Majer "Max" (July 19, 1883 September 11, 1972) and David Fleischer (July 14, 1894 June 25, 1979) are two of the most prolific and influential (sadly, mostly unknown to today's audiences) men to ever work in the History of Animation. Getting their start off in The Silent Age, they pioneered one of the earliest attempts at blending live action and animation with their hit Out of the Inkwell series, starring Koko The Clown. They were also a top of the line animation studio in the 1930s and early 40s, producing such landmark hits like Betty Boop, the Popeye The Sailor cartoons, and eventually the Superman Theatrical Cartoons.
After moving from Austria, Max and Charlie were enthusiastic about their new way of life. The brothers performed many dangerous tricks and stunts with their newly purchased bicycles to woo the girls throughout Brooklyn. Max's stunts managed to attract a young Essie Goldstein. The Goldsteins had immigrated from England, where they had unsuccessfully operated a music hall. The American immigration officers gave Essie's parents a new last name, because of the difficulty of understanding their language. After Max graduated from high school, he managed to receive an apprenticeship for commercial art at Cooper Union, and also, as a fallback career, attended The Mechanics and Trademans School.
Max wed Essie Goldstein in 1905. The couple had their first daughter, Ruth Fleischer, later that year. Max began his commercial art career at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, following an encounter with its supervisor. Max was offered two bucks an hour just to study the artists. Realizing talent when he spotted it, the supervisor offered to give Max that salary for running errands. Max eventually worked his way up the career ladder, and created his own comic strips, such as E.K. Spoosher and The Kodak Fiend. The central theme of these strips was a rebellion against higher levels of authority. Much of Max's work was topical, socially conscious, and focused on the poverty conditions in areas such as Brownsville, Brooklyn. His experience in New York cartooning circles had a profound influence on the way Max approached animation as a medium. He viewed it as an outgrowth of newspaper cartoons. During his tenure at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Max came into contact with artist J.R. Bray, who specialized in decorating the panels for many of the artists' strips.
While working for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle provided Max with the necessary tools to become a proficient artist, it provided very little money. As a result, Max accepted a job as an illustrator for a fashion catalog in Boston, Massachusetts. He was subsequently hired at Popular Science Monthly by Waldemar Kempft, returning to New York City in 1912. Max also couldn't help but acknowledge the budding art form which was animation. Animation was slowly rising in New York in the early 1910s, following the success of Winsor McCay's initial films, such as Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur. Max became an avid follower of animation and read many technical articles. At the same time he put thought and consideration into trying to correct many of the technical shortcomings, which plagued early animated films. Max was determined to provide a solution, particularly once Waldemar Kempft encouraged him to do so. Waldemar had watched a Theodore Roosevelt animated cartoon, and was appalled by its poor quality. He lamented about it to Max. Waldemar recognized Max's diverse understanding of commercial art, photography, and machinery. He encouraged Max to dedicate time to improving the quality of animated films. This was the genesis to the rotoscope.
Max used the film camera that he had previously used in a failed business venture, which had been funded by his brother-in-law. They had tried to open an outdoor movie theater in order to compete against the other theater chains. The hot summer weather, mosquitoes, and heavy rain made it difficult to effectively run the business. Although the movie theater was a commercial disaster, they had kept the camera that would soon would be used for the original rotoscope. Max's first experiment was with his brother, Dave. Dave dressed in a Boy Scout outfit and waved flag signals. Rotoscoping this scene took eight months of production time, between 1914-15. Although most historical records credit the initial rotoscope experiment as featuring Dave dressed as a clown, the patent filed in 1915◊ clearly shows that Max had already extensively experimented with the rotoscope. He had used other concepts, before ever considering rotoscoping with a clown.
Once finished, Max showed this experiment to Pathe, using Dave's connections as a film cutter to schedule an appointment with the management. While impressed, they rejected his proposal. It was simply impractical to produce films in such a lengthy period of time. Max managed to cut down production time, and quickly returned with a rotoscope test of Charlie Chaplin. Pathe, fearing a lawsuit, rejected Max again. But they realized his potential, and assigned him and his brothers to use their device in production of a short subject on Theodore Roosevelt. The resulting short was a disaster, and a livid Pathe representative threw them out. Fortunately, Max was not discouraged, and performed a third rotoscope experiment. This time, he used Dave's clown costume from Coney Island.
Max was constantly looking for people to distribute his work, with every studio rejecting him. Paramount's offices was his last stop, and in all likelihood they would overlook him as well. However, J.R. Bray was re-negotiating his new contract with Paramount at that time, and he was willing to watch Max's film reel. The decision was based on the friendship the two men had forged, while they worked together at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Bray eagerly accepted Max's film, and determined that they would produce a new monthly series. To ensure that they could complete the film on time to satisfy audience demands, they manage to cut production times by making 3/4 of each film live-action. So contrary to many historical accounts, the option to make Out of the Inkwell partially live-action was pragmatic. Born from the need to cut down on production times, allowing them to complete and release films more frequently. These efforts made the series commercially practical.
