Animator. Nationality: American. Born: New Jersey, 16 August 1892. Family: Married; two children. Career: Painted backdrops for a theater company; 1913—painted backcloths at Universal Studios; 1915—made his first animated film, Motor Mat (unreleased); 1919—developed the character of Felix the Cat at Pat Sullivan's New York Studios. Died: Of a heart attack in Newark, New Jersey, 28 October 1983.
Films as Animator (selected list):
Motor Mat (unreleased); The Travels of Teddy
Felix Gets It Wrong; Felix on the Job
Them Were the Happy Days
Feline Follies series; Musical Mews
Felix Saves the Day; Felix at the Fair; Felix Makes Good; Felix All at Sea; Felix in Love; Felix in the Swim; Felix Finds a Way; Felix Gets Revenge; Felix Wakes Up; Felix Minds the Kid; Felix Turns the Tide; Felix on the Trail; Felix Lends a Hand; Felix Gets Left; Felix in the Bone Age
Felix the Ghost Breaker; Felix Wins Out; Felix Tries for Treasure; Felix Revolts; Felix Calms His Conscience; Felix the Globe Trotter; Felix Gets Broadcasted; Felix Strikes It Rich; Felix in Hollywood; Felix in Fairyland; Felix Laughs Last; Felix Fills a Shortage; Felix the Goat Getter; Felix Goes A-Hunting
Felix Loses Out; Felix Hits the Hipps; Felix Crosses the Crooks; Felix Tries to Rest; Felix Punches the Pole; Felix Puts It Over; Felix, Friend in Need; Felix Baffled By Banjos; Felix All Balled Up; Felix Goes West; Felix Finds Out; Felix Brings Home the Bacon; Felix Finishes First; Felix Goes Hungry; Felix Out of Luck; Felix Gets the Can; Felix Dopes It Out
Felix Wins and Loses; Felix All Puzzled; Felix Follows the Swallows; Felix Rests in Peace; Felix the Cat Busts into Business; Felix the Cat Trips Through Toyland; Felix Trifles with Time; Felix the Cat on the Farm; Felix the Cat on the Job; Felix the Cat in the Cold; Felix the Cat in Eats Are West; Felix the Cat Tries the Trades; Felix the Cat in At the Rainbows End; Felix the Cat Kept Walking
Felix the Cat Spots the Spooks; Felix the Cat Flirts with Fate; Felix the Cat in Blunderland; Felix Fans the Flames; Felix the Cat Laughs It Off; Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather; Felix the Cat Uses His Head; Felix the Cat Misses the Cue;Felix the Cat Braves the Briny; Felix the Cat in A Tale of Two Kitties; Felix Scoots through Scotland; Felix the Cat Rings the Ringer; Felix the Cat in School Daze; Felix the Cat Seeks Solitude; Felix the Cat Misses His Swiss; Felix the Cat in Gym Gems; Felix the Cat in Two Lips Time; Felix the Cat in Scrambled Eggs; Felix the Cat Shatters the Sheik; Felix the Cat Hunts the Hunter; Felix the Cat in Land O'Fancy; Felix the Cat Busts a Bubble; Felix the Cat in Reverse English; Felix the Cat Trumps the Ace; Felix the Cat Collars the Button; Felix the Cat in Zoo Logic
Felix the Cat Dines and Pines; Felix the Cat in Pedigreedy; Felix the Cat in Icy Eyes; Felix the Cat in Stars and Stripes; Felix the Cat Sees 'Em in Season; Felix the Cat in Barn Yarns; Felix the Cat in Germ Mania; Felix the Cat in Sax Appeal; Felix the Cat in Eye Jinks; Felix the Cat as Romeeow; Felix the Cat Ducks His Duty; Felix the Cat in Dough-Nutty; Felix the Cat in "Loco" Motive; Felix the Cat in Art for Hearts Sake; Felix the Cat in the Travel-Hog; Felix the Cat, Jack of All Trades; Felix the Cat in The Non-Stop Fright; Felix the Cat in Wise Guise; Felix the Cat in Film Flam Films; Felix the Cat Switches Witches; Felix the Cat in No Fuelin'; Felix the Cat in Daze and Knights; Felix the Cat in Uncle Tom's Crabbin'; Felix the Cat in Whys and Otherwhys; Felix the Cat Hits the Deck; Felix the Cat Behind in Front
Felix the Cat in the Smoke Scream; Felix the Cat in Draggin' the Dragon; Felix the Cat in the Oily Bird; Felix the Cat in Ohm Sweet Ohm; Felix the Cat in Japanicky; Felix the Cat in Polly-tics; Felix the Cat in Comicalamities; Felix the Cat in Sure-Locked Homes; Felix the Cat in Eskimotive; Felix the Cat in Arabiantics; Felix the Cat in In and Out-Laws;Felix the Cat in Outdoor Indore; Felix the Cat in Futuritzy;Felix the Cat in Astronomeows; Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles; Felix the Cat in the Last Life
Felix the Cat in False Vases; Felix the Cat Woos Whoopee;Felix the Cat in April Maze; Felix the Cat in Oceanantics;Felix the Cat in Skulls and Sculls; Felix the Cat in Forty Winks; Felix the Cat in Tee-Time; Hootchy Kootchy Parlais Vous; Felix in Love
Felix the Cat and the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg;Neptune Nonsense; Bold King Cole
By MESSMER: article—
Segnocinema (Vicenza), vol. 5, no. 18, May 1985.
On MESSMER: book—
Canemaker, John, Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat, New York, 1991.
On MESSMER: articles—
Millimeter (New York), vol. 4, no. 9, September 1976.
Crafton, Donald, in Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898–1928, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982.
Obituary in New York Times, 29 October 1983.
