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 Era, 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.
Max wed Essie Goldstein in 1905, and subsequently had Ruth Fleischer later that year. Max began his commercial art career at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle following an encounter with the supervisor there. Max was offered two bucks an hour just to study the artists. Realizing talent when he spotted it, he offered to give Max that salary for running errands; eventually working his way up the career ladder and personally creating his own comic strips, such as E.K. Spoosher and The Kodak Fiend. Many of the central themes of these strips were rebelling against higher levels of authority, and much of his work was topical, socially conscious and focused on the poverty conditions in areas such as Brownsville Brooklyn. Much of his experience in New York cartooning circles had a profound influence as to how he approached animation decades later as a medium; that it was an outgrowth of newspaper cartoons. During his tenure at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he came into contact with artist J.R. Bray, who specialized in decorating the panels for many of the artists strips.
While the Brooklyn Daily Eagle provided him 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, only to be 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; which was slowly on the rise in New York in the early 1910s following the success of Winsor McCay's initial films, such as Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur. He became an avid follower of animation and read many technical articles; at the same time hhe put thought and consideration into trying to correct many of the technical shortcomings that plagued early animated films. Max was determined to provide a solution, particularly once Waldemar Kempft encouraged him to devise a solution following Waldemar's personal experience watching a Theodore Roosevelt animated cartoon; appalled at the quality, he lamented about it to Max. Waldemar, recognizing his diverse understanding of commercial art, photography, and machinery, 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 that was funded by his brother-in-law, to try to open an outdoor movie theater to compete against the other theater chains. The hot summer weather, not to mention mosquitoes and heavy rain made it difficult to effectively run the business. Although it was a commercial disaster, they kept the camera that would soon would be used for the original rotoscope. Max's first experiment was with his brother, Dave, in a Boy Scout outfit waving flag signals; this took eight months to produce between 1914-15. Although most historical records credit the initial rotoscope experiment as Dave dressed as a clown, the patent filed in 1915◊ clearly shows that Max had already extensively experimented with the rotoscope using 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 because it was simply impractical to produce films in such a lengthy period of time. Max managed to cut down production and quickly returned with a rotoscope test of Charlie Chaplin; Pathe, fearing a lawsuit, rejected Max but realizing his potential assigned him and his brothers to produce a short subject on Theodore Roosevelt using the device. The resulting short was a disaster, and a livid Pathe threw them out. Fortunately, Max was not discouraged and this time performed a third rotoscope experiment, this time using 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 were probably going to overlook him as well. However, J.R. Bray was re-negotiating his new contract with Paramount and was willing to watch Max's film reel; this was in many cases because of the friendship they 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 entry monthly. However to ensure that they could complete the film on time to satisfy the audiences, 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; to cut down on production times so they could release these films more frequently, and make 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 barely started when Max found himself drafted into the army, halting production for a couple of years, working 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, and 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 156 films annually, realizing this kind of output was not only commercially impractical but impossible, Bray as anyone would came up short on his promise and the studio began to lose its dominance within the industry. Max, realizing that his property was the only thing keeping the company afloat, was compelled to leave following this. Dave Fleischer recently won big at the horse races and used the money to provide start up funds for the Inkwell films initiated in June 1921. Bray, desperate to duplicate his success with Out of the Inkwell, 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 (the former becoming a top Disney director in The Thirties, the latter becoming the second-highest authority at the Disney studio) all worked at Max's studio during the Twenties. However, the studio truly prospered when they recruited former Barre animator and lead creative force on the Mutt and Jeff animated series Dick Huemer worked on in 1923. Dick Huemer's knack for surreal, unconventional brand of humor is what made Out of the Inkwell 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 believed that he shouldn't wear out his best artists and allow his assistants 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 because Max was concerned about Huemer performing all the tasks by himself. Huemer was initially cautious about this proposal that Max made but learned to adapt to it.
Out of the Inkwell became the second most lucrative series in animation during the twenties, only trailing behind Pat Sullivan's Felix the Cat. Although Inkwell was initially distributed by M.J. Winkler who also handled Felix, and newcomer Walt Disney's Alice Comedies, Max decided to associate himself with another distribution company buying shares from this company entitled Red Seal films. Red Seal was a company that was not exclusively tied to animation but specialized in almost every genre of film. Essie of The Chorus, a live action short-subject series had Ruth Flesicher as co-star, and eventual The Wizard of Oz castmember Ray Bolger 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; much of that frustration planted the seeds for the eventual adversarial relationship the two would have later on. Unfortunately, only one of the Inklings (No.12) survives, but shows great promise and how inventive Dave Fleischer could be. The most crucial role Red Seal played in its brief history was that Max managed to use Red Seal to come into contact with Lee De Forrest who recognized Max's engineering background and believed it could be of use to conduct some synchronized sound experiments with his cartoons. As a result, Song Cartunes featured some of the earliest synchronized sound cartoons beginning in 1926, a two-year advantage over Paul Terry's Dinnertime and Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie.
