FELIX THE CAT
All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Life in Mouse heaven is like a game of Cat and Mouse. Not only is the place overrun with mice, it’s littered with kitties too. Second only to Mickey in sheer quantity is Felix the Cat. Throughout my life as a collector, I adopted every stray black cat that crossed my path. And I never failed to feel excited each time there was a Felix sighted.
The story of Felix and his creator is a fascinating one. It has been chronicled beautifully by John Canemaker in his aptly named book, "The Twisted Tale of Felix the Cat." Suffice it to say that Felix’s “owner” and "producer", Pat Sullivan, was like the giant head of the Mighty Oz, loudly taking credit for creating Felix, while a humble man behind the curtain, a young animator named, Otto Messmer, did everything! Messmer animated Felix, single handedly, in his first cartoon, “Feline Follies”, in 1919. Otto went on to animate and direct some 150 more Felix cartoons. He also wrote and drew the Felix comic strip. Meanwhile, Pat Sullivan got all the credit, profits, and fame. He also got himself arrested and convicted of child molestation and rape. Right-E-O!
Felix was "Messmerizing" right from the start. His Jet Black body, contrasted against lighter backgrounds, grabbed the eye, and held it captive. Thus, Felix dominated and "stole" every scene! But, in the beginning, he was, also, more complex and difficult to draw. His shapes were angular and "Art Deco" like, in style. In 1924, pioneer animator Bill Nolan, worked with Otto Messmer to redesign Felix. Nolan is credited with developing what became known as the “Rubber Hose” style of animation. He changed Felix’s somewhat foxlike pointed face and angular shapes to Circles. And, in so doing, injected Felix with the Secret "FORMula" that would "Shape" All Animation, from that time forward: CIRCLES! Circles, not only, made Felix easier to draw, but, also proved to be the "key", that made it possible for drawings to be passed from one animator to another, and worked on by a multitude of hands, without any, noticeable, change in style. Thus, the Circle became the Basic Shape, on which all Animation is Based. And, Felix the Cat, with his Circle eyes, and Circle nose, and Semi-Circle smile, upon his Circle head, Circle upon Circle, became the most Popular Comic Character, yet, to Frolic on the Silver Screen, or leap out, from it, into the World of Toys.
Although Pat Sullivan had nothing to do with the creation and continuing production of Felix, he was a master of merchandising. Thanks to his efforts to promote and license Felix internationally, products were produced all over the World! Felix was particularly popular in England where Felix products, and dolls, especially, were pumped out in profusion.
In that country a popular song was composed called “Felix Kept On Walking”. Although, the sheet music for that ditty was rather unattractive, the image of Felix it pictured on the cover, walking with his hands behind his back, and looking pensive, became his most familiar pose, and the song title, itself, became a kind of catch phrase that adorned much of the Felix merchandise.
In every Felix cartoon there came a moment, or many, when Felix, was faced with a dilemma. He would, then, pace back and forth, searching for a bright idea that would save the day. Often, at times like this, his tail would disconnect from his body and form a question mark, above his head. That surreal tail that had a life of its own, and could transform into anything, was a big part of Felix’s charm. The essence of that “Kept On Walking” moment is captured in this Wiltshaw & Robinson Crested Carlton Ware China figurine. These were popular as souvenirs, throughout England, and they appeared with the emblem of nearly every town.
Many images and products depicted Felix in this position. Looking in the nearest showcase, just now, I realized that there are at least two dozen objects there that capture him in that pose, everything from radiator ornaments to plush toys. Just for the fun of it, I’ll grab a few, and line them up.
The Felix walk was also captured in the classic Nifty tin toy, the last in line above. It was the first in a line of Felix tin toys to follow. It was also one of the last Nifty tin toys to be hand painted. The only tin lithography to appear on this toy is on a narrow band at Felix’s waist that bears his name and copyright. Even the stuffed dolls adopted that hands behind his back walking pose, especially those that were made in England by Chad Valley and Deans Rag Book Company. They came in an endless variety of sizes, from tiny to humongous. A group of them have gathered around this showcase, window shopping.
