|Felix the Cat Trips thru Toyland. - George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection|
|Felix the Cat Trips thru Toyland. - George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection|
FELIX THE CAT – introduction in the GCM Catalogue 2013
“To me a mouse is a repulsive thing.” – Otto Messmer, quoted by Donald Crafton
Russell Merritt: Felix the Irrepressible
"Felix the Cat was the most successful cartoon figure of the silent era. In his own time, he ruled animation as Chaplin ruled live-action comedy, Babe Ruth baseball, or Man o’ War horse racing. He was the mirthful personality kid, the effervescent trickster who could also play the lovesick Romeo, the lecherous sheik, or the doting uncle who still came across as a loner. For almost ten years, from 1919 to 1928, he seemed to be everywhere – in cartoons that appeared at least once a month, in syndicated comic strips, in songs, and on products you could eat, wear, and bring home with you. Newspapers and magazines published his letters and conducted interviews with him, while starlets in photo spreads taught him to dance the Charleston and the Black Bottom."
"But if he was a sensation, the public never knew or, for that matter, much cared how Felix films were made or who actually made them. The man who took the credit was Pat Sullivan (c.1885-1933), a former cartoonist who built the New York animation studio where Felix was created, and a businessman with feral sensibilities. The illusion was that, because he was the producer, Sullivan had created Felix himself. His name, and only his name, was on the films. But the true creative genius was a painfully self-effacing animator from New Jersey named Otto Messmer (1892-1983), who slaved for years in anonymity, indifferent to whether he received credit or not. The result: while Sullivan basked in Felix’s glory, touring Europe as a celebrity and inventing tales of Felix’s origins, Messmer and his staff quietly produced upward of 150 Felix cartoons in Sullivan’s New York studio at 47 W. 63rd St., at the rate of one and two per month."
"By the time the first cartoon in our program, Felix Loses Out, was released (January 1924), Felix was already five years old. He had grown from a comic insert for a series of 1919 Paramount newsreels into a full-blown celebrity, and the Messmer signatures are by now on full display: Felix the thinker who makes direct eye contact with the audience, pauses to think out his problem, and comes up with an ingenious Rube Goldberg-ish solution. Felix the jazz baby who sings and dances the latest Paul Whiteman novelty while stealing a riff from Keaton’s 1923 Our Hospitality (Keaton returned the favor two years later with a classic parody of Felix in Go West). And Felix the trickster, swindling a stereotypical Chinese store-owner out of cheese to shanghai a mouse."
"But the cartoon also shows important refinements in Messmer’s original design. Originally, Felix looked something like a cartoon fox, his face and body all angles and points, his nose at the tip of a snout. By 1924, however, that look had been replaced by the now familiar circular design with the rubbery body and wide eyes. It was the work of Bill Nolan, a celebrity guest animator who, with Messmer’s blessing, also devised the supple rubber-hose animation that gave Felix funnier, smoother movements."
"Meanwhile, Messmer had discovered fantasy kingdoms, and, as Felix reached the zenith of his popularity, he was flying through space to strange planets and magic underworlds. To enhance Felix’s travels, Messmer constructed whimsical settings inspired mainly by Sunday comic strips and nursery book illustrations. Even when the backdrops are little more than simple line drawings, they can startle with their strange juxtapositions. In Felix Trips Thru Toyland, Felix races past the silhouette of a lynched clown hovering over a chessboard. Toyland’s sky doesn’t simply feature stars and planets. A wooden duck floats past, followed by Japanese lanterns. Here and elsewhere, Felix is falling under the influence of Sunday comic strips like Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals, famous for their modish settings. Meanwhile, serious critics and artists like Gilbert Seldes and Béla Balázs began to see affinities between Felix and Cubism and Surrealism; in 1927, Paul Hindemith composed a piece “for mechanical organ” for him (Felix der Kater im Zirkus, alas reportedly lost)."
"Felix’s endless inventiveness and magical solutions continued to rule the cartoons. But, as John Canemaker points out in his classic 1991 book on Felix, the design of individual scenes continually surprises the eye with their elegant beauty. The flame-lit globes that float through the ice village in Eskimotive create a lovely futuristic scene. But even more impressive are Messmer’s kinetic effects in his fantastical battles. In Felix the Cat Flirts with Fate, Felix’s violent encounter with the Martian nightclub bouncer takes on intergalactic proportions, as Messmer pulls out all the stops. While Felix’s dance gets the moon, the forest, and even New York skyscrapers to shimmy, the fight triggers a full array of special effects: flash-frames, double exposures, lightning shifts in negative-positive polarities, step-printing, bursting captions, exploding abstract shapes. Eskimotive has a field day with Felix’s shifty eyes darting around in the dark, detached from the rest of his body, while Jungle Bungles brings Felix the self-reflexive Cat onto center stage. In a nod to the jungle pictures made popular by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, Felix takes his camera to Africa so that Messmer can play games with the cartoon wild animals and the images Felix shoots of them."
