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Felix the Cat

Felix the Cat is a cartoon character created by cartoonist and animator Otto Messmer. His squat, black body and huge, white eyes and grin are instantly recognizable worldwide, due largely to the fact that this anthropomorphic cat was the first true movie cartoon star.

While working at the animation studio of Pat Sullivan, Messmer produced a series of shorts starring an animated version of Charlie Chaplin. Messmer painstakingly analyzed Chaplin's films, and he would later inject a good deal of Chaplin into the as-yet-unnamed Felix in "Feline Follies", created on a freelance basis for Paramount Pictures in 1919 immediately after the end of World War I. This early Felix was blockier and longer-snouted than today's version of the character, but his familiar black body was already established (Messmer found solid shapes easier to animate). The film was a success, and Paramount ordered more. Paramount producer John King named the character "Felix", after the Latin words felis (cat) and felix (good luck). Fellow animator Bill Nolan and Otto Messmer redesigned the cat to make him rounder and cuter in 1922. Felix's handsome looks coupled with Messmer's masterful character animation (learned largely from his work on the Chaplin pictures) skyrocketed the character into the international consciousness.

At the height of Felix's fame in 1925, an estimated three-quarters of the world's population could recognize the character. Pat Sullivan marketed Felix relentlessly, making up all sorts of tall tales about the character's origins (he claimed to have been the cat's sole creator). Felix was everywhere. His image adorned clocks, Christmas ornaments, balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, even early experiments with television (his image was the first ever broadcast). Meanwhile, the uncredited Messmer continued to create the cartoons behind the scenes (as well as a comic strip in 1923). This great success also generated a host of imitators -- Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Bosko, even Mickey Mouse himself were designed to look as much like Felix as possible.

The cartoons were a hit with the critics, as well. They have been cited as wonderfully imaginative examples of surrealism in filmmaking. Felix has been said to represent a child's sense of wonder, creating the fantastic when it is not there, and taking it in stride when it is. The cat's famous walk, hands behind his back, head down, deep in thought, became a trademark that was analyzed and re-analyzed by critics around the world. Felix's multipurpose tail -- a shovel, an exclamation mark, a pencil -- only serves to emphasize that anything can happen in his world.

In 1928, Felix's distributors urged Pat Sullivan to make the leap to "talkie" cartoons. Sullivan refused, and other characters, particularly Mickey Mouse, drew audiences away from the silent Felix cartoons. Eventually, Sullivan's distributors dropped him. The producer made preparations to start a new studio in California that would produce sound cartoons, but he died in 1933, leaving his studio in shambles.

Sullivan's brother licensed Felix to Amedée Van Buren's studio in 1936, which produced a few Felix shorts in color and with sound. The studio did away with Felix's recognizable personality, however, and made him just another funny animal character. The new shorts saw little success, and after only three outings, Van Buren was dropped by his distributor.

In 1953, Felix's earlier shorts entered syndication on televsion, now with musical soundtracks. When Messmer retired from drawing the Felix comic strip in 1954, his assistant, Joe Oriolo took over. Oriolo struck a deal with the Felix's current owner, Pat Sullivan's nephew, to begin a new series of Felix cartoons on televsion. Oriolo went on to star the cat in 260 television cartoons from 1959 and 1960. These cartoons gave Felix a new personality, more domesticated and pedestrian, and introduced familiar elements such as Felix' Magic Bag of Tricks. Many new characters were also introduced, such as a sinister Professor, and his intelligent nephew, Poindexter. Felix's voice was performed by Jack Mercer the voice of Popeye the sailor. Mercer also provided the voices of supporting characters Poindexter, Rock Bottom, and the Professor. These cartoons (and those of Oriolo's son, Don) proved popular, but critics have dismissed them as paling in comparison to Messmer's earlier works. Nevertheless, Don Oriolo continues to market the character today in projects such as Felix the Cat: The Movie (1991), and the television series Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat (1996) and Baby Felix (2000).