Felix the Animated Cat The Story of Pat Sullivan

Lindsay Foyle

Early last century the biggest names in animation were Pat Sullivan and his creation Felix the cat.

Sullivan’s early life revolved around the working class inner Sydney. He was born Patrick O’Sullivan on February 22, 1886 the son of Margaret, nee Hayes well-known Darlinghurst hansom cab driver Pat O’Sullivan. He started his educated at St Benedict’s in Chippendale before attending Marist Brothers’ St Mary’s school in Woolloomooloo. After leaving school he studied art at night at the Art Society of New South Wales while working as a gatekeeper at Toohey’s brewery in Surry Hills.

O’Sullivan’s cartooning career got off to a slow start with him selling caricatures of boxing and turf celebrities in barbershops and - for a small fee - drawing personal caricatures. Occasionally he got something published in The Bulletin and other newspapers. In 1905 at the age of 18 life improved when he secured a job as an artist on The Worker where he stayed for two years before returning to freelancing.

O’Sullivan was 23 when he sailed for England in 1909 dropping the O from his name after he got there. It didn’t help much as he struggled to make money in London as he had in Sydney, and there were many nights when he slept on the banks of the Thames River. At the time he’d try anything he could think of to make money including boxing, singing and dancing in music halls. Eventually he was offered the chance of drawing the comic Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday.

In 1910 Sullivan unexpectedly left England for New York. He had gone to a cattle boat to farewell some friends and after a few drinks too many, fell asleep. When he woke the ship was at sea and he was on his way to New York too. He disembarked leading a mule to avoid the attention of immigration officials and without money for a return ticket had little choice but to stay. Work was just as hard to find in New York as it had been in London. He made some money drawing comic postcards, designed some cinema posters and worked in the theatre. Regular money didn’t start to come in until he took a job at the McClure newspaper syndicate where he drew a number of comics, which included The Adventures of Sambo, Johnny Boston Beans, Obliging Oliver and Old Pop Perkins, which he later animated. It was early days of animation and Sullivan was keen to be involved in this new area of cartooning.

Australians made a considerable contribution to the development of animation. Frank Nankivell, another Australian involved in animation was running his own art studio in New York. In his unpublished book A Bowl of Rice and Other Grains he wrote, “In 1914 when I was asked by a newly formed motion picture company to produce some animated cartoons, the proposition interested me and I signed up. With a staff of assistants, animators, and tracers, I set up a camera in Lincoln Square Arcade Building at Sixty-sixth Street and Broadway. It was early days of cartoons in motion. The method in use at the time was the tracing on sheets of paper a complete drawing of every movement. My son, Frank, an Engineering student at Cornell, suggested that I trace only the movements on a sheet of transparent celluloid, and the stationary parts on another celluloid. This enabled us to have a permanent background or setting for the acts, reducing labour by 60 per cent.”

“Two of my so-called friends who had free access to my studio were working for the John Randolph Bray’s Studio as animators. They saw that we used cells and carried this information to Bray. He and another producer combined and patented the celluloid method, thus drawing royalties from all animated companies. They never came near me after that. They did not dare.”

Sullivan started his own art studio in 1915 on the corner of Broadway and Sixty-third Street only three blocks from where Nankivell had his studio. In 1917, a year after George Herriman’s animated film Krazy Kat was released, Sullivan’s first animated film, The Tails of Thomas Kat was screened. In reality Thomas was a forerunner to Felix and did all the things Felix would do in later films.

Despite the success of The Tails of Thomas Kat 1917 wasn’t a good year for Sullivan. He was convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl and spent 9 months in jail. However he did marry Marjorie Gallagher, a Ziegfeld Follies Girl on May 21 while on bail. Being in the slammer caused him to close down his studio and he spent his time in the lockup practicing his cartoon skills on postcards and on the envelopes he sent to his lawyer. After release he re-established the studio and set about creating more animated cartoons.

The first of the new films, Feline Follies was made in 1919 and the star of the film was still Thomas, or Master Tom as he was called. It was on the fourth animated cat film that the name Tom disappeared and Felix appeared.

American film historians claim just what caused Sullivan to change the name of his animated cat is not well documented. While the Latin word for happy is ‘felix’ (and what could be better than a happy cat?) that does not seem to be behind the change.

Writing in The Sydney Mail on July 1, 1936 Australian cartoonist, Kerwin Maegraith - a friend of Sullivan’s - quoted him saying it came from Australia Felix the name of a Henry Handel Richardson book. Richardson, who in reality was Ethel Florence Lindesay Robertson, had been working on the book in Australia in 1912 and had completed it in London in 1915. It was published in 1917 with quite respectable sales.

