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The Electric Felix Man

John Canemaker relates how Otto Messmer, the creator of Felix the Cat, got into directing animated films for a Times Square landmark.

Otto Messmer was a lucky man.

Messmer at his desk at Douglas Leigh Organization. Courtesy Doris Messmer.

True, he never received screen credit on the more than 150 Felix the Cat cartoon shorts he directed during the 1920s. Producer Pat Sullivan saw that only his name accompanied Felix's on the screen.

It is also true that Messmer never received a cent of the lucrative royalties generated from licensing the Cat's image to an international array of merchandisers; along with accolades from Felix fans around the world, Sullivan also happily accepted all the licensing loot.

And it is true that Messmer never owned the copyright to the famed cartoon Cat he created in 1919 and to whom he gave a distinctive personality that profoundly inspired the character animators who followed, including Walt Disney. A deathbed promise from Sullivan that ownership of the character would pass from him to Messmer proved untrue.

Messmer (left) discussed with Don Leigh a storyboard for a giant animated electric sign. Courtesy Doris Messmer.

Yet, Messmer considered himself a lucky man. A shy artist, he often stated that he felt fortunate to work all day at his drawing board as a "salaried man," shielded by Sullivan from the high pressure, aggressive domain of film business deals and product promotion. Messmer's gift lay in dreaming up brilliant visual gags and imaginative stories for Felix, and gently (but authoritatively) supervising the small team of animators who assisted him in making one film every two weeks. If forfeiture of fame and riches was the price to be paid for enjoying a decade of intensely personal creative expression, Messmer considered it to be more than a fair exchange.

When the Felix studio died with Pat Sullivan in 1933, Messmer unhappily wandered Felix-less to other cartoon studios. In 1936, the Van Buren Studio acquired rights from Sullivan's heirs to make three sound-and-Technicolor Felix shorts. Messmer was asked to direct but he wriggled out of the assignment.

After years of devising pantomimic performances for a simple ink blot character, Messmer may have felt insecure about his ability to make toons using the new technology of soundtracks and color. Less was always more when Messmer animated Felix; his silent black and white drawn world was so direct, simple and pure, it seemed like cinematic haiku.

An advertisement for Mattel Toys, drawn by Otto Messmer, one of the many clients using Leigh-EPOK animated electric signs. Courtesy Doris Messmer. © John Canemaker.

Messmer continued to draw the Felix comic books, but his film directing days seemed to be over. Then, in 1937, his luck again came to the fore when he was hired by Douglas Leigh, the "Sign King" or "Lamplighter of Broadway," the man behind the construction of huge animated electric signs that illuminated Times Square and other urban spaces around the globe. For the next 37 years until his retirement in 1973, Messmer designed and directed characters and moving graphics for the Leigh-EPOK Spectacular, described by Leigh as "an oversized advertising display with neons or lamps in unusual animations."

Otto and EPOK were a miraculous match. Here was work that was incredibly similar to what Messmer did when he first joined the Sullivan studio nearly a quarter century before: dreaming up silent visual gags for black-silhouetted personality-driven characters. Working essentially alone, with only an assistant to blacken in the drawings, Messmer was again a salaried man shielded from bothersome business details by a strong entrepreneur. Leigh, like Sullivan, paid him a weekly salary for anonymously creating lively cartoons that would be seen and enjoyed by a worldwide audience.

It is amusing and somewhat touching to note that in 1937, while Messmer was enjoying a giant leap backward in animation technique and aesthetics, Walt Disney was premiering his first feature-length cartoon Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

John Canemaker is a filmmaker and animation historian. He heads the animation program at New York University and his books include Before Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists (Hyperion), Tex Avery: The MGM Years (Turner), and Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat (Da Capo).

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