Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Masters of Animation: The Fleischer Brothers

During the 1930s, there were only two serious giants in the animation field. The first was, of course, Walt Disney Studios. But the other, an outfit that has been sadly neglected today, was Fleischer Studios, run by Max Fleischer and his talented brother Dave.

Max Fleischer was born in Vienna in 1883 to a fairly large Jewish family that would only get larger. When he was five, his parents left Austria because of anti-Semitism and came to New York, where Dave would be born in 1894. Their father William was an inventor, and his sons seemed born with an innate sense of initiative. They would be instrumental in popularizing the new medium of animation.

Max especially was fascinated with technological innovation, as well as art. He had worked in the art department of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (even introducing a short-lived comic strip, Little Elmo, in 1904), before becoming the art editor at Popular Science Monthly in 1914. In 1911, he created the rotoscope, an animation innovation that is still used today in one form or another. Rotoscoping allows an animator to film a complex movement with a live action actor, and then animate over that actor, producing (in theory) realistic movement in cartoon form: this is the grandfather of the motion capture techniques used to create Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, and the dead-eyed soulless things in Polar Express. Fleischer was granted a patent for the rotoscope in 1917, but found out later that a similar device had already been invented (which is why he didn't sue Disney for using it in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937).

The rotoscope was tested by filming Dave (an art student) gamboling in a clown suit, and animating a full cartoon over it. The process took nearly a year; when Max tried to sell the film to Pathe in 1916, they were impressed but felt a year was laughable for cartoon production. Max came up with another idea: wrap a live action introduction and ending around the cartoon, with the animated clown capering around on a blank sheet of paper or playing with drawing supplies. By introducing a significant live action element, production time was cut down. Out of the Inkwell was born. John R. Bray saw it, loved it, and offered them a spot in his Paramount-Bray Pictograph film magazine.

Before that, however, there was a war to fight: Max made training films for Bray, while Dave worked in the US Army as a film cutter. They still managed to turn out a few films, such as the lyrical Experiment No. 1 (1918), but it wasn't until after the war that production on an Out of the Inkwell series could begin in earnest. Though the series was meant to be monthly, it could never keep that schedule. However, the series proved popular. From a technical standpoint, the rotoscoping allowed a smoother animation than anyone else's. Dave directed, did story, and acted in the clown suit as one of the earliest recurring cartoon characters, KoKo the Clown. Max, however, was quick to claim credit, and the two brothers would clash fiercely. In 1921, they formed Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc., and were able to hire animators (as well as their younger brother Joe as an electrician and camerman). They not only produced more KoKo cartoons, but worked on educational cartoons, such as The Einstein Theory of Relativity (1923, commended by Albert Einstein himself) and Darwin's Theory of Evolution (1923, which was not shown in the South).

Always attempting to innovate, Max Fleischer soon created the KoKo's Song Car-Tunes series. In this series, KoKo the Clown would step out of the inkwell, change into a conductor's suit, and the lyrics to a song would appear on screen. Then a bouncing ball would jump onto each lyric to prompt the audience to sing along while an organist played the music. It started with Oh Mabel in 1924 and became quite a crowd-pleaser, continuing on until 1927 (and was briefly revived in 1929 as the Screen Songs series). To achieve this, Max created synchronized sound for the films so that the live audience and the bouncing ball would be in synch. Unfortunately, he didn't realize that layering the sound onto the film was a simple matter (he had already figured out the timing), so Disney beat him to sound.

Max also invented an important process: the in-between animator. In animation, most animators (think of today's greats like Andreas Deja and Glen Keane) draw only key shots, while an in-betweener comes in and draws the action between the key shots. Max came up with the notion (based on Bray's assembly-line theory), along with animator (and future Disney vet) Dick Huemer. Max also attempted to move into distribution--Margaret J. Winkler had developed a state-to-state system of middle-men which saw royalties arrive too late from individual theaters--and formed Red Seal Pictures in 1924. Unfortunately, Red Seal went bankrupt within two years. Fleischer again tried to distribute his own pictures under a company called The Inkwell Imps, but the independent producer Max had allied himself with, Alfred Weiss, was a crook and went out of business. Max's dream of independence was crushed, and instead he set himself up at Paramount Pictures. Although the company was called Fleischer Studios Inc., the company was a subsidiary of Paramount, who would hold all the copyrights.