The term had first been used by Major Thomas Mitchell, when describing land he explored in central Victoria in 1836. It was also used in Richard Howitt’s Impressions of Australia Felix in 1845 and in the name of Australia Felix Monthly Magazine in 1849.

Maegraith also quoted Sullivan saying he drew Felix in solid black after the boxer Peter Felix who had fought for the NSW heavyweight championship the year Sullivan left Sydney. He always appeared in black, frightened children and apparently left an impression, as heavyweight boxers can.

As for the inspiration for using a cat in the animated films that too is a little hard to establish. Humans have had an interest in cats ever since cats became domesticated (or as cats claim humans became catticated). While on a visit to Australia in 1925, Sullivan said the idea for Felix came to him after he saw a cat his wife Marjorie brought into the office. However another story has Marjorie seeing a weird looking cat outside the window of their New York apartment.

While Walt Disney made a fortune giving cartoon animals human characteristic, Felix was the first animated cartoon animal to be humanized. Disney’s best-known humanized cartoon animal Mickey Mouse did not hit the screen till 1928.

Felix was the indisputable animated screen cartoon star of the 1920s and rivalled live actors for top billing in the world of films. However it was not all plain sailing. Paramount dropped the distribution of the Felix films in 1921. Possibly because of the problems of dealing with Sullivan, who was said to be difficult and addled by alcohol. It is also claimed he once urinated on the desk of a Paramount executive in an attempt to force a contract concession. Despite Sullivan’s reputation, independent distributor Margaret Winkler agreed to take him on, after Warner Brothers had referred Sullivan to her. It was a good move for Sullivan as the Felix films were soon appearing in 60 per cent of cinemas in North America. It was a good move for Winkler too; she also took on Disney in 1923 when he was starting out.

While Felix was a star on the screen it was not till 1923 when King Features started syndicating a Sunday comic that Felix made it into print. A daily comic followed in 1927 with Otto Messmer, one of the artists working for Sullivan being given credit for drawing most of the comics.

Sullivan visited London in 1924 for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley where it was reported he made over 100,000 pounds from the 200 different Felix items which he held the copyright on and was selling. King George and Queen Mary were both given Felix dolls.

At the height of Felix’s fame it was estimated that three quarters of the world’s population had seen or could recognize The Cat. Merchandise was everywhere. There was Felix books, dolls, pencils and figurines and even Felix cigars.

For a time a new Felix film was released every two weeks, all up there were over 100 produced using a studio system Sullivan pioneered, which was later copied by Disney.
While Sullivan was slow to take to talkies he did produced the first sound cartoon and in 1928 had the first televised cartoon, in an experimental broadcast by RCA in New York.

It was a frantic life style, which started to unravel when Marjorie Sullivan fell to her death in New York from a seventh floor apartment in the Hotel Forrest in March 1932. Sullivan is said to have never recovered. In January 1933 he signed a three-year contract with Paramount, but Sullivan was not in the best of health. He died six weeks later on February 15 in the Sherman Square Hospital in New York suffering from syphilis, alcoholism and declining mental faculties. Maegraith said it was pneumonia that got him. Sullivan’s obituary in Smith’s Weekly said, “A billion children, white and yellow and black - a billion adults - will mourn the passing of Pat - and the Cat.”

In 1967, when just about everybody who had been involved with the early days of animation had died Messmer said, “In 1919, I created a character which Paramount named ‘Felix the Cat’ I used the style of Charlie Chaplin and kept him alone in his antics, unhampered by supporting characters. Being a loner, he could roam to various locations, without being limited to any fixed place.”

There was some similarity between Felix and Chaplin, however Felix was a much more complicated creation that just a copy of Chaplin, who incidentally was a friend of Sullivan’s. Messmer said as he worked for Sullivan in his studio and that is where the Felix films where produced it was Sullivan’s name that went on the credits. This was not uncommon. From 1930 till he retired in 1975 Floyd Gottfredson drew the Mickey Mouse comics and never once was given credit, and while there is no record of Disney drawing one strip it was always his name on the comic.

Because of Messmer’s claims there are now many Americans who now give credit for the creation of Felix to him. What Messmer did not know when making his claim to creating Felix is that in March 1917 despite thinking it a failure, Sullivan submitted his Tails of Thomas Kat film to the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. It is also unlikely Messmer knew of Maegraith’s 1936 expansion as to how Felix got his name. Given that Thomas the Kat was in reality Felix with another name and was produced without Messmer’s help, his assertions look more than a little thin.

During his life Sullivan was always given credit for creating Felix. Messmer’s claim that he created Felix can’t be proved, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Felix never enjoyed the level of success after Sullivan’s death he had when Sullivan was alive.

© Lindsay Foyle 2008 Used here with permission