Production for Inkwell began in 1916, around the same time that Max had his second child, eventual film director Richard Fleischer. Production had barely started when Max found himself drafted into the United States Army. This setback halted production for a couple of years. Max worked at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, while producing training films for the military. Once Out of the Inkwell began its monthly releases in April 1919, the series quickly became a critical and audience hit. It became Bray's biggest breadwinner just as soon as it began.
Later in 1919, Bray switched distribution from Paramount to Goldwyn. Goldwyn had Bray commit to producing 156 films annually. This kind of output was not only commercially impractical, but technically impossible to produce. Bray came up short on his promise, and his studio began to lose its dominance within the animation industry. Max realized that his property was the only thing keeping the company afloat, and was compelled to leave before the studio started sinking. Dave Fleischer had recently won big at the horse races. He used the money to provide start up funds for the Inkwell films, initiated in June 1921. At this point, Bray was desperate to duplicate his success with Out of the Inkwell. He enlisted former Hearst employee Walter Lantz to produce Dinky Doodle.
Max began recruiting a crew of animators; names such as Art Davis, Burt Gillett, David Hand (Gillett became a top Disney director in The '30s, Hand the second-highest authority at the Disney studio) all worked at Max's studio during the Twenties. However, the studio truly prospered in 1923, when they recruited Dick Huemer. Huemer was a former Barre animator, and the lead creative force on the Mutt and Jeff animated series. Dick Huemer's knack for surrealism and unconventional humor is what caused Out of the Inkwell to include some of the most unique animated entries of the 1920s. Huemer's draftsmanship was also widely regarded in the industry, to the point that Max came to believe that he shouldn't wear out his best artist. Max allowed assistant artists to draw the in- between frames, while Huemer only handled the key poses. Thus one of the most effective production methods, the "in-betweening" system, was created. Simply, because Max was concerned about Huemer performing all the tasks by himself. Huemer himself was initially cautious about this proposal, but learned to adapt to the new method.
Out of the Inkwell became the second most lucrative series in animation during the twenties, only trailing behind Pat Sullivan's Felix the Cat. Inkwell was initially distributed by M.J. Winkler, who also handled Felix and newcomer Walt Disney's Alice Comedies. Max eventually decided to associate himself with another distribution company, buying shares in the company Red Seal films. Red Seal was a company that was not exclusively tied to animation, but distributed almost every genre of film. Essie of The Chorus, a live action short-subject series had Ruth Flesicher as co-star, and Ray Bolger (eventual The Wizard of Oz castmember) made his motion picture debut in this series. Inklings was Dave trying to strike out on his own, sick of living in Max's shadow. Dave's frustration planted the seeds for the eventual adversarial relationship between the two brothers. Unfortunately, only one of the Inklings (No.12) survives. But it was a promising beginning, and demonstrated how inventive Dave Fleischer could be. The most crucial role Red Seal played in its brief history, was to bring Max into contact with inventor Lee De Forrest. De Forrest was experimenting with a synchronized sound system, and he agreed to test it on a number of Fleischer-produced short films. Consequently, Song Cartunes featured some of the earliest synchronized sound cartoons. The series begun in 1926, having a two-year advantage over Paul Terry's Dinnertime and Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie.
Unfortunately, Red Seal was not a commercially successful venture. In the Summer of 1927, the studio found itself in bankruptcy. This came right around the period when Max pioneered animated lip-synch in the final Song Cartunes entry, By The Light of the Silvery Moon. Max lost much of his finances in the venture. He could not pay back the film labs to receive the negatives for his upcoming films. At this point, Alfred Weiss paid them to return the negatives, and took over the company's management. Max and Dave became salaried employees instead of continuing as the leaders of their own company. Alfred Weiss brought Max into contact with Paramount, the company which would distribute Max's work until 1942 (when Paramount acquired the Fleischer Studios).
The film series was re-titled Inkwell Imps, and would continue to be released until 1929. In 1929, the company folded. Alfred Weiss resurrected Song Cartunes briefly in 1928, when My Old Kentucky Home was produced. note The tension between Max Fleischer and Alfred Weiss caused Max's absence from the final films of the Out of the Inkwell series. A number of Weiss' employees tried to emulate Max's role as the master cartoonist. Max, after leaving Weiss, managed to re-organize Out of The Inkwell films in 1929, under the company name Fleischer Studios. Which remains the better known name of the company. Max's friend Frank Goldstein provided him with studio space in Long Island City, free-of-charge. Max began to rebuild the company from scratch, and resurrected his Song Cartune series as Screen Songs. These were very cheap to produce. Max re-associated with Paramount. He exploited the fact that he and his staff had added experience with sound animation in comparison to the rest of their competitors. Paramount decided to distribute their films.