Unfortunately, Red Seal wasn't a commercially successful venture, and the studio found itself in bankruptcy in Summer 1927. This came right around the period that Max pioneered animated lip-synch in the final Song Cartunes entry, By The Light of the Silvery Moon. Max, losing much of his finances in the venture, couldn't pay back the film labs to receive his negatives for upcoming films, so Alfred Weiss paid them to return the negatives and took over management, making Max and Dave salaried employees instead of leaders of their own company. Alfred Weiss brought Max into contact with Paramount who would distribute Max's work until his company was acquired by them in June 1942. The film series was re-titled Inkwell Imps, and would continue to be released until 1929 when the company folded. Alfred Weiss resurrected Song Cartunes briefly in 1928 where My Old Kentucky Home was produced. note The tension between Max Fleischer and Alfred Weiss made him absent from Out of the Inkwell's final films, and as a result said last entries have a series of Weiss employees trying to emulate Max's role as the master cartoonist. Max, after leaving Weiss, managed to re-organize Out of The Inkwell films in 1929 as Fleischer Studios, which is what the company is better known by today. Max's friend Frank Goldstein provided studio space in Long Island City free-of-charge as Max began to rebuild the company from scratch and resurrected his Song Cartune series as Screen Songs which were very cheap to produce. Max re-associated with Paramount and exploited the fact that him and his staff had added experience with sound animation in comparison to the rest of their competitors, which is a large reason why Paramount decided to distribute them.
Screen Songs began in January of 1929, Max decided to expand on his experience with Lip Synch by dedicating Talkartoons exclusively to that purpose which began with Noah's Lark in October of 1929. Talkartoons had no central character; like many Flesicher productions the shorts were based on successful gag structure and the characters' actions timed to the musical track. After several one-shots they would eventually settle on Bimbo, a cigar wielding, sarcastic, chauvinist personality whose design was based on Mickey Mouse's. Much of what Bimbo actually was, was a redesign of Fitz from Out of the Inkwell; at least Grim Natwick's personal interpretation of the character. After Huemer accepted a job at Mintz producing the Scrappy shorts, Natwick became the driving force for Fleischer Studios. Once more Paramount was anxious to promote one its headlining stars Helen Kane and used Talkartoons as a tool to help promote her likeness. Natwick was in charge of conceiving this character as Bimbo's love interest, this character eventually evolved into Betty Boop. She first made a cameo appearance in Dizzy Dishes and eventually 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 being demoted to little more than a sidekick and Ko-Ko the Clown occasionally being brought out of retirement.
Max, however, had a tendency to downplay Betty's potential — many staff proposed trying to have the character have her own line of merchandise and license her to others. Max reminded them that they were exclusively invested in one business, but undermining the commercial potential of his own properties was one of many major flaws that made people question Max's business abilities.
However, as The Hays Code came to provide strict guidelines about what was and wasn't prohibited throughout Hollywood, Betty found herself reinvented. Much of this was not just motivated by the code itself; much of the option to clean up her public image somewhat had to do with the Hays Code, but also Paramount's management under the leadership of Barney Balbian decided it was time to reinvent themselves and their image. Paramount went through several bankruptcies and financial reorganizations between 1931-36; they became more budget conscious, and with this change of heart they began to play it economically safe by emulating those that had a guaranteed audience such as Disney and MGM but with a fraction of the budget. These attitudes were applied to the direction Fleischer found themselves going from 1934 onward. With less flexible deadlines to meet and being committed to producing a film a week, it was difficult for them to dedicate time to improving their product and their quality began to stagnate from 1934 up until the end of the decade. So many of the advancements that the West Coasts found themselves making were not taking place within Fleischer's company, because their picture commitments made it difficult to dedicate time to improving their product.
Another issue concerning Paramount's re-organizations was that Max proposed interest in converting his films to the Three Strip Technicolor process. Paramount, still going through financial re-organization and bankruptcies, rejected anything that was so commercially risky. Max made similar proposals for an animated features as early as 1934, but because of Paramount's skepticism of it being commercially practical he 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, and sued Max for $250,000 in May 1932, feeling 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, which 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 his grotesque features would make him a successful box-office draw because it helps maintain more comedic appeal. The contract signed in 1932 had listed that they should have all their negatives and traces of the series burned or disposed of within a ten-year period, because of their 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 maintaining his own series, because as noted above King Features' faith in Popeye was so minimal that they demanded the negatives to be burned by 1942, in addition to pairing him up with someone who was already a commercial success. Within a couple of years, Popeye not only exceeded Betty but dethroned Mickey Mouse and made him become 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 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 which 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 that would exclusively be dedicated to color production, with Max using Cinecolor instead of Three-Strip which was exclusively controlled by Walt Disney until 1936. The Stereoptical Camera, while technically impressive and successful creating a convincing illusion of depth, was very difficult to control and maintain, and 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 aficionados and historians.
Feeling comfortable enough to test Popeye elsewhere, Paramount granted Max 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 were already pioneered in Argentina, and Germany this was a first for America. The two-reelers, however, were downplayed following Walt's triumph with Snow White — after Max had badgered Paramount to produce an animated feature for over three years, they finally caved in.
