Saturday, August 19, 2006


It would be easy enough to reduce a discussion of the Fleischer Studio cartoons and the men and women who made them to simply either an exercise of nostalgia or a time-line of technical achievements.

It would also be easy enough to paint the Fleischer story in dark colors – how the personal differences between two brothers in business together ultimately cost each of them their careers.

The story of the Fleischer Studio is all of the above and much more. It is a story of artists creating an ephemeral product that turned out to be enduring and influential.

Don’t take my word for it. Just look around. The Fleischers come up as inspirations with a lot of contemporary animators such as Bill Plympton and John Kricfalusi. Frank Miller credited Max and Dave Fleischer in his seminal “Dark Knight” comic book series that revived and re-defined Batman. Warner Bros. Animation turned to the design of the Fleischer Superman cartoons as inspiration for its first “Batman” cartoon series.

That circle construction and rubber-limbed look that the Fleischers did the best remains a favorite of art directors. And the Japanese love of Betty Boop was the basis of that big-eyed look prevalent in many manga and anime.

The Fleischer’s “Follow the Bouncing Ball” is a pop culture icon that is still used today. It’s simply part of the American landscape.

Max’s invention of the rotoscope has remained one of the standard tools in special effects. I doubt, though, that the critics who lavished praise of the 2006 release of “A Scanner Darkly” understood that the device that made the execution of the film possible was developed before the First World War.

The star the Fleischers owned themselves – Betty Boop – has become one of the best “evergreens” in modern day merchandising. Whether or not the adults or children who wear Betty Boop clothing have seen many, if any, of her cartoons doesn’t matter. They like the character: her design and what she apparently stands for.

Betty is definitely the first cartoon “grrl.”

Although Betty may have more fans today than Mickey Mouse, one has to remember that the Fleischers, in fact everyone who worked in animation in the 1930s and ‘40s, worked in the shadow of the Mouse.

Pop culture is often times ephemeral in nature. Many pop culture elements are designed to be disposable and among them were motion pictures.

Aside from revival houses that would bring back certain films or re-releases by the studios themselves, for the most part in the pre-television days when a film was done with its release, it was gone.

There has been serious criticism of film since the time of D.W. Griffith, but that examination was aimed at feature films.
There were whole genres of film – cartoons, newsreels, live action short comedies, serials, B-films – that received scant and scattered “serious” notice.

The only animated cartoonist who received that serious recognition was Walt Disney after the 1928 release of “Steamboat Willie,” the first synchronized sound cartoon.

Max had flirted with sound in a series of his song cartoons produced with the sound system promoted by Dr. Lee DeForrest in the mid-1920s. The DeForrest productions were ahead of their time and too few exhibitors wanted to take a chance with them.

Although Max did receive some press attention over the course of his career, his cartoons were never acclaimed in the manner that Disney’s productions received.

Like so many others in the movie business, only the people liked the Fleischer cartoons. This popular touch would serve the work of the studio well when a new medium rescued cartoons and B-films from oblivion– television.

Although the broadcast of these cartoons didn’t help the finances of anyone who made them, they did bring back a level of name recognition that had been long gone.


When Max Fleischer died in 1972, “Time” called him “the dean of animated cartoonists.” It was a gracious tribute to a man who had been out of the public’s eye since 1942.

He spent his final days in the Motion Picture Country House with his wife Essie and long-time secretary, Vera Coleman, near by.

Max’s brother and former partner, Dave, was employed by Universal Pictures as “troubleshooter” who was asked to supply solutions on special effects and scripts.

Frankly, by Hollywood standards both men were has-beens. They had not ridden the changes in the animation industry as well as several of their contemporaries.

Walter Lantz, who started in the business just a few years after Max, was still making Woody Woodpecker shorts at that time. The decrease in theaters willing to pay an additional rental for a theatrical cartoon and the rising costs of production meant that Lantz’s shorts were taking longer and longer to turn a profit.

