Glamour puss

Felix the Cat

Nostalgia-addled boomers will recall the television incarnation of Felix the Cat, syndicated from 1958 to 1961, if only for its viral theme song by Winston Sharples (“You’ll laugh so much your sides will ache / Your heart will go pitter-pat,” etc.). For others, Classic Media’s new two-disc set, featuring the first 31 installments of that series, offers a crash-course in the wonderful, wonderful cat (damn you, Sharples!).

These aren’t the two-tone Felix adventures created by animator Otto Messmer in 1919; that groundbreakingly fluid incarnation tanked with the advent of sound. Rather, they’re the work of Joe Oriolo, a Messmer protégé who brought Felix to TV via Trans-Lux, a high-tech-projection manufacturer with an inexplicable sideline in children’s programming.

Given the timing, it’s tempting to spot the Eisenhower-era appeal in Oriolo’s Felix: An aggressively chipper feline whose “little bag of tricks” holds a remedy for any rotten situation he stumbles into, the puss has carefree postwar affluence written all over him. If America’s pre-Camelot moral spectrum was rendered in black and white, why not have a hero to match?

Maybe that’s highfalutin kitty litter, but the unfair rep of Trans-Lux’s Felix is undeniable. Long characterized as cheapjack rugrat pabulum, Oriolo’s seven-minute, semi-serialized shorts have a vibrant, Googie-esque ambiance and minimalist appeal all their own—think AMC’s Mad Men, only unidimensional and with malicious lunar robots. And if this Felix is less Messmer’s antic socialite than a guilelessly reactive cipher, his unflagging perkiness in the face of memorable foils Professor, Rock Bottom (a dog, naturally) and Master Cylinder—all voiced by legendary Popeye piper Jack Mercer—is gently amusing, if not exactly side-achingly hilarious. So to hell with animation purists: If it weren’t for Oriolo and Trans-Lux, entire generations wouldn’t know Felix from the neighborhood stray.