Chapter Two: Brothers
This the second chapter of "Made of Pen and Ink." It is a first draft and your comments are appreciated.
Max worked for Bray for several years and then established his own studio – Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc. – in 1921. He brought along his youngest brother Dave and the two provided a contrast in personalities and styles.
No discussion of the Fleischer cartoons could or should omit his brother Dave. The two were joined at the hip professionally for the height of their careers. As early as the late Twenties, Dave reportedly had wanted to strike out on his own. Max's parents, though, wanted the brothers together, and an uneasy alliance continued.
In an article published on December 10, 1939 in This Week Magazine of the New York Herald Tribune, writer Frederick James Smith described the two brothers as follows:
“Dave sees things in terms of laughter. Max in terms of fantasy. Max is shy and retiring, avoiding publicity, Dave, on the other hand, will enter a restaurant and start clowning with the orchestra leader.”
Smith wrote, “ [Max] Fleischer likes to explain why he made ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ ‘Every adult is still a child at heart,’ he says. ‘They are sorry they have been told there is no Santa Clause and they would like to say ‘You’re wrong, there is a Santa Claus – and there are elves and witches and fairies.’ People want believe in fantasy because it is an escape from the hard realism of the world.’”
Max repeated to Smith a statement he makes in his autobiographical essay: “ I must have been born with my moustache.” Whether Max was making a joke at his own expense about his age or rather it was an expression of the responsibilities he had, as the family leader, is open to interpretation.
Eventually, aside from his sister, Max did employ all of his siblings. His paternal outlook was well known at the studio. Jack Mercer, the voice of Popeye for almost 50 years, said that Max was like “the Godfather…If you had a problem with something, you went to him.”
“Everyone in this organization can come right into my office and air their grievances and their troubles and speak directly to me,” Max wrote in his 1939 autobiography. “Everyone in the organization calls me ‘Max.’ Not merely as a convenience, but I feel I have actually earned this salutation.”
Working with his big brother certainly had an impact on Dave. He told historian Joe Adamson in an interview conducted in 1968 that “Max’s name was always first. Under that it said: ‘Directed by Dave Fleischer.’ I suggested that he have his name on it. He was my older brother and I never thought we’d separate or anything. It didn’t matter; it was in the family.”
Dave explained to Adamson, though, that later in the 1920’s, he did attempt to begin his own business, only to have his family insist that he reunite with Max.
In his discussions with Adamson, Dave insisted that he had developed the famous Bouncing Ball and that Max had patented several of Dave’s invention in his name. Dave also claimed that the Rotoscope was at least partially his idea.
Dave’s remarks have to be taken at face value, however. In the same series of interviews, Dave insisted to Adamson that he had made the original Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon, which actually had been produced years after Paramount had forced Dave and Max out of their studio. He also said that the technique that used models to add three dimensions to the Fleischer cartoons had not been used in the Popeye series, although it had to great effect.
The “he said-she said” quality of the interviews reflected the long-standing resentment Dave had towards his brother and that his efforts should have been given the recognition he believed he deserved. Dave told Adamson at length about his various inventions, which ranged from an artificial sweetener to a penny arcade scale.
The Out of the Inkwell cartoons were initially based on the concept of the cartoonist – played by Max – interacting with his creation from the inkwell, Ko-Ko the Clown. Although it’s not know if Max sought the on-camera role of the cartoonist or not, he acted in many of the shorts through the first half of the 1920s.
His co-starring role put Max in the public eye. He was the head of the studio on letterhead and in the films. This may have been a source of conflict between Max and Dave.
By the mid-Twenties, Max became less involved with the animation of the shorts, although he would still appear on-camera, and concentrated on the management side of the business. Creative control of the cartoons was passed to Dave. Depending upon who was talking Dave has been described as either one of the industry's greatest gagmen or a relatively talent-less man who should not have taken credit for screen direction.
An anecdote from Lou Fleischer as told to writer Ray Pointer illustrated Dave’s early interest in gags. As a child, “Dave went occasionally to Lipman’s grocery to do the marketing. Not yet able to write he would draw symbols representing whatever article was needed, amount, weight, etc. In one instance ‘peas’ were needed. This was represented by a boy urinating. Mr. Lipman kept some of these lists to show customers.”
From the late Twenties through the demise of the studio in 1942, nearly every Fleischer cartoon carried a Dave Fleischer direction credit.
“Well, that's a sore point with me,” recalled the late animator Shamus Culhane in an interview with his writer. Culhane worked at the studio in the early 1930s and again in the 1940s. “
I believe that everybody should get credit for the actual work they did. Now, Dave, although he may have thought himself something else, was a gagman and he was a good one, too. But we usually wrote our own stories. We did for a long time until Bill Turner and [first name] Stoltz became regular story writers, but even then we always wrote a good deal of the stuff. We also developed all the layouts and the characters and the animation. We did the whole schmeer.
“Dave went around during the course of the day, and he'd look over your shoulder to see what you were up to, and would contribute a gag here or there. But the actual direction, I mean the whole damn thing, was done by the animators, and they only get credit as animators,” Culhane said.
During the 1930s, the Fleischer Studio developed a system in which several key animators headed up units of artists. These head animators were the actual directors of a film. They supervised the design of characters, worked with the writers and did key animation. Dave supervised the head animators.
Long-time Fleischer head animator Myron Waldman remembered how he became irritated at Dave's habit of coming around and checking a day's animation progress by flipping the completed drawings. One day, Waldman handed Dave a sheaf of blank paper, which Dave flipped through with great consternation. He was not amused by Waldman's answer that Dave was holding tomorrow's work!