Screen Songs began in January of 1929. Max decided to expand on his experience with Lip Synch by dedicating another new series,Talkartoons, exclusively to this technique. The series began with Noah's Lark in October of 1929. Talkartoons had no central character. Like many Fleischer productions, the shorts were based on their successful gag structure. The characters' actions were timed to the musical track. After several one-shot films, the series started focusing on a recurring character: Bimbo, a cigar- wielding, sarcastic, and chauvinist figure. Bimbo's design was partly based on Mickey Mouse, and partly on a redesign of Fitz from Out of the Inkwell; at least Grim Natwick's personal interpretation of the character. Huemer had departed the studio, having accepted a job at Columbia Cartoons and producing the Scrappy shorts. Natwick became the new driving force for Fleischer Studios. Once more, Paramount was anxious to promote one its headlining stars, Helen Kane. They used Talkartoons as a tool to help promote her likeness. Natwick was in charge of conceiving this character as Bimbo's love interest. The Kane-based character eventually evolved into Betty Boop. She first made a cameo appearance in Dizzy Dishes, and then and went through several redesigns. Much of her development as a personality took place following Grim's departure to the Ub Iwerks studio. Betty Boop abruptly took over the series and became one of the largest box-office draws of the early 1930s. Talkartoons was converted to Betty Boop by 1932. Bimbo was demoted to little more than a sidekick, and Ko-Ko the Clown was only occasionally brought out of retirement.
Max, however, had a tendency to downplay Betty's commercial potential. Many staff members proposed Betty-based lines of merchandise, and potentially lucrative licensed use of her image. Max reminded them that they were exclusively invested in one business, animation. Undermining the commercial potential of his own properties was one of the flaws that made people question Max's business abilities.
However, as The Hays Code came to provide strict guidelines about what was and was not prohibited throughout Hollywood, Betty was reinvented. This was not just motivated by the code itself; the option to clean up her public image was considered by Paramount's management. The management was under the leadership of Barney Balaban. They decided that it was time to reinvent themselves and their image. Paramount went through several bankruptcies and financial reorganizations between 1931-36, and consequently became more budget conscious. They began to play it economically safe, by emulating companies that had a guaranteed audience (such as Disney and MGM ). But did so with only a fraction of the budget of the other companies. These attitudes were applied to the direction Fleischer found themselves going from 1934 onward. Deadlines were increasingly inflexible to meet, and the studio was committed to producing a film every week. It was difficult for the animators to dedicate time to improving their product. The quality of their output began to stagnate in 1934, a tendency that would last until the end of the decade. The animation studios of the West Coast were making advancements at the time, which Fleischer Studios could not follow. Because their commitments to Paramount made it difficult to dedicate time to improving their product.
Paramount's re-organizations coincided with Max's interest in converting his films to the Three Strip Technicolor process. Paramount was still going through financial re-organization and bankruptcies, and rejected anything that was perceived as commercially risky. Max made proposals for an animated feature film as early as 1934. Because of Paramount's skepticism of it being commercially practical, Max found himself waiting until Walt Disney proved its commercial practicality with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in late 1937.
Also despite Betty's popularity, Helen Kane felt that her career had gone downhill. She sued Max for $250,000 in May 1932, arguing that she was misrepresented in the Betty Boop cartoons. The trial went on for two years, Kane lamenting about how she owned the rights to the line "Boop Boop a Doop". The judge ruled against her, holding as primary evidence that Baby Esther, a somewhat obscure singer, had been using that line prior to Helen Kane. This precedent made Kane's claims seem irrelevant. Regardless, the Betty Boop series would soon find itself outclassed by the Fleischers' newcomer star, Popeye the Sailor.
Max Fleischer was an avid fan of E.C. Segar's popular comic strip; however King Features Syndicate was skeptical about the Sailor's commercial potential. Max convinced them that Popeye's grotesque features would make him a successful box-office draw, because these featured helped maintain Popeye's comedic appeal. The contract signed in 1932 had listed that the Fleischer Studios should have all their negatives and traces of the series burned or disposed of within a ten-year period, because of King Features' constant skepticism concerning the series' merits. The contract's expiration coincided with Paramount's acquisition of Fleischer in 1942, and this played a role in why Paramount bought out the studio when they were in debt with them.
Popeye was tested by appearing in a Betty Boop short (although Betty herself only makes a brief appearance) before starring in his own series, because (as noted above) King Features' faith in Popeye was minimal. They wanted to pair up Popeye with someone who was already a commercial success. Within a couple of years, Popeye not only exceeded Betty in popularity. He dethroned Mickey Mouse and made the Mouse seem irrelevant for the rest of the decade. Popeye was the top box-office draw in animation during the Thirties.
