(From fps magazine, 1991)
Felix: the Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat
Review by Harry McCracken
Call Felix the Cat the Mickey Rooney of the animation world. After a brilliant start, his career has had more fallow periods than highlights, and he's often come precariously close to being forgotten by the American public. But that public does have a certain affection for him that keeps his career alive, and like Rooney, Felix has outlasted most of the studios that employed him and shows every sign of outliving most of us as well. His story is well worth telling, and John Canemaker's Felix: the Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat does an admirable job of doing so.
When I first heard about this book, I found somewhat dubious the prospect of an art book devoted to a character who appeared mainly in black-and-white, graphically primitive cartoons, and who hasn't made a film of note in sixty years. But Canemaker knows exactly what kind of book Felix's career will support, and this is not a coffee-table behemoth but rather a modest, small-scale volume that devotes almost all its space to Felix's glory days in the 1920s and makes no attempt to convince us that those Felix TV cartoons of the 1960s were great art. I can imagine similarly formatted books being done about a number of cartoon stars whose careers flourished mainly in the black-and-white days, including Popeye and Betty Boop (both owned, like Felix, by King Features). Perhaps Canemaker will write them.
Animation fans have known for a long time that Pat Sullivan plastered his name all over Felix's films but didn't create the character, and that his death from alcoholism was in part responsible for Felix's decline as a cartoon celebrity. Canemaker tells us much more, little of which will improve Sullivan's reputation. While we learn that Sullivan was a competent cartoonist early in his career and see numerous examples of his newspaper work, we also discover that he spent time in prison for rape. Canemaker also sheds a lot of light on just why Felix's stardom ended so abruptly, which happened for a number of legal, financial, and box-office related reasons.
The other man we associate with Felix is Otto Messmer, the character's creator (though among the book's interesting tidbits is the fact that Bill Nolan was responsible for the Felix design we're most familiar with today). Canemaker takes a fairly benign view of the unusual Sullivan-Messmer relationship - brash Sullivan marketing the character and taking most of the money and all of the glory for himself, shy Messmer doing the creative work for little pay and no credit. Shamus Culhane, whose career encompassed most of the classic studios except Sullivan's, sees Sullivan and Messmer's business partnership as having had almost sado-masochistic undertones. Whatever way you look at it, it's clear that Sullivan would have had nothing to promote without Messmer's wonderful cartoons, and Messmer was too withdrawn and unassuming to have ever become a Walt Disney-like artist/entrepreneur all by himself. It was the peculiar synergy of their personalities that made Felix the first real star of animation.
After Felix's film career was derailed around 1930, Messmer occupied himself with other artistic projects, including writing and drawing the Felix newspaper strip and comic books. Eventually, he found rewarding work as an animator of those gaudy Times Square electric signs. It's nice to know, as Canemaker reminds us, that Messmer lived long enough to receive full recognition as Felix's father and one of the most important figures in animation history. Like Ub Iwerks, Messmer never received the monetary rewards he might have for his contributions to the artform, but both men were able to lead long and happy careers, quietly doing work they enjoyed.
The three color-and-sound Felix cartoons that the Van Beuren studio made in the 1930s - which have become widely available on public domain videotapes - are discussed only briefly in this book, although Canemaker does tell us that Messmer came quite close to working on them. Also touched on only lightly are the Joe Oriolo-produced Felix TV cartoons (which are well-remembered by Baby Boomers but artistically pretty vacant), and the Felix comic strips and books (which were of more interest, at least when written and drawn by Messmer). While it's fine that Canemaker devotes most of his space to Felix's great years, a little more information on some of the sidelights of Felix's career, like the recent Hungarian Felix animated feature, might have been worthwhile.
Like Canemaker's biography of Winsor McCay, this book is superbly researched and wonderfully illustrated. Canemaker is better than anyone else at taking a murky topic from the early days of comic art or animation, then coming up with important facts, photos, and artwork relating to the topic that have never seen print before.
Like the McCay book, this one gets a little dry and scholarly from time to time; Canemaker makes no attempt to convey the sense of fun that Felix's cartoons had in his writing. In fact, a little more lively criticism of the things he discusses is just about the only thing that might significantly improve Canemaker's work. Otherwise, Felix: the Twisted Tale of The World's Most Famous Cat is a shining example of what a book about animation can and should be.