Animation fans would do well to remember that Felix the Cat is a significant trailblazer when it comes to animated characters. While Gertie the Dinosaur was the first animated star, Felix the Cat was the first animated character with his own film series who could sell tickets by name recognition the same way Charlie Chaplin and other stars could.
Two men get credited for the creation of the character: Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer.
The Australia-born Pat Sullivan became a newspaper cartoonist in America. He started out as an assistant to cartoonist William F. Marriner, but after Marriner tragically died in a fire in 1914, Sullivan inherited all of his strips. One of those strips, Sambo and His Funny Noises, Sullivan turned into the animated Sammie Johnsin cartoon series in 1916.
Otto Messmer was an artist who transitioned into animation. Sullivan discovered Messmer when Messmer was working at Universal. Sullivan hired Messmer to work for Sullivan in New York and make cartoons for him instead.
Sullivan and Messmer were hired to make animated cartoons for Paramount and they would have a long partnership but Sullivan would always take credit for the work while at the same time giving Messmer most of the responsibility.
In addition to the Sammie Johnsin series, Sullivan produced a series of animated Charlie Chaplin cartoons (cartoons Chaplin was said to have enjoyed) which kept him in business. But the 1919 cartoon Feline Follies which introduced Felix the Cat to audiences for the first time was his biggest claim to fame.
Although it is worth pointing out that Messmer was the main creator of Felix the Cat. How involved Pat Sullivan was in the character’s creation is still up for debate.
It’s easy to understand why audiences liked the character. Felix was charming and entertaining right off the bat, and public demand led to the production of a whole series of cartoons starring the cat.
The name Felix was coined by the man who hired Sullivan and Messmer, Paramount producer John King. “Felix” was similar to the word “felicity,” which was an amusing contrast to the traditional superstition about black cats.
The character had a personality and a Chaplinesque quality that won over the hearts of audiences. More so than the gags, although even the gags in Felix cartoons were consistently funny and the cartoons themselves were sophisticated. Many talented animators worked on them alongside Messmer, such as Bill Nolan and Raoul Barré, the two animation pioneers who invented the two-peg tracing system (Nolan would go on to direct for Walter Lantz).
Felix was successful enough that Sullivan left Paramount to make it on his own, making a deal with Margaret Winkler, who would distribute Felix cartoons around the world.
Because Felix was the first superstar of animation, Sullivan would make a ton of money off of licensing merchandise and comics.
For a long time, Felix cartoons were the best cartoons in Hollywood, but like many stars of the silent era, he did not survive the transition into sound.
Because Mickey Mouse sound cartoons were so popular following the world-wide success of Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928), Felix the Cat started to seem old-fashioned and he lost his popularity. Sullivan had produced sound cartoons starring Felix in 1929 but they were so unpopular that they disappeared in 1932. Sullivan’s career was over. But I don’t feel sorry for him because he was a terrible guy. And it was just as well that after years of taking credit for the work of more talented artists that he would finally disappear.
All later attempts to revive the character of Felix the Cat have been artistic failures.
He remained a popular comic book character throughout the 20th century even after his films were finished, but Van Beuren’s revival of the character in 1935 was brief.
He had been revived again on television in the fifties via Jay Ward-style limited animation and in the eighties via the cringe-inducingly bad 1988 feature film Felix the Cat: The Movie (thankfully a planned theatrical release that instead got dumped to video), but nothing has ever compared to his films in the silent era. Like Charlie Chaplin, he just doesn’t work in the era of sound and he’s more like a byproduct of a lost era than a timeless star.
He’s currently owned by DreamWorks Animation under the Comcast/Universal umbrella. There are no plans from DreamWorks to bring him back that I am aware of, and I vote for that to remain the case.