The ancient Egyptians thought cats divine—and duly immortalized them as mummies. Hardly less worshipful, today’s cat fanciers post videos of their furry darlings’ misbehavior by the millions on YouTube. Throughout history, kitties real and fictional have made human beings growl with annoyance and purr with pleasure. Herewith, a few notes on the inexhaustible store of cat-themed entertainment.
You tawt you taw a puddy tat? If you’ve ever read the funnies or watched cartoons, you probably did. Cats have been leading characters in comics since 1913, when George Herriman began publishing his Krazy Kat strip, and in animated films since 1919, when Paramount released Feline Follies, featuring Master Tom (who later underwent a makeover and name change, becoming Felix the Cat). Both Krazy Kat and Feline Follies explore a cat-versus-mouse dialectic: Krazy is crazy in love with Ignatz Mouse, who rewards Krazy’s devotion by regularly beaning him with a brick. And in Follies, the mice take over the house while Tom is out with his lady love, Miss Kitty. Cat-and-mouse games have since played out in countless cartoons, including MGM’s Tom and Jerry series (created in 1941 by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera) and its contemporary rival, the even more violent Herman and Katnip shorts, produced by Famous Studios (for Paramount). Cartoon cats often are cretinous villains trounced by their small-fry prey; that’s puddy tat Sylvester’s hapless role in the Warner Bros. Tweety Bird cartoons. Contrast this with the fairy tale “Puss in Boots,” in which the masterful title cat actually does get to play it wise.
Some cartoon cats are homeless. The Hanna-Barbera animated series Top Cat, broadcast on NBC from 1961 to 1962, features a dapper feline gang leader who, with his numbskull cronies, squats in garbage cans in a Manhattan alley. (Alleys don’t really exist in Manhattan, but never mind.) Sylvester J. Pussycat, who has pursued mouse Speedy Gonzales, kangaroo Hippety Hopper and canary Tweety Bird through numerous Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, is likewise an alleyway denizen. Sylvester’s intended victims always—sufferin’ succotash!—outwit him.
Unfortunately, things don’t work out that way in the real world, where stray and feral cats usually catch the little critters they hunt. The damage done to ecosystems is grave: In 2013, The New York Times reported that cats, on average, dispatch 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals in the United States each year, many from endangered species. Domestic cats allowed outside happily join in the bloodletting, but dealing with the 80 million feral cats now roaming the nation’s cities and countryside is a formidable challenge, since cat lovers tend to nix euthanasia programs. More popular trap-neuter-return (a.k.a. TNR) efforts may eventually reduce the feral population. In the meantime, the wildlife slaughter continues.
As every cat owner knows, sometimes dear little kitty, for reasons obscure, will bite the hand that dishes out the Fancy Feast. Even the most pampered puss harbors a feral creature in some occult corner of its soul. Cats’ never-quite-tamable wildness is frightening but also attractive—who doesn’t feel the occasional urge to claw the civilized veneer? Those mixed emotions inform the suspense in the noir-horror classic Cat People. When engineer Oliver (Kent Smith) meets Serbian emigrée Irena (Simone Simon) by the big-cat cages at the zoo, he’s magnetized. They date, fall in love and marry, despite Irena’s disclosure of her deep, dark secret. She can’t make love—can’t even kiss Oliver—because that would activate an ancient curse, turning her into a huge black cat that would rip him to shreds. Thinking she’s deluded, Oliver sends Irena to a shrink, but psychiatry hath not the power to soothe the savage beast. Things don’t go well, especially when Oliver kindles Irena’s jealousy by getting involved with his coworker Alice. The scene in which Irena, in shadowy panther form, pursues Alice through Central Park at night is, for horror movie fans, the cat’s meow.
Black cats inspire equal measures of admiration and fear. Graphic designer Saul Bass exploited this frisson by tracking a sleek, black tom prowling through a city’s backstreets in his title sequence for the 1962 melodrama Walk on the Wild Side. In 1960s and ’70s America, the militant Black Panther Party stoked awe and terror not just through its violent activities but via its very choice of name—and the snarling, pouncing predator depicted on the party’s flags and posters. In actuality, black cats, whose coloring simply results from a genetic condition called melanism, aren’t any nastier (or nicer!) than their differently hued relatives. In some cultures their appearance even augurs good fortune. But the perceived link between black cats and evil predominates. The age-old European association of black cats with witchcraft and satanism provides the cultural backdrop for horror films like Cat People and the 1934 Béla Lugosi–Boris Karloff scarefest The Black Cat. It’s also why the black cat is a Halloween icon. In fact, some animal shelters prohibit adoptions of black cats in the weeks before October 31, for fear these animals will be employed as Halloween decor and then abandoned.
