(This is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project, a blogathon being run by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. Please excuse the rather hurried picture selection/editing. This offering is adapted from the essay in my 2001 book Masters of Animation. I’m hoping to get a new edition of the book underway at some stage.)
Max Fleischer (1883–1972)
Joe Fleischer (1889–1979)
Lou Fleischer (1891–1985)
Dave Fleischer (1894–1979)
Born on July 19, 1883, in Vienna, Max Fleischer was the second of the seven children of Austrian tailor and amateur inventor William Fleischer and his wife Amalia. Max’s elder brother Charles and younger sister Ethel played little part in the story of the Fleischer studio, while the youngest child of the seven, Sol, died in infancy of typhoid; but the remaining four brothers together, each to a greater or lesser extent, created an animation business that for nearly three decades rivaled Disney and, but for circumstances, might today occupy the position in our world that Disney occupies.
The story of the Fleischer enterprise is largely the story of Max and Dave. Max was a young child when his parents emigrated to New York, fleeing antisemitism in their native land. Born in New York were Joe, on February 28, 1889, Louis, on July 16, 1891, and Dave, on July 14, 1894. William’s children, as they grew up, all in one way or another inherited the inventing trait. Charles invented various devices that are well known to us today, such as the conveyor-belt system at supermarket checkouts and the first device for getting toothpaste into tubes. For Max, Joe, Lou and Dave, however, their inventive flair was to take them into moviemaking, and specifically into animation.
From Gulliver’s Travels (1939).
After a fine start in the New World, William’s tailoring business foundered, unable to compete in price with the new mass-produced clothing that flooded the market. The family had to move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and once there shifted home frequently, ever in search of somewhere cheaper to live.
Max showed an artistic bent from an early age—although nothing like his younger brother Dave. He derived an education and training from the Mechanics and Tradesmens School, the Art Students League and the Cooper Union. He had high hopes of getting a job in the art department of Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle, but when he applied in 1900 there were no vacancies; instead he had to take a job with the paper as an errand boy. Over the next four years he was able to work himself up to become a staff artist, learning the techniques of that trade—mostly to do with photography, although for a short while he drew a comic strip for the paper called Little Elmo. Much more important in the long term was that he became friendly with John Randolph Bray, then working for the Daily Eagle but soon to become a pioneer of the animation industry.
Soon after Bray’s departure from the Eagle to pursue a freelance career, Max got a job in Boston as a photo engraver and retoucher with a firm called the Electro-Light Engraving Company. In 1914 he took a job as a commercial artist at the Crouse–Hinds Corporation, and from there he moved on to become Art Editor of Popular Science Monthly. It was while in this latter position that his long-standing interest in animation became a central focus; what with his love for art and drawing and the love for gadgetry that he’d inherited from his father, animation seemed to offer an ideal combination of both worlds.
From the Color Classics cartoon All’s Fair at the Fair (1938).
Nine years younger, Dave, who showed astonishing artistic flair from a very early age, had to curtail his rudimentary artistic training because the family ran out of money for tuition fees and because his penchant for cartooning rather than doing the prescribed artistic exercises maddened his teachers. His father then employed him to go around the windows of department stores, drawing the clothing he saw on display there, so that William could copy the patterns! Dave’s first job related (fairly remotely) to the movies was as an usher at the Palace Theatre in NYC; the sole advantage, aside from the very modest pay, was that he was able to give himself an education in the tricks of performance art, such as timing, by watching the vaudeville shows. In due course, he moved on from there to become an errand boy at the Walker Engraving Company, eventually working his way up to become an assistant in the art department.
At the ripe old age of 18 he moved on again, this time getting a job as a film cutter at Pathé Films. It would seem that he and elder brother Max were following converging paths, with Dave having the artistic ability, now backed up by training on the job, to help realize Max’s animation dreams.
In 1911 Winsor McCay caused a sensation with his stage presentations of his first animated movie, Little Nemo. Others flocked to imitate him, but most of the hopefuls lacked his peculiar artistic flair and his diligence, with the result that much of the animation offered to the public was pretty poor stuff.
Pioneers like Earl Hurd (in partnership with Bray) and Raoul Barré made fundamental inventions to decrease the amount of work involved in animation and to tackle the problem of poor register (whereby the animated figures would jerk around on the screen through inability of the artist to place the figure in exactly the right position on each new drawing), but Max’s inventive mind took a different tack. If the problem was that artists had difficulty in adopting all the techniques required by animation, the solution might be to take much of the artistry out of the equation.
He therefore dreamt up the idea of the rotoscope. The sequences to be animated would first be shot in live action; then frame-by-frame blowups could be traced, with details added to convert the background from one of a live-action scene to one of . . . well, of whatever it was that the animator’s imagination desired.
(In fact, although Max was granted a patent to the rotoscope in 1917, it was years later discovered that a Pennsylvania company had a very similar device in operation before him. This is probably the only reason that Max did not sue Walt Disney over the use of a rotoscope in his 1937 feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)
Ko-Ko the Clown in the Out of the Inkwell short Bubbles (1922).
Brother Joe was enlisted to construct the device, which took the form of a drawing board into whose middle was fitted a sheet of frosted glass; from below a movie projector adapted to show one frame at a time shone the picture up onto the frosted glass, upon which the animator could work using tracing paper. Brother Dave was enlisted to devise something that could be turned into a cartoon; he had early had an ambition to be a clown, and still had the clown suite he’d made himself back then, so on the roof of Max’s apartment block the three brothers set up a white sheet as backdrop and filmed Dave clowning.
