Thom Adcox-Hernandez – Felix the Cat (season 1)
Charlie Adler – Felix the Cat (season 2), various
A prototype version named Master Tom debuted in the short Feline Follies from Paramount Pictures; becoming the first animated character not based on an existing property. Proving successful, the Sullivan studio was quick to produce a follow-up, Musical Mews, which was fared just as well. The third film, The Adventures of Felix, saw the character receive his familiar name inspired said to be inspired by Australia Felix from Australian history and literature (or for the Latin term for “happy” or “lucky”). It has been claimed that Felix’s personality and movements were both inspired by The Tramp character and Messmer himself. Felix’s tail was both expressive and useful; taking the shape of an exclamation point or question mark one minute and becoming a tool he could use the next. Critics would call Felix the embodiment of a child’s sense of wonder, creating the fantastic wherever he went and taking it head on when it was encountered. His most recognizable trademark was his tendency to walk with his hands behind his back, slumped over and deep in thought.
There are two variations on the tale of Felix’s creation. Sullivan credited himself as the sole creator, saying in a 1925 article for Australian newspaper The Argus that he was inspired by either his wife’s love of cats or Rudyard Kipling’s “The Cat that Walked by Himself”. Members of the Australian Cartoonist Association have backed up this claim, citing Sullivan’s handwriting being seen on screen in Feline Follies and the use of Australian slang. After Sullivan’s death, however, Messmer, along with Sullivan’s lawyer and several staffers, came out and said that Messmer was the true creator of Felix. Paramount, falling behind on their schedule, needed an extra short quickly. Sullivan passed the job on to Messmer, and Messmer decided that a cat would provide plenty of gag opportunities, was cute, and could be drawn quickly with an all-black body. Animation historians such as Michael Barrier, Jerry Beck and Leonard Maltin would back up Messmer’s claims.
Felix became the first mass-marketed character, being put on merchandise including ceramics, toys, clocks, Christmas ornaments and postcards. In 1923, he got his own newspaper comic strip drawn by Sullivan, Messmer (with ghost-writer Jack Mendelsohn) and Joe Oriolo. Messmer would go on to produce the comic books for Dell Comics. 1923 also saw the release of Paul Whiteman and his orchestra’s popular song “Felix Kept on Walking”. Buster Keaton would parody Felix’s famous walk (in full costume) in his 1925 film Go West. In 1927, he was the first ever giant character balloon to be featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Felix became the mascot for many notable individuals and organizations, including Felix Chevrolet in Los Angeles; the 1922 New York Yankees; pilot Ruth Elder, who took a Felix doll with her as she attempted to duplicate Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight (when it was lost when she crashed, Sullivan sent her another one); the United States Navy across several air squadron units; and the Logansport, Indiana Berries after one of the players brought his plush to a game and they won. Felix became the first television star when RCA selected his doll as part of their experimentation with television broadcasting in 1928 that ran over the course of a decade; utilizing his tonal contrast to help adjust the picture’s definition. A number of imitators also popped up from other studios, including Julius from Disney’s Alice Comedies (and some would say Mickey Mouse himself), Waffles from Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Film Fables, and Nolan’s adaptation of Krazy Kat for Winkler.
Sullivan ended up being the cause of Felix’s eventual downfall. While his contemporaries were adapting to the changing times, Sullivan saw no reason to interfere with a formula that was working. As a result, he was slow in adopting sound production. This and other factors led to Educational severing ties with the studio. After the likes of Disney hit it big with Steamboat Willie, Sullivan finally relented and began introducing sound to the shorts in 1929. However, where Disney found success was in planning for the addition of every sound and musical cue, while Sullivan found failure in adding them as a post-production afterthought in both classic reissues and in new productions. It was also thought that sound ultimately took something away from Felix’s character that could only be present in his silent pictures.
The studio was once again dropped by their latest distributor, Copley Pictures, as Felix’s popularity continued to fall. Upon his wife’s death in 1932, Sullivan fell into an alcoholic depression that would eventually claim his life the following year. Due to Sullivan’s poor record keeping, the studio was forced to shut down and Messmer couldn’t continue working on Felix as he lacked any legal ownership. The series ended with 170 shorts produced within a 14-year period. In 1935, Van Beuren Studios expressed interest in returning Felix to the screen with full sound and color. They acquired permission from Sullivan’s brother and approached Messmer to head up a full staff, but Messmer declined and instead recommended former Sullivan staffer Burt Gillett, who was already part of Van Beuren. Under Gillett and utilizing his past experience working for Disney, Felix became a stock talking animal character and failed to achieve a fraction of the success he experienced in his heyday. Van Beuren only produced three shorts before cancelling the series.
