Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat
Few cartoon animals have hit the public's fancy with as much force as a certain rotund cat named Felix. As a generator of comics-related merchandise, Felix outdistances even that other memorabilia maestro, Garfield, and as for Sylvester... well, Felix leaves that puddytat behind in a cloud of dust. There have been Felix the Cat comics from numerous publishers (Dell, Felix, Gladstone, Harvey, Toby, Western), various animated cartoon series, Felix songs and Felix newspaper strips. And there have been Felix watches, clocks, mugs, cookie jars, flexible figures, brass rings, and just about every kind of collectible imaginable, stretching from Felix's earliest days right down to the present: this cat's got legs!
Success has many fathers, as the saying goes, while failure remains an orphan. While Felix's success has never been in doubt, there have been conflicting claims concerning paternity. Up until I started this article, I had been under the impression that Felix's creator was none other than Pat Sullivan, whose signature adorns many a Felix drawing. But, as with comics and some other animation studios, it was a case of the Pat Sullivan Studio owning the cat's copyright. The actual creator is Otto Messmer, who came up with Felix for a Paramount short, Feline Follies, which was released in November 1919.
Born on August 16, 1892 Messmer began his
commercial art career with a work-study program illustrating fashion catalogs
but became interested in cartooning, especially animated cartooning, when
he happened to see Windsor
(Little Nemo) McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur vaudeville act in New York one day in 1912. Fascinated by this combination of live action and animation, Messmer began submitting his own strips to newspapers, and by 1915 began attempting to get work as a set painter at film studios (fortunately, the film industry hadn't made its mass-exodus to California yet).
An executive at Universal liked the young artist's work and signed him on to make a test film. Being totally inexperienced, Messmer nonetheless managed to put together a crude short called Motor Mike. While never released, his first attempt resulted in getting work with an established cartoonist, "Hi" Mayer, who taught him the ropes of peg board and cel registration techniques necessary in those early days of crude animation.
After helping Mayer on Travels With Teddy, an animated short based on Mayer's friend Teddy Roosevelt, Messmer sought out additional work with Pat Sullivan, who had set up his own studio and produced a number of shorts, including Twenty Thousand Laughs Under the Sea, a satire to be released with the second film version of the Jules Verne classic (1916). As with Disney and Ub Iwerks, Sullivan became more engrossed with the business end of running a studio, while Messmer handled the creative chores.
So it should come to the surprise of no one at least half as cynical as I am that when Feline Follies first debuted in 1919 (beating out Mickey Mouse by nine years), the name Otto Messmer was nowhere to be found in the credits.
According to Maurice Horn's The World Encyclopedia of Comics (Chelsea House), Messmer was inspired by Rudyard Kipling's "cat who walks by himself." Felix certainly was a loner, battling against the callousness of fate and humans while adventuring in the land of Mother Goose, on the moon, in the wilds of Africa, in a mechanized future civilization, and on the planets of the solar system, all done in a dreamy surrealism where Felix was able to utilize punctuation marks as weapons and thought balloons as parachutes to effect escapes.
Felix's screen career in the 1920s includes Felix Saves the Day (one of twelve made in 1922), Felix in Hollywood (1923), Felix Switches Witches (1927), and Comicalamities (1928). Year by year, the list is far too long to include here. Music wasn't neglected either; the twenties saw such memorable British hits as Felix Kept On Walking and Fido Followed Felix.
In 1928 famous jazz master Paul Whiteman had a hand in recording Felix! Felix! Felix the Cat!. And the twenties and thirties saw a lot of highly collectible Felix toys, games, and dolls as well. Eight inch jointed wood figures of Felix, made by the Albert Schoenhut Company, are valued between $350-$750.00, while British Cream Toffee tins featuring Messmer art, are probably the rarest of all Felix collectibles and can pull down prices as high as $2000.
In 1923 Felix the Cat made the jump to print, debuting in Britain on August 1, 1923 and in the U.S. as a King Features Sunday page on August 14, 1923 (the daily followed a few years later, on May 9, 1927). The strips are signed Pat Sullivan, although there are doubts as to whether he actually had anything to do with them. Messmer and his assistant Joe Oriolo worked on the print version of Felix as well as the films, and Bill Holman is thought to have ghosted the strip from 1932 to 1935. This first run of the syndicated Felix the Cat lasted until 1943. Felix's comic book career began in 1942 in Dell's New Funnies #66.
Felix's popularity continued from the twenties through the thirties, considered by some aficionados as the cat's Golden Age. Ultimately, however, the feline was overshadowed by the strides of studios like the Fleishers' and Disney's.
Sullivan, plagued by alcoholism, died in 1933 and gradually the studio declined, as did Felix's cartoon quality. Messmer continued on with the strip and some comics with Joe Oriolo's capable assistance. Unfortunately, other Felix comics have been uninspired affairs produced by anonymous hacks.
Years later Oriolo brought back Felix to animation with a new series for Children's Television (1958-1961). Redesigned, the fabulous feline gained a new supporting cast of characters (his nephew Poindexter, the Mad Professor, and the bulldog Rock Bottom), a "magic bag," and a new generation of fans. (Collectors also gained the next generation of Felix toys.)
Messner, who passed away on October 28 1983, didn't live long enough to see another (however brief) Felix newsprint run, Betty Boop and Felix, produced by Mort (Beetle Bailey) Walker's four sons, Mort, Morgan, Brian, and Greg. The King Features strip ran from November 1984 to the summer of 1987.
Eventually Oriolo passed Felix on to his son Don, who went on to create a mid-80s feature film (which still reruns on the Disney channel) as well as an animated series, Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat (1994-1996), and continues the Felix legacy to this day with plans for further animated adventures and other projects (earlier this year a Felix swing album was released, Meowzaaa! with Felix and the BuzzCatz).
For those who would like to learn more
about Felix, there are two books available for the cartoon cat connoisseur:
David Gerstein's Nine Lives To Live: A Classic Felix Celebration, which
reprints the first decade of Messner's comic strip work, and John Canemaker's
history, Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Feline.