'Felix the Cat' (1959) - Reviving a Cartoon Star With a Magic Bag of Tricks
October 2, 1959 – May 16, 1962
Felix the Cat was arguably the biggest cartoon star of the silent film era. Starring in 169 cartoons between his debut in 1919 and 1928, it seemed for a time that nothing could stop him. However, with the advent of sound and the rise of stars such as Mickey Mouse, Felix’s own popularity waned. There were two attempts to save the character, first being a series of sound shorts released in 1929 and 1930 (both new and reissues of silent shorts), then three color shorts in 1936. However, these attempts proved to be futile, and much like many stars of the Silent Era, Felix soon fell into obscurity.
Reviving a Cartoon Legend
However, Felix continued to live on in the newspapers, thanks to a comic strip which had started in 1923. Initially drawn by Pat Sullivan and then by Otto Messmer (both of whom have conflictingly been credited as the one who actually created Felix), the comic continued to run long after the character was otherwise discontinued. Upon Messmer’s retirement from the comic in 1954, it was handed off to his assistant, former Fleischer/Famous animator Joe Oriolo (co-creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost).
Oriolo, having become the de-facto creative face behind Felix the Cat during the mid 50s, was approached in 1958 by Pat Sullivan’s brother, William O. Sullivan, about forming a company with the intent of bringing Felix back into the mainstream consciousness. Forming “Felix the Cat Productions, Inc.”, it was decided that, with theatrical cartoons being played out and on a sharp decline by this time, the obvious choice for a revival was television.
Felix the Cat: The First TV Star
Felix the Cat, as it happened, wasn’t entirely a stranger to TV. In 1928, during the earliest tests of broadcasted television, a Felix statue was chosen due to the character’s black and white appearance, giving the technicians the perfect subject to test the transmission quality. The Felix statue was placed on a record player turntable and, for two hours at a time and broadcasting as a two inch tall image, would rotate continually for the duration of the test. In 1946, when the end of World War 2 brought renewed interest in television, similar test images of Felix the Cat were displayed as part of public TV demonstrations in New York City.
Felix Returns to the Spotlight
In 1959 however, just in time for his 40th anniversary, it was time for Felix to get his first full-fledged cartoon in 23 years. A few changes needed to be made to the character before he could make his return, however. The Felix of the Silent Era was an adventurous schemer who could be rather rough around the edges, a personality which didn’t stray too far from the characters played by other film comedians at the time. But tastes had changed in the decades since, and Felix became a more friendly character in both his personality and appearance, which was redesigned to seem more innocent. Whatever he was up against, Felix would almost always take it on with a laugh, spouting his catchphrase “Righty-o!”.
The most notable change, however, was the addition of Felix’s “Magic Bag of Tricks”. In the Silent Era, Felix often got out of scrapes by detaching his tail and morphing it into various objects (taking advantage of the ink-blot motif many silent cartoon characters shared). In the TV series, however, any time Felix ran into a problem, he could take a satchel he carries around and, much like the earlier Felix’s tail, transform it into whatever he might need to get out of his dilemma.
The bag, ironically, would also bring trouble to Felix in the form of his enemy “The Professor”, a mad scientist obsessed with getting his hands on the Magic Bag of Tricks. However, the Professor wouldn’t always be Felix’s enemy, sometimes begrudgingly becoming an ally when up against a common enemy such as the evil robot Master Cylinder, a former pupil of the Professor who continually attempts to kidnap the Professor’s nephew Poindexter. Despite being related to his enemy, Felix considered Poindexter one of his best friends, another reason the Professor would occasionally put a hold on his schemes to get the Magic Bag.
Felix the Cat had previously been given a voice during his brief revival in 1936, but it was here that he gained a more iconic voice from Jack Mercer. Mercer had previously worked for Fleischer Studios (and later Famous Studios) as the second, and longest running, voice of Popeye during the character’s theatrical run (and later on television). For Felix, Mercer was cast as the sole voice actor for all the characters, and was directed to read his lines slowly in order to fill the runtime of the episodes.
Oriolo and Mercer weren’t the only former Famous Studios employees to make the leap to working on Felix. They were also joined by writer Joe Stutz as head of the story department, as well as Joe Sabo, Frank Endres, Steve Muffati, Jim Tyer, Robe Grossman, and Ralph Newman, all of whom had worked alongside Oriolo at Famous. They even got composer Winston Sharples, who wrote the music for various Fleischer and Famous productions, to create the music. This included the iconic theme song to the show, which was sung by Ann Bennett.
With their creative collaboration, and animation being outsourced to Paramount Cartoon Studios (the remnants of Famous Studios), the studio was able to churn out, across 2 ½ years, a whopping total of 260 five-minute episodes. Every batch of five episodes would tell a story with cliffhangers, which could be aired together to create 52 half hours. The show was a success for the early days of television animation, and succeeded in its goal of revitalizing interest in Felix the Cat, even broadening the character’s exposure overseas (with the show doing particularly well in Japan).
An Enduring Legacy for a Century Old Feline
Several years after the cartoon wrapped, Joe Oriolo acquired the remaining rights to Felix that were still held by the Sullivan estate, giving him total control of the character (and allowed his former mentor Otto Messmer to finally gain credit for Felix’s creation). His final project was a theatrical movie starring Felix, but after his death in 1985, it was picked up by his son, Don Oriolo (the film was eventually released in 1991 after much delay). Don would continue to personally maintain the legacy of Felix through merchandising and other animated projects, until 2014 when the character was sold to Dreamworks Animation.
While a decent chunk of the series hasn’t been legally available since the 90s (with some episodes seemingly lost), for many it’s the 1959 cartoon that remains the definitive version of Felix. It successfully pulled a character who would otherwise have been a forgotten icon of early animation out of obscurity, propelling him instead to be recognizable even decades later.