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Thursday, December 15, 2005

MESSMER, Otto

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Birth/Death

Birth: August 16th, 1892
Death: October 28th 1983

Occupation/Title

American cartoonist/animator/director

Bio Summary

Grew in a happy Roman Catholic family that was on the verge of poverty. Went to Holy Family parochial school in Hoboken where he took many drawing classes. Inspired by early Winsor McCay animated shorts, he began submitting comics to magazines and newspapers. Submitted a portfolio to Jack Cohn, who in turn recommended him to Pat Sullivan and Henry "Hy" Mayer. With these men, he would create the wildly popular Felix the Cat for Sullivan Studios. After the transition to sound killed Felix, and the Sullivan studio went under, he passed on an opportunity to revive Felix with the Van Buren studios, an opportunity he left to Brad Gillett. Instead, he chose to work for Leigh-EPOK, creating animated signs. He continued to draw the Felix the Cat comic strip and comic books until his successor, Joe Oriolo, slowly took over the character.


Early Life/Family

Father: John Messmer, a "crackerjack machinist." Described by his son, Otto, as "very gentle, efficient."
Mother: Theckla Kiesewetter, who worked in a silk mill.
Brother: John Messmer. Very outgoing, unlike his introverted brother, Otto.

Education/Training

Holy Family parochial school. After graduating, he took a correspondence course and night classes at Thomas School of Art in New York. Learned about animation through watching Winsor McCay's early animated shorts.

Career Outline

?-1915: Freelance cartoonist.
1915-1933: Sullivan studios. It must be noted that Otto Messmer, not Pat Sullivan, was the real creative force behind Felix the Cat. Messmer served as animator, director, and writer. In the early days, he did most of the work himself until the studio hired blackers and in-betweeners to assist him.
1923-1954: Felix the Cat comic for King Features Syndicate.
1937-1973: Leigh-EPOK

Comments On Style

Messmer's Felix was a rather surreal creation. Felix could remove his tail to become an umbrella, while his motorcycle would turn into a horse. Messmer's initial design of Felix had the cat as a pointy, angular character in keeping with the cubist movement and the jazz age. Bill Nolan eventually turned felix into the rounder, cuter cat of later years. Messmer gave the cat a distinct personality, typified by Felix's famous back and forth pace and furrowed brow. He would have Felix break the fourth wall to wink and wag his finger at the audience, letting the audience feel "in" on Felix's plans.

Influences: Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and How a Mosquito Operates, all brought the posibility of animated pictures to Messmer's mind. He also saw The Newlyweds, based on the strip by George McManus. Messmer borrowed heavily from vaudeville, and even based much of Felix's personality on Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character. Indeed, Messmer even animated the Charlie Chaplin cartoons for Sullivan Studios before working on Felix full time.

Personality: Humble, quiet, and never wanted to make a fuss. He let Sullivan take all the credit for Felix, even when it was Messmer who did all the work. Even when he was being treated unfairly, he could barely bring himself to say anything that might shed his boss in a poor light. Messmer was allowed to stay in his bubble, not worrying about the business or the financial aspects of the operation, and instead focused on writing gags and animating cartoons. His situation was much the same at Leigh-EPOK, not worrying about business and instead focusing on being creative.

Influences

Personality

Anecdotes

Messmer made Felix all black "because it saves making a lot of outlines, and solid black moves better."
"We thought a funny walk sometimes would get a laugh without [a] script idea. Or the wiggling of the tail, things of that type."
"Why animate something you can see in real life? Some [animators] tried to make beautiful girls moving around. It didn't go over too well with audiences in theaters. But if they saw even a rubber ball with a face on it-a drawing moving, doing things-it got a thrill."

Miscellaneous

When Messmer was photographing his first cartoon, he was still using the corner registration system to keep his drawings properly framed. The cameraman mentioned that it would be easier to use the peg system (invented by Raoul Barre, and borrowed by Pat Sullivan). This solved a lot of problems for Messmer, and he said, "I knew the whole thing instantly then."

Filmography

1915: Motor Mat (never shown)
1916: Trials of a Movie Cartoonist (lost)
1916: Sammy Johnsin series
1916: Charlie Chaplin toons
1919: Feline Follies, the prototypical Felix the Cat cartoon, here named "Master Tom."
There may be thirty or so cartoons that were made between 1919 and 1921.
1922:
Distributor: Margaret J. Winkler
Felix Saves the Day, February 1st
Felix at the Fair, March 1st
Felix Makes Good, April 1st
Felix All at Sea, May 1st
Felix in Love, June 1st
Felix in the Swim, July 1st
Felix Finds a Way, August 1st
Felix Gets Revenge, September 1st
Felix Wakes Up, September 15th
Felix Minds the Kid, October 1st
Felix Turns the Tide, October 15th
Felix on the Trail, November 1st
Felix Lends a Hand, November 15th
Felix Gets Left, December 1st
Felix in the Bone Age, December 15th

1923:
Felix the Ghost Breaker, January 1st
Felix Wins Out, January 15th
Felix Tries for Treasure, April 15th
Felix Revolts, May 1st
Felix Calms His Conscience, May 15th
Felix the Globe Trotter, June 1st
Felix Gets Broadcasted, June 15th
Felix Strikes it Rich, July 1st
Felix in Hollywood, July 15th
Felix in Fairyland, August 1st
Felix Laughs Last August 15th
Felix Fills a Shortage, November 15th
Felix the Goat Getter, December 1st
Felix Goes A-Hunting, Dember 15th

