Felines on Film
The history of film and video is littered with cats, from the beginning of motion pictures to the first YouTube videos.
Written by: Lauren Koleszar
The concept of the cat video seems like a relatively modern phenomenon — even if it quickly feels outdated every time your great aunt sends you a ten-second video on Facebook Messenger saying, “Made me think of you! The cat and the puppy are friends… LOL.” Contrary to this assumption, cats have appeared on camera since the earliest days of motion pictures, and have frequently been the first or most popular subject at every stage of film history.
Starting at the very beginning, scientists toyed with the concept of the motion picture for its promising utility, especially for those seeking to understand animal and human motion in greater detail. Eadweard Muybridge was an English scientist whose expertise extended to photography as he learned to use the art form as a means of studying the motion of his subjects. Most famous for his photography plates titled “The Horse in Motion,” Muybridge produced a series of images breaking down the motion of a galloping horse, to disprove the accepted notion that a horse’s legs are always in motion during a gallop. Muybridge’s photographs proved that there is a moment during a horse’s run in which all four legs rise above the ground and tuck beneath the horse’s body. “The Horse in Motion” is a popular choice when teaching Muybridge in art classes, but it often goes unnoticed that his studies extended to human subjects, as well as other animals, many of them cats, in his series titled “Animal Locomotion.” His most famous study of cats, in 1887, is a series of 24 plates that captures a cat running, which could be viewed in stuttered motion on an early form of the projector. Muybridge set the groundwork for filmmakers’ long fascination with feline subjects.
Two films produced in 1894 hold the title for the first cat video, meaning the first cats caught on film rather than in a series of photographs. In France, scientist Étienne-Jules Marey wanted to determine whether, and, if so, how, cats always land on their feet. Marey’s 1-second film, “Falling Cat,” shows a cat dropped from just above the frame and, incidentally, landing on its feet. Meanwhile, in the United States, Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, an early movie camera, captured multiple documentary and entertaining short films, including “Boxing Cats.” The 20-second film records two cats pawing at one another with boxing gloves, as part of Professor Henry Welton’s touring cat circus. Edison’s film was the first of its kind to serve the purpose of entertainment through innovative technology rather than science. Marey is credited with the first cat video, but Edison was certainly the first to introduce the cat video as the silly entertainment we know today.
Film evolved rapidly over the next two decades, and by the turn of the century, new subjects, styles and means of viewing filmmaking were on their way. The first animated short, “Feline Follies,” was released in 1919, starring the world’s first animated film star: Felix the Cat, created by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer. It wasn’t until a full eight years later that the world would meet Mickey Mouse in the 1928 short, “Steamboat Willie.” By that time, Felix had already scored another record in film history. Not only does Felix hold the titles of the first animated film star and first animated cat, but he also bears great significance in the history of broadcast television. A figurine of Felix the Cat was the first image transmitted over U.S. television through the General Electric Station W2XBS, now known as New York’s WNBC station. When RCA was testing its first television broadcast in 1928, a papier-mache Felix figurine rotated around on a turntable for two hours a day on W2XBS for engineers to test television’s capabilities of a high-definition picture. The image of Felix was captured by a mechanical scanning disk connected to an electronic kinescope receiver. The same Felix figurine was used in the first public demonstration of television at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, earning Felix multiple titles as one of the most significant cats in the history of film.
Years later, cats continued to be popular subjects, even as film expanded into art house cinema. Avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, most famous for her 1943 short, “Meshes of the Afternoon,” often teamed up with her then-husband, Alexander Hammid, the latter who led the production of a 22-minute experimental documentary film called “The Private Life of a Cat” in 1944. Through intimate and creative vignettes, the film shows the lives of the couple’s house cats, namely the female whose live birth of a litter of kittens is covered in groundbreaking, graphic detail. Considered “the best experimental film about cats ever made” by The Atlantic, Hammid’s film may also be the first real documentary film ever made about cats.
In commercial cinema, people are the popular choice of subject, but the screen has been delighted with the presence of feline companions in some of the most popular and acclaimed films of cinematic history. Holly Golightly’s famous cat companion in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), named Cat, accompanies Audrey Hepburn on-screen in many of the film’s most beloved scenes. Most notably, Cat appears at the centerfold of the film’s final shot as Holly and Paul embrace in the rain, with Cat tucked securely between them. Other major films accompanied by cats include “That Darn Cat!” (1965), “The Godfather” (1972), “Day for Night” (1973), and “Alien” (1979).
In the age of the Internet, cats have again claimed their place at the center of attention. One of the first videos uploaded to YouTube in 2005, “Pajamas and Nick Drake,” features the titular cat, Pajamas, pawing at a string toy to the rhythm of a Nick Drake song for 30 adorable seconds. Pajamas was not only the first cat to appear on YouTube, but also the subject of the eighth video ever uploaded onto the website. Nowadays, cats rule over all video platforms as the subject of some of the most viral videos. The original “Nyan Cat” (2011) is the most viewed video of a cat on YouTube, with over 194 million views, and the most viewed video of a real cat goes to the 17-second “Surprised Kitty,” which currently ranks in with over 79 million views. Across cinema, television and Internet videos, film is absolutely saturated with purring, leaping and meowing cats.
Whether it’s the trained cat actors in top-tier cinema or a papier-mache statue of Felix the Cat, cats have been the subject of film far longer than many would think in the age of the viral cat video. The next time you see your feline friend, consider taking out a camera, just in case (not that you wouldn’t already) — it may be their turn to break a new record in film history.