"In the summer of 1928, as Jungle Bungles was released, Felix started his crash. The talkie revolution caught Sullivan unprepared, and, when the studio refused to invest in sound, Felix lost his distributor. Within months Felix was devoured by a mouse who proved a master of the new era. As a cartoon series, Felix fell almost as quickly as he had come into prominence. Jungle Bungles was one of the last Felix cartoons ever made. After that, the studio subsisted mainly on reissues released with crude music tracks, interspersed with occasional new titles. Felix faded into the backwash of the silent era, eclipsed by Mickey Mouse, and was finally relegated to a minor position as a comic strip and Dell comic book. There was a revival TV cartoon series of 1959, but he never enjoyed the popularity of the 1920s again."
"Today, most people have never seen Felix on a screen. His silent cartoons are rarely shown, and almost never in their original format (two exceptions: the 2006 Giornate, which showed five Felix cartoons in 35 mm, and the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival with their tribute). When the Sullivan studio collapsed, the Felix silents, so fiercely protected by copyright enforcers during their first run, scattered into the spin-off markets of non-theatrical and home distribution. So they survive almost entirely in the limbo of substandard gauges: condensed 9.5mm Pathé Kodascopes, reissued 16 mm and 8mm prints. With no studio archive to protect them, almost all the original negatives were lost or destroyed. But thanks to the sustained efforts of museums, public archives, and private collectors, we can catch a glimpse of what we’ve been missing. At last, Felix returns to the Giornate, belly laugh and all." – Russell Merritt (GCM Catalogue)
In 1977 John Canemaker, who was just starting his own career as an animator and animation historian, interviewed Otto Messmer and Al Eugster (who began his career as Felix’s blackener) for a short documentary, Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat. This delightful film marked one of the rare on-camera appearances of Messmer, who was notoriously shy (“Like the cartoons, I am silent,” he once told an audience). The film was a favourite of Angelo R. Humouda, founder of the Cineteca Griffith and the inspiration for the Cineteca del Friuli. An Italian version of the script appeared in the special Messmer-Felix issue of Griffithiana (no. 22-23, May 1985). Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat is included on the 2002 Milestone DVD collection of John Canemaker’s work, Marching to a Different Toon. (GCM Catalogue)
All films courtesy of Don Oriolo & Felix the Cat Creations, Inc. – All rights reserved & © 2013 FTCP, Inc.
FELIX LOSES OUT (Pat Sullivan, US 1924) D: Otto Messmer; AN: Bill Nolan, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett; ink and paint: Jack Bogle; DP: Alfred Thurber; dist: Margaret J. Winkler; rel: 15.1.1924; 35 mm, 565 ft, 6' (24 fps); print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA. English intertitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in Italian, grand piano: John Sweeney, 6 Oct 2013 - AA: "All chicks fall for a guy with a car". When the rival with the car gets the girl Felix conjures a vehicle for himself: "watch that flapper fall for this motor". The vehicle is driven by a mouse after a piece of cheese, but the rival lets the mouse loose. Speech bubbles convey dialogue. A look is conveyed via a dotted line. Black ink on white background.
FELIX THE CAT TRIPS THRU TOYLAND (Pat Sullivan, US 1925) D: Otto Messmer; AN: George [Vernon] Stallings, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett; ink and paint: Al Eugster; dist: Educational Film Exchanges; rel: 20.9.1925; 35 mm, 723 ft, 8' (22 fps); print source: George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. Preserved and printed in 2004 from a 35 mm nitrate negative. English intertitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in Italian, grand piano: Stephen Horne, 7 Oct 2013 - AA: A mended girl doll takes an amorous Felix to Toyland, beyond the clouds. They face a mean white Auguste clown (see images above). Felix blows a soap balloon and himself into it. There is a dream-like chase with metamorphoses, kites, horns, tin soldiers, an all-out war, and fireworks. A good print.