Sound devastated the animation field in 1927, and only those who could adapt quickly survived. Max took up sound and ran with it in 1929, creating the Screen Songs series (bouncing ball still firmly in place) with The Sidewalks of New York. Even though the Out of the Inkwell series was still fun--the cartoon KoKo's Earth Control (1927) in which KoKo and his dog Bimbo find a lever that accidentally destroys the planet, is a surreal masterpiece--Max saw sound coming and decided the adventures of KoKo had come to an end. Lest he become a relic like Felix the Cat was about to, Dave made KoKo Needles the Boss (1927) the last Out of the Inkwell cartoon.
Trumpeting the advent of sound, the Fleischers created a new series called Talkartoons, a series which was meant to star KoKo's dog Bimbo for a sense of continuity and audience identification. The first Talkartoon, Noah's Lark, premiered in October 1929. It featured music in much the same way Disney's Silly Symphonies, developed concurrently, did. Another Fleischer brother, Lou, was hired as musical director.

The Talkartoons series did well enough, but the Fleischers really hit something in 1930. The Bimbo adventure Dizzy Dishes introduced the character of a female dog-woman as a potential love interest for Bimbo. The character, drawn and animated by the incomparable Grim Natwick, would end up being a goldmine. Her return appearance in Silly Scandals (1931) was a sensation, again animated by Natwick. Working with Dave Fleischer, Natwick removed all of the girl's canine qualities and refined her look for Stopping the Show (1932), and Betty Boop was born. The character was a hit, and Bimbo became a supporting character in her adventures.

Enjoy Dizzy Dishes right now.

Betty Boop, though still Grim Natwick's basic design, had been made as sexy as possible by Dave. She was the first cartoon character to develop a sexuality, and even though your head knows it's a drawing, there is an undeniable sexual appeal to her. John Grant describes it perfectly in his excellent book Masters of Animation: "[Betty Boop 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." This is the beginning of a phenomenon that hasn't been discussed overmuch by psychologists--that the innate male attraction to young girls may be informed by cartoons. Even today, a character such as Jasmine in Aladdin is, for all intents and purposes, sexually desirable. However, in action and attitude, she is like a girl of 12, so that what Disney presents is an innocent child who nonetheless exudes sexuality. Betty Boop, however, was designed for just this purpose, and proves very popular. She even flashes a naked breast for a split-second in Betty Boop's Rise to Fame (1934) before proceeding to put on nothing more than a grass skirt and flower lei and dance on a beach in perhaps the sexiest thing cartoons would see until Jessica Rabbit.