1924:
Felix Loses Out, January 15th
Felix Hits the Hipps, February 1st
Felix Crosses the Crooks, February 15th
Felix Tries to Rest, February 29th
Felix Pinches the Pole, May 1st
Felix Puts it Over, May 15th
Felix Friend in Need, June 1st
Felix Baffled by Banjos, June 15th
Felix All Balled Up, July 1st
Felix Goes West, August 1st
Felix Finds Out, November 1st
Felix Brings Home the Bacon, November 15th
Felix Finishes First, December 1st
Felix Out of Luck
Felix Gets the Can
Felix Dopes it Out

1925:
Felix Wins and Loses, January 1st
Felix All Puzzled, January 15th
Felix Follows the Swallows, February 1st
Felix Rests in Peace, February 15th
Distributor: Educational Films
Felix the Cat Busts into Business, September 6th
Felix the Cat Trips Through Toyland, September 20th
Felix Trifles with Time, August 23rd
Felix the Cat on the Farm, October 4th
Felix the Cat on the Job, October 18th
Felix the Cat in the Cold Rush, November 1st
Felix the Cat in Eats are West, November 15th
Felix the Cat in Tries and Trades, November 29th
Felix the Cat in at the Rainbow's End, December 13th
Felix the Cat Kept on Walking, December 27th

1926:
Felix the Cat Spots the Spooks, January 10th
Felix the Cat Flirts with Fate, January 14th
Felix the Cat in Blunderland, February 7th
Felix Fans the Flames, February 21st
Felix the Cat Laughs it Off, March 7th
Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather, March 21st
Felix the Cat Uses His Head, April 4th
Felix the Cat Misses the Cue, April 18th
Felix the Cat Braves the Briny, May 2nd
Felix the Cat in a Tale of Two Kitties, May 16th
Felix Scoots Through Scotland, May 30th
Felix the Cat Rings the Ringer, June 13th
Felix the Cat in School Daze, June 27th
Felix the Cat Seeks Solitude, July 11th
Felix the Cat Misses His Swiss, July 25th
Felix the Cat in Gym Gems, August 8th
Felix the Cat in Two Lips Time, August 22nd
Felix the Cat in Scrambled Eggs, September 5th
Felix the Cat Shatters the Sheik, September 19th
Felix the Cat Hunts the Hunter, October 3rd
Felix the Cat in Land O'Fancy, October 17th
Felix the Cat Busts a Bubble, October 31st
Felix the Cat in Reverse English, November 14th
Felix the Cat Trumps the Ace, November 28th
Felix the Cat Collars the Button, December 12th
Felix the Cat in Zoo Logic, December 26th

1927:
Felix the Cat Dines and Pines, January 9th
Felix the Cat in Pedigreedy, January 23rd
Felix the Cat in Icy Eyes, February 6th
Felix the Cat in Stars and Stripes, February
Felix the Cat in Barn Yarns, March 20th
Felix the Cat in Germ Mania, April 3rd
Felix the Cat in Sax Appeal!, April 27th
Felix the Cat in Eye Jinks, May 1st
Felix the Cat as Romeeow, May 15th
Felix the Cat Ducks His Duty, May 29th
Felix the Cat in Dough-Nutty, June 12th
Felix the Cat in "Loco" Motive, June 16th
Felix the Cat in Art for Heart's Sake, July 10th
Felix the Cat in the Travel-Hog, July 14th
Felix the Cat, Jack of All Trades, August 21st
Felix the Cat, The Non-Stop Fright, August 21st
Felix the Cat in Wise Guise, September 4th
Felix the Cat in Flim Flam Films, September 18th
Felix the Cat Switches Witches, October 2nd
Felix the Cat in No Fuelin', October 16th
Felix the Cat in Daze and Knights, October 30th
Felix the Cat in Uncle Tom's Crabbin', November 13th
Felix the Cat in Whys and Otherwhys, November 27th
Felix the Cat Hits the Deck, December 11
Felix the Cat Behind in Front, December 25th

1928:
Felix the Cat in the Smoke Scream, January 8th
Felix the Cat in Draggin' the Dragon, January 22nd
Felix the Cat in the Oily Bird, February 19th
Felix the Cat in Ohm Sweet Ohm, February 19th
Felix the Cat in Japanicky, March 4th
Felix the Cat in Polly-tics, March 18th
Felix the Cat in Comicalamities, April 1st
Felix the Cat in Sure-Locked Homes, April 15th
Felix the Cat in Eskimotive, April 19th
Felix the Cat in Arabiantics, May 13th
Felix the Cat in In and Out-Laws, May 27th
Felix the Cat in Outdoor Indore, June 10th
Felix the Cat in Futuritzy, June 24th
Felix the Cat in Astronomeows, July 8th
Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles, July 22nd
Felix the Cat in the Last Life, August 5th

1930:
Distributor: Copley Pictures Corporation
Some older cartoons were released with new soundtracks, with the following made in this year:
Felix the Cat in False Vases
Felix the Cat Woos Whoopee (might be from 1928)
Felix the Cat in April Maze
Felix the Cat in Oceantics
Felix the Cat in Skulls and Sculls
Felix the Cat in Forty Winks
Felix the Cat in Tee-Time
Hootchy Kootchy Parlais Vous

Honors

Annie Award: Winsor McCay Award 1979

Related Links

Comics: Otto Messmer's Felix The Cat 1932
www.felixthecat.com
www.ottomessmer.com
www.johncanemaker.com

Bibliographic References

Felix, The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat by John Canemaker

BIO-AAA-489

Contributors To This Listing

Paul Stadden

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