Saturday 17 September 2022

A Cat, A Greek God and a Robot

Felix the Cat was, as far as I’m concerned, the biggest cartoon star of the silent era. But sound animated shorts came in by late 1928 and some bonehead management decisions left Felix behind.

There was a late catch-up by adding some background music and effects onto cartoons already made but the cat couldn’t attract a big distributor; they had all latched onto real sound cartoon characters. An attempt in 1936 by Van Beuren to bring him back suddenly ended after three cartoons (and others in various states of production) when the studio shut down.

However, Felix continued to appear in the comic pages and in 1958 was being drawn by Joe Oriolo. There was still life in him. There were also successful attempts to make cartoons cheap enough that they could be aired on television. Quality wasn’t necessarily a watchword. Ask Bucky and Pepito. But UPA had animated special shorts for CBS’ short-lived Boing-Boing Show, TV Spots had (thanks to underhanded corporate muscle) revived Crusader Rabbit and Hanna-Barbera’s Ruff and Reddy were appearing Saturday mornings on NBC. Let’s not forget Spunky and Tadpole and Colonel Bleep. Soon a deal was put together for Felix’s comeback.

The Hollywood Reporter informed readers on July 1, 1958:

TRANS-LUX TO SPEND $1,750,000 TELEFILMING ‘FELIX THE CAT’ New York.—Trans-Lux Television Corp. is branching out into TV production with 100 percent financing of a series of “Felix the Cat” cartoons to be made in Eastman color by Felix the Cat Productions, Inc., headed by Pat Sullivan, who has sold Trans-Lux TV rights in perpetuity. Dick Brandt, Trans-Lux president, says his company is prepared to spend almost $1,750,000 for production of 260 four-minute cartoons to be made in series of 52 subjects on which work starts this week. Cartoons, designed to be joined in groups of three, will be offered for national sponsorship and foreign theatrical release. Sullivan also turns out “Felix” comic strip for King Features and animated commercials. Trans-Lux is also taking over 26 quarter-hour Australian-made animal pictures produced by Artransa.

In its report several days later Broadcasting revealed Trans-Lux had been distributing the Encyclopaedia Britannica library to TV stations for two years and had seven feature films available for television. A fairly modest company.

Production must have been a boon to the New York animation industry. Was there some kind of deal with Paramount to put their artists to work on Felix? The studio’s musical library composed by Winston Sharples was heard on the Felix cartoons. The voice (and occasional writer) of Popeye, Jack Mercer, provided voices for every single character on every single Felix cartoon. Meanwhile, the Herald Tribune on January 12, 1959 reported that full-page ads were appearing in New York newspapers and TV trade publications aimed at 100 major national advertisers. If the makers of the cartoons were cutting corners, the distributor was not when it came to P.R.

Here are two of the ads.

Felix was a bountiful success for Trans-Lux. These are later ads from the 1960s.

Trades reported the Felix studio was shuttered in 1961.

Trans-Lux considered other animation ideas before it hit on The Mighty Hercules. After all, Steve Reeves’ low-budget Hercules feature films had been money-makers. Broadcasting magazine announced on January 29, 1962 a “pilot film has been completed and storyboards laid out for the first dozen programs.” Animator Lew Gifford’s column in Back Stage of March 2nd went into a bit more detail:

Trans-Lux Television Corp. will produce its new $1,500,000 “Mighty Hercules” cartoon package in New York, according to Richard Carlton, vice president, of Adventure Cartoons for Television, Inc.
European capitals and Hollywood were bypassed in favor of New York for the 130 five-and-a-half minute color cartoons. Mr. Carlton said studio and office space has just been signed for a staff of more than 40 persons, including top animators.
A national ad campaign on the series is times to start with initial screenings of the pilot Mar. 5. News of the advance “Hercules” sale to WPIX already has stirred sufficient industry interest to warrant new projections of a total of 195 cartoons by ’63.
“Hercules” is the creation of Moe Leff’s pen, known for his work on “L’il Abner” and his origination of Humphrey Pennyworth, Jerry Leemy and Little Max.
Roger Carlin is executive producer, Joe Oriolo, producer, and Arthur Brooks, production coordinator.
We had a chat with Moe Leff who told us that the firm was opening offices this week at 717 Fifth Ave. Suite 1707 and that studio space had been obtained at 132 West 33 St. Mr. Leff said that a large part of the staff would be recruited from Joe Oriolo’s recently defunct “Felix the Cat” studios.
Mr. Leff, who is also preparing material for several other pilots, said that he personally wouldn’t consider working outside NYC if he could help it and that the tremendous vitality that comes from being here would eventually show through in the quality and spirit of the finished product.

Although Leff’s name is on some trade ads, it doesn’t appear on the finished cartoons. It would appear drastic budget cuts were in order after the pilot film. Jack Mercer was punted and three radio announcers from Montreal provided all the voices. The show was unintentional camp, from Johnny Nash singing “iron in his thighs” in the opening theme, to irritating Newt repeating himself, to the Herc design (supposedly by George Peed) looking suspiciously like Superman in the Fleischer cartoons, to Jimmy Tapp’s droning narration from a room that needed something to deaden the sound.

