Saturday, 26 September 2015

Otto Who?

Like the greatest of the 1920s silent movie stars, Felix the Cat can still charm people through film. Felix’ personality is clear and the morphing gags in his cartoons are imaginative.

For years, all that creativity was credited to Pat Sullivan. After all, it was Sullivan’s name on the studio that animated the cat, it was Sullivan’s name on the comic strip Felix that was syndicated around the world. And it was Sullivan’s name that Sullivan himself kept bringing up in interviews. Bill Nolan? Otto Messmer? Somehow, their names—and others—never came up in Sullivan’s self-promotion.

Here are two stories from newspapers in New York. The first from the Long Island Daily Press of April 29, 1927 touts the arrival of the Felix strip. Apologies for the poor scan of the photo that accompanied the story.

Pat Sullivan’s ‘Brain Child’ Is Fortunate Feline—Just Watch THE PRESS.

Pat Sullivan, creator of the world-famous “Felix the Cat”, is a native of Australia, and his name plainly denotes his ancestry. His early cartoons were published in Antipodean newspapers, but it was not until he arrived in the United States some years ago that he struck his stride and became one of the most famous cartoonists of the age.
First, Sullivan scored with an amusing creation entitled “Sambo,” a cute little colored kid who reigned for several years among top-notch comics. Then came the inspiration of a life-time in the form of “Felix”, the comical black cat that bears a Latin name signifying “good luck.”
“Felix” Sullivan says, was first suggested by his charming wife (a dazzling blonde who favors black cats as pets). It became the first—and many claim it is still the foremost— of “big time” animated movies. It is shown wherever motion pictures are exhibited.
A Hit In Britain
Great Britain especially has taken an enthusiastic fancy to “Felix the Cat”, where it is a mascot for many organizations, including England’s international polo team. “Felix” is published in many of the leading magazines and newspapers in the British Isles.
Sullivan does most of his work (including the colored Sunday page which appears in this newspaper) in his studio now at 47 West 6 3rd street, right off Broadway in New York City. Hundreds of “Felix” drawings and toys adorn the studio. Posters show the globe-girdling sway of “Felix”—yellow sheets from Peking, Singapore, etc., with flaring colored broadsides from Paris, Berlin and London, and scores of notices from various parts of America.
The snapshot of Sullivan produced with this article shows him at actual work in his studio. Prematurely gray and with eyes that twinkle humor, Pat looks what he really is—a great comic artist, full of rich experience in his chosen craft and alive with wit always.
Asked to account for his success, Sullivan invariably remarks, “I was going along just so-so, struggling for recognition on many newspapers until Mrs. Sullivan fairly chased the idea of a comic black cat across my mind. Felix resulted, and ever since it has been functioning as a good luck token. I never dreamt at first that ‘Felix’ would take so well with the public. Mrs. Sullivan did.”
Don’t Be Alarmed
The next time a black cat crosses your path don't be disturbed. Think of “Felix”. Perhaps the very thought may win you some of Pat Sullivan’s luck. For the idea of a black cat led to his becoming—as he is becoming—a millionaire. That is, luck helped Sullivan, who also happened to have the ability to draw some of the funniest cats ever whelped in the imagination.
Maybe that skill is what broke the black cat hoodoo for Sullivan. But Pat jocularly rates “Felix” as a lucky token. And so does the comic editor who is enabled to publish “Felix” in the press every day.

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Five years later, the Long Island City Daily Star published this story. It’s unbylined and may have been syndicated. Sullivan admitted he took on “several promising young artists.” It was published on March 14, 1932. Sullivan was dead less than a year later.