The mid-1930s proved to be commercially prosperous for the Fleischer Studios, but also artistically stagnant. As stated earlier, their picture commitments and short production periods gave them little time to improve the quality of their work. Despite this, they pioneered the precursor to the Multi-Plane camera. This precursor was the Stereoptical Process, aka the Three-Dimensional Setback. This complex device, which used large model sets built out of papier-mache and lighting tools, was patented in 1933 but not used until 1934 for Betty Boop's Poor Cinderella. This short was also Max's first foray into color production, in a series called Color Classics which would exclusively be dedicated to color production. Max used Cinecolor instead of Three-Strip Technicolor, which was exclusively controlled by Walt Disney until 1936. The Stereoptical Camera was technically impressive, and successful in creating a convincing illusion of depth. But it was very difficult to control and maintain. All of the sets were quickly disposed once the film was completed. Max as usual undermined his company's accomplishments, and failed to see the intense admiration these sets would receive from cartoon afficionados and historians.
Feeling comfortable enough to test Popeye elsewhere, Paramount granted Max permission to produce two-reelers starring the one-eyed sailor. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves, produced in 1936 and 1937 respectively, were the first time an American animated film had extended beyond one-reel. Although animated features had been pioneered in Argentina and Germany, Popeye's longer films were ground-breaking for American animation standards. The two-reelers, however, were downplayed following Walt's triumph with Snow White. For over three years, Max had badgered Paramount to produce an animated feature for over three years. They finally caved in, after noticing the commercial success of Snow White
By this point, Max did not want to continue producing films within New York. He was anxious to relocate, visibly distressed by the unionization of his employees in 1937. The working conditions at the Fleischer Studios were oppressive, mostly in an effort to keep up with Paramount's deadlines and other demands. Many employees that had a pre-existing relationship with Max were now in conflict with him over the demands of their union. People entering or exiting the studio facilities were physically confronted by protesters. By the mid-1930s, both Max and Dave owned vacation homes in Miami. Now they considered relocating their studio and their families to Miami. Animator Shamus Culhane later recalled how impulsive Max was with his decision, as there was cheap enough studio space throughout Manhattan which would be enough to produce an animated feature.
Paramount, wanting to duplicate Snow White, became increasingly cooperative to Max's demands for raising budgets. In 1938, they also helped the studio to relocate to Miami. The catch was that Max not only borrowed a loan from Paramount to pay for the Miami Facilities, but that they reached an agreement that the loan must be paid back by 1948 with interest. Previous studio properties were used as collateral. By getting into such debt, Max made it easy for Paramount to acquire the studio in 1942.
Miami was a doomed venture from the start , and not just from a financial perspective. Max was forced to abandon much of the studio's talent pool, who were unwilling to move away from New York. A good percentage of the studio's musical department also refused to move, causing a waning quality for compositions used in the studio's Miami-produced films. The actual advantages of the relocation were minimal. The new studio facility was larger than the crammed office space in 1600 Broadway, and the studio's remaining artists found their working environment more enjoyable. Taxes in Florida were lower, and the studio could use that extra cash flow to offer higher salaries than Disney and other competitors. But the studio proved unable to recruit some of the industry's top talents, who were instead flocking to the West Coast-based animation studios.
To meet the short deadline of trying to get Gulliver's Travels released by Christmas 1939 (production beginning May 1938), Max overpopulated the studio with over 750 employees, a size far larger than the Miami studio was meant to contain. Many of these staffers were Miami Art School students, with minimal resources and a less-than-stellar artistic background. Many of these novices didn't have the same advantages that the West Coast recruits had, and they proved to be a hindrance to production. Many of the West Coast recruits, namely Cal Howard, a former Warner employee, recommended completely revamping the entire production of Gulliver. Max's initial vision was to make it a Popeye vehicle, but Cal's charisma and manipulative personality made them go a direction that would make it seem that they were trying to emulate Disney.
Much of Gulliver's banality and constant need to hold up to Disney's standards was a combined result of Paramount's management's and Cal Howard's efforts. Max himself actually was apathetic to trying to be like Disney. He even downplayed Disney's merits by claiming that Gulliver would not have any scary or intimidating scenes (such as Snow White fleeing from the huntsman throughout the forest), in order to promote the film as a clean family picture. There were other feature proposals for the studio as well. Paramount suggested an adaptation of Peter Pan, a film called Blue Bird, and a film dedicated to the Nativity Scene from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. None of these came to fruition, but concept art for them still survives.