In 1953, Felix made the leap to television when Official Films purchased the shorts library and added soundtracks to them for broadcast. Oriolo struck a deal with Felix’s new owner, Sullivan’s nephew, to begin a new Felix television series. Felix went home to Paramount where Paramount Cartoon Studio produced the Felix the Cat television series. Oriolo gave Felix a more domesticated personality and a “Magic Bag of Tricks” from which Felix could pull out anything he needed or that could change shape; taking the place of his shapeshifting tail. New supporting characters were introduced, including Felix’s archenemy The Professor, an eccentric scientist with a speech impediment who was always trying to get Felix’s bag; Poindexter, the Professor’s scientist nephew who was Felix’s best friend and sidekick; Rock Bottom, the Professor’s bumbling bulldog sidekick; Master Cylinder, an evil robot who wanted to kidnap Poindexter to force him to build things for him; Martin the Martian, Felix’s space-faring friend; General Clang, an evil space general who wanted to destroy the Earth; and Vavoom, a small Inuit who only spoke his name in an Earth-shattering shout. Every character was voiced by Jack Mercer. 260 cartoons were produced, with the series running in syndication for 2 years and making use of cliffhanger endings leading into commercial breaks. While not a technical marvel by any means due to an extremely tight budget, it managed to find a significant audience to keep it on the air in reruns throughout the decade. It even entered “Poindexter” into the American lexicon.
In 1970 Oriolo gained full control of the Felix franchise, which was assumed by his son, Don Oriolo, following his death in 1985. The younger Oriolo’s first order of business was to get a feature-length television special produced to serve as a potential pilot for a new series, which eventually upgraded to a theatrical release. Written by Pete Brown, directed by Tibor Hernadi and made on a budget of $9 million in Hungary, the film saw Felix (David Kolin), The Professor (Chris Phillips) and Poindexter (Alice Playten) sent to an alternate dimension to save a kingdom from the evil Duke of Zill (Peter Newman). The most notable aspect of the film was the use of a CGI Felix to open and close the movie using then-new motion capture technology. New World Pictures picked up the rights to distribute the film in 1987 and premiered it at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles in 1989. Ultimately, it only went direct-to-video in 1991 and was widely panned.
Oriolo tried again, this time partnering with Film Roman for another attempt at an animated series. They produced a pilot to shop around to networks, with CBS picking it up. The series was intended to debut for the 1994 season, but production delays would plague the entire show for the duration of its existence. To build up hype and generate audience interest, Film Roman produced 55 commercial bumpers for CBS to use that year; replacing the popular Fido Dido bumpers they had been using since 1990.
The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat finally debuted on CBS on September 16, 1995. The series was both a return to Felix’s (Thom Adcox-Hernandez) roots--utilizing a 1920s-esque design for the other characters and backgrounds, sentient inanimate objects galore, and returning Felix’s ability to utilize his tail (among other objects) as anything--while also serving as a continuation of the Oriolo version with the use of his magic bag. The series’ theme was composed by Oriolo, who performed it with Peter Bliss. Timothy Berglund (aka Bjӧrklund) designed the intro, which featured some 3D animation of Felix rendered by Free Range Digital/Jason Bickerstaff. The show’s jazz score and closing theme were composed and performed by the Club Foot Orchestra.
Felix was given an all-new supporting cast for this outing. His two best friends were Rosco (Phil Hayes), a dim-witted and rotund cat, and Sheba (Cree Summer), a yellow version of Felix who was “with it” and often spoke in outdated cool lingo. Candy Kitty (Jennifer Hale) was Rosco’s sister and a more humanized attractive cat that served as Felix’s primary love interest. His other love interest (resembling Candy with different colored hair) was Natasshia Slinky (Jane Singer), typically portrayed as an actress that had absolutely no interest in Felix. Shamus T. Golcrow (Tony Pope) was a noir-style private eye that often called on Felix’s help in cases. Skiddoo the Mouse (Susan Silo) was Shamus’ partner and often just showed up during Felix’s adventures to cause some trouble. Felix also had his share of new antagonists, such as Peking Duck (Tony Jay), who wanted Felix’s magic bag, and Bet a Billion Bill, a playboy gambler whose incredible luck came to an end when Felix, a black cat, crossed his path. Character designs were handled by Berglund, Michael Diederich, Craig Kellman, John Stevenson, Jay Falconer, Adam M. Burton, Jim Schumann and Phil Stapleton.
