Felix the Cat. Disney Legend or Forgotten Icon?


Felix the Cat is one of the most iconic cartoon characters from the early 20th century. With his black body, white eyes, and giant grin, Felix delighted audiences during the silent film era. However, his origins have been the subject of confusion and debate for decades. This stems from the claim that Felix was created or produced by Walt Disney, when in fact he preceded Disney’s rise to fame.

Felix first appeared in 1919 in the short film Feline Follies produced by the Pat Sullivan studio. Over the next decade, he starred in over 150 cartoon shorts that were distributed by Paramount Pictures. At the height of his popularity in the 1920s, Felix was one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in the world. [1]

In later years, speculation arose that Walt Disney was involved in Felix’s creation while working for the Sullivan studio. However, most animation historians have debunked this myth and confirmed that Felix was solely the work of animator Otto Messmer. While Felix and Disney’s Mickey Mouse share some visual similarities as anthropomorphic animal characters, they were created completely independently in different studios. [2]

Felix the Cat’s Creation

Felix the Cat was created in 1919 by animator Otto Messmer for producer Pat Sullivan’s studio. Messmer designed Felix’s black body and oversized head to allow for maximum flexibility and facial expressiveness, establishing the standard cartoon character model.

The first Felix the Cat cartoon, Feline Follies, debuted in 1919 as part of Paramount’s screen magazine. Felix rapidly grew in popularity during the silent film era due to his unique design and fun-loving personality. Within a year, Felix was starring in his own cartoon series produced by the Pat Sullivan studio in New York.

Felix’s Popularity in the 1920s

In the 1920s, Felix the Cat became one of the most popular cartoon characters in the world. He was featured in over 150 cartoon shorts produced by animation studio Pat Sullivan Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures. Some of Felix’s most popular cartoons from the 1920s include Felix in Hollywood (1923), Felix the Cat Dines and Pines (1926), and Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather (1926) (Felix the Cat).

Felix’s image was widely merchandised and licensed during the 1920s as well. Felix toys, dolls, clocks, and other merchandise flew off the shelves. His image appeared on numerous products including cellophane, jewelry, tumblers, and women’s cosmetics (Felix the Cat: 1920s cartoons).

By the end of the 1920s, Felix had become an icon of American pop culture. His famous pace and black body with white eyes was instantly recognizable around the world. His popularity persisted into the late 1920s, as Felix happily carried bombs for the U.S. Navy squadron VB-2B as their mascot (Felix the Cat).

Speculation About Disney’s Involvement

There has been speculation that a young Walt Disney worked on some of the early Felix the Cat cartoons when he was first starting out in animation. According to Wikipedia, Disney animator Ward Kimball claimed that Disney admitted to working on Felix cartoons produced by the Pat Sullivan studio in the 1920s. However, Disney historians have found no evidence to support this claim. While Disney likely saw the popular Felix cartoons that were screening in movie theaters at the time, there is no proof that Disney actually animated any Felix shorts.

The rumor that Disney worked on Felix likely stems from the similarities between Felix and Disney’s own character Mickey Mouse, who made his debut in 1928. Both characters are black cartoon cats, which led to speculation that Disney drew inspiration from his supposed work on the Felix series. However, in reality, the visual similarities are relatively superficial. And Mickey’s personality and character design evolved considerably after his first appearance, making him quite distinct from Felix.

Disney’s Denials

Despite speculation, Walt Disney always denied having any involvement in the creation of Felix the Cat. In an interview in 1934, Disney stated “The idea for Mickey Mouse popped into my mind when I was on a train headed for California. I had promised a new cartoon character to my distributor, but I didn’t have one. I thought a mouse would be a good idea for a while, but I had never really considered using a mouse as a cartoon character” [1]. He claimed the resemblance between Mickey and Felix was just a coincidence.

Later in 1971, Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller reiterated her father’s account: “Mickey was created in 1928 and Felix dates from 1919. The only relationship would be what influence Felix may have had on creating Mickey Mouse” [2]. She affirmed that Mickey was conceived independently during that fateful train ride.

[1] Langer, M. (1993). Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World’s Most Famous Cat. New York: W. W. Norton.

