Otto James Messmer was born August 16, 1892 in West Hoboken, New Jersey.
He grew up with a love of animation and the entertainment industry inspired by Winsor McCay’s animated films.
In 1911, Otto attended the Thomas School of Art in New York City and participated in a work-study program with the Acme Agency, where he did illustrations for fashion catalogs.
By 1912, Otto began creating his own comics for local newspapers. One of these, titled ‘Fun’, became part of the Sunday comics for the New York World.
Then in 1915, Otto signed a deal with Jack Cohn of Universal Studios to produce a test film for a character he had created named “Motor Mat.”
The test film was never released, but drew the interest of animator Pat Sullivan, even though Otto decided to go to work full time with Henry “Hy” Mayer, a well-known cartoonist.
Hy and Otto collaborated on the successful animated series “The Travels of Teddy,” which was based on the life of Teddy Roosevelt.
Subsequently, Otto went to work for Pat Sullivan, only to return to work with Mayer when Sullivan was sentenced to nine months in prison.
When World War I broke out, Otto went to war.
In 1919, when Otto returned to the United States, he returned to Pat Sullivan’s studio.
Soon after, Sullivan was hired by director Earl Hurd of Paramount Screen Magazine for a cartoon short that would accompany a feature film.
Sullivan turned the project over to Otto Messmer.
The result was “Feline Follies” which starred Master Tom, a black cat who brought good luck to people in trouble.
Feline Follies debuted November 9, 1919, Master Tom became the first cartoon character created and developed for the screen.
The film short was a success, and the Sullivan studio quickly set to work on producing another film featuring Master Tom resulting the “The Musical Mews” which was released November 16, 1919.
Then, with this success, “Master Tom” became “Felix the Cat.”
Felix the Cat
Later, Otto Messmer gave credit for the name change to John King of Paramount Magazine who suggested the name “Felix” after the latin word felis (cat) and felix (lucky).
Felix made his debut in the third film, “The Adventures of Felix” released December 14, 1919.
Felix went on to become one of the most recognized cartoon characters in film history.
Pat Sullivan took the credit for Felix, and though Otto Messmer directed and was the lead animator on all of the episodes he appeared in, Pat Sullivan’s name was the only onscreen credit that appeared in them.
Sullivan studios marketed Felix relentlessly, while Otto continued to produce a prodigious volume of Felix cartoons. Otto did the animation directly on white paper with inkers tracing the drawings directly.
The animators drew backgrounds onto pieces of celluloid, which were then laid atop the drawings to be photographed.
Any perspective work had to be animated by hand, as the studio cameras were unable to perform pans or trucks.
Pat Sullivan began a newspaper comic strip in 1923, distributed by King Features Syndicate. Otto Messmer took over drawing most of the pencils and inks on the strip.
By 1931, Felix the Cat had starred in over 150 cartoons, when animation studios began converting to sound films.
The newspaper comic strip’s popularity also began to fade in the late 1930’s.
After Pat Sullivan’s death in 1933, his estate in Australia took over ownership of the character Felix.
Otto Messmer married Anne Mason in 1934, a woman he had first met back in 1912.
Then in the 1940’s, Felix the Cat was reintroduced to new fans via comic books.
Otto continued to produce these comic books for companies such as Dell Comics, Toby Press, and harvey Comics.
Otto also continued doing animation for Paramount studios including several Popeye cartoons.
By the 1960s, Felix the Cat had been reinvented for television, and Otto Messmer’s longtime assistant Joe Oriolo (the creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost) made sure that Otto was finally credited as the creator of Felix the Cat.
Otto continued working on Felix the Cat for the rest of his life.
Messmer died October 28, 1983 of a heart attack in Teaneck, New Jersey at the age of 91.
The extent of Otto Messmer’s role in the creation and popularity of Felix is still a matter of ongoing dispute, particularly as he only laid his claim to the character after the death of Pat Sullivan, who until that time had received the credit.
However, most prominent comics and animation historians support Otto’s claim, as do the veterans of the Sullivan studio.
Pat Sullivan was the studio owner – and as is the case with almost all film entrepreneurs — Sullivan owned the copyright to any creative work done by his employees.
In common with many animators of his time, Otto Messmer was not credited.
It was not until many years after Sullivan’s death that staffers such as Hal Walker, Al Eugster, and even Sullivan’s own lawyer, Harry Kopp, credited Otto Messmer with Felix’s creation.
They claimed that Felix was based on an animated Charlie Chaplin that Otto Messmer had animated for Sullivan’s studio earlier on.
The down-and-out personality and movements of the cat in Feline Follies reflect key attributes of Chaplin’s, and, although blockier than the later Felix, the familiar black body is already there (Messmer found solid shapes easier to animate).
Otto Messmer himself later recalled his version of the cat’s creation in an interview with animation historian John Canemaker:
Sullivan’s studio was very busy, and Paramount, they were falling behind their schedule and they needed one extra to fill in. And Sullivan, being very busy, said, “If you want to do it on the side, you can do any little thing to satisfy them.” So I figured a cat would be about the simplest. Make him all black, you know—you wouldn’t need to worry about outlines. And one gag after the other, you know? Cute. And they all got laughs. So Paramount liked it so they ordered a series.
Today, most animation historians back Otto Messmer’s claims.
Now WE know em