It’s been Mister Boomer’s experience that early to mid-boomers fall into two groups: The Felix the Cat and Top Cat camps. As far as Mister Boomer is concerned, he was never a huge fan of either, but his particular group was on the cusp between the two — old enough to see Felix episodes but young enough to catch Top Cat as well.
Let’s start at the beginning. First, there is the anthropomorphic cat. We see that in Felix, Top Cat, Tom and Jerry and a host of other shows from our youth. There’s just something about giving human characteristics to animals that seems to fascinate us, especially as children. What we didn’t realize as children, though, were the adult themes and outright violence perpetrated in the name of comedy and entertainment. It was just a cartoon to us.
Felix the Cat
Felix predated Top Cat by decades. In fact, the first Felix the Cat cartoon appeared in 1919, and continued intermittently through the 1940s; however, he didn’t make his TV debut until 1958. Early Felix cartoons, shown in movie houses, did not feature his Bag of Tricks. That was an invention reserved for his television show. What was fascinating to this boomer as he watched the attached episode from 1959, for the first time in over fifty years, is how surreal the whole thing was. Sparse landscapes and stereotyped characters inhabit a world where dream-like things truly seem to be black and white, good or evil. In this episode, there also seems to be a healthy dose of skepticism toward science in favor of a more “natural magic.” Ten years before man landed on the moon, it appears science wasn’t held in the highest regard with cartoonists.
Felix’s Bag of Tricks was really something! First of all, the pattern never changed position when the bag changed perspective. How very Cubist! Is it just Mister B, or does that pattern remind you of a Louis Vuitton, Gucci or Coach bag? (Go ahead and Google some images, I’ll wait…) Hmmm, think there might be some influence there? Then there is the whole bit about the Bag doing Felix’s bidding. Want an apple from a tree? The bag turns into an escalator. Yet when he needs to cross a lake, the Bag becomes a canoe. Not exactly technology coming to the cat’s aid there, now is it?
When the Professor finally gets his evil hands on Felix through the use of a wondrous piece of technology — a cat magnet! — he immediately shrinks Felix (more evil technology) and grabs the Bag. Now in his evil clutches, what does the Professor do? Instead of trying it out, he takes a nap! Felix escapes by calling his Bag for help, and makes his way to the Professor’s master control panel. In an exhibit of science gone amok, he accidently releases a robot. Historically speaking, this was the era of the great sci-fi B movies about aliens — and robots — terrorizing the planet. At this time, then, robots were bad (a sentiment Felix later confirms when he bests the bucket of bolts).
This is where it gets really weird. Felix can evidently remove his tail at will (more “natural magic”?). In this episode, he first outsmarts the robot by “disguising” himself by using his disembodied tail as a moustache to mimic the Professor’s. Later he uses it as a lasso to grab the foot of the napping Professor.
Watching some of the old TV episodes, this boomer is left with a character that never loses his cool — even though evildoers are constantly after him — and he always wins in the end. Was that the message they wanted us to receive when we were children, or was it just mindless entertainment?
This Hanna-Barbera cartoon appeared on TV in 1961. The character was the top cat in an alley inhabited by a group of feline followers, and one policeman, Officer Charles Dribble. Top Cat always pulls one over on the cop. He tends to keep his top cat position by shady means, at best. He’s constantly getting his group to scam either the rich (upper class) or authority (police and politicians).
Here’s a case of a “cat of the people” ruling his alley kingdom like a folk hero (Robin Hood?) for “putting one over on the Man.” We saw similar behavior in Groucho Marx and Three Stooges skits in earlier years, and also in the stereotyped Sergeant in war movies. He always seemed to procure the supplies the troop needed — but when the question arose of how these items came to be obtained, it was a case of, “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Top Cat had an overly healthy ego, too. He often verbalized his own greatness with aplomb. This carried over to his own image as a “ladies’ man.” In the attached episode, he has Benny fetch him flowers and a box of chocolates for his date. Procured items in hand, T.C. exclaims, “Flowers, chocolates and me. What more could she want.”
A children’s cartoon character exhibiting male bravado and the roguish criminal attitude that his followers adored and females couldn’t resist; such was the stuff many boomers recall with great nostalgia.
So, in the great Felix the Cat vs. Top Cat debate, which is the coolest cat? Mister Boomer declares it a mistrial. What’s your call, boomers?