The rivalry between Max and Dave was already brewing prior to Miami. Dave was always lamenting about living in Max's shadow, since Max received the lion's share of publicity. Dave and his brothers constantly had to remind Max that the studio's accomplishments were a collaborative effort, between him and his brothers, and not exclusive to him. By the late 1930s, Max was willing to abandon Popeye as well. He was aware that when the King Features contract expired in 1942, they would be obligated to dispose of the Popeye film negatives. Max was interested in abandoning Popeye sooner than this, and proceeded to take the studio down the path of producing more dramatic films. But Max was quite vague about what he wanted. Dave was livid at the decision to end the Popeye series, where he had dedicated his efforts for years. Dave disagreed with ending production of the studio's most lucrative series.
Another issue was that Dave wanted to compose the score for Gulliver's Travels. Dave had extensive experience writing compositions for the Screen Songs series, although he never had the expertise that Lou Fleischer had in the musical department. Max was skeptical about Dave's aspirations, and brought this up with Paramount's management. Paramount decided to ignore Dave's proposal, and to instead hire a professional songwriting team for the film. Dave's resentment against Max increased, when there were rumors of Dave having an affair with a secretary. The rumors were reportedly unfounded, but Dave's paranoid wife informed Max's wife Essie about the supposed affair. Essie demanded for Max to confront Dave. Dave was frustrated by their actions, and decided to retaliate by actually starting an affair with the secretary to spite them all. In 1940, Dave took an extended leave and headed back to New York with the secretary. Without Dave supervising the studio's films, Cal Howard was assigned to manage the studio creatively. Consequently, things went south fast.
While Dave increasingly resented Max, Max was frustrated with Dave. Their dispute over Dave's marriage was only one of the reasons for Max's feelings of alienation. Following their relocation to Miami, Dave displayed a tendency to exert complete creative control over their films. Dave had forced Max away from any creative consulting within the studio, and had reduced him to mostly handling the business administration of the studio. Max was unhappy with losing control over his studio, and send Paramount a telegram which voiced his frustrations. Meanwhile, Paramount had started considering buying the Fleischer Studios, in order to gain more profits from the Popeye series. They wanted to split the profits with King Features, as a partnership of two companies instead of three. Directly owning the animation would allow them to renegotiate the contract with King Features, and to keep producing the lucrative series.
To ensure that Paramount managed to buy out the studio, the company forced Max and Dave to sign a contract which required them to resign from their own studio whenever Paramount asked for them to do so. In this occasion, Paramount would take over the studio's management. This contract was signed on May 24, 1941. Max caved in because he was blackmailed by Paramount to do so. Paramount had threatened to lay off Max's son-in-law Seymour Kneitel, who was the creative head of the studio. The stress from his threatened position may have led to a second heart attack for Seymour, who was still recovering from his first attack. Max and Dave were now salaried employees and the rights to their name were owned by Paramount. The contract did, however, promise that they would receive royalty checks, and that their names would appear in the credits for any television airings of their work. This broken promise would lead to Max's 1956 lawsuit against Paramount.
As Paramount began to exert more control over the studio, the Fleischers dove into production for Mr. Bug Goes to Town. It was the first American animated feature whose story was not based on a previously written work. Mr. Bug was a profound improvement over Gulliver. Partly because of the hard lessons learned during the production of Gulliver, and partly because the studio was able to recruit more proficient artists. . The film's budget was also considerably lower than Gulliver's, with deadlines shorter and were less flexible.
By the time of Paramount's takeover, Superman was being brought into production at the studio. Paramount had successfully bid for the rights of the Superman character and convinced the Fleischers to adapt the comic book into a series of short films. The Fleischers had little experience in the science fiction genre, and were reluctant and skeptical over the success of such a series. Dave tried to talk Paramount out of it by demanding a budget of $100,000 per short film. Paramount responded by offering half this amount. At $50,000 per film, the series still had a considerably higher budget than the average Fleischer short subject. The series relied heavily on the rotoscope, but it was not its only artistic merit. It featured effective narratives, proficient use of effects, and more sophisticated designs in comparison to previous series. The series was one of the most influential in the renaissance of animation fifty years later, especially providing influence for Bruce Timm and all the animated science fiction adventure programs which subsequently followed.
Meanwhile, Dave had started working in directing Mr. Bug, but Max wanted to reclaim creative control over the studio. He offered Dave suggestions about perceived improvements on the feature film's narrative, but Dave declined his help and insisted that there were no problems with the film. Dave suggested himself as the composer for the film, but Paramount rejected him again. They instead hired a professional songwriting team. As production continued, Dave's relationship with his brothers further deteriorated. He was interested in leaving the studio after the film's completion, and accepted a job offer from Columbia. In 1942, Dave would replace Frank Tashlin as the head of Screen Gems, Columbia's animation subsidiary. Mr. Bug was released in December of 1941, during the same week with the attack on Pearl Harbor. The poor timing of its release may have contributed to the film's lack of box office success. But an even likelier suspect for this failure was Paramount's own reluctance to promote the film. The relative lack of publicity guaranteed its commercial failure.