For all their putative power to trigger ailurophobia (fear of felines), black cats aren’t always portrayed as wicked. True, some cartoon black cats are malicious—e.g., Walt Disney’s Pete, who occasionally plays the heavy in roles opposite Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters, and the dastardly Oil Can Harry of some Mighty Mouse cartoons. But others aren’t malevolent in the least. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, for instance, is Ignatz Mouse’s love-blinded victim, not his oppressor. Taking that masochistic dynamic to a sick extreme is The Itchy and Scratchy Show, a cartoon-within-a-cartoon in The Simpsons. The sometimes black, sometimes gray cat Scratchy adores the blue mouse Itchy despite the repeated atrocities (disembowelments, dismemberments, beheadings, etc.) that Itchy so hilariously inflicts on him. And then there’s Felix the Cat, who is neither a meanie nor a fall guy. With a career stretching from the silent film era deep into the television age, black-coated Felix may be the most enduringly popular cartoon cat of all—a good-hearted and charming, if mischievous, scamp.
Of all the cartoon cats ever created, none has achieved the ubiquity of Hello Kitty, the highly stylized, obnoxiously innocuous white bobtail kitten presiding over the global merchandising empire of Tokyo-based Sanrio toy company. Hello Kitty debuted in 1974 as a picture printed on a children’s plastic coin purse—an apt and auspicious beginning for a cat who would net her owners so very much money. (A 2010 estimate placed Hello Kitty’s annual earnings at about $5 billion.) Epitomizing the Japanese concept of kawaii (“cuteness”) and originally targeted at preteen girls, the cloying caricature has, over four decades, accumulated legions of fans young and old. Her oval face—with button eyes and nose, six whiskers, and a big bow perched at her left ear—now adorns items ranging from hair dryers and makeup to flash drives and airplanes. There’s even a sandwich maker that will toast her visage onto your lunch. Her balloon floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and in 2012 she ran for the U.S. presidency. (Unaccountably, she lost.) Although reports that her popularity is waning have appeared with some regularity, Hello Kitty lives on and on—dispiriting news for anyone who wishes she’d say bye-bye.
It’s hard to imagine the Cheshire Cat having any truck with Hello Kitty. The Cheshire Cat is a riddle wrapped in a mystery; Hello Kitty is a cipher stapled to a marketing plan. Cheshire Puss—as Lewis Carroll’s Alice addresses him—loves to disappear; Hello Kitty will never, ever go away. And Chessie has a full set of choppers and delights in repartee, whereas Hello Kitty doesn’t even have a mouth—except in her several animated TV series, in which she’s equipped with a teensy pink orifice through which to squeal and giggle.
Yet these unlikely interlocutors do meet: in the “Alice in Wonderland” episode of the series Hello Kitty and Friends (1993), with Kitty, of course, in the title role. Chessie endured a few alterations, though. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll gave him some great lines, such as “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” Hello Kitty and Friends’ writers dispense with the wit, substituting pabulum like “Anything’s possible when you put your mind to it.” Worse, the Hello Kitty animators outfitted him in pink-striped purple fur and a little blond toupee. This first-class bore would wipe the grin right off the original Chessie’s face.
Cats aren’t easy to live with. They shed, scratch, knock things over and vomit up their breakfast (and the occasional hairball). They’re standoffish when you want to pet them and overfriendly when you want them to get lost. And, of course, they adamantly refuse to understand the word no. Fortunately, they’re mostly cute, which covers a multitude of sins. That can’t, however, explain the appeal of Bucky Katt, the miscreant Siamese of Darby Conley’s comic strip Get Fuzzy. Ordinary cats’ various faux pas pale in comparison with Bucky’s—he is a braggart, thief, conspiracy-theory wing nut and serial insulter of the human (a guy named Rob) and the dog (Satchel Pooch) he lives with. But to top it all off, he’s ugly: flat-headed, scruffy and pot-bellied, with demented-looking bug eyes and a wicked grin that appears to be short a couple of teeth. Nevertheless, Bucky makes his many fans giddy, which is exactly the word Lewis Carroll’s Alice uses to describe her feelings when she meets a different contrary, grinning kitty, the Cheshire Cat. Felines’ endlessly impossible behavior can drive one to giddy distraction, but maybe that’s why cat lovers cannot imagine life without them.
Are cats loyal or uncaring? Smart or stupid? Even ardent cat lovers are divided on such questions. Folklore and legend, though, provide examples of cats that are savvy, resourceful and devoted to their owner’s well-being. These “helper cats” appear in ancient South Asian and medieval Persian literature and, more familiarly, in the tales of Dick Whittington and of Puss in Boots. In the Whittington story, a poor boy rises to become lord mayor of London, his fortunes abetted by his cat’s rat-catching acumen. In Puss’s original appearance, “Le Chat Botté” (1697) by fairy-tale writer Charles Perrault, a cat’s quick-witted stratagems bring romance and riches to its young master.
Retellings of “Puss in Boots” abound. In one of Walt Disney’s earliest cartoons (1922), Puss arranges for his master to win a bullfight, and in DreamWorks Animation’s 3-D Puss in Boots (2011)—a spin-off of the Shrek films—Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) valiantly saves a town from the depredations of a giant goose. Such heroic derring-do would be lost, however, on Bucky Katt, the Siamese antagonist of Get Fuzzy. Bucky is smart-assed rather than smart, and helping the other members of his household is simply not in his portfolio.