In 1999 Image Entertainment released a DVD compilation of “Felix the Cat” cartoons, from the character’s debut in 1919 to 1924. Inexplicably, Image never followed up with a second collection, and allowed Presenting Felix the Cat to go out of print. Naturally, used copies now fetch high prices. This leaves us with another, briefer collection from Slingshot Entertainment, also from 1999, to take up the slack. The Slingshot release can be purchased for slightly less than a McDonalds Happy Meal, and it will not clog your arteries. The presentation is not as extensive as that from Image, but neither edition is ideal.
Felix the Cat predates Mickey Mouse by a decade but was just as popular in the 20s as Walt’s rodent was in the 30s. There is a longstanding dispute over who exactly created Felix, but he was born in the studio of Pat Sullivan. Sullivan’s animator, Otto Messmer, usually (and probably rightfully) receives the bulk of the credit. Felix shot to stardom rapidly, but faded in the 30s when Sullivan was reluctant to make the move to sound, thus paving the way for Mickey’s meteoric ascent. The Felix character was revived in a weak, imitative TV series in the 1950s, and has appeared in two execrable feature films.
Although the quintessential compilation of Felix at his earliest (and best) remains to be released, the still-available Felix The Cat 1919-1930 will have to suffice until then.
In his original incarnation, Felix is boxy looking, almost a cubist parody, as are the dialogue balloons. It adds to the surreal quality of the films. Like most early animation icons, Felix evolved. In 1924, he would become lithe and more appealing, as we recognize him now. Although rounder in looks, Felix has not yet lost his sharp aesthetic edge, although that was to come.
Felix’s debut is in 1919’s Feline Follies. It is an undeniably primitive effort, but does have a surprisingly dark finale. Felix is named “Master Tom” here (he would be renamed shortly). Master Tom is feeling amorous. Luckily for him, a white feline shows up to pacify his raging libido. Naturally, nothing is easy, and Tom is required to serenade his new lady love. With all this activity, Tom neglects his mousing work, leaving his house vulnerable to an army of destructive Mickeys. This gets Tom booted out of home sweet home and, to make matters worse, Tom discovers his feline is unfaithful. What’s a Tom cat to do? Kill himself at the gasworks, of course!
Felix Saves The Day (1922) beings with Felix emerging from his ink pen to play baseball. A runaway ball lands his human playmate in hot water, with Keystone Kops flying over (live action) skyscrapers to make their arrest! Racial stereotyping in the 1920s movies was certainly not exclusive to live action films: with our human baseball hero in a Tower of London like penitentiary, the team is losing to the “Tar Hills,” a team of mammy-styled caricatures. Felix climbs up a row of question marks to alert his bosom mate. The only hope is rain, so Felix pinch hits for the team, driving his baseball straight up to Jupiter, who angrily decides to send a downpour to spoil the game. Felix saves what turns out to be a surreal day.
Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart and Will Hays all show up in Felix In Hollywood (1923), making it a delightful time capsule. Felix’s owner is a serious stage actor who laments having to go to Hollywood to ply his trade. Felix transforms into his master’s handbag, hitching a ride. Once in Tinseltown, Felix encounters the celebrities and, removing his tail, turns it into the Tramp’s cane. Felix’s act of plagiarism incurs Charlie’s wrath, but after saving Fairbanks from a mesquiteer, Felix earns the coveted studio contract. (This short was listed in Jerry Beck’s famous “50 Greatest Cartoons,” and was the only Felix cartoon to make the list).
Felix plays a good, if questionably effective, Samaritan in Felix Dopes It Out (1924). A down-on-his-luck alcoholic laments the curse of his gin-blossomed schnoz. Ready to eat a bullet, the Felix stops the act of self-murder with a promise of a cure for the poor fellow’s red nose can be found on the isle of Boola-Boola. With handy question mark in hand, a tub, and some long johns, Felix sets sail. The island is populated by cannibals, who are depicted as ape-like savages. Felix steals the secret cure: “Drink more til your nose turns blue.”
Futuritzy (1928) is not prime Felix. The cat has his fortune told by a gypsy, and does not like her prediction of misfortune. He goes to an astrologer next, who predicts riches and a pretty girl. There is an interesting homage to Charles Lindbergh (who had made his famous flight the year before). Unfortunately, yet another racial caricature dates Futuritzy in the worst possible way.
In sharp contrast, Woos Whoopee (1928) engages in full-throttled surrealism, with a narrative excuse: Felix gets smashed out of his skull at the Whoopee Club. In his intoxicated, hallucinatory state, Felix has a run in with a frisky street light, various animals, smokes his own tail, gets swallowed by Jonah’s whale (which mutates into an aggressive trumpet), and has to come home to a wife, who mimics his own crouched pacing.
Comicalamites (1928) is inventive, slapstick surrealism. Felix interacts with the animator throughout. Drawn but not inked, our hero gets fleshed out with the aid of a shoeshine man. Felix stumbles upon a weeping feline whose boyfriend has left her. Finding the girl not so pretty, Felix erases her faces a draws her a new one. Now, the potential girlfriend cops a Julie London attitude and catapults Felix in the role of sugar daddy. This means a pretty dress, fine jewelry, and a fur coat. Felix’ scavenger hunt takes him to the bottom of the ocean, making it the most visually sophisticated of the lot.
Despite the title, there are, oddly, no actual 1930 shorts here (the latest dates 1928). However, there is brief footage of Messmer designing billboard animation. The new musical accompaniment is by Jell Roll Morton and His Red Hot Chili Peppers. This release barely makes a dent in Felix’s extensive silent oeuvre, but it is a worthwhile dent.