Semper Felix : FELIX: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat, By John Canemaker (Pantheon: $30; 178 pp.)

Whitcomb hosts a weekly radio show on KPCC, 89.3 FM. His latest book is "Resident Alien--An Englishman in Southern California" (Random Century)

"The World's Most Famous Cat"? Unfortunately the subtitle of this dedicated, even passionate and certainly painstakingly researched cartoon buffs' book no longer holds true.

Garfield, Sylvester and "Cats" surely are more famous than poor old Felix. In fact, precious few folks remember the big-screen Felix at all. I do recall an aged aunt, after one too many sherries in her North London maisonette, quaveringly singing: "Felix keeps on walking, keeps on walking still/With his hands behind him, you will always find him/Blew him up with dynamite but him they couldn't kill. . . ." She said all the British bands played that song in the '20s. She still kept a Felix doll on her pillow and liked to ask it marital advice.

This thing from another world had pointy ears, bug eyes and two globes for head and body. And although I never saw a Felix film, I felt as if I knew the cat--a naughty, feisty boy, and so adorable. Nothing like a real cat, thank God.

During the Roaring Neurotic Twenties, the silent Felix, roaring and neurotic too, became the world's first cartoon movie star. In England he got royal treatment: The Prince of Wales appointed him British polo team mascot; Queen Mary presented her King George with a model Felix. Bernard Shaw, silly old kill-joy, groused into his beard that if Michelangelo were around he'd be bribed into drawing Felix rather than decorating the Sistine Chapel.

In America, a place with little time for memory, Felix soon became the forgotten feline of the silent screen. Feisty Felix was eclipsed by mushy Mickey. The mouse killed the cat.

Walt Disney's creature was round, cuddly and bland (unlike Felix), and he talked too--in 1928, the year after Al Jolson had dragged in talkies by bleating in "The Jazz Singer," Mickey Mouse squeaked in "Steamboat Willie." After that the noise never stopped: boingggg, ker-lunk, powww, and lots of music, music, music. Silly Symphonies and Looney Tunes, a barnyard thick with slick talk and sassy melodies. The new cartoonists understood that their characters could really fly on the wings of a song. Tin Pan Alley tunes were perfect, vaudeville time-steps a clincher.

Bugs Bunny gabbed and gagged and gabbed again. Felix, a pantomimist supreme, faded from the screen--though he continued to appear in newspaper comic strips and in toy shops as a doll.

John Canemaker's tribute book, lovingly written and lavishly illustrated, does indeed tell a "twisted tale" because of the mix of behind-the-screen characters:

New York, 1916--Pat Sullivan, Australian-born entrepreneur with a fondness for alcohol and much-too-young ladies, parlays distribution deal with major movie company for animated film series--can't draw very well but knows where to hire the right talent. Felix is delegated to Otto Messmer, retiring homebody and creative artist. Scriptless but supervising lines of animators hunched on straight-backed chairs, Messmer develops the personality of the hard-thinking male cat.

Felix finds form as two interlocking circles of solid black plus sausagelike limbs and fried-egg eyes, a cunning, antsy alley cat who can metamorphose at the pencil's will, detaching his tail to form a question mark and then using the mark as a hook to catch a fish.

Later, in the spirit of that jazzy age, Felix makes whoopee at speakeasies, rolls home drunk to be attacked by wifey armed with a rolling pin. This cat wasn't puerile sop for kiddies. This cat was adult material! In fact, Felix--animated by the respectable Messmer--acts like a less obnoxious version of Pat Sullivan who, we learn, not only got soused regularly but also was a convicted rapist and spreader of a contracted syphilis.

This is not a pretty tale. On the screen, Felix was inventive, resourceful and agile. In the studio, both Sullivan and Messmer proved to be tunnel-visioned, failing to understand the revolution wrought by talking pictures. "Why change?" asked Sullivan in 1929. "Felix was goin' so good, it seemed like he would go on for ever," said Messmer years later when it was all over for their only cartoon creation.

Author Canemaker gives reasons for Mickey's rise and Felix's flop: In the cozier, hearth-hugging '30s, audiences warmed to Disney's naturalism and shied away from the surrealism favored by Messmer; Mickey was boyish and cuddly, Felix was street-wise and razor-sharp; with Disney, the soundtrack (particularly the music) came first, but Felix's sound, when at last it arrived, was post-synchronized and was crude and sloppy.

After Sullivan's death in 1933--of alcoholism and pneumonia--Felix soon vanished from the cinema but not from the newsstands: Messmer continued to draw the strip until the early '50s. Then, reduced to limited animation, Felix made a sort of comeback on television, redesigned with long legs and softer features. Finally, in old age, Otto Messmer received the recognition he deserved--from, of all people, Walt Disney, in a 1955 TV program on animation history.

There followed tributes in Variety and Felix retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. In 1977, Canemaker produced a documentary on Messmer for BBC's prestigious "Omnibus." The pioneer of animation, the "vital missing link between pre- and post-Disney," spent his last days happily sketching and signing Felix drawings for fans. Otto Messmer was 91 when he died on Oct. 28, 1983.

My only criticism of this labor-of-love book is that, for a non-buff like myself, there's a trifle too much technical stuff--about cels, slashes, repeats, cycles, pans and exposures. And Canemaker is, I feel, a bit too fastidious when he charges Felix's creators with sexism, racism and homophobia in certain gags. Heaven preserve us from a liberal-approved cartoon!

Finally there's a movie bonus in this book: If you thumb through at speed, as with a flicker book, you'll see, at the bottom right-hand corner Felix pacing to and fro, deep in thought, dreaming up his next jolly jape no doubt. Now, at last, I've seen Felix in full characteristic action!

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