The writing was on the wall, though, for Lantz. He had the distinction of being the longest lasting theatrical cartoon producer in this country.

Walt Disney, who died in 1966, had proven to be an ultimate Hollywood survivor by switching from animated shorts to features and showing he understood the concepts of branding before almost anyone else did in the movie industry.
Hugh Harmon and Rudy Ising, and Ub Iwerks, all important figures in silent and early sound animation, were shadows from the past.

The Warner Bros. directors were still active in varying ways, but it was former MGM directors William Hannah and Joseph Barbera who had become the most influential people in animation.

Hanna and Barbera had solved the economic problem of producing animation for television – by replacing movement with great voices and funny scripts. By the 1970s, though, the team was no longer producing shows with the impact of “The Flintstones,” and much of their studio’s out-put adhered slavishly to formulas.

Although it’s safe to say that the Fleischer brothers understood their cartoons had made a comeback though television syndication, they – for that matter no one else – couldn’t have predicted what kind of effect they would have on the Baby Boom generation.

By 1972, many of the Fleischer cartoons had completed almost 20 years in syndication on television. The Popeye shorts had proven to be such a huge money-maker that King Features, the owners of the character, commissioned over 200 more shorts to go into its own syndication package in the early 1960s.

With the increasing pressure on television programmers to use color instead of black and white material – from which the Warner Bros. and the color Popeye cartoons benefited – the black and white Fleischer shorts only had a few more good years on television.

The shorts had been on television long enough that when the Boomers started entering college, the Boops and other Fleischer shorts began appearing in college film programs and art house theaters as items of nostalgia.

In 1975, a small company called Crystal Pictures released a compilation of Fleischer shorts titled “The Betty Boop Scandals,” that included some of the best Betty Boops, including “Minnie the Moocher” and “Snow White.”

Both of these cartoons featured filmed performances by Cab Calloway and his orchestra.

If someone elected to watch these shorts due to a sense of nostalgia, they were in for a surprise. The gags and silly drawings that had amused children were now supplemented by the realization of other elements that had flown under a child’s radar: sexual and drug references, classic jazz and pop performances, and an artistic style that bordered on the surreal.

The collection included “Bimbo’s Initiation” one of the most nightmare-like cartoons ever made, as well as the amazing silent “Ko-Ko’s Earth Control” and a mini Boop biography, “Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame.”

In many ways, the Fleischer shorts seemed to have more in common with the underground comix of the day than with what one expected from animated cartoons.

During the same time, Boomers also renewed their appreciation with the Warner Bros. shorts. Directors such as Chuck Jones and voice actor supreme Mel Blanc discovered they had fans who were older than eight or 10.

It can be argued that in many ways the sound output of the Disney Studio is the overtly influential animation produced in the country. Disney sought to elevate the medium by making his films as polished and technically stunning as possible.
However, because Disney elected not to syndicate packages of his theatrical shorts, Boomers simply couldn’t easily see the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons that had captivated a generation.

What they could see were the feature films, which by the 1950s and ‘60s were much more of a mixed lot. By the 1970s, Disney animation was seen as old-fashioned and part of the “establishment.”

It didn’t matter that the Fleischer shorts may not have been as well animated. What was seen as subversive by Boomer audiences matched the tone of the times.

Disney loyalists might grind their teeth at the thought, but people such as Max and Dave Fleischer, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Friz Freleng, have proven to have far more impact on contemporary animation than the only animator to get his face on a postage stamp.

The home video revolution changed everything in the motion picture business. Before home video, if you were a film fan you only had access to those films that were on television or in theaters where you lived.

Local stations bought packages of movies to run in various time slots, but there was no guarantee that you had the chance to see a specific film.

The home video explosion may have killed the drive-in theater, but it created a new breed of film fan – someone who could actually assemble a library of films, like a personal library of books.