Paramount was initially willing to return Max's studio shares studio. But Dave's moonlighting for a rival company convinced Paramount that they should turn the studio into a subsidiary, fully under their control and without Max's involvement. In the summer of 1942, the studio was re-organized as Famous Studios. Max and Dave officially resigned, and Paramount fired much of the studio's personnel in an effort to clean house. Seymour Kneitel was placed in charge of the studio, in part to intimidate Max to not sue Paramount. He could not do so without risking his son-in-law's job. Among the studio employees which Paramount kept around were Dan Gordon and Isadore Sparber.
After Dave Flesicher's tenure at Screen Gems, he gravitated over to Universal, where Walter Lantz was largely responsible for his employment. Dave directed commercials and helped solve technical errors throughout many of the studio's features. He had a life-long ambition to produce a third animated feature, entitled Pandora's Odyssey, which failed to come to fruition. However, the concept did appear in Variety Magazine.
Max aspired to create a new animation studio, using his estate in Miami as a production facility. He tried to recruit his other brothers, who were less hostile to him than Dave. The effort failed, because Max could not raise enough money to finance a new studio. His former associate Jam Handy offered him employment at his Detroit facilities, and Max acted as a supervisor for many of the studio's productions. A highlight among them was the original animated adaptation of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1948. Paramount had acquired the rights to Max's previous patents, but Max continued to patent a number of new inventions. In 1944, Max made a semi-autobiography entitled Noah's Shoes, in part to express his resentment for Dave and for Paramount, and his frustration over being ousted from his own company. He using Noah's Ark metaphors in this work.
In 1953, Max re-associated himself with John Randolph Bray. The two of had not professionally co-operated since Max departed Braty's studio in 1921. Their creative partnership lasted three years, but nothing seemed to have come out of it. Max decided to sue Paramount in 1956, over violations of the terms in their contract. Max had not received royalties for his animated works which belonged to Paramount. He had also discovered that Paramount had removed the credits to Max's name, and replaced them with a credit for Adolph Zukor (the then-current head of Paramount). Stan Handman represented Max in this case. Shortly after, Dave Fleischer also sued Paramount.
Max continued to actively produce documentaries, and educational films. He resurfaced in Hal Segar's 1959 adaptation of Out of the Inkwell. Max was reportedly appalled by the low budgets and visibly poor quality that could not hold a candle to what was produced 30 years earlier. After spending years of trying to resurface in the public eye, Max retired at The Motion Picture Country House in 1967.
Although the rift with his brother Dave was never resolved, Max eventually formed a friendship with his old rival Walt Disney, who welcomed Max to a reunion with former Fleischer animators who were by then employed by Disney. Marx's own son, Richard Fleischer, was also working there. Richard directed one of the studio's most beloved live action movies, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Max died of congestive heart failure on September 11, 1972, sadly never completing what was to be his greatest invention — a Perpetual Motion Clock. Dave Fleischer would go on to work as a special effects expert at Universal after his work at Columbia Pictures ended with the shutdown of its animation department. Dave retired from the film industry in the late 1960s, and died of a stroke on June 25, 1979.
While the Fleischer brothers and their star characters have long since passed, their influence in the medium of entertainment must not be underestimated. Besides the aforementioned example of the DC Animated Universe, the Fleischers (along with Disney) were a heavy influence on manga legend Osamu Tezuka, whom would take many of the Fleischer's techniques (and their Limited Animation) and integrate it into his own style in his manga and anime like Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion — stuff which would go on to make the anime industry into what it is today. Animation legend Bob Clampett of Looney Tunes fame also seemed to take a lot of inspiration from the Fleischers, taking many a cue from them by making his cartoons as wacky and surreal as possible, as well as intergrating music in a very similar way Fleischer did into his cartoons. The Ren & Stimpy Show creator John Kricfalusi also cites the Fleischer brothers as a major influence in his works.
Works of the Fleischer Brothers (in as close to chronological release order as possible) include:
- Koko The Clown (1918-29): The original star of the Fleischers, starring in the Live Action/Animation blending Out of the Inkwell series. Even after his series folded, he lived on as a recurring co-star in the Betty Boop cartoons.
- Talkartoons (1929-32): A series of sound cartoons made by the studio, starring recurring character Bimbo the Dog. This series eventually morphed into the Betty Boop series.
- Screen Songs (1929-38): A series of sound cartoons centered around loose plots, serving as the music videos of their day, featuring Max's famous bouncing ball sing-a-longs. This series would later be revived by Famous Studios.
