I think that many important threads in the history of American animated cartoons are apparent, but often there are important elements that haven’t been as considered by the general populace; we accept the new and as the inspirations fall into obscurity. Such is the history and memory of the best of Felix the Cat. Felix occupied the top spot in the animated kingdom through much of the 1920s, reaching a level of popularity world-wide, in both cinema and merchandising that served as a perfect model for a certain mouse to follow immediately after.
Consider how short animated film history really is. As Felix turns 100 (on Saturday, November 9th), I think it’s important to consider the major stepping stones of character performance started with a small number of artists/animators, with some of the most influential working with each other. The small number of major animation studios in New York led to some interesting cross-pollination in ideas and execution, with the Hollywood studios following, greatly influenced by both the ideas, story and design direction of the New York Studios. Certainly the Disney Studio was wise to recruit East Coast animators, who brought with them tried and true techniques learned from years of cranking out silent shorts. These helped accelerate innovations in some ways, and limited them sometimes as well.
The Pat Sullivan Studio must be regarded as both direction setting for the industry as a whole as well as an important training ground for some key players in the industry. Character animator and cartoonist Otto Mesmer, the main director (and one of the key animators) of the series, never achieved the sort of fame he deserved, but his influence was profoundly felt throughout the industry. The same can be said for Bill Nolan, who’s influence on the design of Felix as well as animation innovations were heavy influences on animators around the world. Many of their animation personality timing and motion ideas can be seen in Hugh Harman’s early work on the Oswalds as well as Iwerks. Burt Gillett’s experience at the studio is hardly documented, but it’s clear that his work at the Disney and the general direction of character animation is greatly helped by the ideas presented in the Felix cartoons.
Perhaps the more important aspect of Felix in influencing the direction of the industry comes from merchandising. No other character, animated or otherwise, had more products featuring their likeness in the 20s. This worldwide phenomenon is clearly a model adopted by Walt Disney and his fledgling studio, allowing the company to expand the budgets of the shorts beyond what would be profitable to any other studio.
The evolution of the series as a whole has been hard to document up until this point, with a large amount of Felix’s history being difficult or impossible to see. We all of course hopes this changes sooner than later. From viewing many more of the films than are generally available, I’ve absolutely enjoyed learning much more about why the series was so popular as well as seeing how the evolution of the series occurred.
Universal (The parent company of Dreamworks/Classic Media) does have some licensed products being rolled out this week for the anniversary. Click the box above for one such item. As for other anniversary merch, here’s a nifty little post from Jerry over at Animation Scoop.
My one great collecting regret was once having a print of Felix Fans the Flames (1926) and giving it away! I’ve been on the hunt for this otherwise lost title ever since. I’ve managed to track it down I think, but accessing it is another matter.
I have to admit that I have more than just a complicated relationship with Felix; This little black cat is both a blessing and a curse, all the time. I’ll leave it at that for now. I thought it would be appropriate to share one of his adventures on his 100th Anniversary Week. Against what I’m sure will be some flak from a few friends, here is Draggin’ the Dragon (1928) in the 1930 sound reissue print. While this one contains quite a few stereotypes, it also has a really fun dragon near the end and some good gags and personality animation along the way. It’s a little harder to see of a title, so I though it would be a fun one to share.
Have a good week everyone… and Happy Birthday Felix!