The Fleisher cartoons benefited from home video with the Betty Boop shorts and the studio’s two features coming out in authorized editions. The fact that many of the shorts had fallen into public domain – including the Superman series – had both an up and down side. There were plenty of VHS tapes out there with Betty Boop shorts, but the pictorial and sound qualities could vary wildly.

For whatever reason, King Features, which owns the Popeye cartoons, elected not to strike a deal for the release of the Fleischer shorts until 2006. The newspaper syndicate released VHS collections of Popeyes they had produced, but nto the shorts that fans wanted.

Unfortunately today, too few of the Fleischer productions have made it to DVD. Their second feature “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” isn’t out and only the Betty Boops that are public domain are on the dominant platform.

This situation is not unique to the Fleischer shorts. The Lantz output isn’t on DVD and the Terry-Toons, as awful as many of them were, are languishing on a shelf somewhere.

For the legacy of these cartoons to be handed down to a new generation of fans, they need to be made available. Considering how important the Fleischer cartoons have become, I’d hate to see a dead end here.


This book has been made possible through the generosity and time of many people. It’s my goal to use as much of the interview material I’ve gathered since 1977 in order to tell the story of the Fleischer cartoons from the perspective of the people who were there.
© 2006 by Gordon Michael Dobbs. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Read as it's written!

Made of Pen and Ink: The Fleischer Studio and Cartoons

Your childhood does mark you.

I loved Popeye as a kid and I wound up being an animation nut. So much so that I edited and published two magazines on the subject and started researching the life and career of animator and inventor Max Fleischer for a book that has proven to be my Holy Grail.

Non-fiction writers, especially reporter types such as me, aren't supposed to be artists. One of my journalism professor argued that journalism itself is not a "profession" such as law, medicine and engineering. Journalists, he said, were artisans turning out pots. Some are better looking than others, but if you follow the rules of construction each pot will be adequate. They, like a properly written story, will serve their purpose.

Now I don't go along with this theory, but I do know that over the years the words "creative" and "reporter" seldom go together in many people's minds. They do in mind, but I'm prejudiced.

Therefore I do not have any of the usual artistic excuses that I've heard about why my book on Max hasn't seen print.

This is my way of trying to get the material into print. This blog will feature a first-draft on my book on the Fleischers. There will not be any illustrations. Those will be reserved for the hard-copy book .

Comments and questions are invited. Agents and publishers, drop me a line at mdobbs@crockerDOTcom.

Here’s how my interest in the Fleischer came about

The innocence of youth

While I was in college (University of Massachusetts, class of 1976) my love for the classic Fleischer cartoons re-asserted itself when I attended a screening of a compilation film released by a company named Crystal Pictures in 1975. The Fleischer Popeyes and Superman cartoons played a prominent role in my childhood memories.

Little had been written about the Fleischers and I decided to undertake a book on them. Ah, the innocence of youth!

I had sent a letter to Dave Fleischer in June of 1976 and in August I found an address for Max’s widow and wrote her how I would like her permission to write a book on her husband and his brother Dave.

Dave replied first saying he was too busy to speak with me about a project as he was preparing a new animated feature based on the myth of Pandora’s Box.

Richard Fleischer’s son, Mark, wrote back on Sept. 5, 1976, giving me a green light and I was elated. Mark suggested that I contact Vera Coleman, his grandfather’s long-time secretary, as his grandmother had not been feeling well.

“She also feels that she doesn’t remember enough about the business and sequence of events to be of much help,” he wrote.

I forwarded an outline that I had assembled based on my knowledge up until that point to Coleman.

However a letter that came to me on March 1, 1977 that at first caught me off guard.

“Dear Mr. Dobbs,
“Your letter to Mrs. Vera Coleman has just been turned over to me. I’m sorry for the delay in answering but I have been in England until just a few days ago and Mrs. Coleman was waiting for my return.