- Betty Boop (1932-39): The most famous character created by the Fleischer studio, Betty initially appeared as a bit-player in Talkartoons, but slowly gained popularity, to where she claimed her own series and became the flagship character of the Fleischer studio.
- Popeye (1933-42): While the Fleischer brothers didn't create the character (Popeye was a popular newspaper comic at the time), they helped mold and immortalize the character into what he's recognized as today. Popeye is also the most successful brand of shorts the Fleischers ever produced, even surpassing Betty Boop in popularity during his prime and even outliving the former in theaters - the Fleischers produced 109 of these cartoons until 1942, and Famous carried on the series until 1957.
- The Popeye series also spawned three acclaimed two-reeler films in full color: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (1937), and Popeye the Sailor in: Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939). Popeye Meets William Tell and Popeye Meets Rip Van Winkle are loose adaptations of the legend of William Tell and Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle.
- Color Classics (1934-41): A series of 36 Silly Symphonies clones made by the Fleischers. Betty Boop headlined the first short (in her sole appearance in a color theatrical cartoon), and her grandfather Grampy also headlined his own short in the series.
- Gulliver's Travels: The 1939 feature-length film adaptation made to ride off the success of Disney's Snow White.
- This movie also spawned a very short-lived series of short subjects starring Gabby, the town crier in the film, lasting eight shorts from 1940-41.
- Animated Antics (1940-41): A series of 11 black & white cartoon shorts with six one-shot gag stories, but five of them feature appearances of characters from Gulliver's Travels (villains Sneak, Snoop, and Stitch, and Twinkletoes the carrier pigeon)
- Stone Age (1940): A 12-short series of caveman-themed cartoons, all in black & white.
- Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy (1941): A two-reeler about two sentient dolls (not to be confused with the feature-length film about the same characters made by Richard Williams over three decades later). Famous Studios later produced two Raggedy Ann shorts of their own in 1944 & 1947.
- Superman Theatrical Cartoons (1941-42): The first nine shorts, at any rate. (The other eight were handled by their "successor" outfit, Famous Studios.)
- Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941): The second film made by the Fleischers, and (indirectly) part of what ultimately brought the studio to its demise.
- The Raven (1942): An extremely loose two-reeler adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem.
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: 1948 short about that reindeer with the funny nose that predates the Rankin-Bass special by 16 years.
Tropes that are present in the studio's work:
- An Aesop: In particular, the Betty Boop and Popeye shorts often have the characters sing the Aesop. A common one is kindness to animals, which turns up in the Betty Boop short "Be Human", the Popeye shorts "Be Kind To Animals" and "Bulldozing The Bulls", the Color Classic "Song Of The Birds", and the Animated Antics short "Bring Himself Back Alive". Not that this stops Grampy or Popeye from hurting animals in some other shorts.
- Animated Adaptation: Several of their cartoons are based on pre-existing works.
- The Betty Boop short Snow White is a surrealistic, jazzy burlesque of the classic Snow White fairy tale. A few other Betty Boop shorts are inspired by classic stories, such as the shorts Jack and the Beanstalk, Dizzy Red Riding Hood, Mother Goose Land, and Betty in Blunderland. Henry, the Funniest Living American doubles as a crossover and a cartoon adaptation of Carl Anderson's "Henry" comic strip. Betty Boop and The Little King is likewise a crossover and cartoon adaptaton of Otto Soglow's The Little King comic strip.
- Popeye the Sailor, which is a cartoon adaptation of E.C. Segar's classic newspaper comic. The three two-reeler films in the series are inspired by stories from the Arabian Nights, including Sinbad the Sailornote , Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp.
- A few of the Color Classics shorts are based on pre-existing works, such as Poor Cinderella (obviously based on Cinderella), The Kids in the Shoe (based on the nursery rhyme There was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe), and Greedy Humpty Dumpty (based on the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme).
- The Superman Theatrical Cartoons, based on the Superman comic books of the time.
- Raggedy Ann and Andy, a two-reeler film based on Johnny Gruelle's classic childrens books.
- The two-reeler film The Raven is not one—It has a Fakeout Opening of the original Edgar Allan Poe book, features a raven as the lead character and has a few quotes from the story (including the famous "Nevermore!" line), but otherwise its an In Name Only comedy short.
- Gulliver's Travels is a very loose adaptation of Jonathan Swift's classic satire, keeping the skeleton of the Lilliput voyage of the story and hints of anti-war satire, but largely abandons the bulk of the books content.
- While Mr. Bug Goes to Town is largely original material, it took a lot of inspiration from Maurice Maeterlinck's book The Life Of The Bee, which Max Fleischer had tried and failed to get the film rights to.
