Felix the Cat: A century of smiles in comics, toys
NEW YORK – Felix the Cat is not only a pop culture icon but he was television’s first star. Today, with thousands of toys and comic books bearing his likeness, often depicting his famous walk, he remains a hot collectible. Head down, lost in thought, walking with his hands behind his back, the plucky Felix stole the scene in hundreds of movies and comic strips.
Back in 1919, Felix got his start in a New York City animation studio with a Felix prototype named Master Tom, making his film debut in the short, Feline Follies. By his third movie released later that year, he took on a new name, Felix the Cat, which would soon become famous.
The name reportedly comes from the Latin word for happy (felix) and is similar to the cat term, feline. Both New Jersey cartoonist/animator Otto Messmer and Australian cartoonist/filmmaker Pat Sullivan (whose name appears in the credits for Feline Follies) have both claimed credit for Felix’s creation.
In 1928, Felix became a TV star when NBC/RCA was testing television transmissions and chose a Felix the Cat figure to use as it could sustain the heat of the TV lights and the contrast of its black and white coloring would reproduce well. By this time, Felix was already a household name as a Felix the Cat comic strip was syndicated, first in England and then in America, in 1923. He was so popular that his likeness appeared on U.S. Navy fighter planes during World War II, chosen as a mascot of sorts for his “never give up” attitude.
Felix’s look is striking in its simplistic elegance. His jet-black body stands in sharp contrast against the whitest whites of his eyes and his figure is basically composed of circles (from his eyes to his nose and head), which likely made it easy for different animators to draw him without much stylistic differences.
Felix was first syndicated as a comic strip in England and was beloved there, where many Felix collectibles and dolls were made. “In that country, a popular song was composed called Felix Kept On Walking,” according to this website surveying the Mel Birnkrant collection. On the cover of the sheet music, one can see Felix in his classic pensive walking pose and the song title served as a catchphrase for Felix.
A Felix the Cat fandom website notes the surrealism of the cartoon strips and the versatility of Felix’s tail. “Felix’s expressive tail, which could be a shovel one moment, an exclamation mark or pencil the next, serves to emphasize that anything can happen in his world,” it wrote. The comic strips were popular for a few decades and then gave way to TV cartoons, which ran for over 20 years.
Felix the Cat has appeared on thousands upon thousands of collectibles and items, including
animated clocks, flashlights, salt and pepper shakers, lamps, dishes, music boxes, cookie jars and much more. Toys, of course, are his predominant medium and range from dolls and wooden or stuffed figures to wooden pull toys, platform and balance toys, nodders and vehicle toys.
Companies such as Schoenhut, Steiff and J. Chein & Co. were among those licensed to produce toys and figures of Felix and other King Features Syndicate characters.
Among top-selling Felix the Cat collectibles and Felix-inspired items are a stencils and spray paint on canvas artwork by the artist known as Seen (b. 1961) painted in 2012 that realized $70,000 in February 2014 at Fine Art Auctions Miami and a large Felix the Cat Felix Frolic platform lithographed tin toy that achieved $35,000 in September 2017 at Morphy Auctions.
This oversized toy measured nearly 14 inches and consequently, it broke easily and was probably in production for only one year because of this issue. Wooden flex dolls from the 1930s, having leather ears and marked Felix on the chest, standing around 4 inches or 8 inches tall, are quite collectible and affordable, selling for about $300 to $600. Steiff Felix dolls with the ear button are also desirable.
Armed with a memorable theme song and his bag of tricks, Felix has endeared himself to fans across the years, becoming a pop culture icon and sought-after collectable in the process.