Out of the Inkwell
Thereafter it was a matter of making the film into a cartoon. Working in their spare time, the three brothers took a full month to complete the pencil drawings—even though the rotoscope speeded things up considerably, animation was still a laborious task—and several further months to ink them in preparation for the camera. All in all, the production of the first Ko-Ko the Clown pilot movie, a mere 100ft (30m) long, took them a year, much of this time being eaten up by the difficulties of keeping the drawings in register for the camera. (The clown was not actually named until 1923; the spelling of “Ko-Ko” varied over the years thereafter, sometimes appearing as “KoKo” or “Koko.”) The cartoon showed Ko-Ko being drawn into existence by the animator’s hands, then doing funny tricks before dissolving into drops of ink that flowed back into the inkwell, which neatly capped itself.
Ko-Ko’s Earth Control (1927), one of the best and most inventive in the series.
Thanks to Dave’s old contacts at Pathé, Max took the movie there in hopes of selling them on the idea. The response was encouraging in terms of the quality of the work the Fleischers had done, but, as soon as Max mentioned the kind of timescales required to produce such movies, he was more or less laughed out of the office. He devised a means of further speeding up the process—making the movie partly in live action, with the animated and live-action components interacting some but not all of the time—and went back to Pathé with the news that he could produce for them one cartoon a month. This was more like it, and Pathé set the brothers up with a studio, commissioning from them a fifteen-minute animated movie on the exploits of Theodore Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, the results were disastrous, and the brothers were out on their collective ear. Max went back to the dreary business of hawking his pilot Ko-Ko short around the various film studios and collecting rejections until the day that, waiting in the outer office at Paramount, he bumped into his old friend from the Daily Eagle, John Randolph Bray. Bray explained that Max was on a fool’s errand if he wanted to try selling a short direct to Paramount. Bray had an exclusive contract to produce for Paramount a weekly compilation called the Paramount–Bray Pictograph. One regular component of this film magazine was an animated short, so it was possible the Fleischer brothers’ experiment could be of interest to him. Max showed him the movie and Bray liked it enough to give it a try.
Audience reaction was very positive to this short, Out of the Inkwell (1916), and Bray commissioned Max and Dave—Joe had by now got a job at Pathé as an electrician—to produce further cartoons like it at the rate of one a month.
Unfortunately, the US participation in World War I then intervened. Bray shifted the emphasis of his studio to the production of training and propaganda films for the military, and hired Max to work on these. Dave was recruited by the US Army and, because of his experience at Pathé, was employed as a film-cutter in Washington. The brothers managed to produce one further commercial cartoon, despite their war duties: Experiment No. 1, released in June 1918.
Immediately after the war was over, the Fleischer brothers resumed their contract with Bray, and new Out of the Inkwell live-action/animated shorts began to appear regularly (although not at anything like once a month), firstly in the Paramount–Bray Pictograph and then, when Bray shifted allegiances, in the Goldwyn–Bray Pictograph. The cartoons were clever and witty, but what most captivated the audiences was their seeming realism and the combination of live action and animation; because of the rotoscoping, there was little or nothing of the jerkiness or clunkiness of rival cartoons, and in special-effects terms the shorts were for their day spectacular, so that it was easy to believe that the animated creations were genuinely existing in a live-action world. Bray valued Max enough to make him a stockholder in the company.
Dave had, since leaving the military at the end of the war, done some animation experimentating of his own. Dave’s primary role in the Out of the Inkwell cartoons was as a director and storyman/scripter (and, of course, as the live-action model for Ko-Ko); Max was in charge of the actual animation and was accordingly being given the solo credit. The two brothers quarreled constantly over this. In about 1920 Dave looked at the results of his own animation experiments and wondered why he was playing second fiddle to his older brother. He accordingly left Bray and set up on his own.
Ko-Ko was still serving the brothers well in 1926, when this Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp was released.
This was a short-lived split: the Fleischer parents banged the two brothers’ heads together, and by 1921 they were sufficiently reconciled to start a new company in partnership, Out of the Inkwell Films Inc., financed by Hugo Riesenfeld, owner of New York’s Criterion, Rialto and Rivoli theatres. In conjunction with an animator who had worked with them at the Bray studio, Charles Shettler, and with brother Joe as their electrician and cameraman, they set up shop in a basement on East 45th Street and Lexington Avenue. Soon they were doing well enough to hire more animators to take over the vast bulk of the drawing, leaving Max free to concentrate on running the business and Dave free to work on story and direction.
The brothers did not devote themselves exclusively to Out of the Inkwell shorts. In 1923 they diversified to produce the hour-long educational movie The Einstein Theory of Relativity, mixing live action with animation. They were advised by various distinguished scientists of the day and had Garrett P. Serviss—a scientific journalist who is best remembered now for his parallel career as a science-fiction writer—as overall advisor. Albert Einstein himself reportedly commended the movie highly.
Less successful was another movie done in the same year in conjunction with the Museum of Natural History, New York; this was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, almost exclusively filmed in live action and really comprising visually not much more than evocative scenes of animals, so that the voiceover could narrate the actual information content of the movie. It was of course a contentious movie to make at the time, when the United States still had not decided if the teaching of evolution should be permitted by law—a matter which is, incredibly, regarded as being available for debate even now, in the 21st century. The Fleischers got round the problem by making the sophist claim that the movie was merely illustrating an hypothesis, not promulgating it.
The ambitious featurette Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy (1941) was based on the popular stories by Johnny Gruelle.