Which of these would you choose to see under your Christmas tree? I won’t attempt to identify them all. But, on the left, is a flat jointed Felix, made by the Performo Company, and one on the other end, as well. Conveniently resting on his feet, is the decorated ramp for the ramp-walking Felix. Further along the ramp, is a Spanish tin toy of Felix in a donkey cart. Just behind that, are two Felix Roly Polys, and to the left of these, is a mechanical walking Felix, very early, that has a heavy metal mechanism inside, and walks on all fours. Up towards the back, are three strange felt dolls, origin unknown, that may or may not be vampires, you decide! On the wall, is a Felix sparkler with red and green lenses in his eyes. There is a variation of the same, on the other side.
Here is a rare windup Felix doll. There is actually a windup clown inside, covered in a velvet Felix, with his original label hanging around his neck. According to his original box, far left, he is called the “Gee Dancer”. The box shows other animals as well. On either side of him, are two of the first Felix dolls by Borgfeldt. These came in a variety of colors. There is a mechanism inside that allows their heads to be animated by moving their tails. Below the green one, is the medium sized wood jointed Schoenhut doll.
Moving to the very center, we see the brightly smiling face of a breathtaking Felix Nodder, with a bright red nose. His body is riding on a motorcycle. On either side of him, are an amazing pair of bookends. they represent a very sophisticated stylish take on the classic walking pose, and resemble ancient Egyptian icons. Can you picture these stately creatures, guarding a pharos tomb? And in the very center is the Classic Schoenhut Felix. The most iconic Felix item of all was this Schoenhut doll. It portrays Felix in his newly rounded out simplicity. And, judging from the fact that many still appear on eBay, every day, it must have been made in huge quantities. This really is an incredibly appealing image and I still experience a certain thrill, and sense of awe, at its power and perfection.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Bill Shoenhut Sr. before he passed away. Bill was the 13th grandson of of Albert Schoenhut, the Schoenhut Company’s founder. And he shared with me a treasure: these four photos of him as a boy, dressed in a costume, intended to represent the Schoenhut Felix Toy. Now, it is my pleasure to be able to share them with you, too.
In the center of this photo is a Felix that is rare to begin with, but rarer still in this pristine condition. As his label proclaims, this is the Schuco “Yes - No” Felix. A rather complex inner mechanism operated by moving his tail, enables him to nod his head to answer, “Yes”, or turn, from side to side, to signify, “No!” Peeking over the front edge, below, is frenzied face of a wild windup.
Not much is known of Felix’s private life. But it is rumored that he has a way with the Felines. When he calls “Kitty-Kitty Kitty,” they come a-runnin!
Here Felix dons a hula skirt, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and does an eye-popping hula dance for his bosom buddies, while a close relative, from the Town of York, walks in.
Oh, Dear! That performance has created a Cat-astrophic Traffic Jam! Maybe we should get out of here, while we can!
Let’s take one last look, then go downstairs to see what’s happening down there.
Trying to organize this flock of photos is like attempting to herd cats, I can’t believe I misplaced, and almost eliminated the one below. Yes, I understand there is a certain redundancy, and yet, this photo has an enchantment to it. The bright orange of Felix’s motorcycle almost resembles a roaring bonfire, casting its glow on a sea of Felix faces, all crowded around it, like a tribal meeting, a gathering of the clan, in Felix Land.
One floor below, we encounter a Parade of prime Felix merchandise. It is traveling from the jungles of Felix, Volume One, over the rainbow, into the fairyland of Volume Two, while two Nifty Felix toys stand guard on either end. The parade is led by the two Felix scooters, German and American, and an ever so precious tiny wood jointed version that you’d never notice if I didn’t point it out to you. Then comes the Felix Jigger, a unique item with an unique action, found only in this Felix toy, and the one behind it. Its box is on the right wall of the case above it. It was a gift from John Fawcett, so badly damaged he didn’t want to deal with it; now it is lovingly repaired. This is followed by ...
The Felix Frolic, a toy so rare that this was the first and only one discovered for over 20 years. Since then, two more have appeared. They are in better condition. I don’t care. I mentioned how I got this item in the section on Tin Comic toys, what I didn’t say was that it was a wreck. I put many hours into its restoration over a period of months. It was the longest conversation I ever had with any toy, up to that time. Together, we decided how far to go. In the end, we were both exhausted, and agreed, enough already! I left the temporary nuts and screws in place and saw no need to replicate rivets. Much of my heart and soul, and creative energy is invested in this toy. I would never trade it for another. Not that anyone would make that offer.
