Felix The Cat was the world’s first cartooning superstar. But just who created Felix has become an international tug of war. For 50 years it was assumed Australian Pat Sullivan was the author. But in 1977 American animation historian John Canemaker claimed Felix was a yank dreamt up by Sullivan’s sidekick Otto Messmer. Rewind investigates just who was the father of Felix.
MICHAEL CATHCART: And the movies is where we start tonight and the story of a very old cat called Felix who became an international cinema star in the 1920s - that's almost a decade before Mickey Mouse was born
. Now, Felix the Cat's creator was always acknowledged as an Australian larrikin called Pat Sullivan. But after he died, an American animator who'd worked with Sullivan claimed credit for the feline star. Rewind's Christopher Zinn is one of millions of Felix aficionados worldwide and he feels that losing Felix's Australian identity to the Americans is a bit rich.
(ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF 1920s PARTIES AND JAZZ BANDS)
CHRISTOPHER ZINN, REWIND HISTORIAN:: It was the roaring '20s. World War I was over and we were all kicking up our heels and New York led the way.
(FOOTAGE FROM CHARLIE CHAPLIN AND BUSTER KEATON MOVIES)
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were the comic giants of the silent screen.
(FOOTAGE OF ARCHIVAL 'FELIX THE CAT' EPISODES)
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: And Felix the Cat was becoming the world's first cartoon superstar.
JOHN CANEMAKER, ANIMATION HISTORIAN: He was extremely popular in Britain. And Pat Sullivan the producer had made sure that his image was on everything from dishes to clothing to books to toys.
(MONTAGE OF FELIX THE CAT PRODUCTS, INCLUDING THE FELIX THE CAT DOLLS)
JOHN CANEMAKER: And the dolls were very popular, even with the Queen. The Queen of England had a Felix doll.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: The man responsible for this marketing phenomenon was an Australian, Pat Sullivan.
(ARCHIVAL PHOTOGRAPH OF PAT SULLIVAN IN OFFICE WITH FELIX THE CAT IMAGE SUPERIMPOSED ONTO IT)
VANE LINDSAY, ANIMATION HISTORIAN: It made him a millionaire, of course, most of which he drank. (Chuckles)
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: And what the crowds loved about Felix was that he had personality. He could reason, resolve problems and then communicate his ideas to the audience. When Felix was not surrounded by the fantastic, he simply created it.
To the uninitiated, it may seem strange why many people are so afflicted by Felix mania but I'm certainly not alone.
(CHRISTOPHER ZINN SITS IN LOUNGE ROOM IN FELIX THE CAT T-SHIRT, SIPPING FROM FELIX THE CAT MUG, WATCHING 'FELIX THE CAT' EPISODES ON TELEVISION)
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: We've come to Gunning, 30 minutes drive out of Canberra where artist Margarita Georgiadis is a Felix fan from way back. She gains inspiration from this little black cat.
(MARGARITA GEORGIADIS THROWS PAINT ONTO WALL OF RENOVATED THEATRE, DEPICTING FELIX THE CAT)
MARGARITA GEORGIADIS, ARTIST: Felix saves the day. He manages to always be able to be at a particular place at a particular time to save and make things better.
MAX CULLEN, ACTOR: The humour of the Marx Brothers...
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Her husband, Max Cullen, shares her passion for Felix.
So is it any coincidence that he's adorning your new theatre?
MAX CULLEN: I think one of the main attractions that I had to Margarita was that she was a big Felix fan. Felix goes to absolute extremes and always with a good heart.
(CHRISTOPHER ZINN STANDS BESIDE FELIX THE CAT WALL MURAL)
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: There are plenty of us unabashed Felix fans around the world, stretching from Bondi to Bombay and the Bronx. So when an American of all people suggested that our cat was not created by Aussie Pat Sullivan, well, the fur began to fly. So let's see what really happened.
