Max Fleischer (July 19, 1883 September 11, 1972) was an important Austrian-American pioneer in the development of the animated cartoon. He brought such characters as Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Popeye, and Superman to the movie screen and was responsible for a number of technological innovations.
Born to a Jewish family in Krakσw, then part of the Austrian province of Galicia, Fleischer was the second oldest of six children. His family immigrated to the USA in 1887 and settled in New York City.
Fleischer had the idea of using frames of a live action film as the basis for drawing animation, his patent for the rotoscope was granted in 1917, although Max and his brother Dave Fleischer made their first cartoon using the device in 1915. Extensive use of this technique was made in Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell series, one of the highlights being a boxing match between the cartoon Koko the Clown and a live kitten.
In 1919 he established Fleischer Studios (initially named "Out of the Inkwell Films") for producing animated cartoons and short subjects. At one point, all of his siblings (as well as his son Richard Fleischer) worked there. Other studio employees included Lillian Friedman, first woman in America to become an animator; Frank Sherman; Jack Kirby, later of Marvel Comics.
Fleischer produced the first sound animated cartoons in May 1924 using the Lee DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process. This series was known as "Song Car-Tunes" and featured the follow the bouncing ball gimmick, so the audience could sing along. (This was several years before Steamboat Willie (1928), which The Walt Disney Company says is the first Mickey Mouse cartoon with sound, but makes no effort to imply as the first sound cartoon ever).
In 1923, Fleischer made a 50-minute animation film about Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. In 1925, he made a feature-length film about Charles Darwin's theory of evolution combining animation and live action.
Several of Fleischer's cartoons had soundtracks by (and often live or rotoscoped footage of) some of the leading jazz performers of the time, perhaps most notably Cab Calloway. By doing this, Fleischer broke many racial barriers, and helped make Cab Calloway a big-time star in the segregated 1930's. Many black musicians also became the main songwriters of the songs in Betty Boop cartoons as well.
Paramount enters the picture
In 1937, film production at Fleischer Studios was disrupted by a 5 month long strike, which was ended when Paramount Pictures pressured Fleischer into settling with the striking workers. In 1938, Fleischer Studios moved from New York City to Miami, Florida to avoid pending unionization of the New York studios. Fleischer borrowed heavily from Paramount to finance the new state of the art studio. Further debt was added when Fleischer borrowed money to finance production of the feature length films Gulliver's Travels (1939) and Mr Bug Goes to Town (1941).
On May 24, 1941, Paramount, taking advantage of a significant debt owed to them by Fleischer Studios, took over the studio and renamed it Famous Studios. Fleischer and his brother ran the company for another year before resigning. He later tried unsuccessfully to sue Paramount and get money back from the company for selling his cartoons to television, often cutting them heavily to fit particular time-slot requirements.
Along the way Fleischer had many employees. One was young Jack Kirby, who worked at Fleischer Studios as an "in-betweener" (an artist who fills in the action between major-movement frames), on Popeye cartoons throughout 1939.
He later took a job of producing and directing the Jam Handy Corporation's rare cartoon shorts, one of which was Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1948). Fleischer left Handy in 1954 and went to work for John Randolph Bray at Bray Studios, which he had originally worked for in 1916.
In 1958, Fleischer and cartoon producer Hal Seeger did 100 TV cartoons of Koko the Clown, whom Max had created in 1916 in the earliest cartoon he had done. Koko was voiced by Larry Storch, as were friends Kokonut and Mean Moe. These cartoons were aired on many local channels during the 1960s.
In his late years, Fleischer was poor and ended up living at the Motion Picture Country House, where he died from congestive heart failure in 1972. He died eleven days after signing a contract with King Features to reintroduce Betty Boop to the world, a deal which would have made him millions.
Richard Fleischer, Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleisher and the Animation Revolution, University Press of Kentucky, 2005, ISBN 0-8131-2355-0
Review by Mindy Aloff, The Animated Life of a Film Giant", The Forward October 14, 2005. Accessed 1 July 2006.
Fleischer Studios, Inc. is an American corporation which originated as an animation studio located at 1600 Broadway, New York City, New York. It was founded in 1921 by brothers Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer, who ran the company from its inception until being dismissed by parent company Paramount Pictures in January 1942. In its prime, it was the most significant competitor to Walt Disney Productions, and is notable for bringing to the screen cartoons featuring Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and Superman.
A scene from the eleventh Screen Song cartoon, Smiles (1929).
The company had its start when Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope which allowed for extremely lifelike animation. Using this device, the Fleischer brothers got a contract with Bray Studio in 1919 to produce their own series called Out of the Inkwell which featured their first character, Koko the Clown. This became a very successful series which gave them the confidence to start their own studio in 1921. This studio initially produced films under the name "Out of the Inkwell Films", and later became better known as Fleischer Studios.