“As you probably realize we receive many requests for the kind of cooperation you are seeking from people interested in writing a book about the Fleischer family. We have never cooperated for several reasons, the main one being in all cases the lack of professional writing ability. A perfect example of this is the Leslie Carbaga book…The unfortunate outcome, however, was that Carbaga went ahead with his book but without the cooperation of the Max Fleischer family, which is ninety percent of the story, the book turned out to be a completely distorted and lopsided affair full of inaccuracies and slanted so as to denigrate my father. It is interesting to note that Carbaga has subsequently realized his error and wishes he could rewrite the book.

“Another reason we have not cooperated thus far has always been the idea that either my sister [Ruth Kneitel] or myself would one day write the story. More and more this seems increasingly remoter and we have just about given up that idea.

“I have read over your material and your outline carefully and I feel that perhaps you are the most qualified person I’ve heard from to take on this assignment. I would be able to make available to you a vast amount of material that has never been seen or utilized in any biographical study. However, I think it would be proper that if a book such as you contemplate writing with out cooperation should be published there should be a profit participation for us.

“Please let me know how and if you wish to proceed.”

It was signed by Max’s son, Richard Fleischer.

Needless to say I was over the moon. It looked as if I was given the green light by a guy whose work I admired – I’m still of the opinion that Richard Fleischer is a very under-rated director – on a dream project.

The nitty gritty

Still there were details to discuss and in a letter dated April 20, 1977, Richard made it clear that the project he would authorize would be a biography of his father and not a book that would present Max and Dave as equals. He also wanted a fifty-fifty spilt on the profits from the project.
I wrote back that my intent was to feature Max and that the split was fine. I was in no position to bargain and again, it was his family’s story, not mine.

On May 10, 1977, Richard wrote back saying he was “much relieved” by the contents of my letter and answered some questions I had posed about the whereabouts about various people who had worked at the studio.
He also sent a “to whom it might concern” letter stating that I was authorized by the Max Fleischer family to write a biography.

I subsequently made an appointment with Ruth Kneitel who lived in New York. She was very gracious and talked about her father and showed me a wide variety of artifacts, which she allowed me to photograph. She also gave me information about Myron Waldman and how I should contact him.

After our meeting, Ruth looked over my outline and made some factual corrections.

I take the plunge

I was working in a department store at the time by day and writing freelance articles at night – a full-time journalism job hadn’t come my way as yet. However I chased down people as best I could for telephone interviews and spoke with animator Grim Natwick in April, 1977. I interviewed composer Sammy Timburg during this early period as well as singer Lanny Ross who provided the singing voice for the prince in Gulliver’s Travels.

I wrote British director Richard Williams about the Fleischer Raggedy Ann short. William has finished his own feature on the classic children’s story and wrote back in a letter dated Jan. 20, 1977:
“When we started ‘Raggedy Ann,’ we bought a print of the Fleischer colour short from 1940 and ran it at our first animation conference with Art Babbitt, Emery Hawkins, Tissa David, John Kimball and Corneilius Cole. We were appalled and although we may not have been altogether successful in getting Raggedy Ann, as we wanted her, I hope to God we did better that they did! I must say I do like a lot of Fleischer’s work but he really missed on Ann. Here’s hoping we don’t.”

I took my slides of Ruth’s memorabilia and put together a presentation that made its debut at the late Phil Seuling’s – the father of all comic book conventions – Tenth Annual Comic Art Convention in July of 1977 in Philadelphia. The reception was excellent and I felt that I was on my way. I organized several screenings of Fleischer films and spoke about my research.

When the chance came to work for a company that provided reader teachers for private schools, I took it, thinking this was a way to be closer to the New York area. I exploited the locations of my three assignments in New York City, Baltimore, and Annapolis in the period of Oct. 1977 through April 1978 as best I could.

During this time I interviewed Popeye’s voice Jack Mercer, long-time Fleischer employee Edith Vernick, animator John “Wally” Walworth, and director Myron Waldman. I went to the Library of Congress, while in Maryland and the Lincoln Center library when in New York.

To a person, everyone was pleased to speak with me. The fact that Richard has given me his blessing opened many doors.

