loner, became lost in the massive production of these color spectacles. In fact he is little more than a secondary character in BOLD KING COLE. Also, Van Bueren substituted standard fairy tale settings for Felix's more standard surreal world.

Whereas Messmer's Felix, like Chaplin, was the center of his universe, Gillett's Felix was just another character in the crowd. The studio gave Felix a boy-like voice and a helpful, happy nature. Felix still had his walk, and shifted his shape occasionally, but Gillett's Felix was clearly a descendant of the "cute" Mickey Mouse school. (Quite a turn-around since Disney's staff obviously studied the original, personality driven Felix in developing some of their earlier stars such as Mickey.)

However, Felix's color career was cut short at Van Bueren. RKO was the current distributor of the Van Bueren cartoons. That same year, 1936, the Disney studio signed with RKO. Not needing two animation studios, RKO didn't renew their contract with Van Bueren. Once again, Felix's career was stopped due to studio problems.


Actually, Felix was the first star of TV. In 1928, RCA engineers used a paper mache figure of Felix to test a broadcast from New York to Kansas. In July of 1940, a huge figure of Felix was whirled for countless hours atop a phonograph turntable. TV scanners transmitted the image to the few homes with TV sets as a reception test. (This event was the inaugural of the world's first TV station, WZXBS, in New York.) However his real career in TV began in 1958.

Backtracking to 1953, the silent Felix cartoons, with musical soundtracks, were released to TV. They appeared around the country with many other "forgotten" stars such as the human Tom and Jerry. These shorts quickly went by the wayside as more popular and later cartoons began to enter the TV market.

However, Felix was still appearing in comics, and still being done by Messmer. One of Messmer's assistants after WWII was another animator, Joe Oriolo, the man behind Casper the Friendly Ghost. Oriolo took over the comic book chores totally in 1954 when Messmer retired. He soon approached Sullivan's nephew and the two became partners, creating Felix The Cat Productions. Basically, Sullivan and Oriolo now co-owned the Felix copyright.

By 1958, Oriolo's Felix the Cat Productions began work on a series of new cartoons for TV. These cartoons were the first TV cartoons produced in New York. This series is how most people remember Felix.

Oriolo's series consisted of stories told in cliff hanger style. Each story took five episodes and could be completed in a half hour show. 260 of these four-minute films were produced between 1958 and 1960. Oriolo used such talented veterans as Jim Tyer (Terrytoons), Steve Muffati (Van Bueren & Famous), Frank Endres (Fleischer & Famous) and Robe Grossman (Fleischer).

The character design was simplified for TV animation. Felix's large head now rested on a slender body.

The voice behind Felix, and all the other characters in this series, was Jack Mercer, the voice of Popeye. (Mercer was asked to read all of his lines slowly to help fill up time in the stories.) Joe Stutz, a writer from Famous, was in charge of the story department, which included such talents as Joe Sabo and Ralph Newman, both from Famous.

Produced quickly and cheaply, this series took the visual design of Felix but altered his famous personality. Most of his classic elements were replaced with more standard cartoon elements. Felix no longer was really a cat. He now owned a house, had a job, needed money, etc. Gone were his walk, his thoughtful moments, his boldness and his surreal outlook. These were replaced with satirical (sometimes silly) stories and characters. Felix became less mystical, but a "magic" bag of tricks was given to him. Most of these cartoons concern the Professor, his assistant, Rock Bottom, and Poindexter, his nephew.

Storylines on the series included such elements as trips to the Moon, gold producing plants and time travel. One set of five stories revolved around Felix and Leprechauns. The writers had written these stories so that they could be edited together into a longer format, possibly a feature. (This final editing process was never done.)

This series, though somewhat different than the original silent Felixes, did keep Felix in the public's eye. Oriolo is justified in his comments that he is somewhat responsible for the resurged interest in the silent Felixes. In 1988, it was announced that the silent Felix cartoons were to be colored by computer for re-release to TV stations.


In 1967, the Canadian government sponsored a retrospective of the Felix cartoons with Otto Messmer in attendance. This was the beginning of a series of tributes to the man behind the cat. Messmer, himself, was the subject of retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1976. From that point to his death in 1983, Messmer received a great deal of attention. Since his "re- discovery," Messmer has been hailed as the "inventor" of character animation.

Rather than being bitter about his almost 50 years of anonymity he seemed somewhat resolved. When asked if he was bothered by his lack of credit on the films, he stated "No I really didn't. Because you see Disney... anything anybody did there became 'by Walt Disney.' In those days it seemed to be the thing."


When the animated feature boom began in the mid Eighties, Joe Oriolo figured an animated feature starring Felix might be a strong contender. Oriolo began production in 1985 along with his son, Don. (Don had worked with his father on a variety of projects, including the 1958-60 Felix cartoons.) The film was entitled FELIX THE CAT - THE MOVIE.

In 1986, Joe Oriolo died. Don Oriolo, determined to see the project continue, went to Europe to raise funds and acquire a studio. The film was produced in Hungary under the direction of Tibor Hernadi at a cost of over $9 million. New World purchased the film in May of 1987 and planned a Thanksgiving release in the U.S. that same year. However, the film did not get its announced release. In early 1988, New World listed it for release in other countries. It finally debuted as the opening event of the 3rd Los Angeles Animation Celebration on January 26th, 1989.