- Animated Music Video: The Trope Maker is Screen Songs.
- Art Evolution: Their earliest cartoons were drawn like slick newspaper comic illustrations, often using rotoscoping and very surreal gags. By the mid to late 20s, the studio adapted to the then-ubiquitous rubberhose animal style of cartoons, but still brought their gag sense and surrealism with it. By the early 30s, Grim Natwick came to the studio and with his influence, the studios animation and designs got even more surreal and wild than they already were. By the mid 30s period, they started toning down the wild stuff, but still stuck to their newspaper cartoon like design sense, oddly even in their Disney-esque stuff like the Color Classics. By the late 30s, the studio brought in many ex-west coast animators, including former Disney and Looney Tunes artists, and the studio went into a transitional period where the drawings got more loose and floppy, but also resulted in a bizarre mix of the Fleischers newspaper comic designs and slick but softer west coast style designs. By the early 40s, they had completed their transition to the west coast animation style, which would carry on to their successor outfit, Famous Studios.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: The Fleischers cartoons generally lacked post-modern humor in favor of surreal visuals and topical gags, but some of their works occasionally broke down the wall to the audience. Their Screen Songs shorts have a narrator address the audience to sing along to the bouncing ball when the cartoon reaches that point (although the individual cartoon characters in them never did this). "A Date to Skate" has Popeye asking the audience for a can of spinach, and "Goonland" has the film reel break as Popeye and Pappy are fighting the goons, and a real life hand pops in to fix the broken reel with a safety pin!
- Captain Ersatz: Their first star character of the 30s, Bimbo the Dog, is sometimes considered to be a copycat of Mickey Mouse, or at least a more urban variation of him. Some also consider Bimbo to be an Expy of Fitz the Dog from Max Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell cartoons.
- The dog and hunter in the Animated Antics short "Zero the Hound" features a startling resemblance to Egghead and his dog from the Looney Tunes short "Hare-Um Scare-Um". This may be because their designer, Charles Thorson, was working at the Fleischer studio during the time that short was made.
- Deranged Animation: This studio more than perhaps any other is famous for it. Swing, You Sinners! is a good place to start.
- Disproportionate Retribution: In "Swing, You Sinners!", Bimbo gets haunted, harassed, chased, terrified and eaten by spooks of all sorts, all because he tried to steal a chicken. Even after he promised never to steal again!
- Later Installment Weirdness: From around 1934 and on, the Fleischers began toning down their once wild animation and gags and tried emulating the approach of their competing studios—Popeye was the last stronghold of their old comedic style after that, but even those shorts slowly began to move away from the Fleischer's urban humor upon the move to Miami circa 1938. Their later Color Classics cartoons, their first feature film, Gulliver's Travels, and many of their other attempts at new series are Fleischer cartoons in name only, featuring almost none of their trademark drawing style or brand of humor. Mr. Bug (and, to a much lesser extent, Superman) was an attempt to return to their urban roots and humor while still working in the west coast cartoon style, but this tragically coincided with the Fleischer brothers being ousted from their own studio and the reformation into Famous Studios, which completely abandoned any remaining vestiges of the Fleischer house style, ironically despite moving back to New York shortly after the reformation.
- Musical Episode: A few shorts featured jazz hits of the day from the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
- No Ending: Some of the shorts follow this, such as "Swing, You Sinners!". It ends with a giant scat-singing frog. Floaty heads. A skull eating Bimbo.
- Revisiting the Roots: By the waning years of the studio, the Fleischers finally realized that emulating Disney's content was a dead end for them in the long run, so in Mr. Bug Goes to Town, they strongly incorporated their memories of the urban environment of New York City to create a then-contemporary tone that matched up with their slapstick comedy, while also incorporating Max Fleischer's love of science fiction (and some milder urban elements) into their Superman cartoons.
- Rotoscoping: Done WELL. Not terribly shocking considering the Fleischers invented the technique in the first place.
- Rubber Hose Limbs
- Scenery Porn: Well utilized with Fleischer's "setback camera", featuring a minature set on a turntable, which was incrementally moved behind the vertically suspended animation cels, allowing for cartoons to have animated 3D backgrounds. This was notably seen in the first two of the double-reel Popeye cartoons, as seen here.
- Space Whale Aesop: In "Swing, You Sinners!" - don't steal chickens, or an army of swingin' ghosts will come along and spirit you away. And then you'll be sent to an Acid-Trip Dimension where you'll be eaten by a giant shrieking skull.
- Surrealism: For the bulk of their run, the Fleischer cartoons thrived on this approach to animation. Their cartoons had humor and settings that were topical and contemporary for their time, but the way they presented them was totally unrealistic and dreamlike. This element of their works was gradually toned down and then abandoned around the mid-30s once Fleischer began emulating Disney.