Throughout the 1920s, the studio was one of the top producers of animation, with clever humor and numerous innovations. These included Ko-Ko Song Cartunes, sing-along shorts (featuring "The Famous Bouncing Ball"), which were a precursor to music videos; and extended length educational films such as The Einstein Theory of Relativity.
The studio even produced some experimental sound films years before 'The Jazz Singer. The sound shorts attracted little interest at the time though, in part because only a few theaters were then equipped with electronic speakers.
The studio used Lee De Forest's methods to produce over a dozen early cartoons with synchronized sound tracks, including, Come Take a Trip in My Airship, Darling Nelly Gray, My Old Kentucky Home, and In the Good Old Summer Time.
Sound and Color
With the full adoption of sound films in the late 1920s, the studio was one of the few animation companies to successfully make the transition with Screen Songs, a continuation of the earlier Ko-Ko Song Cartunes. The first of these was The Sidewalks of New York, released on February 5, 1929. In October of that same year, the Fleischers introduced a new series called Talkartoons. Earlier entries in the series were mostly one-shot cartoons, but a new character, Bimbo became eventually a staple of the series. Bimbo was quickly upstaged by his girlfriend, Betty Boop, who quickly became the star of the studio. Betty was the first featured female character in American animation, and she reflected the distinctive adult urban orientation of the studio's product.
Betty Boop, from the opening title sequence of the earliest entries in the Betty Boop Cartoons series.
The Fleischers' success was further solidified when they licensed E.C. Segar's comic strip character Popeye the Sailor for a cartoon series of his own. Popeye eventually became the most popular series the Fleischers ever produced, and its success rivaled that of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoons. Three Technicolor Popeye featurettes were produced in the late 1930s, which were billed in many theatres alongside with or above the main feature.
Unfortunately, the studio's fortunes began to turn as the 1930s continued. In 1934, the Hays Code was enacted in Hollywood, which meant severe censorship for films. As a result, Betty was desexualized and much of her charm was lost. Even worse, the Fleischers caved in to pressure from their distributor, Paramount Pictures, which was in bankruptcy at the time, to begin emulating the style and content of Walt Disney's cartoons, which robbed the studio of their distinctive flavor. The most notable example of the Fleischers' adaptation of the Disney style was their Color Classics series, which was essentially a copy of Disney's Silly Symphonies.
Fleischer Studios' efforts to emulate the Disney studio culminated in the production of animated feature films, following the success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Paramount loaned Fleischer the money for a larger studio, which was built in Miami, Florida in order to take advantage of tax breaks and to break up union activity resulting from a bitter 1937 strike. The new Fleischer studio opened in October 1938, and production on the first feature, Gulliver's Travels, went from the development stage into active production.
Upon its Christmas 1939 release, Gulliver performed modestly, although the quality of the story and animation was far behind that of the film it tried to emulate, Snow White. Between the release of Gulliver and the follow-up feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), the Fleischers produced their best work from this period, a series of high quality shorts based upon the comic book superhero Superman. The first short in the series, simply titled Superman, had a budget of $100,000, one of the highest ever for a theatrical short, and was nominated for an Academy Award.
The Superman series, Fleischer Studio's most successful late period project.
However, this late success did not help the studio lift its financial trouble. The expanded staff of the new Miami studio created a high overhead, necessitating steady production. A number of the shorts turned out during this period, such as the continuing Popeye shorts and a 1941 adaptation of Raggedy Ann and Andy, maintained a high level of quality. Others, like the Stone Age shorts, and the various Gulliver spin-off series, were among the studio's least successful output.
As profits dwindled, the Fleischers had to continuously request loans from Paramount, putting more and more of the shares of their studio up as collateral. In addition, Max and Dave Fleischer were no longer on friendly speaking terms. Paramount had both Fleischers submit a signed letter of resignation, to be used at Paramount's discretion, in order for the Fleischer Studio to receive financing for the 19401941 film season. On May 24, 1941, Paramount assumed full ownership of Fleischer Studios, Inc. The Fleischers remained in control of production through the end of 1941.
Mr. Bug Goes to Town was finally released on December 4, 1941. Unfortunately, Mr. Bug, unlike Gulliver, failed to make an impression of any kind, and sunk quickly. This may be partly due to the misfortune of its release date occurring just a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Dave Fleischer left the studio at that time to become the head of Columbia's Screen Gems animation studio in California. With the co-owner of their animation studio now working for a competitor, Paramount produced the letters of resignation and called their loan, bankrupting Fleischer Studios, Inc. and officially removing the Fleischers from control of the studio. Paramount incorporated a new company, Famous Studios, as a successor to Fleischer Studios, which remained active as a corporate shell until the end of Paramount's contract with Fleischer studios in mid-1942.
