Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Messmer Gets His Due


Otto Messmer was born on this day in 1892 in West Hoboken, New Jersey.

A correspondence school art student, Messmer began his career illustrating fashion catalogues but, inspired by the vaudeville act and early animated cartoons of Winsor McCay, he started to try to break in to newspaper comic strips by contributing to Fun and the Sunday New York World. In 1915, he was hired by Raoul Barre Animated Cartoons, but didn't have much of a chance to prove his mettle before he shipped off to World War I as a telegraph operator in the Army Signal Corps.

After the War, he joined former Barre animator Pat Sullivan (fresh from Sullivan's stint in prison for statutory rape) in Sullivan's new independent shop to produce short travelogue parodies for Triangle Films. Asked to create a filler-series for Paramount in 1919, Messmer came up with an adventurous, wide-awake, lucky little cat-hero, painted black at Sullivan's request to save time -- and "Felix the Cat" was born. Sullivan, however, claimed credit for the cartoon's birth, and kept Messmer's name off the screen for over 175 silent shorts while "Felix" became a national phenomenon and Sullivan raked in the money on Felix merchandise.

When Sullivan's irresponsible lifestyle caught up with him and he died in 1933, Messmer found himself without a studio and with no rights to Felix. He happily and humbly continued to draw Felix, however, as a comic strip for Felix's owners (King Features), turned down the chance to direct more Felix cartoons in the 1930s (he thought of Felix as a silent cat, and was unwilling to take on the burden of giving him a voice and drowning him in Technicolor), and bounced around in various studios.

In 1937 he began an association with Leigh-EPOK, and while continuing to draw comic strips he became Leigh-EPOK's premiere designer of huge animated electronic signs for Times Square in New York for almost 40 years.

In the 1960s, as Joe Oriolo began to revive Felix for TV, Messmer finally got the recognition he deserved among the film animation community. Animation historian John Canemaker makes the case that Messmer was the unsung "inventor of character animation."

Messmer died on October 26, 1983 in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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