One of the earliest animators to join the Fleischer operation was Dick Huemer; before him, aside from Shettler, had been Doc Crandall and Burt Gillett. In a series of interviews conducted with Joe Adamson in 1968–9, Huemer recalled what it was like to work at Fleischers:
Max, of course, acted in all the pictures and had overall say in production. His brother Dave was more or less the director of the cartoon operation. We’d get together and talk about what to animate. The studio, you see, was so small that you could walk from desk to desk. Not like the Disney studio became, full of rooms, and where nobody ever sees anybody or talks to anybody. Then, I could yell across the room, “Hey, Dave, I want to talk to you. Suppose we do this?” And then we’d sit down and talk it over and laugh our heads off at our great gags, and then it would be my job to animate what we had thrashed out. But, of course, we always had a basic theme. Generally quite clever. Did you ever see the one about the fly [The Tantalizing Fly (1919)]? That’s the surviving Inkwell [cartoon] that you see around a lot. A fly is bothering Max; gags, complications, etcetera, etcetera. Take it from there. All in all, it was very relaxed working with the Fleischers.
The Bouncing Ball
More significant in the long term than the two educational features was an idea brought to the studio by songwriter Charles K. Harris. By its very nature, cinema was not much of a medium for audience participation. What Harris suggested was a movie geared to a particular popular song and showing the lyrics of that song, so the audience could sing along as the organist played it—this was, remember, still the days of the silents, so every cinema needed an organist. Either Max or Dave (both claimed it, and the matter has never been settled) soon afterwards invented the famous bouncing ball, which skipped along the tops of the lines of the lyrics, allowing both audience and for that matter the organist to keep time.
From the 1926 Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.
The bouncing ball was introduced in September 1925 for My Bonnie (Lies Over the Ocean); before then a number of these so-called Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes had already been released without the ball, starting with Oh Mabel (1924). Each movie typically had a small amount of animation featuring Ko-Ko, and then it was into the song; sometimes, for the last few lines of the song, the letters of the lyric would become animated as well. Early on, the ball was animated, but the Fleischers found that it was better and easier to use a physical ball or white circle on the end of a thin black stick.
The series lasted a remarkably long time, well into 1927; and in 1929, after the advent of sound, the Fleischers revived the idea as the Screen Songs, in most of which a live-action artiste or group would be introduced, with some animation, so the audience could then join in with the performers’ rendition of the song in question, still guided by the bouncing ball.
The Eton Quartet perform behind the bouncing ball in the Screen Songs short She Reminds Me of You (1934).
The early Song Car-Tunes had an additional benefit for the Fleischers, although this may not have been immediately apparent. Timing was of the essence in the making of these cartoons—mess up the timing and the whole enterprise fell apart. The Fleischers thus had to consider and tackle the problems of synchronization long before any of the other studios. They were therefore in a good position when their financier Hugo Riesenfeld introduced them to Lee De Forest, the inventor and pioneer of radio who had in 1906 invented the triode, and who in 1919 had patented the basic process still in use today whereby sound can be incorporated into a movie. At the time the movie industry hadn’t been much interested, but De Forest and Riesenfeld reckoned—perfectly correctly, of course—that it could be only a matter of time before audiences would require all movies to be in sound. De Forest had actually made quite a number of sound movies, although of course only a few cinemas were geared up to show them; now he and Riesenfeld had had the idea of sound cartoons.
Accordingly, the Fleischers produced a few Song Car-Tunes which had rudimentary soundtracks in the form of musical backgrounds. One of these, however, is a contender for the first sound cartoon of all time: My Old Kentucky Home, released on May 13, 1926. A dog plays a trombone and then says: “Now let’s all follow the bouncing ball and sing along!” Not, perhaps, the grandest of ways to introduce a revolutionary breakthrough in mass communications, but no worse than many others. Max, however, didn’t really share the faith in the future of sound cartoons, and so the Fleischers rather missed the steamboat, allowing Walt Disney, just a few years later, to gain the greatest benefit from the new medium.
Another invention from around this time, seemingly Max’s alone, was a new job function: the inbetweener. Before this the animators were expected to do all the drawings for a movie themselves. The standard practice, until the introduction of computer animation, was first to do the key drawings, then later to go back and fill in the stages between each key drawing and the next. It seems Dick Huemer was the first animator who, acceding to a request from Max, permitted a humbler staff member to do these in-between drawings. Soon it was standard practice throughout the animation industry to employ armies of inbetweeners so the principal animators would have the time to do more of what they did best. As the number of people working on a movie increased, there had also to be invented the model sheet, showing a character in all manner of poses so different artists could produce consistent images of that character; the model sheet may have been another invention of the Fleischer studio.
The Fleischers, Max in particular, were becoming increasingly impatient with their means of distribution, which was through Margaret Winkler. They found no fault with Winkler herself—she was probably the best in the business—but the system of distribution she had to use, “states rights,” involved so many middlemen that a movie’s original creators tended to see only an unacceptably low percentage of the revenues.
Max therefore set up Red Seal Pictures in 1924 with the aim of competing directly with the big studios for the nationwide cinema block-bookings that Winkler was unable to obtain. At first everything flourished for the venture, which was run by Edwin Miles Fadiman. Unfortunately Fadiman quarreled with Max, and after his departure the finances of the company, which had made sense only because of Fadiman’s skills, fell into disarray, with outgoings far exceeding income. Red Seal Pictures collapsed in 1926 and, although the Out of the Inkwell studio continued to produce new Ko-Ko cartoons, the Fleischers were so short of money they were having difficulty getting their film developed.
