Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 7:30pm
Felix Finds a Way: Otto Messmer and Early Animation
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
Felix Gets Broadcast, 1922, 16mm, 4 mins
Felix Turns the Tide, 1922, 16mm, 8 mins
Felix Trifles with Time, 1925, 16mm, 8 mins
Felix in Hollywood, 1926, 16mm, 9 mins
Felix Woos Whoopee, 1927, 16mm, 7 mins
Flim Flam Films, 1927, 16mm, 7 mins
Pedigreedy, 1927, 16mm, 8 mins
Skulls and Sculls, 1930, 16mm, 10 mins
Years before Walt Disney made Mickey Mouse whistle in Steamboat Willie, Felix the Cat was the unparalleled cartoon superstar of the Jazz Age. Sly, scrappy, and surrealistically polymorphic, Felix enthralled audiences in dozens of short subjects produced between 1919 and 1930, churned out from the minuscule Pat Sullivan Studios in Manhattan. During the height of the silent era, Felix became a worldwide phenomenon; he was the first cartoon character to become transformed into plush toys and other merchandise, two popular ragtime records were released in his honor, and a Felix comic strip spin-off ran in hundreds of newspapers. A former prizefighter, convicted felon and by all accounts abusive drunkard, producer Patrick O’Sullivan long took sole credit for Felix, but historians now recognize that the wily cat was in fact the creation of self-effacing cartoonist Otto Messmer, whose place as one of the major innovators of animated motion pictures is now beyond dispute.
The son of German immigrants, Messmer was lucky enough to grow up in Fort Lee, New Jersey when that city was a hotbed of early film production. As a young illustrator, inspired by seeing the films of Émile Cohl and Winsor McCay at nickelodeons, he successfully lobbied small studios and began working in the emergent business of animation. In 1915, Sullivan learned of Messmer’s work and hired him for his own company. There, after working on a series of cartoons based on the antics of Charlie Chaplin, Messmer introduced a plucky black cat in a one-reeler entitled Feline Follies in 1919. The picture was an immediate hit for Sullivan’s distributor, Paramount, and its main character was soon dubbed Felix—alluding to both his feline nature and felicitous fortune—and given his own successful series. Messmer oversaw Felix’s development for over a decade while the little cat bankrolled Sullivan’s studio. “There was never a script,” one of Messmer’s co-workers later remembered. “As he worked, Otto would continually think out loud of new ideas, for this film or for the next one...He was animating and thinking at the same time. I don’t know how he did it.” At Felix’s height, Messmer’s small assembly-line team completed a new Felix cartoon every other week.
Messmer’s greatest innovation, no doubt influenced by his improvisatory methods, was his embrace of the graphic possibilities of the medium, freeing animation from the notion that it need only faithfully replicate realistic motion and physics. Under Messmer’s vision, both Felix and his environment grew increasingly plastic, subject to remarkable transformations at every turn, often to the benefit of the cat’s clever schemes: when a question mark appears above Felix’s puzzled head, for instance, the cat might simply grab it to use as a ladder; his prehensile tail could be detached and variously repurposed as a weapon, an umbrella, or a musical instrument. Theorist and filmmaker Béla Balázs would later praise Felix for offering up “that amazing world in which the prime mover and omnipotent ruler is the pencil or paintbrush...In the world of creatures consisting only of lines, the only impossible things are those which cannot be drawn.”
Balázs was not the first thinker inspired by Felix, nor would he be the last, as Messmer’s creation has held a longstanding fascination for artists of manifold persuasions. One of the earliest was modernist composer Paul Hindemith, who created a now-lost player piano score for Felix at the Circus around 1927. Later, avant-garde animator Robert Breer cited Messmer as an important influence, particularly the earlier animator’s reversal of traditional figure-ground relations; Breer even included an homage to Felix in his 1974 film Rubber Cement. In the 1990s, an anonymously-authored gif of Felix pacing back and forth became popular in amateur web design, and was later cited by pioneering net artist Olia Lialina as a primary online instance of “perfect animation.” In the 21st century, British artist Mark Leckey has appropriated Felix’s image for several works, beginning with Leckey’s 2007 video Felix Gets Broadcasted, paying tribute to the fact that a rotating Felix the Cat statuette was the first moving image electronically transmitted in television experiments of the late 1920s. For Leckey, Messmer's cat becomes a potent image of a new medium’s transformational qualities. “Felix, then, is the very avatar of broadcasting,” Leckey states in his lecture “On the Long Tail.” “Moving through the air at extraordinary speeds he becomes ethereal, passing through clouds, his body now composed of nothing but light and air.”
Tonight, Light Industry celebrates Messmer with eight of his most remarkable Felix cartoons, including one of the director's only sound films, the college-themed phantasmagoria Skulls and Sculls. In the spirit of popular exhibition practices of the 1920s, Messmer’s silent films will be accompanied by live improvised soundtracks by artist and composer Marina Rosenfeld.
Tickets - $8, available at door.
Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.