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Pat Sullivan, Comic Cartoonist for Star Was Hand on Mule Boat Before Antics Of Felix, the Cat, Brought Him to Fame
Pat Sullivan, the originator of Felix, the famous movie cat, who appears in The Star, was born in Sydney, Australia, about the time of the “Big Blizzard.”
In his boyhood days the desire to draw cropped out in him and, like many other famous cartoonists, he often felt the sting of the rattan rod as a reward for his efforts as pedagogical portraiture.
In early youth Mr. Sullivan shook the dust of Australia from his boots and sailed for London. Here he did his first professional comic drawing. His work appeared in numerous British penny comic sheets.
While in London Mr. Sullivan also tried his hand at the theatrical game. He appeared in the London music halls doing a dancing and singing act. After a try at acting he went into the exhibiting end of the game, being one of the pioneers of the motion picture exhibitors in England.
This business was not a financial success, so Mr. Sullivan dropped out. He decided to do a bit of wandering about this time, and hired himself out as a gentleman in waiting to a boat full of mules. He spent two years plying the Atlantic in this capacity.
At the end of that time he decided to settle in the United States and take up art of fisticuffing. After tucking the scalps of a few light-weights under his belt, Mr. Sullivan decided that pugilism was not what he wanted.
The urge to draw began to make itself felt within him and he accepted a position on the staff of the New York World, a comic strip. Later he joined the staff of the McClure Syndicate, and turned out such well known characters as “Sambo Johnsin,” “Old Pop Perkins,” “Johnny Bostonbeans” and “Obliging Oliver.”
The animated cartoon idea had, about this time, been brought out by Raoul Barre, a famous French artist. Mr. Sullivan joined Barre and drew for the screen “Sambo Johnsin,” the pickaninny he had made famous in the comic sheets throughout the country.
Later Mr. Sullivan opened up his own studio and took on his staff several promising young artists.
When the Famous Players Corporation decided to issue short subjects they requested Mr. Sullivan to draw animated cartoons for them. They wanted something new and funny. Mr. Sullivan filled the bill with "Felix," the human feline. From the very beginning “Felix” caught on.
The exploits of “Felix” are not confined to the screen. Through King Features Syndicate “Felix” appears in the comic sheets of newspapers not only in this country but also in Europe, and even in Japan.

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Felix may have had one of the quickest falls from stardom of anyone on the screen when sound came in. Sullivan either decided sound was a passing fad or didn’t want to spend the money on it. The decision was a huge mistake. By 1929, no one wanted silent cartoons. Educational Pictures dropped Felix in favour of new shorts made by Paul Terry and Frank Moser. Finally, Sullivan acted, signing a deal with Copley Pictures. The cartoons were well drawn and some were very inventive. But the sound was just an after-thought. And Copley wasn’t exactly like MGM, let alone Educational. It likely had problems getting the cartoons in big theatres. Felix vanished by 1930.

Fortunately for Felix fans, the black cat was still a visible presence, thanks to newspaper comics. And he was still a valuable property, valuable enough that a series of TV Felix cartoons including newly-created villains, a bag of tricks and a jumpy theme song exposed him to a whole new generation. It proved that a star is a star. No matter who created him.


  1. Oh, and let's not forget Felix Chevrolet in Los Angeles, as explained in a recent "Animation Anecdotes" post at

    "The Felix the Cat animated character was borrowed as an icon by L.A. automobile dealer Winslow Felix who opened Felix Chevrolet in 1921.

    "Winslow Felix was a friend of Pat Sullivan who produced the Felix the Cat cartoon shorts at the time. In exchange for a new car, Sullivan allowed his close friend to use Felix the Cat in advertising, beginning at the 11th Annual Los Angeles Auto Show in 1923 with an image picturing the animated feline carrying a briefcase with the Chevrolet logo and the words “Order Yours from Felix”.

    "Winslow also attracted attention of potential buyers by painting the 'good luck' feline all over his Chevrolet roadster convertible and driving a giant head of the cat around town in the back seat. He also put the famous cartoon cat on the side of mobile libraries that journeyed through neighborhoods playing music like a Good Humor truck.

    "The advertising proved extremely successful, and Felix Chevrolet sales grew steadily as it moved to successively larger locations. In 1934, Gilmore Stadium showcased midget car races Thursday nights, and Felix was there to sponsor the sport on behalf of the car dealership.

    "The massive famous neon sign appeared for the first time at the new location of the car dealership on Figueroa and Jefferson Boulevard in 1958. The sign was designed by Wayne E. Heath, somewhat based on the revised version of the Felix the Cat character from the 1950s television series. Heath designed signs for Denny’s and Winchell doughnuts. The three-sided sign has Plexiglas-and-neon letters that measure fifteen feet tall.

    "However, in October 2007, The Los Angeles City Council decided against naming the sign a historical cultural monument despite the recommendation of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission."

  2. Of course, there was also the van Beuren Felix cartoons, as well.

  3. I never liked the 1950s TV Felix. It felt like a completely different character.

    1. I was the one that I grew up watching in the early-mid 1960s.

  4. And let's not forget the wonderful series of comic books Messmer, Joe Oriolo, and Jim Tyer created.

  5. As Leonard Maltin and others noted, Messmer did get a chance to tackle full sound cartoons in the mid-1940s when World War II blackout rules dimmed the Times Square billboards, and provided some of the best stories released during the late 1945-to-early 1947 period (usually teamed with longtime Fleischer storyman Bill Turner, which makes it hard to tell who provided what for those shorts. But most stand up well to what was being produced on the West Coast at the same time).