[2] Tom, P. V. (1996). Felix the Cat as Modern Trickster. American Art, 10(1), 64-87.

Differences Between Felix and Mickey

Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse had very different visual styles and personalities. Felix was black and white with a very simple, round head and large eyes. He had an extremely flexible body that allowed him to transform into different shapes. Mickey was more detailed visually with a pear-shaped head, pupils, and a body that appeared jointed but did not stretch and morph like Felix.

Personality-wise, Felix was mischievous and carefree, often finding himself in unpredictable and humorous situations. Mickey started out as more of a rogue character, but evolved into a wholesome, upbeat personality as Disney tried to make him more family-friendly. Felix was an unpredictable trickster while Mickey became an earnest optimist. Visually and in terms of personality, they were quite different despite both being iconic animated animals from the same era.

Felix’s Decline and Brief Revival

Felix the Cat rose to tremendous popularity in the 1920s during the silent film era. However, with the advent of sound cartoons in the late 1920s, Felix’s star power began to fade. As audiences demanded cartoons with synchronized sound, Felix fell out of favor compared to characters like Mickey Mouse and others who emerged during this period. Felix cartoons stopped being produced in the early 1930s after the character fell into obscurity.[1]

In the 1950s, there was brief renewed interest in Felix the Cat. Animator Joe Oriolo purchased the rights to Felix and began producing a new TV series featuring the character. This revival only lasted a few years, but it introduced Felix to a new generation of viewers. While the 1950s series was short-lived, it paved the way for Felix’s enduring legacy as an iconic figure in animation history.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_the_Cat

Acquisition by DreamWorks

In 2014, Felix the Cat was acquired by DreamWorks Animation through their DreamWorks Classics division (Wikipedia, 2022). DreamWorks now owns the rights to the classic cartoon character and has produced new Felix the Cat content, including a mobile game and an animated web series in 2015-2016 (Cartoon Brew, 2014).

DreamWorks has plans to make Felix the Cat into more of a fashion and lifestyle brand, with merchandise and potentially new TV shows and films. So while Felix is not currently appearing in new cartoons or movies, his new owners intend to revitalize the iconic character for modern audiences in the years to come.

Felix’s Legacy

Felix the Cat had an enormous influence on the animation industry and pop culture. His image and character design served as inspiration for other iconic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny [1]. Felix was one of the first cartoon characters to break out as a mainstream star and be heavily merchandised. At the height of his popularity in the 1920s, Felix’s image could be found on over 100 products including toys, dolls, and clothing [2].

Beyond merchandise, Felix’s cartoons were some of the most popular and highly distributed of the time. His cartoons played in theaters before feature films and helped demonstrate animation’s potential both as entertainment and advertising. Felix’s success proved that cartoon characters could have an appeal beyond young children. He became a part of mainstream pop culture and many Americans in the 1920s could instantly recognize him.

Even decades after his peak, Felix remains an iconic figure in animation and his image is still sometimes used in marketing. Felix paved the way for future cartoon stars and showed the possibilities of building media empires around animated characters. He helped animation transition from a novelty to a mainstay of entertainment and advertising. Felix the Cat’s legacy is still felt today in the ubiquity of cartoon merchandising and the central role animation plays in pop culture.


Felix the Cat was a beloved character of the silent film era who paved the way for future cartoon stars like Mickey Mouse. Created by animator Otto Messmer and film distributor Pat Sullivan, Felix first appeared in 1919 and quickly rose to popularity with his fun-loving, mischievous personality. By the mid-1920s, he was one of the biggest stars on the silver screen.

Despite speculation that Walt Disney based Mickey Mouse on Felix, Disney always denied this claim. While the two characters share some similarities, Mickey’s design and personality are quite distinct from Felix. Felix was known for his unpredictable, surrealist adventures, while Mickey took on more organized stories. Their trajectories also diverged, as Mickey’s star continued to rise through sound films and felix faded from the spotlight in the 1930s.

Though largely forgotten for decades, Felix later reemerged thanks to television reruns and merchandising. He endures as an animation pioneer who helped define the format of cartoon shorts. But despite some confused claims to the contrary, Felix the Cat was never a Disney character. He remains an important figure in animation history in his own right.

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