A man named Alfred Weiss, whose specialty was buying up companies in difficulties and turning them around so they could be sold out at a profit from under the feet of their original owners, approached the Fleischers and proposed the setting up of a new corporation, with himself as president, to continue making the Fleischer movies. This came about in 1927, and was marked by the Out of the Inkwell series changing its name to The Inkwell Imps, prefaced by three words that cannot have pleased the ever credit-greedy Max: “Alfred Weiss presents.” Weiss fixed up for the movies to be distributed by Paramount, an arrangement that continued even after Dave discovered Weiss was a crook, successfully sued him, and thereby got rid of him. The new corporation the Fleischers established with Paramount was called Fleischer Studios Inc., but in effect it was merely a subsidiary of the major studio, which kept all the copyright in the cartoons and their characters.
Then came 1928 and the release by Walt Disney of Steamboat Willie, and suddenly audiences and the movie industry were demanding sound with everything. The Fleischers were, this time around, not slow to take the plunge, releasing the first of their Screen Songs—the replacements for the Song Car-Tunes—in February 1929, The Sidewalks of New York, and the first of their Talkartoons (which can be thought of as being initially more like rivals to Disney’s Silly Symphonies) in October 1929, Noah’s Lark.
From the Talkartoon Swing You Sinners! (1930).
As with other early sound animations, the initial Talkartoons were animated first and had the music and dialogue added afterwards. It was obviously a fiddly business getting the lip-synch accurate—a very difficult job for the voice actors, especially if there was more than one involved in any scene—and so the Fleischers kept dialogue to a minimum, relying on popular songs (usually supplied by Paramount) to hold the audience’s ears. Brother Lou, who had carved out for himself a successful career in music before being dragged by his wife’s family into their jewelry business, was now recruited to assist with the synchronization of the music; he was as near to a musical director as Fleischers had for some years.
The Talkartoon In My Merry Oldsmobile (1932), done in conjunction with the car company, had more innuendo than the average pantomime.
Unlike the case with the Silly Symphonies, and more like the very much later Looney Tunes produced for Warner Bros., the Talkartoons early on introduced a series star. This was Ko-Ko’s dog from the now defunct Out of the Inkwell series (the last Ko-Ko movie had been 1927’s Koko Needles the Boss). Originally called Fitz, the dog was renamed Bimbo and became less identifiable as a dog; it seemed as if the public rather schizophrenically wanted their animated stars to be funny talking animals but at the same time to be as humanized as possible, as emphasized by the fact that, when Walter Lantz some years later redesigned Oswald the Rabbit to look like, well, a rabbit, it was more or less the kiss of death for the series. Accordingly, Bimbo became really just a caricature of a human being, but with a rudimentary tail plus doggish ears and nose. His status as a series star was not, however, helped by the fact that different animators portrayed him sufficiently differently that it can actually be rather hard, looking at the earliest Talkartoons, to work out which of them is intended to be a Bimbo vehicle and which isn’t.
Bimbo, in Bimbo’s Initiation (1931).
One of the early Bimbo cartoons, Dizzy Dishes (1930), had the character working as a waiter in an establishment that also employed a canine singer. From Bimbo’s reactions to her, it’s evident she’s extremely attractive to male dogs; and yet at the same time, despite her doggy ears and on occasion a rather repulsive pseudo-canine way of moving her mouth, there can be no doubt there’s something archetypally sexy for human males as well—she’s a hot dog, you might say.
The Bimbo short Dizzy Dishes (1930) saw Betty Boop make her debut.
Created by the great animator Grim Natwick—lore has it that at first Natwick was the only person at Fleischers capable of animating her—this character, Betty Boop, was an immediate smash hit with the audiences. Dizzy Dishes appeared in August 1930 and obviously, for logistical reasons, the Fleischers couldn’t immediately capitalize on Betty’s instant popularity; but, from May 1931’s Silly Scandals until the middle of 1939, new Betty Boop cartoons were appearing at a rate considerably greater than one a month. It’s an irony that, had she survived just a little longer, she would undoubtedly, with the outbreak of war, have enjoyed a new lease of life as a forces’ darling, in which case she might, like Mickey Mouse, be still extant.
Although she had her “boop-boop-a-doop” catchphrase from the outset, she did not acquire the name Betty Boop until August 1932 and the release of Stopping the Show. Before then she had been redesigned completely by Dave Fleischer, retaining enough of her appearance still to be recognizable as Natwick’s original but losing all her canine attributes. Quite deliberately, Dave made her as sexy as was possible without the movies being taken off the screen—in a split second of Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame (1934) she even shows a naked breast—and it cannot be denied that, outside anime, she’s one of the relatively few animated characters who, like Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or Holli in Cool World (1992), carries a definite sexual charge.
Bimbo was demoted to be Betty’s sidekick, and Ko-Ko was resurrected to become another. With her tiny mouth and her big, big eyes, her hugely oversized head, her plunging décolletage, her ever shorter dress and her titillating garters, Betty was a conscious mixture of child and woman, so that, however outrageous the goings-on, she preserved at the same time an aura of complete, childish innocence: it is very difficult to find offense in a Betty Boop short, although sure enough in due course there would be those who could.
Natwick had modeled the character originally on singer and actress Helen Kane, who as a Paramount star was regarded as fair game, and Betty’s voice was likewise imitative of Kane’s, although in fact supplied by other actresses, notably May Questel. Kane appeared in a number of movies, beginning with Pointed Heels (1929), and was the original “boop-boop-a-doop” girl, but she would almost certainly be completely forgotten today were it not for the fact that in 1934 she sued the Fleischers for plagiarism in the matter of Betty Boop, stating also that her own popularity had been damaged by the fact that audiences now thought she was being merely imitative of Betty.
