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.