Where Dave seemed most interested was in the direction of the voice and music tracks. He told Adamson with apparent pride that he had “directed” screen composer Victor Young when Young was recording the score for “Gulliver’s Travels,” the studio’s first feature-length production. Dave insisted that Young use his arrangement for a scene and felt vindicated when Young included it in the final score.
Max’s son Richard wrote to this writer that part of the conflict between Max and Dave was due to Max’s refusal to allow Dave to write the score for the brother’s second feature, “Mr. Bug Goes to Town.”
The late Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl, characterized Dave as “crude,” to this writer and believed he was jealous of his older brother. By the late 1930s, the brothers reportedly were barely on speaking terms.
Dave's divorce in the late 1930s and subsequent re-marriage to his secretary Mae Schwartz when the studio moved to Miami reportedly embarrassed Max. According to an interview with the late Edith Vernick, a long-time employee of the studio, some churches in the Miami area called for a boycott of Fleischer cartoons because of the messy divorce.
Dave left the studio in April 1942 and apparently, he never spoke to his older brother again, although he maintained an affectionate relationship with Max's children.
Richard Fleischer described the two men as “bitter enemies who didn’t speak to one another for 30 years” in a letter to this writer.
In a newspaper article in “The Miami Herald” in 1978, Joe Fleischer said, “During the making of this feature [‘Gulliver’s Travels’] things began to go badly for the Fleischers. Max and Dave agreed to disagree between themselves to the point that they did not speak to one another for various reasons.”
This rift divided the Fleischer family, and continued to do so for years. It's easy to cast Dave as the villain in the story, although it is also undoubtedly simplistic and unfair.
In 1943, Dave was chosen to head the animation unit at Columbia Pictures where he produced the studio’s successful “Fox and Crow” cartoons and started a series based on Al Capp’s popular “Lil Abner” comic strip. The “Lil Abner” shorts didn’t click with audiences. The shorts didn’t capture the sly satire and sex appeal of Capp’s popular strip and instead there was a re-occurring theme in which his mother rescues Lil Abner from a perilous situation. There were striking similarities with the formula of having Popeye rescuing Olive.
Dave’s stay with the company was only about two years. Columbia opted to close their animation unit in favor of releasing shorts produced by UPA.
Dave also appeared as himself in one movie made in the mid-1940s – the low-budget Republic musical “Trocadero” (1944) and was involved also with the making of “That’s My Baby,” another musical review.
Dave’s appearance in “Trocadero” was interesting as he was presented as a household name, something his brother may have been, but he was not. Dave created a new animated character that appears briefly in the film that struck a strong resemblance to Ko-Ko the Clown, the brothers’s first star.
Dave moved over to Universal where he did direct several cartoons similar to the Bouncing Ball shorts. During his lengthy association with the studio, he mainly worked on story construction and special effects. One of his innovations of which he seemed most proud was a story chart, which could analyze the script of a movie or play and determine its audience appeal. Dave claimed that he had used it to show how the “Francis the Talking Mule” films would be a hit.
His last job in animation was in 1959 while he was at Universal on the company’s release of a Russian animated feature The Snow Queen. Universal had bought the American rights to the film and had shot a prologue starring TV personality Art Linkletter. The new English soundtrack featured teen favorites Sandra Dee, Tommy Kirk and Patty McCormack. According to the film’s press materials, “Universal-International engaged Dave Fleischer, one of Hollywood’s foremost animation experts, to supervise the matching of dialogue and sound effects to the picture.”
Dave stayed at Universal until 1967, when he retired. In a note to this writer, he declined a request for an interview in 1976 stating he was too busy preparing a new feature film based on the myth of Pandora’s Box. The feature never was realized and Dave Fleischer died in 1979.
The dynamics were also complicated as the other Fleischer brothers were employed at the studio at various times. Joe was an electrician, Charlie was a machinist and Lou was a musician whose skills were essential with the coming of sound. Other than Dave, Lou became the brother with the greatest responsibility at the studio.
Lou studied both piano and violin as a child and found work as a young man playing the piano in theaters accompanying silent movies and in nightclubs. He went to school for civil engineering – a field he did enter– but was working in a jewelry shop when Dave called him to ask if he would join them at the studio “because it needed someone who knew music and mathematics.”
Lou’s first job was to prepare exposure sheets – the charts used by animator to time their drawing to a soundtrack – for a cartoon featuring a recording by popular banjo player Eddie Peabody. Lou’s efforts were successful and he left the jewelry store.
He stayed with the studio supervising the exposure sheets and working with the cartoon’s composers such as Sammy Timberg.
Lou Fleischer told animator Ray Pointer that “it was customary to allow visitors to go through the cartoon studios to see how things are done, but it got too voluminous and disturbing to the artist so it was only limited to celebrities. We had royalty from England and one day [French singer and actor] Maurice Chevalier.
“He had been shown the entire 9th floor of 1600 Broadway and than shown the sixth floor. Last thing [he was shown] was the [production of a] Screen Song (Bouncing Ball) with my brother Joe turning the drum on which the lettering was and I with a black sleeve, black glove and black shirt [to place the ball over the right words].
“After seeing this he remarked, ‘Marvelous! Marvelous! Marvelous! Five brothers each in a different capacity and each an expert in his field.’ I shall always remember this!”
In the 1979 “Miami Herald” story Joe Fleischer read to the reporter a presentation the then-89 year-old retiree made to school classes. The closing paragraph read: “Finally this to me all seems like a passing dream except to say we remaining Fleischers [Lou and Dave were also still alive at the time] feel grateful for having the opportunity to bring laughter and happiness to people all over the world.”
© 2007 by G. Michael Dobbs
Labels: Max Fleischer