Max Fleischer went on to become an employee of the Jam Handy studio, and Isadore Sparber, Dan Gordon, and Max Fleischer's son-in-law Seymour Kneitel became the new heads of the studio, which was moved from Miami back to New York by 1943. The Fleischers were never a major force in the industry again, but their films and characters have remained popular, and by the 1980s, the Fleischers were recognized as the animation pioneers that they were.
Fleischer Studios is today an in-name-only company, handling the licensing of characters such as Betty Boop and Koko the Clown.
The issue of rights to the Fleischer/Famous Studios cartoon library is complicated. With the exception of the Superman (sold to Motion Pictures for Television, which produced the 1950's Superman TV series) and Popeye cartoons, Paramount's cartoon library was originally sold to a company called U.M.&M. T.V. Corp. (which later became National Telefilm Associates [NTA] and Republic Pictures). U.M.&M. (as well as its NTA successor) altered the original negatives to a majority of the cartoons and modified their original front-and-end credit sequences, either blocking out all references to Paramount or creating new but cheaply done credits.
In 1958, the 19501958 cartoons were sold to Harvey Comics, which also bought the 19581962 cartoons as well (today they are owned by Classic Media). The copyright for the Fleischers' cartoons was not renewed by Famous or Paramount, and as a result the majority of the Fleischers' cartoons entered the public domain. This included the Color Classics series, the Superman series, and the two full-length feature films. The Popeye series did not become public domain as Popeye's trademark was enforced by King Features Syndicate and the cartoons themselves acquired by Associated Artists Productions (which later became part of United Artists), including the three two-reel Popeye Color Specials (Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves, and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp).
Most of the Fleischers' color films have been widely available on video since the 1980s, often on inexpensive (and poor quality) videotapes sold in supermarkets and department stores as parts of collections of other public-domain cartoons. Both animation fans and the UCLA Film and Television Archive have worked to give the classic Fleischer cartoons the credit they deserve, and high-quality restored editions of the Fleischer cartoons have also been made available on pay-cable, home video and DVD. Many of these restored prints include the original front-and-end Paramount titles.
Roughly half of the entries in the Betty Boop series, and most of those in the Out of the Inkwell/Inkwell Imps series have also entered the public domain, though they are not as widely available because of the popular belief among today's video producers that black-and-white and silent cartoons in general do not appeal to young children. Some of these cartoons have also appeared in restored versions (mostly with their original credits).
The Superman and Popeye series, in one way or another, ended up under the ownership of Warner Bros. Entertainment via its various subsidiaries. DC Comics (acquired by Warners in the late 1960s) now owns the original film elements to the Superman series, while Turner Entertainment (acquired by Warners current parent Time Warner in 1996) owns the Popeye series outright (with the exception, of course, of the later produced 1960s made-for-TV shorts which are owned by King Features Entertainment).
Meanwhile, Paramount (through Republic, which the studio's parent company, Viacom, acquired in 1999), in a twist of irony, now owns the original elements to its 19271950 output they themselves originally released (in addition to the 19621967 shorts they have retained the rights to). Paramount now also owns the theatrical rights, while Republic's video licensee, Lions Gate Home Entertainment, holds the home video rights, and what is now CBS Paramount Television now holds most major TV rights (aside from other major and minor/low budget film, TV, and video companies that distribute the public domain cartoons). Although there were official releases in the late 1980s of Betty Boop compilation VHS and LaserDisc box sets by Live Entertainment (Lions Gate's predecessor), and select Superman cartoons by Warner Home Video (as part of separate VHS and LaserDisc collections of episodes from The Adventures of Superman TV series of the 1950s), it would take longer for any official DVD releases of the Fleischer cartoons due to Republic's ownership and video license changes, the potential film and/or digital restoration costs, and the financial viability as the result of releasing restored versions.
There have been some notable video releases at least two separate versions of the Superman series released on DVD, both of which feature all 17 original episodes: The Complete Superman Cartoons Diamond Anniversary Edition (released in 2000 by Image Entertainment) and Superman Adventures (released in 2004 by Platinum Disc Corporation)--a third (and more "official") compilation using restored and remastered materials was released in November, 2006 by Warner Home Video as part of their DVD box set of Superman films; and VCI Entertainment/Kit Parker Films' DVD compilation of all the Color Classics entitled Somewhere In Dreamland, which includes only a fraction of shorts remastered from 35MM, but otherwise taken from the best available sources Kit Parker could provide VCI, and digitally recreating the original front-and-end Paramount titles. (Animation archivist Jerry Beck served as consultant for this box set, as well as providing audio commentary for select shorts.)