This was a tricky case for the Fleischers to defend, because they’d never thought there was any real secret about Betty’s origins. Nevertheless, defend it they did, producing the voice actresses who had played the part of Betty and making sure their appearances resembled Kane’s as much as possible; quite how much these actresses were paid to make themselves over into Helen Kane clones and to claim they’d never consciously imitated Kane has never been revealed.
In fact, or so claimed Max in court, he had himself dreamed up Betty out of whole cloth—a blatant lie. Also, the Fleischers were able to prove—although dishonestly so, Lou having to doctor a perfectly genuine but insufficiently convincing 1928 Paramount film of the singer Baby Esther—that usage of the phrase “boop-boop-a-doop” predated Kane’s adoption of it.
In a complete travesty of judicial integrity, the court declared that the Fleischers had no case to answer; Kane’s failed lawsuit, seemingly brought only in an attempt to squeeze some last extra cash out of a career in rapid decline, gave her a little much-needed publicity but nothing else.
In the first few years of the 1930s the vocal protests of the moral minority about bad language and smut in the movies began to rise to a shriek, and cinema owners started complaining to the studios about the objections they were receiving from customers concerning the screen activities and personae of stars like Paramount’s very own Mae West. In 1934, when the new Production Code was drawn up by the movie industry to counter the uproar, animations were affected as much as live-action movies—perhaps even more so, because the attitude was already prevalent that animation was a medium intended inevitably for a child audience.
So far as most of the cartoon studios were concerned there was little or nothing to worry about since their output—stuffed with, for example, racism as it might be—was regarded as completely innocuous. For the Fleischers and particularly Betty Boop, however, it was very bad news. With hindsight (perhaps an ill chosen word in this context), one might say it was the Fleischers’ own fault: They’d in part been responsible for the outcry in the first place, having packed many of the Betty Boop cartoons with sexual innuendo and having taken every opportunity visually to emphasize her feminine charms.
In the short Boop-Oop-a-Doop (1932), for example, they did both: in silhouette a randy circus ringmaster quite blatantly fondles her breast; Betty protests in song that he can do just about anything he wants but “don’t take my boop-oop-a-doop away,” and later, questioned by an anxious Ko-Ko, informs him that the ringmaster’s assault on her boop-oop-a-doop had been unsuccessful. (Here we have again that child–woman dichotomy in Betty; most of her activities would seem to make it evident her virginity was but a fleeting memory, yet it was essential for her “innocence” aspect that it somehow have survived.)
Despite the view that the Fleischers made their own nemesis, at the same time one can’t help but feel they were victims of a preconception that was none of their making and probably slowed the development of animation as a medium by decades: that cartoons were for children. There is no reason whatsoever why this should be the case—imagine how ridiculous we would think it if someone tried to claim that the only audience live-action movies should try to reach was juvenile—and therefore no reason at all why the Fleischers should have subscribed to the view. Nevertheless, after about 1935 Betty had to be toned down visually until she became little more than an attractive but clean-living all-American middle-class housewife (albeit without the husband), and the subject matter of her cartoons had to become similarly anodyne. Although she managed to hold onto a good deal of her popularity, her days were numbered, and in 1939, although Betty would make a few further cameo appearances, this phenomenally successful series ended—in fact, Betty herself didn’t even appear in the last cartoon billed as a Betty Boop short, Yip, Yip, Yippy (1939).
Aside from Bimbo and Ko-Ko, Betty had a number of other supporting actors. Included among these were the usual fairly uninspired characters typical of animation at the time, such as Gus Gorilla—whose equivalent, probably with almost exactly the same name, could be found on any animation lot. Rather more substantial was Grampy, a bearded, somewhat scatty inventor not dissimilar in personality to Norman Hunter’s roughly contemporaneous book character Professor Branestawm, although unalike in appearance. The general view is that Grampy provided a sort of vicarious outlet for the inventive cravings of the brothers Fleischer, and there were certainly hopes that he might become a series star in his own right. However, he never graduated beyond co-starring with Betty in a number of her weaker cartoons.
Another co-star was marked out for greater things. This was the spinach-swilling Popeye, whose first screen appearance was in a Betty Boop short (Betty played only a small role) that was appropriately called Popeye the Sailor (1933); Max, having bought the screen rights in the character, wanted to try him out in a sure-draw Betty Boop cartoon before committing himself to a full-blown Popeye series.
Popeye was created in 1929 by E.C. Segar for his comic strip Thimble Theatre; much earlier, in 1919, Olive Oyl had been born, her heart belonging at that time to a character called Harold “Ham” Gravy. Despite his mirror-shattering appearance and his unprepossessing personal habits and attributes, Popeye soon became both the man in Olive’s life and the focus of the comic strip. Other associated characters were born in the comic strip, such as the W.C. Fields-like J. Wellington Wimpy and Popeye’s “adoptid inkink” Swee-pea, but Bluto, Popeye’s perpetual would-be nemesis and often enough Olive’s abductor, was original to the cartoons, being especially designed by Segar at the Fleischers’ behest.
Bluto prepares to do a bit of bashing in Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936),
Also original to the cartoons was the intensity of Popeye’s spinach dependency; although he indulged in his habit frequently enough in the comic strip to have markedly affected spinach sales for the better, in no sense did he resort to the ever-ready can at each and all turns. Another running joke introduced in the cartoons was the immediate and huge bulge the imbibing of spinach produced in the sailor man’s right biceps; this could take the form of an anvil, a mighty mallet or, in later and more elaborate versions, an express locomotive at full charge, but, whatever the symbolic shape the Fleischer animators gave it, the biceps was almost immediately put to devastating use against the villain or villains, usually Bluto, with or without henchmen.