Grim Natwick had modeled Betty on Paramount star Helen Kane (including her catchphrase, "Boop-oop-a-doop!"), but Mae Questel is the most famous voice of the character. Kane sued the Fleischers over the use of her likeness in 1934, but she didn't win the case (thanks to, it must be said, a good amount of sly lying on the part of Max Fleischer). Betty Boop was also partly responsible for Hollywood's enaction of the Hays Code, as many people protested about the smut coming out of Hollywood held Betty up as an example. In cartoons made after 1934, Betty's dress is longer and her garter is gone. Dave was certainly pushing the envelope, though--witness the phallic symbols and nude statues in Poor Cinderella (1934), Betty's first color cartoon (the herald of a new series, Color Classics). Other great Betty cartoons include Snow White (1933), the Fleischer take on the Grimm tale; Be Human (1934), in which Betty and Grampy humiliate and beat a man who is cruel to animals; Betty Boop's Crazy Inventions (1934), which features a wacky science fair; Betty Boop's Ker-Choo (1934), with Betty looking sexy in a racing jumpsuit and fun anthropomorphized cars; and No! No! A Thousand Times No! (1935). The Betty Boop cartoons are milestones of their time; Betty usually sang a song, and then some horny old man or creature would try to take her away (we can guess why), only for Betty to get out of trouble. A formula, but one that worked.
By 1933, the animation process had gotten faster, and the Fleischers were putting out an amazing number of cartoons (even more than Disney). Max--who had long ago dropped out of actual animating in order to run the business--began buying film rights to other properties. Cartoons based on comic strip characters were nothing new, but buying the rights to E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre proved a very sound financial decision. Thimble Theater had begun in 1919, and chronicled the trials of the Oyl family and their pretty young daughter Olive and her scheming brother Castor. In 1929, Segar had introduced a new character, the rough but amiable Popeye the Sailor--he became so popular so fast, he ended up taking over the strip. Max seized on this popularity and introduced Popeye in a Betty Boop cartoon, Popeye the Sailor (1933). Dave introduced elements that were not so prominent in the comic--for example, Popeye's use of spinach as some kind of upper. The cartoon was a hit, and very soon Popeye got his own series. Though some characters--such as J. Wellington Wimpy, Olive Oyl, Lil' Swee'pea, and Eugene the Jeep--came from the strip, E.C. Segar specifically designed Bluto for the film series. The series began in 1934 with fun cartoons like The Man on the Flying Trapeze, and reached its first color entry in 1943 with Her Honor the Mare. The series continued in one form or another until 1957, proving much more durable than Betty Boop ever did.

The first appearance of Popeye is right here.

Popeye is often criticized as being one-note, and his character is admittedly more of a collection of attitudes than anything else. But the series was fun, and there ended up being hundreds of shorts. Without a doubt, the three best of the series are the two-reel cartoons, sort of featurettes that run about 20 minutes in length. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936) is the cartoon that most people think of when they remember Popeye, with Popeye landing on an island of giant monsters and, of course, rescuing Olive from Bluto (the series really only had the one plot). Following this was Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (1937), and the hilarious Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939), which actually puts Popeye in the Arab tale, genie and all. My favorite conventional-length Popeye cartoons are The Two-Alarm Fire (1934) and The Twisker Pitcher (1937).

The Color Classics series of cartoon shorts premiered in 1934 with the Betty Boop cartoon Poor Cinderella. These cartoons usually featured music, but the focus here was on how color was used to create lasting images, as in the classic short Somwhere in Dreamland (1936). This series is unjustly forgotten, featuring some real classics like The Cobweb Hotel (1936), Bunny Mooning (1937), A Car-Tune Portrait (1937), and Small Fry (1939). Unlike other series the Fleischers ended up creating, Color Classics was successful and an artistic triumph. Stone Age Cartoons, a sort of Flinstones precursor initiated in 1940 with Way Back When the Triangle Had Its Points, was decidedly less so. The Gabby cartoon series, Animated Antics--only 8 of them, beginning with King for a Day in 1940--was also an irritating mess. And the Betty Boop cartoons like Minnie the Moocher (1934) featured too much music by Cab Calloway and other black artists to play well in the South.

Minnie the Moocher

Here, too, are both parts of the two-reel cartoon Raggedy Ann and Andy from 1940.