The storyline, written by Don Oriolo, was closely related to the TV cartoon series. Unfortunately, the film had a convoluted storyline which was not helped by choppy editing. The film begins with a computer animated talking Felix head (done by de Graf/Wahrman, Inc.). It was a last minute addition to try and provide story exposition that would help audiences understand the movie's story. The device made Felix the first classic Cartoon Superstar who had been animated by computer for a theatrical feature.

The feature had Felix being hijacked to a fantasy kingdom of Oriana. (The name was supposedly a tribute to Oriolo.) While there, he had to rescue a beautiful human princess who had been enslaved by her evil uncle, the Duke of Zill. Eventually he is joined by the Professor and Poindexter who located the hidden passageway to Oriana so they can steal some gold. The Duke uses machines, called master cylinders, inspired by the original Master Cylinder to keep control of the kingdom.

A series of adventures takes place, including an extended period at the Duke's circus where the princess and Felix perform. Felix, with the help of the Professor and Poindexter, rescues the princess, defeats the Duke and returns safely to his own world.

As the new decade began, there were no plans to release the film either theatrically or on video.


The silent Felix had no real supporting characters. As Messmer stated, he felt the films should be totally focused on a single character, like the Chaplin comedies. The TV version, though featured several recurring folks.

Most remembered is The Professor. This short, stout, character with a giant moustache, was often cast as a villain. As his name suggested, he was a self-centered, sometimes evil, scientist. He, along with his large, bulldog sidekick, Rock Bottom (the only other talking animal character), were often plotting some terrible scheme.

The Professor's nephew, Poindexter, was a brainy child with huge, round glasses. His name became a slang term among school children for an overly smart peer.

Another recurring villain was The Master Cylinder, a "cylinder" who, at least in one adventure, stated he was a former student of the Professor. After a failed experiment destroyed his body, he had his brain put into the mechanical cylinder.

The Professor, Rock Bottom and Poindexter didn't have very consistent lifestyles. Even though The Professor was often evil, Poindexter would frequently get along with Felix. In fact there are times when The Professor hires Felix to babysit the youngster! In some stories, Rock Bottom is merely Felix's annoying neighbor.


As was previously mentioned, Felix began being licensed in the mid Twenties. Sullivan sold licenses for Felix to anyone who was interested from dolls and toys to cigars. That plus the newspaper comic (done by Messmer) kept the cat in front of the public long after the cartoons had disappeared.

On August 14, 1923, Felix became a newspaper Sunday strip drawn by Messmer. On May 9, 1927, a daily strip started and lasted until 1951. Many early comic books reprinted newspaper strips and Felix's first appearance in comic books were in reprints. Eventually he got his own comic book in the Forties often with stories done by Messmer and later Oriolo. The comic lasted through a variety of publisher like Dell, Toby and Harvey into the 1960s including a short lived comic book featuring Felix's nephews, Inky and Dinky.

Felix merchandise helped his fame grow to world wide proportions. Early Felix merchandise was produced in a wide variety of materials: tin, celluloid, composition, wood, cast iron, china, plastic, hard rubber and stuffed cloth. During the height of his silent screen popularity, Felix merchandise was even more popular overseas, especially in England which produced many Felix items.

One merchandising oddity is Felix Chevrolet, a car dealership in Los Angeles established in 1921. The showroom has statues of the "silent" Felix, license plates with his feline face and huge signs with Felix's image decroate the outside of the buildings.

Since the demise of the TV show, there have been efforts especially in the late Seventies and early Eighties to spark new interest in the character by releasing new merchandise ranging from wallets and key chains to the more traditional dolls and banks. Unlike some characters like Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop, whose early design has been the basis of successful merchandising, Felix's new items have been inspired by the TV series and generally his magic bag of tricks is an important accessory.

From newspaper comics to comic books this black cat conquered them all. His new visibility via TV created a new arena for merchandising which continues to this day. Felix is one of longest running licensed characters.

In the early Eighties there was a syndicated live action show with a Felix costume character as host! So strong was his popularity that he was teamed with Betty Boop in the mid Eighties for a short lived comic strip where he was Betty's pet.

As we enter the Nineties, there seems no end to the popularity of this feline. Home video has finally taken him to heart with the release of tapes featuring his TV adventures.


Unlike many of the stars of the silent cartoon days, Felix has survived and flourished albeit was rocky. He was king of the silents, but lost prominence with the introduction of sound. As with many animated stars, he once again regained fame through new adventures on TV. His redesigned TV persona is better known today than when he first appeared.

Felix has had a number of lives, but luckily he is a cat, so he doubtless still has several left. This magical cat has a special place in the Cartoon Superstar universe.


"Being famous is hard work. There's no money in it unless you are deadly serious about it." - Pat Sullivan

"He [Felix] would go to Arabia, to Mars - not just the barnyard. That's what made him famous." - Otto Messmer

"Otto came up with the ideas, supervised, directed, and every Friday he'd go to the bank and pick up the payroll." - Al Eugster, animator on the original Felix

"After a while, I don't want to praise myself, I got pretty efficient at it. I learned." - Otto Messmer

"Messmer was the father but I am the godfather on it." - Joe Oriolo

"...he could be an alley cat one time, save the day for the losing Yankee Baseball Club the next, and then be the pet of a rich princess." - Otto Messmer

"Otto never got anything because he never asked for anything." - Joe Oriolo

"It was dead until I took it over." - Joe Oriolo

"I patterned him after Charlie Chaplin. The audience loved him. And so did Chaplin. The cartoon format let Felix do things that Chaplin couldn't do on film..." - Otto Messmer