Previous Fleischer cartoons had been marked by their constant inventiveness, a quality generally ascribed to Dave’s influence and his propensity towards stuffing his animations with countless gags. It’s therefore possible to watch a whole string of, say, Betty Boop cartoons without the interest flagging: each is different from the other and has its individual appeal, so it matters little that the star is always the same.
Popeye and Olive await an exotic repast in Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937).
This can’t be said of the Popeye cartoons, which are substantially less imaginative than was their comic-strip counterpart and rely on a fairly restricted reservoir of jokes. Essentially there’s only one plot in the Popeye cartoons: Bluto commits a crime (often the abduction of Olive); Popeye sets out to rectify things; it looks black for our hero until he plucks the can of spinach from his clothing; now endowed with phenomenal strength, he beats the living daylights out of his foe.
The Fleischers did try to introduce some variations on this theme, but only half-heartedly. Secondary characters like Wimpy were relegated far to the sidelines, thus precluding most of the wit that had characterized the comic strip. The result is that the prospect of watching a dozen Popeye cartoons on the trot is a recipe from Hell. A single Popeye cartoon may entertain, but it goes a long way; there’s no desire, certainly on the part of this particular viewer, to watch another for at least a while.
The three extended Popeye movies that the Fleischers made—Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937) and Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp (vt Popeye Meets Aladdin; vt Popeye the Sailor Meets Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp; 1939)—are difficult to watch without suffering the onset of somnolence, even though the first of them somehow succeeded in being nominated for an Oscar. The only real difference between these and the shorts is that Popeye bashes up more villains and for a longer time.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937).
Since the character also lacks anything much by way of depth—indeed, has no real personality other than being a collection of stereotyped attributes—it’s unsurprising that, while everyone today knows of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons, until the advent of YouTube and the like it could actually quite hard to see one; a further complication arose because of copyright conflicts between Turner Entertainment, which bought the shorts in 1986, and King Features, who owned the rights in Segar’s strips. The Popeye shows endlessly repeated in the deader hours of children’s TV scheduling tended to be drawn from The All-New Popeye Hour, created with some success (it originally ran until 1983) in 1978 by King Features and based on the comic strips, or occasionally the far less successful TV series Popeye and Son, which ran from 1987 to 1988 and had Popeye and Olive settled down in a nice cozy marriage. A sorry end for a shorts series born at a time when the Fleischers were renowned for their iconoclasm.
One of the post-Fleischer shorts, Patriotic Popeye (1957), done by I. Sparber at Famous Studios, gets to the heart of the matter.
All of these cavils aside, the Fleischer series of Popeye cartoons was probably the most popular in all of animation history. The Fleischers kept churning them out at a phenomenal rate until 1957; the series moving into Technicolor late in 1943 with Her Honor the Mare. There were hundreds of them—far more than there have been featuring even Donald Duck, the most prolific of the Disney stars. Audiences lapped them up, leaving the Fleischer studios with little time to do anything else.
From the Color Classics entry Dancing on the Moon (1935).
But do other things they did. The longish series of Color Classics was begun in 1934 with Betty Boop’s color debut, Poor Cinderella, a remarkable movie in terms of its visuals, in that it gains an astonishing level of faux reality through the use of a 3D process with which the Fleischers were experimenting, whereby a miniature set was created and the animation shot in front of it. Other Color Classics were less ambitious; initially the series used Cinecolor, but very soon moved to Technicolor.
Betty Boop in Poor Cinderella (1934).
Far less successful was the highly innovative series called Stone Age Cartoons, which, begun in 1940 with Way Back when the Triangle Had its Points, can be regarded as precursors of Hanna–Barbera’s hugely successful Flintstones TV series but probably flopped because of the lack of an identifiable series character. The Animated Antics cartoons were test-beds for various characters from the Fleischers’ first feature movie, Gulliver’s Travels (1939)—see immediately below—to see if any of them might be capable of graduating to become a series star; the answer was no, except in the case of the character Gabby, the cheery little fellow who had been a town crier and general clown in the feature. Maybe even for Gabby the answer should have been no, because his series, started in 1940 with King for a Day, died in 1941 after only eight shorts.
Moving into Features
The Fleischers were Disney’s only real rivals as the 1930s wore on, and it was inevitable that, in the wake of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), they should feel bound to produce a response. (They had actually tackled that story in 1933 with the Betty Boop cartoon Snow-White, one of the finest examples of Dave Fleischer’s fertile inventiveness.) Their response, Gulliver’s Travels, received an astonishing amount of advance billing, so it was a crushing disappointment for all concerned, not least the Fleischers, when it proved on release to be just a little lackluster.
What there is of the plot is drawn approximately from the first part of Jonathan Swift’s original, covering Gulliver’s time in Lilliput. For a long time the movie was largely forgotten, although many of its images—especially that of the giant Gulliver surrounded by minuscule Lilliputians, and the sequence in which he tows the Blefuscan fleet—were surprisingly familiar, through their frequent appearance as stills; while the song “It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day,” shared, thanks to being reprised frequently in Paramount animated shorts, a similar quasi-traditional status to that of “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go.”
Gulliver tows the Blefuscan fleet in Gulliver’s Travels (1939).
The internet, and the fact that the movie fell into the public domain, changed all that. You can now download the movie legally for free, and millions have.
It’s not too hard to understand why Gulliver’s Travels hasn’t been favored over the years. Although it enjoys a welter of often brilliant “business”—always Dave Fleischer’s strength—it’s singularly short of event, with perhaps the first three-quarters of the movie seeming to be Prelude and hardly a superfluity of action in the final quarter, which lacks any sense of climax. As for its dearth of accolade at the time of release, there’s also the possibility that the movie’s satire of two nations going to war over a complete trivium cut a little too deep in 1939, when of course the cause of the looming war was anything but a trivium.