(MONTAGE OF PAT SULLIVAN CARTOONS IN NEWSPAPERS DEPICTING A FELIX-LIKE CAT)
(CLOSE-UP OF CAPTION AT BOTTOM OF CARTOON: 'DRAWN BY PAT SULLIVAN')
MICHAEL CATHCART: Pat Sullivan, having failed to establish himself in Sydney as a cartoonist, set out for London in 1909 to seek fame and fortune. What happened to him next is the stuff of a cartoon plot. He's a hard drinker, he's poverty-stricken and one day he goes aboard a ship bound for New York to farewell some friends and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he's on his way to the Big Apple where he jumps ship.
LINDSAY FOYLE, CARTOONIST: By the time he got to New York, he'd done it tough. He'd slept on the Thames embankment when he couldn't make money in England. And he'd been a professional boxer, he'd been a vaudeville showman, he'd done everything. So I think by the time he got to New York and discovered animation and things that were happening there, he wanted to make the most of everything. So I think that he would've...his creative juices would've been running amok.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: The Hollywood moguls were crying out for cartoon shorts to play before their silent movies, and Pat Sullivan seized the opportunity. He set up an animation studio in New York in 1915, and one of the first artists he hired was 24-year-old Otto Messmer. Otto is going to become a key player in our plot.
Sullivan began developing a cartoon series based on a kooky cat. Initially he called it 'Thomas the Kat', which, by 1920, had become 'Felix the Cat'.
LINDSAY FOYLE: Sullivan always claimed that Felix was his invention, his creation.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: And that creation became an instant hit. The Sullivan studio went into overdrive, pumping out 13 'Felix' films in 1922 alone to meet the public's craving for the frisky feline.
(ARCHIVAL PHOTOGRAPH OF GIANT FELIX THE CAT PARADE FLOAT) CHRISTOPHER ZINN: By 1927, Felix was so big his float led off New York's famous Thanksgiving parade. And a year later, NBC engineers used none other that Felix the Cat to broadcast America's first experimental television images.
LINDSAY FOYLE: Felix was the first animated cartoon character. They were producing one a fortnight. By the time Sullivan died in '33, there were over 100 animated films of Felix, which is a phenomenal amount.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Pat Sullivan, in a visit to Sydney in 1925, was reported as saying, "I made the cat and the cat made me." While he was alive, no-one questioned that he was the creator of Felix. But for almost 30 years now, this American animation historian, John Canemaker, has been laying siege to Sullivan's reputation.
DOCUMENTARY VOICEOVER: Felix the Cat became an immediate success after...
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: In 1977, he made a documentary in which he claimed it was not Pat Sullivan but Otto Messmer who created Felix.
(PHOTOGRAPH OF PAT SULLIVAN AND OTTO MESSMER)
DOCUMENTARY VOICEOVER: It was Messmer, seen on the left here with Sullivan, who created Felix and developed his personality for 14 years. Messmer never received public recognition for his work until recently, and he never shared in the enormous financial profits that Sullivan enjoyed from Felix.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: The Canemaker assault on Sullivan's reputation still riles Felix fans like cartoonist Lindsay Foyle.
LINDSAY FOYLE: A large number of Australian cartoonists would say it's the American claiming - yet again - something that was created elsewhere to be their own when there's ample evidence to suggest that they only borrowed it.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: And won't give it back.
LINDSAY FOYLE: And won't give it...don't want to give it back. Don't want credit going anywhere else.
JOHN CANEMAKER: Sullivan owned the rights to the character. He owned the copyright, he made the deals, he was a very smart entrepreneur. He owned the character and so he...it was more convenient not to have to say, "Well, there's a guy over here who's really doing the work." And Messmer was such a passive person that he really didn't fight it.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: With Sullivan dead 44 years, Otto Messmer himself came forward to claim credit for Felix.
(ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF INTERVIEW WITH OTTO MESSMER)
OTTO MESSMER: Sullivan's studio was very busy, and Paramount, they were falling behind their schedule and they needed one extra to fill in. And Sullivan, being very busy, said, "If you want to do it on the side, you can do any little thing to satisfy them." So I figured a cat would be about the simplest. Make him all black, you know - you wouldn't need to worry about outlines. And one gag after the other, you know? Cute. And they all got laughs. So Paramount liked it so they ordered a series.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Convincing? Maybe. But Lindsay Foyle is not persuaded.
LINDSAY FOYLE: Messmer never made the claim that he'd created Felix...until 1967, which was 34 years after Sullivan was dead and long after everybody else that worked in the studio was dead. So you know, anybody can make a claim back then.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: There are many opinions but few hard facts about Felix's genesis, yet here at the State Library of NSW there's an intriguing clue.
JUDY NELSON, CURATOR, NSW STATE LIBRARY: I was really, really angry that they'd sort of taken over this character. And it wasn't fair, I didn't think, to Pat Sullivan. I don't see why someone...
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Curator Judy Nelson thinks we were wrong.
JUDY NELSON: So I started digging, went through lots of old newspapers. There's one here - the 'Argus', published in 1925, December 1.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: She reckons she's found evidence to prove her case.
And what does that say?
JUDY NELSON: That says, "Mr Sullivan does what are known as 'key-drawings' and leaves the rest to a staff."
VANE LINDSAY, ANIMATION HISTORIAN: Key-drawings would be...say that.
(VANE LINDSAY PICKS UP A GLASS TUMBLER WITH A FELIX THE CAT IMAGE ON IT)
VANE LINDSAY: Felix surprised, and Felix explaining something, and Felix standing still, Felix smiling, Felix frowning. And the animators...
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Animation historian Vane Lindsay believes the key-drawings are central to the dispute.
VANE LINDSAY: Felix is Sullivan's creation. Similarly with Walt Disney. Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse, but he didn't draw the cartoons, nor did he draw the comic strips. But they carried his signature.
JOHN CANEMAKER: It's true, Walt Disney did not draw Mickey Mouse, and in fact, he didn't design Mickey Mouse, but there is no doubt that Walt Disney was the creative thrust behind the success of that character. He oversaw the creation of those films and how the animators worked. He was on top of every one of those films in a way that Otto Messmer was, but Pat Sullivan was not.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: For those of us sufficiently aggrieved about the Americans moving in our cat, Judy Nelson at the State Library has uncovered some more interesting information to help reclaim Felix as our own. Remember Pat Sullivan's forerunner to Felix was Thomas the Kat that he had developed for a cartoon short called 'Feline Follies'.
JUDY NELSON: I did write away to the Library of Congress wanting to find out the earliest films they had records of. And the copyright office sent me this record here. The film is called 'The Tail of Thomas Kat', 1917. It was half a reel of film, and they actually give a date - 3 March 1917 was when it was registered for copyright in Pat Sullivan's name.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Importantly, the Library of Congress document confirms Sullivan's ownership of the film. It premiered many of the cat's trademark characteristics like his removable tail, which would become a feature of Felix three years later.
JUDY NELSON: So to me, that's perfect proof. They just didn't know about that, otherwise they would've taken over possession of that information.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Because Thomas the Kat was... The cat in 'Feline Follies was in fact called Tom. So you're saying it's the same character.
JUDY NELSON: The same cat. Prototype for Felix. Most definitely.
JOHN CANEMAKER: I believe Sullivan was important to the character, he should be celebrated for the interesting entrepreneur that he was, the resourceful promoter of Felix, the resilient fighter for his rights and for the rights of the character. And I think Messmer also should be celebrated as a creative artist for making the cat as interesting as it was as a personality and as a design.
CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Maybe, but frankly, no-one's going to convince me or thousands of other diehard aficionados that Felix should be anything other than an Aussie moggy. MAX CULLEN: It's another example of American hype, propaganda and thievery. And Felix was created by an Australian named Pat Sullivan.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Well, American John Canemaker remains convinced of his version of history, but he has agreed to review his work when he sees the information that we've unearthed. And as for Felix, you know, you can still catch him on kids television. Talk about having nine lives.