Fifty ways to say “no”

I started sending out my outline and quickly found that publishers in the late 1970s and early ‘80s could care less about Max Fleischer and his role in animation history. And I knew that I needed to do serious interviews with Richard and Ruth.

Ruth replied to my request in April of 1979 and stated that she didn’t give interviews any longer, and although I pleaded with Richard – I still have a Western Union “Mailgram” from the summer of 1979 I sent to him – there was no interview forthcoming from him.

I got the impression that until I got a serious bite from a publisher Richard wasn’t going to give me the time I needed. Although irksome, I rationalized it as a by-product of dealing with a guy who was jetting around the world making movies.

So, I continued on with interviews with people such as Hal Seeger who worked at the studio as a teen to Alden Getz, who played a role in the bitter strike. I also met with animators Shamus Culhane and Joe Oriolo and spoke on the phone with Al Eugster.

And I kept sending out the outline, which I would revise periodically for the next nine years. Interestingly enough, one re-occurring theme in the rejection notices was that editors wanted a book on Popeye and Betty Boop and not on Max.

There were also several false starts from smaller publishing companies that initially accepted the book and then backed out.

The end…or not?

My career had taken an interesting course. After the teaching job, I sold ads for a local daily newspaper and then landed a reporter’s job at another daily. That led to an editor’s job at another daily. I then spent five years on local talk radio as an evening drive time host. A gig as the program supervisor for a historic house museum followed. When the city cut the funding for the job, I was hired as the manager of a new independent first-run theater in our area.

I continued to write freelance articles and columns on my Fleischer research.

Through 1988 I continued my research. I had stopped communicating with Richard as I didn’t see the point unless I had good news. In September of 1988 I learned that Richard was working with Layla Productions on a book. The book packaging company was seeking a writer and I wrote a long letter to Richard asking for the chance to work on the project.

“You certainly have been tenacious about the Max Fleischer book and I certainly commend you for that. But I’m sure you will understand when I tell you that ten years without attracting a publisher doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the future of your project,” he wrote back on Sept, 12, 1988.
Ouch! But he did give me another chance. Lori Stein, president of Layla Productions wrote me on Oct. 13, 1988, that Stanley Handman had given her my letter to Richard and that she was interested in collaborating with me. I set up an appointment to see her in New York.

She had worked on a book on the Warner Brothers cartoons and wanted to do something similar for the Betty Boop cartoons. She had a very impressive mock-up of some laid out pages, but I dropped a bomb that she hadn’t considered. She wanted to do an opulent full-color book and I told her only one Betty Boop cartoon had been in color.

The book never went forward.

My last efforts were an exchange with a publisher in 1989 as well as a meeting with a literary agent who wanted me to write the book in a narrative style. At that time, I was tired of rejection, tired of people asking me when the book was coming out and tired of people wondering who was Max Fleischer.

So, I gave up. I never wrote Richard Fleischer. I’m sure he figured it out.
When my former partner and I bought Animato! in 1992, I though that this would be the vehicle for sharing some of my research. As I said before, the articles I wrote were well received and that was quite gratifying.

When I folded Animation Planet – because of the dwindling ad base and increasingly unfavorable distribution deals – I had planned another lengthy Fleischer piece.

A book on the rise of adult animation I had planned with a writing partner almost got a contract at St. Martin’s in 2000. A change in editors doomed that project. It would have had substantial material on the Fleischer shorts.
So here we are in 2005 and I really want to write this book. I’m the managing editor of a group of weekly newspapers serving over 130,000 readers in the Springfield, MA, area. I write about animation every chance I get – I did a lengthy interview piece with Joe Dante on the Loony Tunes movie and another on Bill Plympton.

But the Fleischer material still calls to me. It needs to be written. It will be written. It won’t be the book I envisioned in 1976, but it will be entertaining and informative.

So keep coming back!

© 2006 by Gordon Michael Dobbs