Gulliver’s Travels (1939): the argumentative kings.
Although there’s a fair degree of Disnification in Gulliver’s Travels—peaking when Princess Glory interacts with a pair of bluebirds as if she were understudying Snow White—this is very much a Fleischer movie. In some respects this is to its advantage—there’s an edge to much of the movement and portrayal that Disney movies tended until later to lack, and some exquisite pieces of observation (as when Gabby, at night, runs across a slat-sided bridge, the gaps between the slats causing the rays from his lantern to produce a golden fan in the darkness)—but in other ways it nullifies any possibility of the movie becoming loved. Many of the characters seem as if they would be excellent in a short—as the Fleischers obviously thought when producing the Animated Antics—but they are too two-dimensional to hold the attention for the duration of a feature. Although the rotoscoping of Gulliver is brilliant—better than Disney could then have done—the character is, partly as a consequence, boring. The two royal lovers whose romance is intended to drive the plot are half-heartedly portrayed ciphers, wordless until near the end (except when singing, when the lip-synch is poor) and impossible to identify with.
One could go on . . . yet to do so would be to ignore the plethora of fine work in the movie. The sum of the parts should have been splendid, but unfortunately that was not to be. The movie is certainly very well worth watching, but it’s not the classic that the Fleischers hoped it might become.
A moment of panic in Gulliver’s Travels (1939).
Hoppity Goes to Town (vt Mr. Bug Goes to Town; 1941), the Fleischers’ second and final essay into feature-length animation, is very significantly better, and indeed is one of the great neglected masterpieces of animation’s history. The plot is original to the movie, and also has far more complexity and depth than one might expect from an animated movie of its era. In one solitary respect it suffers by comparison with the Disney output: while Walt was most of the time concerned to give his animated features a certain dignity that distinguished them from “mere” cartoons, in Hoppity Dave Fleischer—whose movie it was, no matter any claims brother Max might make—once or twice lapsed into the sort of “business” that is positively redolent of the seven-minute animated short and which, while fine in that context, here seems somehow to cheapen the proceedings.
Aside from that, it’s actually a far more mature animated movie than anything Walt Disney managed to produce during his lifetime. This statement demands explanation. The animated movies that Walt made were always supremely conscious of the fact that they were animated movies, and thus subject to rules different from those for live-action movies. It’s obvious that this is one of the great strengths of the animated features he made—if a movie could be made in live action then it’s almost by definition a poor animated movie, because animation is capable of so much more. Yet the coin has another and less frequently noticed side. The majority of animated features, if done in live action as movies for adults, would (at least until fairly recently) seem woefully simplistic, their characters acting on the most puerile of motivations in plots that have little capacity to grip. This is in no wise a criticism: a primary component of the fascination of an animated feature is this very selfconsciousness, this joy in animation itself.
Villainous C. Bagley Beetle in Hoppity Goes to Town (1941; vt Mr. Bug Goes to Town).
What marks Hoppity Goes to Town off from any of its contemporaries, and indeed from many other animated features since, is that it takes the medium of animation for granted. Yes, this is an animated piece, but, if the technology of special effects were up to it, Hoppity could work equally well as a live-action movie.
To analogize, consider the Moog synthesizer. When this instrument first burst onto the scene there were plenty of recordings whose purpose was essentially to show off the tricks this novel technological marvel could perform—rather like most of the early animated movies, in fact. Only some while later did people actually start issuing recordings of the Moog being used for its actual purpose: as one more instrument available to the musician. Likewise there is the sense all through Hoppity that this is a story being told through the medium of animation because the maker has chosen this particular medium as the best in which to tell it, rather than the customary sense that the story has been tailored to fit the animated medium.
From Hoppity Goes to Town (1941; vt Mr. Bug Goes to Town).
This characteristic is also one of the reasons why Hoppity is timeless. Yes, there are some details that mark it as a period piece—like the style of the cars, or of the trousers worn by incidental human characters—but apart from these it could be a 1990s release from, if not Disney or Dreamworks, then at least one of the lesser commercial studios. It is also quite brilliantly directed by Dave Fleischer. The “business” is fast and furious where it needs to be, the characterization is superb without necessarily being ostentatious, and the atmospheric big-scale shots are exquisite. The only human characters to have other than incidental parts, the Dickenses, never actually appear on screen; yet it’s difficult to remember afterwards that this is the case, so real have they been made by their dialogue, actions and voice-characterizations. Walt Disney was obviously aware of this movie when he made his One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), and of the parallels between the two; more to the point, the makers of Antz (1998) and A Bug’s Life (1998) must have been thunderingly aware of it, because both movies, stripped to their very essentials, are riffs upon it.
There was to be one more major event before the spectacular demise of the Fleischer studios. Max bought the screen rights in the immensely popular Superman comic strip created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The first of the resultant animated shorts was released just three months before Hoppity after a massive promotional blitz aimed at portraying these to be the most spectacular shorts ever made.
Superman (1941; vt The Mad Scientist): A quick change, and Clark Kent has become . . . Superman!
Lois Lane in bondage in Superman (1941; vt The Mad Scientist).
Viewing them today—they started with Superman (1941; vt The Mad Scientist)—it is easy to see why they were so highly regarded at the time and also, unfortunately, easy to see why they have so drastically dated. Rotoscoping was extensively used in an effort to make the characters as believable as possible, but at the same time, during the many action sequences, the speed of the characters’ movements was accelerated with the aim of keeping the audience’s pulses a-racing. Unfortunately, the overall effect is to make the characters very obviously artifacts of ink and celluloid, and there’s also the uneasy sense that the film is being run through the projector too fast.