Nearing the end of the 1930s, Max was beginning to feel more ambitious, and Dave was hoping for new challenges. Though they were the only serious rival to Walt Disney at the time (the success of Warner Bros. would come in the next decade), their cartoons were beginning to feel stagnant. Disney had released America's first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. This was a major blow to the Fleischers, not least because Disney had used rotoscoping, and Snow White herself had been designed and animated by Grim Natwick! The Fleischers would respond in 1939 with America's second animated feature, Gulliver's Travels. Telling a very loose version of Gulliver's trip to Lilliput, the film used rotoscoping as a stylistic device. The Lilliputians (including Gabby, a character who proved popular enough to use in the Animated Antics series) are all animated in a very cartoony style, while the prince and princess are attempts to look more like the realistic Snow White and Prince Charming (Grim Natwick was lured back to work on the film). Lemuel Gulliver, however, was rotoscoped and animated in a very realistic style, almost to the point where Gulliver looks like a live-action visitor in a world of animation. The resulting film is very charming, with some nice songs and an especially great sequence where the Lilliputians tie up the sleeping Gulliver. But the movie was a disappointment, and when it was released over Christmas 1939, audiences responded with indifference.
Undaunted, the Fleischers tried one more feature. Hoppity Goes to Town is a true lost classic of animation, a film that shows an excellent sense of story. It doesn't show off its animation more than a couple of times (including a breathtaking sequence where Hoppity is electrocuted), trying to tell a story that is in spite of animation, not because of it, something very sophisticated. Telling the story of an insect community in New York, the influence of this film is still felt in films like A Bug's Life and Antz. It could have done a great deal--especially coupled with the previous year's release of Disney's artistic triumph, Fantasia--to mature animation into an adult form of storytelling. But the release date proved to be most unfortunate: 7 December 1941. Pearl Harbor. The film was a failure and is mostly forgotten today.

The Fleischers continued on, however; Paramount had bought the film rights to the comic book Action Comics, which had introduced the Jerry Siegel-Joel Schuster creation Superman in 1938. The Fleischers were given the series, which proved to be the final artistic triumph of the animation studio. With a heavy reliance on rotoscoping, and the special use of skipped frames to suggest speed, the Superman series only lasted 10 cartoons with the Fleischers at the helm. The best of the series were The Mechanical Monsters (1941), The Arctic Giant (1941), and Volcano (1942). The last Dave Fleischer-directed cartoon, Terror on the Midway (1942), is surprisingly disappointing--Superman has better uses than fighting a mad gorilla. Production on the series stopped abruptly in early 1942, and Paramount carried on the series (as well as Popeye) with other animators.

Here's Superman in The Magnetic Telescope.

It is generally agreed today that what drove down the value of Fleischer cartoons was their unwillingness--indeed, total disinterest--to create character-driven stories. Popeye, Betty Boop, Superman; none of them emerge in the cartoons as real personalities. Sometimes it doesn't matter (one of their masterpieces, Snow-White, treats the story as beside the point, but has so much energy you barely notice), but often it feels like something is lacking. The technique is generally superlative. The stories? Superfluous.

Ever since the first Out of the Inkwell cartoon in 1916, Max and Dave had personality clashes. By 1942, they were unable to stand the presence of one another. A great deal of this was due to the fact that Max stole all the credit for the studio, despite the fact that Dave had directed every single cartoon to ever come out of their partnership--over 200 of them. Hollywood, and especially Paramount Pictures, had noticed that Dave was the real talent in the relationship, and had begun to feel that Max was unneccesary to the whole process. Max knew this, and decided to gamble on his future. As Hoppity was being edited in late 1941, Max made an announcement claiming he was the real genius, and that he would never work with Dave again. It proved to be the wrong move; Paramount closed down the Fleischer Studios (which they owned), took the copyrights to Superman, Popeye, Betty Boop, and others (which they also owned), and demanded that Max repay all the loan money he had received from the studio. Max immediately defaulted, as they knew he would. Paramount hired off most of the staff for their new in-house animation unit, Famous Studios, and put Max out of a job.

Dave, however, didn't stay with Famous Studios (whether he was even asked to stay is unclear). He went to Screen Gems, the animation arm of Columbia Pictures, and worked on the Fox & Crow series before quitting animatin altogether. He worked at Universal, doing animation effects for films such as The Birds (1963) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and died peacefully in Los Angeles in 1979. He was 85.

Max and Dave never spoke again. He produced a storybook, Noah's Shoes, in 1944. It was thinly-veiled attack on his brothers. Max produced animation training films, worked for Bray, and died in 1972 at the age of 89. Though their characters would live on, their animation disappeared; with the exceptions of a few excellent collections (and a surprisingly good-quality DVD of Hoppity available through mail-order), there is a great lack of Fleischer animation available today. But, once upon a time, Max and Dave Fleischer were the kings of animation.

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