Each episode was broken up into three segments; with one story sometimes playing over two segments and initially receiving two title cards. The first season was written by Berglund, Schumann, Stevenson, Martin Olson, Dominic Polcino, Christopher Moeller, Lynne Naylor, Stephan DeStefano, Jeremy Kramer, Robin Steele, Christian Roman, Milton Knight, Phil Robinson, Bob Koch, Blair Peters, Doug Lawrence, Craig Handley, Brian Sheesley, Eric Keyes, Michael Ouweleen and Paul Vester. Most of them doubled as storyboard artists and directors as the series opted to take a “cartoonist-driven” approach. Rather than work from full scripts, each episode begun from a basic outline and was fleshed out in the storyboarding process. As a result, the series was very visually busy and surreal utilizing plenty of sight gags in keeping with the early theatrical shorts. Occasionally, repurposed live-action footage would be integrated into an episode for some gags; such as when Felix was traversing through various movies after being eaten by a VCR.
As mentioned earlier, the show’s production was a troubled one. Reportedly, there was a disagreement on what direction the show would take from the outset. Oriolo wanted his father’s work, which the staff openly hated, reflected in it (the magic bag was a bone they threw him in that regard). Studio head Phil Roman was looking to make it a standard plot-and-dialogue-driven show like his successful Garfield and Friends, also airing on CBS. Producer and showrunner Berglund wanted to incorporate elements reminiscent of the 1930s Fleischer Studios or 1970s R. Crumb. The animators who worked on the show wanted to invoke the old Messmer shorts, the surrealism of Max Fleischer, or Ren and Stimpy where many of them had worked prior. Production was incredibly rushed with about a month to storyboard, design and do layouts for each story, and an inability to do any corrections or reshoots as there simply wasn’t any time once animation came in from Rough Draft Studios, Inc. and Plus One Animation. There was also trouble with casting Felix. At one point, they auditioned members of the crew when the hundreds of actors they already saw didn’t meet their expectations. Ultimately, it was decided to produce the episodes utilizing a temporary voice and Adcox-Hernandez was brought in to redub the episodes weeks before airing.
The series ended up being an unfocused mess of styles and tonality that Felix wound up lost in; overshadowed by the other characters and the visual chaos of his world. Further, attempts to pay homage to Felix’s silent roots were undermined by the addition of unnecessary dialogue done as internal monologues. Not only did it fail to hit with audiences (which wasn’t helped by CBS’ poor scheduling of the show against stronger competition like X-Men), but Oriolo was displeased that the series deviated so far from his father’s work. Remarkably, the series was renewed for a second season, but at a significantly reduced budget (about a third of the original that made it the most expensive show Film Roman ever produced). It was decided to retool the series and make it a more script-driven program.
Unfortunately, the damage was already done. The changes did little to help the already poor ratings. Judy Price, the vice president of children’s programming who picked up the show, was let go, leaving them with no ally in management. Oriolo was further angered over the resulting season and the disrespect for his father’s work, resulting in his refusing to renew Film Roman’s license to the character. The series was cancelled with only 8 episodes produced for the second season; two of which remained unaired for five months, and just before the network switched to an all live-action schedule. Plans to have Adler go back and re-dub the first season episodes for consistency were abandoned.
1996 saw RCA release a couple of VHS compilations containing several story segments. Other countries got their own releases with significantly more offerings. In 2000, BMG Special Products released a DVD compilation. Unicorn Entertainment released two DVD collections in Hong Kong under the title The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat II. The entire series was released to DVD exclusively in Germany in 2013, and was made available to stream on NBCUniversal’s Peacock service in 2020.
Oriolo allowed one more go at an animated series with the Japanese-made Baby Felix, which only ran for a single season. In 2014, DreamWorks acquired the rights to Felix after having acquired Classic Media’s library that included the 1950s television series. Not much came of that acquisition until it was announced in 2021 that a comic series was set to be published by Source Point Press in 2022. While it’s been a long time since Felix’s heyday, he continues to be one of the most widely-recognizable cartoon character that transcends generations, and still manages to find his way onto merchandise from time to time. This is one cat that hasn’t used up his nine lives just yet.
“Guardian Idiot / Space Time Twister / Don’t String Me Along” (9/16/95) – Felix ends up saddled with a guardian angel that just puts him in even worse situations. / Travelling on the wrong train leads Felix to come across a box that allows him to muck with time. / Cleaning his house leads Felix to finding a string that makes the whole cartoon unravel.
“Surreal Estate / Phony Phelix / Five Minute Meatball” (9/14/96) – Needing a new toaster leads Felix to touring a bizarre house to get one for free. / Felix is kidnapped so that another cat can live out his fantasy of being a cartoon character. / Felix volunteers to replace all the sick delivery drivers for a meatball delivery service.