Obituary in Film Français (Paris), 11 November 1983.
Obituary in Cine-Revue (Paris), vol. 63, no. 46, 17 November 1983.
Griffithiana (Gemona), vol. 8, no. 22–23, May 1985.
"The Advertising Pioneers: The Search for the Creator of That First Animated TV Commercial," in Animation Magazine, May-June 1991.
Tom, Patricia Vettel, "Felix the Cat as Modern Trickster," in American Art, Spring 1996.
Barrett, Michael, "Presenting Felix the Cat: The Otto Messmer Classics, vols. 1–2," in Library Journal, 15 October 1996.
On MESSMER: film—
Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat, 1977.
* * *
Animation's history, is peopled by innumerable men and women whose labors have been effaced by prominently displayed names, like Walt Disney or Leon Schlesinger, producers who may have contributed in varying degrees to the overall direction and management of cartoons, but who in fact usually had little to do with the actual work of animation. Such is the case with animation's first international "star," Felix the Cat, for whom the credit was stolen by the producer and cartoonist Pat Sullivan from the famous feline's director and real progenitor, Otto Messmer. Sullivan also reaped most of the profits and neglected to leave Messmer the rights to the character in his will, as promised before he died. Now, due to the efforts of film scholars, Messmer is recognized as one of the most talented screen cartoonists of the silent era, acclaimed especially for his inventive and influential gags, his expressive handling of form, and his contribution to the overall craft of character animation.
Born and bred in New Jersey from immigrant German-Catholic stock, Messmer was fascinated from an early age by films, then only an evolving art form, and drawn cartoons. He took an art correspondence course, attended the Thomas School of Art in New York City, and published several cartoons in the New York World's Sunday supplement Fun that are of note for their dynamic sense of movement and use of visualized puns, a staple element of the filmic cartoon. After viewing the works of Winsor McCay, Emile Cohl, and other early animators, Messmer was inspired to produce his own film, Motor Mat (c. 1915, never released) on a homemade animation drawing board built for him by his father. Motor Mat, a motoring fanatic, shared with the later Felix a convenient aptitude for transforming objects around him, like smoke rings into tires. Unaware of either Bray's cel system or Barre's peg system, Messmer made this test film on cumbersome cardboard and photographed it on hired equipment at the Universal studio. Hy Mayer, then a well-known cartoonist, offered Messmer work on The Travels of Teddy, an animated cartoon based on Teddy Roosevelt, and from this experience he learned the shortcuts and techniques for production. He was next hired by Sullivan to work in his small animation studio, and collaborated on two series, one based on Sullivan's Sammy Johnsin strip, and one based on Charlie Chaplin. Messmer gradually assumed more responsibility for production with Sullivan concentrating on the financial management and promotional part of the business. Relations were briefly suspended for three years while Messmer served on the French Front and Sullivan served time in gaol for the rape of a minor. Reunited with Sullivan in 1919, Messmer designed Feline Follies for Paramount Screen Magazine, starring a Felix prototype called Mater Tom, and from that, spurred by increasing popularity, evolved Felix, named so in the third film after the suggestion of Mr. King of Paramount, deriving its etymological roots from "feline" and "felicity," equalling "good luck cat." Felix's reputation for good luck inspired the apocryphal story that a stuffed effigy of him accompanied Lindbergh on his solo Atlantic flight. He did, however, bring Messmer and Sullivan a substantial portion of luck until his demise with the advent of sound films in the late 1920s.
As the series' popularity grew, a litter of false felines and pretenders of other species populated the cartoon world, but only the Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell series and Paul Terry's Aesop's Fables could compete in popularity. Despite Sullivan's self-promotion in the press, many in the animation industry knew that Messmer was the real pen behind the camera. Just after the release of Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney offered him a job at his new studio, but Messmer, attached to his east coast roots, declined, mistakenly assuming that Felix would run forever.
The rejection bears a certain symbolic dimension; for while Disney's works moved towards greater mimetic realism, through the use of various technologies—sound, technicolor, the multiplane camera—the silent, black-and-white, plainer Felix cartoons have an austere, almost abstract quality that make them in some ways more striking than Disney's dated pyrotechnics. In its graphic simplicity, Messmer's work could be usefully compared with Norman McLaren's, in which the fluid rendering of movement rather than figurative verisimilitude is favored. Above all, Messmer's true gift was for characterization. Felix's gestures, expressions, his famous walk, and even his intertitled speech patterns, modelled on Messmer's own, were distinctive and endearing. Unlike his creator, Felix led a far more exciting and adventurous life, his personality adapting subtly to suit the situation, be it falling in love, travelling through the Arctic, or Fairyland, or Time, playing the devoted father or the denizen of the speakeasy, or, like Messmer, fighting on the warfront. Felix's plasticity, his ability to eschew the laws of physics and exploit to the fullest his cartoonal powers, had a profound effect on the medium which, with the exceptions of Cohl and McCay, had hitherto tended to cling to the raft of realism and model itself on the slapstick of live-action cinema, rather than realizing its own potential for excess, for making the impossible corporeal.
After Sullivan died, Messmer remained on the east coast, illustrating the Felix comics, occasionally contributing to animated cartoons for Famous Studios, and doing the animation for the well-known electric billboards on Times Square which eminently suited his talent for working with black-and-white silhouettes, which he also put to use for the first animated commercials on television for Botany Mills Ties. Although an obscure figure until scholars like Crafton, Canemaker, and Cohen uncovered material about him in the late 1970s and 1980s, Messmer died at the age of 91 with his reputation rightly restored. Felix, of course lived on, in several new films, and on a thousand teeshirts and coffee mugs.
—Leslie Felperin Sharman