This toy is big! How Big is it? Bigger than this picture, the biggest Comic tin toy, ever. And, no wonder, it is rare. It was practically designed to self-destruct. It needs to only tip over, once, and the figures become bent. This is the fully animated version, in which all five figures move. The central Felix performs the same action as the Felix Jigger, both arms and legs are animated. The other four figures rock back and forth. The mechanism is complex and delicate. The image is Strong and Powerful
Bringing up the rear, is the Steiff Felix on a go-cart. It is as “Mint” as mint can get. I thank my friend, Chet Moriyama for this. And last of all, is the barking Felix, a complex mechanism with effective animation, and a sound bellows, all made out of paper. There is a Bonzo version of this toy, as well.
Now, we are out in the hall, and I am taking these photos, standing on a ladder. As my balance is shaky, even on solid ground, this isn’t easy! Dangerous, but worth it, as I love those big cuddly fat Felix dolls. This whole showcase, so high up, and out of sight and reach, is so delicious. It is full of images that “kept on walking”. On either end, are a pair of Felix bookends, similar to, but not as refined, as those ancient Egyptian looking ones in the big showcase . Then, in the back are two different walking push toys.
There are three items, here, that replicate the anger displayed on the music cover, a stunning wooden jigsaw puzzle that was adapted directly from the cover art, a ceramic piece, with angry teeth, meticulously painted on, and a German bisque figurine that is unique. It stands atop a smiling wood cigarette dispenser. That anger was later tempered to become a more pensive worried look, more characteristic of the cat, as known in the cartoons. Here, too, is a Steiff hand puppet, and a plaster statue of Felix, licking his lips.
Also licking his lips, is this strangely unappealing Felix on an English toffee tin. And, on top of that, is the Italian version of the Felix scooter, manufactured by “Ingap”, with "Felix" in Italian, which is “Miao Miao,” written on his chest. But the most curious object in this case is the companion toy, which, believe it or not, is intended to be Mickey Mouse, or Topolino, as he is called in Italy. The 1932 Ingap catalogue (which I have around here, but can’t find) the year this toy was introduced features it on the cover. It pictures the stage of a theater with a Mickey orchestra, Disney version, and emerging from the parted curtains, is this car, driven by Disney’s Mickey. But the toy shown inside, and called, Topolino, was this one, as you see it here. Here is a small picture of that cover that I just found, on line.
Yes, I know, the photo, below, adds nothing new, but I’m including it, anyway. I just love the look of it, the warmth, the lighting; it is a pleasant photograph.
Now up the spiral staircase, we find another fairly major Felix showcase. This one, too, houses a cornucopia of Felix treasures. In the very center, is a highly stylized bisque pincushion. Gathered around it, are several of the early dolls, including a Cowboy Felix, perfect and complete. There are lots of fuzzy English dolls, as well, with their scary little teeth. Right out in front, is an Austrian bronze sextet, which, may or may not, be half a set of what could be an orchestra. Behind them, is one of the more elaborate items, produced for Felix Chevrolet, a painted hood ornament.
The photo above is taken looking down. That’s the way I see this showcase, every day. Now, better and safer than standing on a ladder, is lying on the floor. I love these low angled shots. Until you see close ups, like these, you’re not seeing what I see. From this angle, these objects can be as monumental as anything in Washington DC. This is a good time to close one eye. and experience these sights in “2 ½ D”
My favorite object, in this showcase, is this strangely stylized wooden puppet. From his triangular ears to his round tummy, everything about him is refreshing and unique. By the way, he is hovering above a clever optical toy, “The Gramophone Cinema,” a variation of the Zoetrope. It sits atop a phonograph, and a slotted cone, not shown, rests on the three wheeled device, and rotates in the opposite direction. ,Viewed through the spinning slots, Felix keeps on walking.