FELIX THE CAT FLIRTS WITH FATE (Pat Sullivan, US 1926) D: Otto Messmer; AN: George [Vernon] Stallings, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett; ink and paint: Al Eugster; dist: Educational Film Exchanges; rel: 24.1.1926; 35 mm, 716 ft, 8'30" (24 fps); print source: George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. Preserved and printed 2004 from a 35 mm nitrate negative. English intertitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in Italian, grand piano: Stephen Horne, 8 Oct 2013 - AA: A cosmic love adventure. The cats meet under the moonlight. A girl cat's look chills Felix's heart. There is a montage of all living creatures making love. Felix cultivates a camera look to us. He flies with a firecracker to the Moon. The musical notes of his whistle turn into wheels, and Felix lands into Mars Dance Hall. There is a wild Charleston, the whole street is rocking, even trees are dancing, as is the elephant. The professors agree: "you can't do no Charleston on Mars". A cosmic fight ensues, there is a flicker episode with rapidly changing black and white frames, and an extreme close-up of Felix through the telescope.
FELIX THE CAT IN BLUNDERLAND (Pat Sullivan, US 1926) D: Otto Messmer; AN: George [Vernon] Stallings, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett; ink and paint: Al Eugster; dist: Educational Film Exchanges; rel: 7.2.1926; 35 mm, 758 ft, 9' (22 fps), col. (tinted amber); print source: UCLA Film & Television Archive, Los Angeles. English intertitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in Italian, grand piano: Stephen Horne, 9 Oct 2013 - AA: Bon voyage. Felix is reading Lewis Carroll and asks for the policeman for directions to Wonderland, hitting him on the head with a question mark. "Alice, where art thou going?" Musical notes come alive. The dragon is in the doghouse, and Beanstalk Jack is met - the fairy-tales have been messed up as the dragon saws the beanstalk with his jagged tail. Felix falls onto the giant and levitates with his heavy breath. "Little Bo Peep lost her sheep". Finally Felix has to ask the policeman for directions home.
FELIX THE CAT WEATHERS THE WEATHER (Pat Sullivan, US 1926) D: Otto Messmer; AN: George [Vernon] Stallings, Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett; ink and paint: Al Eugster; dist: Educational Film Exchanges; rel: 21.3.1926; 35 mm, 669 ft, 8'30" (21 fps), col. (tinted amber); print source: UCLA Film & Television Archive, Los Angeles. English intertitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in Italian, grand piano: Antonio Coppola, 10 Oct 2013 - AA: Felix is a family father with two kittens. In the morning they dress in their kitten wear. The sun is shining but as soon as they family is on its way it starts to rain. "Darn that Weather Man!" There is a battle in the clouds where Felix confronts the Weather Man (a man with a watering can), and there is a fascinating series of metamorphoses with Felix's tail turning into different functions, and heat and frost alternating. An inspired instance of the spirit of animation.
FELIX THE CAT IN ESKIMOTIVE (Pat Sullivan, US 1928) D: Otto Messmer; AN: Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett; ink and paint: Al Eugster; dist: Educational Film Exchanges; rel: 19.4.1928; reissue: Jacques Kopfstein, c.1929-30; 35 mm, c.715 ft, 8' (24 fps); print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA. No intertitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), grand piano: Lillian Henley (masterclass participant), 11 Oct 2013 - AA: Playing with soap bubbles Felix flies to the North Pole. There are various gags about snow, ice, darkness, and northern lights, and confronting polar bears and seals. The polar bear pokes Felix to a hole in the ice, and there is an underwater adventure sequence. Felix reaps a catch of seals, takes the skins to a furrier, and receives a bag of money.
FELIX THE CAT IN JUNGLE BUNGLES (La extraña aventura de Felix) (Pat Sullivan, US 1928) D: Otto Messmer; AN: Hal Walker, Dana Parker, Burton Gillett; ink and paint: Al Eugster; dist: Educational Film Exchanges; rel: 22.7.1928; 35 mm, 551 ft, 6' (24 fps); print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA. Main title in Spanish, English intertitles. Cinemazero (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in Italian, grand piano: John Sweeney, 12 Oct 2013 - AA: While Felix is photographing in the jungle and underwater, a monkey performs a musical production number, but the photographic objects start to interfere. A jungle beast jumps inside the camera, the camera turns into a chain of sausages, a giraffe eats up the sausages, an ostrich eats the film, and a jungle tribe chases Felix who escapes on the back of the ostrich. Finally there is a jungle film screening with the ostrich as a projector which screens images of wild beasts, chasing the tribesmen away.