Remembering the Past Australia
Felix the Cat, a cartoon character first created in the silent film era, is widely considered the world’s first animated film star. Originating from the studio of Australian Pat Sullivan in New York, Felix first appeared in an animated short titled “Feline Follies” as Master Tom, released by Paramount Studios on 9 November 1919, nine years before Disney’s Mickey Mouse debuted in “Steamboat Willie” (1928).
Internationally there is much debate over who originally created Felix the Cat. Before his death in 1933 Sullivan widely asserted that he had invented a black cat as a film character; however, nearly fifty years later American animator Otto Messmer, who was a salaried animator attached to Pat Sullivan’s studio, claimed that he was the creator of Feline Follies and the character of Felix.
However, in 2005, Judy Nelson, Curator of the “Reclaiming Felix the Cat” Exhibition for the NSW State Library, brought to light that Pat Sullivan had registered a half reel of a film called “The Tail of Thomas the Kat” for copyright in March 1917.
An article published in July 1936 by the Sydney Mail recounts the story behind the inspiration for Felix:
“One day, out of an ash-can in the next flat popped the scraggiest and most miserable black cat imaginable. “Why don’t you draw that cat?” said Mrs Sullivan as she carried the cat over to Pat in her arms. To show its appreciation the feline actor-to-be spat at the artist with vengeance. Pat made a few studies on the spot.”
In an interview for The Melbourne Argus, 1 December 1925, Sullivan said:
“I shall never forget the first film of Felix I made, it took me six months to do, and was a gigantic failure. I was, of course, utterly inexperienced in a new and highly technical art. The result of it was that I had a nervous breakdown, and was in hospital for 5 weeks.”
Roscoe Arbuckle holding Lasky Studio cat “Ethel” as model for Pat Sullivan to draw his Felix the Cat for the Paramount Magazine 1921.
Pat Sullivan and His Wife 1926.
By 1919 Pat Sullivan was drawing cartoons for Paramount Magazine and later when he signed a contract as an animator with Paramount Studios in March 1920, one of the subjects specified in his curriculum vitae was a black cat named Felix who had first appeared in Paramount Magazine as a character named “Master Tom” in a cartoon series named Feline Follies.
As for how Felix got his name, following Feline Follies success Mrs Sullivan asked Pat “What shall we call him?”
“What about Felix?” said Pat. “You’ve heard of ‘Australia Felix,’ and I’ll draw him in solid black like old Peter Felix, the boxer, who used to frighten us kids in Sydney.”
So Felix the Cat “took his cue.”