There is one more Felix case, apart from stragglers, all over the place. Here are collected odds and ends that include many great things. Right out in front, in this shot only, are three Felix ice fishing decoys. Their age and origins are undecided. Clearly they are the work of one carver, and beautifully done. No two are the same.
I won’t attempt to identify everything in this case, but just point out some highlights that may not be self-evident. In the back, is a 1926 Performo MICKY. This one shows more clearly how different he really is from Disney’s Mickey. Just below him, is a celluloid Felix that bears, by accident or fate, a striking resemblance to a Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things. In the center, is another of the first dolls. This one is plum colored, with an animated head. And on the right, is a rather naturalistic radiator ornament .
Here, in the center back, is a spectacular vase that depicts Felix and Bonzo, either dancing, or embracing. Bonzo is swallowing a small Schoenhut Felix. In the front, with a balloon, is the standard Performo Micky. And a flat tin Felix on a zeppelin from the Felix Carousel. Therein lies a tale, too long, to be told now. Moving along, we come to another radiator ornament, and a colorful tin lithographed pail and lid.
Outside the box, is a large wood jointed Felix, from Germany or Italy, and a fabulous set of Felix ten pins. To the left of them, is a curious wood walking toy, and on the right another ice fishing decoy. This in the form of a fish! On either side of all of this, is a pair of Mickey and Minnie “folk art” door stops. And we can just about stop here!
Featured in this case, is a marvelous plaster Felix with rhinestone eyes. And next to that, a curious and highly stylized wood Felix shaped box from Japan. Here, too, is another Schoenhut doll, and a bottle of Felix Ginger Ale. All are standing, by the way, on a floor made up of Felix bottle caps.
Over thirty years ago, a friend in California mentioned that he knew some folks at Felix Chevrolet. They have used Felix, officially, as their name and identity, since the early days. I was aware that, over the years, their showrooms have been decorated with large statues of Felix, made of papier mache. My friend suggested that I give them a call. So, not knowing what to expect, I did. It turned out that the guy I spoke to was great. Yes, they did have these figures, but they had long ago been replaced with exact replicas, made from the original molds for the papier mache figure, using fiberglass, instead. And, it just happened that they were in the process of sending the existing ones in to be refurbished, and they were also ordering more. I asked if I could possibly have one made for me. Absolutely! The more they ordered, the lower the price would be! WOW! In that case, I’ll take three! Here is my daughter Alexandra, then ten, hamming it up, on the day that they arrived. I passed one on to Colorforms, and it adorned their lobby for many years. ,Then the owner, Harry Kislevitz had it shipped out to him, in LA. I traded the other to Noel Barrett for the Bumstead family marionettes. And the last one is still here with me.
Compiling this webpage has been something of a revelation. I guess, I did just keep adopting these stray cats, all my so-called adult life. I never stopped to assess them, as I have done Mickey, many times. I just kept making room for more. Now this page is so long that the computer is rebelling, and acting funny when I scroll. Although, I am aware of every nuance, as far as their individual aesthetics go, I never attempted to decide which image, which era, was the most perfect realization of the character.
I have a young friend, Jaymie, who visited here a couple of times last year with his family. I think he figured it out for me. Instantly, intuitively, he was drawn to one image, one object, in the entire house. I would say he was, and is, enchanted by it. And he is right, of course, this is the perfect Felix. It is based on the classic image, the Schoenhut doll. And the idol that embodies the power of that image, most effectively, is this large imposing toy/sculpture, created by an artist who left this World too early, the late great William Shelly.
Bill crafted this perfect replica of the classic Schoenhut Felix, entirely out of wood. He turned all the pieces on a giant lathe. And the face is carved into the surface of the basic ball shape, exactly as the original was made. The illusion is that the facial details were added on, but, actually, they are the outer surface of the ball. The head, itself, is carved in, with such skill that the rounded curves remain as flawless as if they were created by machine.
The process of doing this in wood was both a challenge and a joy to him. Every detail, every nuance, is perfection. This impressive sculpture is over three feet tall, and is fully jointed. It is strung with strong elastic cord, like the original 9” doll. It weighs a ton, and, clearly, radiates the fact that it was a labor of love. What is the perfect image of Felix the Cat? Jaymie and Bill Shelly, too, knew which one to choose.