Even skyscrapers aren’t safe from the Mad Scientist’s death ray in Superman (1941; vt The Mad Scientist).
Still, it’s refreshing to see a series of animated shorts starring characters who are believable as human beings rather than funny animals or caricatures who might as well be animals for the scant resemblance they bear to actual human beings.
The End of the Stories
Even before the last of the Superman cartoons was released, the Fleischer studio was a thing of the past. The end came very suddenly, and various reasons, some less plausible than others, have been put forward for this. At the heart of the dissolution was certainly the fact that Max and Dave couldn’t stand each other, and indeed went through long periods when they refused even to speak to each other; and the blame for this must be put firmly at Max’s door. All through their association he had sought to claim complete credit for everything they had done, and to Dave, the more talented of the two in matters of art, storytelling and animation but not in matters of business management, this was intolerable: he regarded it as intellectual theft—which of course it was. Somewhere deep inside Max’s subconscious there must have been the realization that, had he been equipped with something so simple as a good business manager, Dave was capable of being one of animation’s brightest lights on his own, an option not open to Max himself, and this must have fueled Max’s resentment of his younger brother. Furthermore, it was beginning to be publicly realized that Dave, not Max, was the important member of the Fleischer setup.
Even so, Max’s arrogant conscious ignored or drowned out any messages from his subconscious when, late in 1941, around the time that Hoppity was undergoing its final edit, he sent a telegram to Paramount saying that under no circumstances would he ever consider working with Dave again, an ultimatum that was intended to spell the end for Dave. Big studios may often be stupid, but Paramount wasn’t quite that stupid; knowing full well that Max by this time represented little more than an unnecessary paycheck, they descended on the Fleischer operation, demanded early repayment of a hefty loan they had made to the studio and, when that repayment failed instantly to materialize, used this as a pretext to shut the operation down, hiring the key members of Max’s staff out from under him—including even his son-in-law, animation director Seymour Kneitel—in order to set up Paramount’s own animation division, Famous Studios, to continue where the Fleischers had left off.
After the demise of the Fleischer organization, Dave was snapped up almost immediately by Columbia to head the animation unit there, Screen Gems. He did some work on the series The Fox and the Crow, which had been started by Frank Tashlin in 1941 with The Fox and the Grapes, and he was instrumental in launching the Li’l Abner series of shorts based on the Al Capp comic-strip character and begun with Amoozin but Confoozin (1944); the series flopped after only five shorts, by which time Dave, believing that office politics prohibited anything good ever coming out of Columbia’s animation unit, had departed for Universal, this time to work not as an animator but as a general troubleshooter, writing gags, doing some special effects and exploiting his expertise in the improvement of movies through adjustment of their timing and pacing. He remained with Universal until his retirement in 1967, his name turning up in the credits of some of the most unexpected movies, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and the Julie Andrews/Mary Tyler Moore vehicle Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). He died in June 1979 in Los Angeles.
Max tried to set up on his own, but unsuccessfully; then, with a few colleagues, he joined the James Handy organization to produce animated training movies. Other members of that organization were surprised by how poor the animations of Max and his friends were. He produced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1944), which has frequently been broadcast on television; he also authored (and may even have written) a book called Noah’s Shoes (1944), which can be read as an allegorical attack on his brothers, particularly of course Dave. In 1955 he sued Paramount when they tried to televise the Fleischer shorts with adulterated credits; it seems the case was settled out of court. In 1958 he was appointed head of the art department at the old J.R. Bray studio. In 1961 he was involved in a half-hearted attempt to create a new Out of the Inkwell series. On September 11, 1972, he died in Woodland Hills, California, in the sheltered accommodation where he and his wife Essie had lived for the previous several years.
Joe Fleischer did some work for Famous Studios before quitting to become an electrical contractor. He died in Hollywood, Florida (not to be confused with the California Hollywood), in January 1979. Lou became a lens grinder, and in bitter irony found himself working in a menial position for the Ware Lens Grinding Company in the last of the buildings the Fleischer studio had occupied. Later he did a number of bouncing-ball training movies for the Army, then moved to California to become a piano teacher and tuner. In November 1985 he died in Woodland Hills, like big brother Max had done over a decade earlier.
Overall, the tale of the Fleischers is a sorry one, and it is terribly difficult not to attribute this to the personality of Max. Some have blamed the behavior which Dave abhorred so much on the evil influence of Max’s wife Essie, whom the other brothers late in their lives claimed was dishonest and who certainly once, when contradicted in something by Max, attempted suicide, with the result, it is said, that he obeyed her in everything ever after. But this explanation is too trite. Much more likely is that, like Pat Sullivan, who hid Otto Messmer’s light under a bushel for decades, Max simply wanted to be on a par with Walt Disney and thus claimed all the public credit for everything; he even did this in private, constantly putting down his staff and his brothers by acting as the genius of the studio and the family.
The big difference between Walt and Max was that Walt actually did participate to the full in virtually everything his studio produced—frequently to the chagrin of his staff, who resented his constant interference, but generally to the benefit of the projects they were working on. Max, by contrast, wanted the kudos without having to put in the creative effort. It was not unnatural that Dave, the real creative genius behind the Fleischers’ many triumphs, found himself unable to stomach this, and the other brothers did so only with difficulty. And so the vanity of one man led in the end, after a longer run than surely he was entitled to, to the disappearance of the studio which above all others might have continued seriously to rival Disney as the foremost in American commercial animation.
From Ko-Ko’s Earth Control (1927).