Some more trade ads. Hercules is as real as ice cream, you know. What would that make Newt? Make Newt?

Finally, Trans-Lux had one more cartoon series to toss at stations with the right amount of money. Variety of September 15, 1965 announced that the company had bought the rights to distribute 52 half-hours Gigantor and had signed WPIX-TV New York and WGN-TV Chicago to air it.

The show was “produced” by Al Singer and Fred Ladd of Delphi Associates but it wasn’t animated in New York. It was an old Japanese show. Back Stage described it as “the story of the ‘world’s mightiest robot’ and its 12-year-old master, Jimmy Sparks. The year is 2000, a period of high scientific achievement and low-down villainy. ‘Gigantor’ tackles his international enemies on land, sea and air, super-powered by jet and electronically controlled by young Jimmy.”

Fred Ladd may be known mostly for bringing Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion to young American TV audiences before Gigantor (né Tetsujin 28) appeared.

The cartoon debuted on January 5, 1966. Anything that tells you it was on the air in North America in 1964 is incorrect. Historian Harvey Deneroff points out 1964 is when NBC was approached about the series but passed on it.

Trans-Lux pushed the show in full-page ads as well, though not many of them.

If you’ve clicked on the ads, you’ll notice a show called Mack and Myer For Hire. This was a live action series on the lines of old two-reel comedies. They were churned out and if you’re brave enough, you can find some on line and wonder where the laffs are.

As for Trans-Lux, its TV division was swallowed up in 1970 in a stock deal by Schnur Appel of Short Hills, New Jersey. It was a company into, among other things, product licensing. Broadcasting of March 5, 1970 refers to properties including That Show with Joan Rivers and one Felix the Cat.

To me, the Trans-Lux Felix is strictly for those nostalgic people who like Jack Mercer doing falsetto and Winston Sharples’ 1950s Popeye music. The cartoons aren’t entertaining, at least to me, but that shouldn’t be a surprise considering how many were put on the assembly line. I still enjoy the old silent imaginative Felixes. The character is still a good one and perhaps animators will get another crack at bringing him to us again.


  1. When I was growing up, the Trans-Lux show was the only "Felix" I knew, and fit right in with the Paramount stuff, and even the Jay Ward/Total Television fare. So I'm pretty nostalgic about that (and including the intro song), though I haven't seen much of it in decades, since syndication (Did watch a couple online recently).

  2. Coincidentally, I watched some MACK AND MYER FOR HIRE online a couple of weeks ago. They are appallingly cheap and painfully unfunny. The same can be said for those Trans-Lux FELIX cartoons. I never saw them growing up. That seems to be a key factor in how you feel about the things. If the theme song stirs up warm, fuzzy memories of being parked in front of the television when you were four, you'll probably enjoy them. Otherwise, no.

  3. I confess to still being a big fan f those (hey, one of my blogs is aboutit...)

  4. Oh...Trans-Lux finally released 1967's Speed Racer,

  5. Aw, c'mon--I think quite a few of the T-L Felix cartoons are amusing. Plus, Jim Tyer animated on a number of them. Nice color styling and character design as well. Also, there's the Film Roman-produced Nineties revival that featured more of the surrealism and wacky gags from the silent-era shorts.

    1. Agreed...Joe Oriolo had been with the Paramount cartoon studio, and Jim would do their 1963 Snuffies, so that completes the connection...

  6. No mention of "Twisted Tales of Felix The Cat"? I liked that one...

  7. $1,750,000 sounds like an awful lot for those Felix cartoons. It works out to about $15,000 per cartoon, which each looks like it cost half that amount to produce, with the recycled music and reused animation. Likewise Mighty Hercules (who was Fleischer's Superman in a toga). Jack Mercer's Popeye-with-laryngitis voice for Felix' nemesis The Professor he first did as one of the spies in "Gulliver's Travels." And he was the original Newton in "Hercules." But he lacked the versatility of Daws Butler and the vocal distinction of Paul Frees.

  8. Sadly, I don't think any modern animators will do Felix, since they've been brought up on nothing but Matt Groening and Seth McFarlane and just copy him shamelessly.

    As a young cartoonist, I want to emulate the Silent-Golden Age films, but with my own characters.

  9. When Hercules was on in Buffalo it had an accompanying puppet show to go with the cartoon. Was this a common phenomenon? I can’t imagine the local station going through time and expense to have puppets introduce a syndicated cartoon. These were puppets on strings, not socks. I still remember Herc explaining to this three year old that he doesn’t actually fly - he just jumps from Mount Olympus.

  10. Trans-Lux began as a chain of newsreel theaters; built in existing storefronts with no room for a traditional projection booth, the films were rear projected onto translucent screens (hence the Trans-Lux name), and they usually had a rolling news ticker marquee.

  11. I'm old enough to remember "Mack and Myer" in syndication (late 1960's). My 7-year-old self gobbled it up. Haven't seen it since.