Saturday, 4 April 2015

Felix and the Flapper

Sure, Betty Boop somewhat epitomised the Roaring ‘20s (even they were dead by the time she debuted), but the cartoon character who hung out with flappers was Felix the Cat. Well, one flapper, anyway.

The January 1927 edition of Photoplay magazine included a two-page spread of Felix dancing the Black Bottom with the woman who popularised it, Ann Pennington. She danced in the Ziegfeld Follies and George White Scandals. But age has a habit of creeping up on dancers and Pennington finally retired during World War Two—and spent much of the rest of her life on welfare, living in rooming hotels on (appropriate for a dancer, I suppose), 42nd Street.

The Black Bottom was one of her dances; butt-slapping dances crop up occasionally in the cartoons of the New York studios in the early ‘30s. In Photoplay, she’s shown teaching it to Felix who, though he has a black bottom, never did the dance in any cartoons that I can recall off-hand. Here are the photos from Photoplay, with the text that accompanies each picture.

Felix decides that the Charleston is passé and goes to Ann Pennington for a lesson in the Black Bottom. In the first step, Ann points her left foot to the side, raising the left heel from the floor, bending both knees and slanting her body backwards

Second step. “Now, Felix,” says Ann, “straighten the body, lower the left heel and point your toe up from the floor. And, Felix, sing that song, ‘The Black Bottom of the Swanee River, sometimes likes to shake and shiver.’ A little more pep, please!”

“Come on, cat! All set for the third step. Face forward, Felix, and bend that left knee slightly, pointing the left paw toward the floor. This is the way we make ‘em sit up and take notice when we dance the ‘Black Bottom’ in Mr. White's ‘Scandals’.”

“Snap into the fourth step, funny feline! Stamp that left mouse-catcher on the floor and bend that left knee. Stamp it good and hard. And sing that song—‘They call it Black Bottom, a new twister. They sure got ‘em, oh sister!’”

“Now, Mr. Cream and Catnip Man, after stamping forward, drag the left paw back across the floor. This is one of the most important principles of the dance. Then, for step five, raise both of your heels from the floor and slap your hip. Like this!”

“Kick your right paw sidewards, old back-fence baritone, and keep on slapping your hip. Now run along and practice your steps in someone’s backyard. Little Ann must hurry and keep a dinner-date. See you at the 'Scandals’”

In 1927, Felix was at the height of his popularity but would soon fall quickly. The advent of sound brought new cartoon characters. Felix stayed mute and lost his release with Educational Pictures in 1928. Some sound cartoons were released on a States Rights basis in 1929-30 but that was Felix’s real last gasp. A Mickey-esque Felix appeared in three cartoons for Van Beuren in 1936 before the “bag-of-tricks” Felix in made-for-TV cartoons that were churned out in the last ‘50s. But the real Felix belongs to the silent film era, a great a star in his own way as Chaplin and Keaton—and even an energetic Broadway dancer named Ann Pennington.


  1. At least Ann Pennington didn't end up becoming the "I've fallen, and I can't get up!" woman, which was the fate of another Ziegfield Girl.

  2. For scale: Ann Pennington was 4 feet 10 inches tall.

  3. Felix's creator, Otto Messmer, also ended up at or near 42nd Street after his creation lost its popularity, but Messmer had a far more successful time there as a designer of the area's electric billboards. He and Pennington may have unknowingly crossed paths a number of times in future years.

  4. Eric O. Costello5 April 2015 at 05:26

    Pennington had a brief flurry of activity early in the sound era; among other things, she danced in WB's smash hit of 1929, "Gold Diggers of Broadway," and was also in Fox's musical "Happy Days." The former performance does not (yet) survive (parts of this film keep turning up), but her dance in Happy Days ("Snake Hips") can be seen. There's also a clip I've seen of her dancing at the 1939-1940 World's Fair.