Otto Messmer .com


Animation pioneer Otto Messmer was born on August 16, 1892 in West Hoboken, New Jersey (now Union City). He would become best known for his work on the Felix the Cat cartoons and comic strip produced by the Pat Sullivan studio.

As a youngster Messmer attended Holy Family parochial school, and had a love of vaudeville and the entertainment industry instilled in him by his parents and teachers, beginning at a young age. He attended the Thomas School of Art in New York City from 1911 to 1913, and participated in a work-study program with the Acme Agency, where he did illustrations for fashion catalogs.

Messmer's first love, however, was cartooning. Inspired by Winsor McCay's animated films, such as How a Mosquito Operates, he began creating his own comics for local newspapers in 1912, the same year he met Anne Mason, who became his wife in 1934. One of his comics, Fun, ran as part of the Sunday comics' page for the New York World.

He signed a deal with Jack Cohn of Universal Studios in 1915 to produce a test film of a character Messmer created called Motor Mat. It was never released, but drew the interest of animator Pat Sullivan, though Messmer instead decided to go to work with Henry "Hy" Mayer, a well-known cartoonist.

Mayer and Messmer collaborated on the successful animated series The Travels of Teddy, which was based on the life of Teddy Roosevelt. Messmer would subsequently work for Sullivan, who handled the business side of the work, with Messmer handling creative responsibilities.

However, even early on in their relationship, Sullivan was already starting to show his true stripes a s shifty businessman. When Sullivan served a nine-month prison sentence in 1917, Messmer briefly returned to work with Mayer, until Messmer was drafted into World War I.

When Messmer returned home from the war in 1919, he visited Sullivan's studio, where he was hired by director Earl Hurd of Paramount Screen Magazine for a cartoon short that would accompany a feature film. Sullivan let Messmer run the project, and the end result was Feline Follies, which featured Master Tom, a black cat that brought good luck to people in trouble - an obvious prototype to Messmer's future Felix character.

Before Master Tom was released, however, Messmer created and developed Felix, which was released first. It became a licensed, mass merchandised character, and after those few years of hard work, it looked like the young cartoonist was now on his way to the top.

However, since this all took place back during the legally murky early 1920s, when 20th century copyright and trademark laws were still in their infancy, Sullivan took full credit for Felix, since the character had been designed for a company that was linked to his main corporation. Alhough Messmer directed and was the lead animator on all of the episodes in which Felix was featured, Sullivan's name was the only onscreen credit that appeared in them.

But financial depression of the 1930s had just hit, and a job was a job, making it impossible for Messmer to do anything about billing disputes at that time. Felix the Cat starred in over 150 cartoons until 1931, when animation studios began converting to sound films. The popularity of the character also gave rise to a Felix newspaper strip.

Interest in the strip continued strongly until the late 1930s, but just when it started to fade, Felix was reintroduced to new fans via comic books in the 1940s. That bolstered the newspaper strip, and Messmer also oversaw its direction, doing most of the pencils and inks on it until 1954. (Shortly after WWII, Messmer also teamed with Douglas Leigh on the famous large moving "tickertape" electronic signs that lit up Times Square for decades.)

Messmer produced Felix comic books in the 1940s and 1950s for companies including Toby Press, Dell, and Harvey, as well as doing animation for the Paramount studios (several Popeye cartoons carry his credit).

Messmer's role in the creation of Felix became a matter of ongoing debate, since while Sullivan, on his deathbed, had recognized and given full ownership of the character to Messmer, Sullivan's relatives later launched disputes and denials, in an effort to begin legal proceedings to cut Messmer out of the financial picture. However, most prominent comics and animation historians support Messmer's claim, as did even most of the veterans of the Sullivan studio itself.

By the early 1960s, Felix had been reinvented for yet another medium - television. The person running the Felix the Cat TV show was Messmer's longtime assistant Joe Oriolo (creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost), who made sure that Messmer was at long last given his rightful onscreen credit as the true creator of Felix the Cat.

Messmer continued working on the character until he died of a heart attack at 91, in the Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey on October 28, 1983.

And so, although it took a few decades, and he didn't end up as rich as he should have, Messmer finally got the last laugh. Today his fabulous creation of Felix is still seen in syndication in more than 250 newspapers, TV reruns, films and countless DVD videos all over the world.

As Felix would say, "Righty-o!"

Relevant Reading:


By Otto Messmer (1996)
(Click pic to enlarge.)


Great Felix The Cat Site
IMDb On Messmer

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