Felix the Cat
Chances are quite good that you've already looked on the Web for
information about Felix the Cat. When this site was first set up, its writer knew of only
one Website to credit Otto Messmer, let alone attempt to tell his story. The original
intent of this Website was to tell some of that story to those who'd never heard any of
it. Felix's story is long and treacherous -- beginning before the advent of film and
continuing to this very day.
Felix was created by Otto Messmer for Pat Sullivan's Studio in New York. Felix made his first appearance in the five-minute short "Feline Follies", included as part of a Paramount Magazine serial release to Paramount-Publix Theatres in November of 1919. The years that followed brought worldwide attention to the Cat, as well as to the technology of Film Animation. (Very often this attention consisted of Pat Sullivan telling reporters, in vague terms, how he imagined some technique of "his" worked -- Sullivan was the only person to receive onscreen credit at all, despite the fact that he had virtually nothing to do with the actual production of the cartoons.)
And then, there was sound. When the world went crazy for sound in Cartoons, Sullivan decided to wait things out. While other studios were converting to sound production, Sullivan stood by, waiting for the trend to pass. Sound was eventually added post-production to a handful of silent Felix films. Astronomeows (1928) is one such example. It is both funny and beautiful. In this case, sound has simply been added over an existing cartoon in an attempt to heighten the comedy of the situation. If it is not vital to the animation; it does not detract from it.
But times changed -- rapidly. Sullivan had missed the boat. The outfit was crushed under the fast growth of studios like the Fleischers' and Disney's. Their creative forces had been drained; and they certainly
had no chance of keeping up technologically. As if in an effort to call their staff back, they animate Felix around sound. The cost of the sound and the loss of the studio's staff took their toll on creativity. The
animation in films such as April Maze, for example, is awkward and tragic. No longer does Felix move in the abstract, organic way that Animators like Messmer and Raoul Barré had mastered. The Cat's character changed for the worse over time, as well. He became increasingly domesticated, eventually timid and child-like.
After the gradual dissolution of the Studio and the death of Pat Sullivan in 1933, only Otto Messmer remained. Felix was no longer a marketable commodity. The First Cat to Act was now fodder for children's books. Despite all this, Otto Messmer continued to draw Felix on a daily basis, for a living, in the years that followed.
Sullivan retained legal ownership of Felix until he died as a result of the alcoholism which had plagued him all his adult life. Upon Sullivan's death, his estate took over the character, ensuring that Felix would never again enjoy the popularity of his early years.
Without the Felix Cartoons, Animation may never have never proven sustainable or marketable. Felix demonstrated that audiences respond to character in Animation with the same sincere intensity they do for
great live-action. Felix stretched the limits of what could be done both with pen and paper and with celluloid and light. Without Felix, the art and business of Animation would have died out with Gertie the Dinosaur.
In the 1950s, Otto Messmer trained Joe Oriolo to assist him in the production of the Felix the Cat Comics, which had continued through the years. Oriolo eventually brought Felix back in Animated form,
redesigned for Children's Television. His Felix was completely different from Messmer's. It is Oriolo's Felix who is most familiar to millions today.
To my eyes, Oriolo's Felix seems "perky" yet likable: eternally happy. Messmer's Felix, on the other hand, is genuinely full of joy, or else immersed deep in thoughts and emotions that his simple black form
express more clearly than a treatise of ten thousand words. Oriolo's Felix stands beckoning the viewer into another dimension. Messmer's Felix succeeds in doing this, while forcing the viewer to look at himself. Oriolo's Felix may be magical; but Messmer's Felix is a Character that viewers relate to and sympathise with.
Otto Messmer's Felix is brilliant for reasons diametrically opposed to the brilliance of the Disney Studio at the height of its creative powers. In a word: Simplicity.
Why did I set up this Website? I cannot claim to be a historian of Felix, as David Gerstein, for example, can. I guess I just want to say, to get the story, go to his website. Look, read, digest. It's monumental. You might also want to check out the John Canemaker book: Felix: The Twisted Tale of the Worlds Most Famous Cat. It's a beautifully presented book, and a wonderfully broad overview.
I suppose, in the end, I'm really just writing this to demonstrate that sometimes the best information isn't on the Web at all.
There comes a time in life when you've reduced all existence to absurdity. Perhaps you began by realising something that you went on to think should have been obvious. So doubt, or hope, or fear sets in. You feel as if you've lost something, having only gone for it the moment after it slips out of grasp.
So you observe and question the world around you. What exactly have you lost? At this point you may believe an answer is to be found: that one piece of wisdom which will, once and for all, remove the veil of suffering--clear the smoke, making it possible to see clearly again. You want to observe the face of god, you want to see from the still center of the ever-spinning universe. So you are driven by a goal--whether it is real or imagined matters not.
Chances are good that you start out simply enough. You hit the road, out to find the golden city on the coast. You're inspired by those who've gone before--you're on the same journey they were on before you--you know that you can use their records as a road map. Somehow, though, the path diverges. You may well follow Dante in through Hell, Purgatory, and on up into Paradise before awakenening to realise that you have yet to enter the dark wood.
You continue, perhaps, by watching the large-scale order of the Universe. You might take up a casual study of Relativity. In time you may imagine an infinite number of galaxies spinning ever outward, expanding with time and space so closely interwoven as to be one and the same--yet Time and Space, Entropy and Balance.
Having reached to the outermost limits, you now turn your energy upon the atom, its components, and their structures: none of which can finally be reduced to anything but Time and Space and Energy and Motion. (Yet without these things, the atom would not exist.) The dynamic structures of the Universe comes fully into panoramic focus. IIII Elements--gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces--all empty labels granted ignorantly to a nearly total lack of understanding.
Or perhaps, becoming intensely aware of one's relationships with others, you study the people around you and their ways of doing things. You hold yourself up to scrutiny in this process as well. Perhaps politics or psychology fascinate you--not in the purely academic sense of what goes on in a person's mind, but rather the ways that the underlying proceces relate to these same proceces in others' systems. You hit perception/behaviour. Perhaps you finally succeed in reducing all of human knowledge, evolution, wisdom, learning, fear and love into one or two simple formulć.
Eventually you realise it is impossible to discover anything this way. Labels and quantifications serve as veils of secrecy, before which one can stand and say "it is impossible to know anything beyond where I am." Ignorance becomes Ultimate Knowledge with which it is impossible to argue--you go to the edge of all that is known and say "here have I been, none have gone further." Those who have never been so far may look up to you as a pioneer, if not a saviour.
So you become proud. Being proud, you fail to realise that you have achieved no thing of real, lasting value. You question what makes a thing valuable; and whether, perhaps, there is even anything worth your while searching for.
You have come a great distance only to
realise that you need not have gone anywhere to begin with. Again you feel the urge to
travel. You've built palaces and temples; but these palaces and temples are built of
nothing but thin air, open space, and spinning energy in the form of infinite universes,
each made up of tiny atoms, each made up of spinning energy. Four-hundred-thousand
Mandalas in motion. Each and all beautifully constructed--signifying nothing.
And so the sand is swept into the center, as one begins again the riverrun.
It all comes down to one thing, in the end, which is no end, there being no beginning: the significance of the journey, if indeed there is any, lies not in the imaginedisremembered goal at the so-called "end", but in the very act of going, in itself.
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