The Man Behind the Cat: Celebrating Otto Messmer
Otto Messmer will be forever associated with one character, and it's a character he didn't even get credit for creating until years after the fact.
Messmer was born in Union City, New Jersey (then called West Hoboken) on August 16, 1892. As a student at the Thomas School of Art in New York City from 1911–1913, he provided illustrations for fashion catalogs as part of a work-study program with the Acme Agency. But what he really wanted to do was get into the relatively new artform of animation. He was fascinated by early cartoons like Winsor McCay's How a Mosquito Operates, and was already drawing his own comics for local papers by the age of 20.
In 1915, Messmer created a character called "Motor Mat" for Universal Studios. The test film he made was never released, but it got Messmer a lot of attention from professionals like animator and film producer Pat Sullivan, and cartoonist and animator Henry Mayer.
Messmer and Mayer collaborated on the animated series The Travels of Teddy, based on the life of Teddy Roosevelt, which proved to be a success. After that Messmer collaborated with Pat Sullivan, who let Messmer do the creative work while he handled the business end. However in 1917, Sullivan went to prison for rape, serving only nine months, and Messmer was drafted to serve in the First World War.
When Messmer returned to the United States in 1919, he went back to Pat Sullivan's animation studio and created a cartoon called Feline Follies. It starred anthropomorphic cats named Master Tom and Miss Kitty White. One of the most interesting aspects of the silent cartoon from a modern perspective is how it incorporates captions for dialogue and sound effects, very much like comics, instead of just the usual intertitles common to silent films. This technique would continue into Messmer and Sullivan's future cartoons.
After the success of Feline Follies, Master Tom evolved into his final form. He gained more personality, a more distinct design, and a new, more memorable name: Felix.
Felix the Cat was one of the first true stars of animation --- his only competition in that regard was Fleischer Studios' Koko the Clown, who debuted the same year. Felix made his debut under that name in 1919's The Adventures of Felix, nine years before Mickey Mouse made the scene.
Felix was a star throughout the 1920s, as Sullivan and Messmer produced a series of cartoons that only credited Sullivan.
In Felix in Hollywood, Felix appeared alongside cartoon versions of real movie stars of the day, something Looney Tunes would later elevate to its own subgenre. In Felix the Ghostbreaker and Oceantics he faced off against some genuinely creepy apparitions. The clever and often mischievous Felix was known for his habit of pacing back and forth as he decided how to best face his problems.
In 1923, Felix the Cat got his own newspaper comic strip, which only added to his popularity. It was also first drawn by Otto Messmer, and in later years by Joe Oriolo. The comic strip ran until 1966, and Felix also appeared in comic books from Dell, Toby, and Harvey comics.
Those original Felix animated cartoons began to lose popularity in the late 1920s. Other studios like Walt Disney and Fleischer were popularizing cartoons with sound, and Sullivan was slow to get with the times. By the time the studio incorporated sound it was too late, and the whole operation shut down in 1932.
Pat Sullivan, who had struggled with alcoholism for years, died in 1933. It was only then that Otto Messmer stepped forward to say that he, not Sullivan, had created Felix and been the creative force behind his cartoons. Other animators who had worked for Sullivan at the time backed Messmer's version of the story, and he has been widely accepted as the character's creator ever since.
Without Otto Messmer, there would be no Felix the Cat. And without Felix the Cat, it's hard to imagine what American animation would look like. The "clever talking animal" genre that spawned Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny -- and even Betty Boop, who spun out of Bimbo the Dog's cartoons -- started with Felix.
Like so many of the artists who created world-changing cultural icons, Messmer had to fight for credit, and never quite became a household name. The least we can do today, on his birthday, is take a moment to remember the man, and the cat he created.
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