Max, however, didn't want to continue producing within New York and was anxious to relocate, visibly distressed by his employees unionizing in 1937. Much of this was because of the oppressive working conditions. A lot of this was Paramount's doing as stated earlier with the management change and Barney Balbian's leadership. Not only did they give short deadlines to meet, committing to several different series at once, and oppressive working conditions made it difficult to dedicate time to improving the product. It also added considerably to the working conditions of the staff, who lamented about this through unionization. So a lot of employees that may have had a pre-existing relationship with Max now found themselves on opposite ends and physically confronting some of his close friends who had trouble getting in and out of the studio because of the picketing outside. Max was alienated by New York, as by the mid-1930s he and Dave were dedicating a fraction of the year to going to Miami where they owned vacation homes and just wanted to completely abandon residing in New York. Animator Shamus Culhane later recalled how impulsive Max was with his decision, as there was cheap enough studio space throughout Manhattan that could be enough to produce an animated feature.
Paramount, wanting to duplicate Snow White, became increasingly cooperative to Max's demands to not only raise budgets but help them relocate to Miami in 1938. There was a contract that Max not only borrowed a loan from Paramount to pay for the Miami Facilities, but they reached an agreement that the loan be paid back by 1948 with interest, and previous studio properties be used as collateral; by getting into such debt, it made it easy for Paramount to acquire the studio in 1942.
Miami was a doomed venture from the start not just from a financial perspective, but concerning Max abandoning the talent pool in New York. A good percentage of the studio's musical department also refused to move, and as a result the compositions for many Miami Productions waned. The other issue was that the advantages were minimal — the working environment in Miami was much more comfortable than the crammed office space in 1600 Broadway, and as a result many artists that were employed at the Miami facility have fond memories of working there, not aware of the tension between Max, Dave, and Paramount. Taxes were lower so that extra cash flow could be used to charge higher salaries than Disney's, however they were still unable to recruit all the best talent the West had to offer.
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, and as a result many of these novices didn't have the same advantages that the West Coast recruits had... and 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 they were trying to emulate Disney).
Much of Gulliver's banality and constant need to hold up to Disney's standards was much of both Paramount's management's and Cal Howard's doing. 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 it as a clean family picture, just not wanting to acknowledge Disney's triumph. Their were other feature proposals as well — Paramount suggested Peter Pan, Blue Bird, and a film dedicated to the Nativity Scene were also tossed around. None of these came to fruition, but concept art still survives.
The rivalry between Max and Dave was already brewing prior to Miami. Dave was always lamenting about him and his brothers living in Max's shadow as Max received the majority of publicity, while Dave and his brothers constantly reminded him that the studio's accomplishments were a collaborative effort between him and his brothers and not exclusive to just him. Max was willing to abandon Popeye as well, considering that when the King Features contract expired in 1942 they were 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, however he was quite vague about what he wanted and his brothers specifically Dave were livid at the constant effort and sacrifice they made for Popeye and for him to just abruptly want to end its production when it was lucrative made Dave frustrated.
The other issue was that Dave wanted to compose the score for Gulliver's Travels. He had some extensive experience writing compositions for Screen Songs, although he never had the expertise that Lou Fleischer had in the musical department. Max was skeptical and brought this up with Paramount's management who decided to ignore Dave's proposal and hire a professional songwriting team. Dave's fiery attitude was further cemented against Max, when there were rumors of Dave having an affair with a secretary, which he wasn't. However, Dave's wife was so paranoid that she told Max's wife Essie about it, and Essie demanded that Max confront Dave. Dave, sick of these rumors, caved in and decided to retaliate by actually having an affair with the secretary to spite them all. Dave took extended leave and headed back to New York with the secretary for a good amount of 1940. Without Dave supervising the films Cal Howard was left to manage the studio creatively and things went south fast.
Max's contempt for Dave was not only his moral shortcomings concerning his marriage, but also his tendency to exert complete creative control following their relocation. Dave forced Max away from any creative consulting within the studio and forced him to the business administrative end of the studio. Max, knowing the sacrifices and effort he put into the studio and feeling irrelevant, was compelled to send Paramount a telegram voicing his frustrations. The telegram, along with them being in debt with Paramount following the loan they borrowed to pay for the studio, allowed them to begin buying out the studio by 1940. Much of the motivation to acquire the brothers' company was so they could split the profits for Popeye with King Features two ways instead of three. This also let them renew the contract for Popeye, so that by 1942 the negatives and any traces of the series would survive and they could continue to exploit how commercially successful the series was.
To ensure that Paramount managed to buy out the studio, they forced Max and Dave to sign a contract which had them cooperate with resigning from their own studio when Paramount asked for them to do so, and have Paramount take over management. The contract was signed May 24, 1941, and Max caved in because he was blackmailed by Paramount to do so or they might lay off Seymour Kneitel, who was his son-in-law and creative head of the studio, and the stress may have led to another heart attack after Seymour was recovering from his first. Max and Dave were now salaried employees and the rights to their name were owned by Paramount. The contract did, however, promise they would receive royalty checks and their names in the credits for any television airings of their work; this broken promise lead to the lawsuit Max would conduct against Paramount in 1956.
As Paramount began to exert more control, they dove into production for Mr. Bug Goes to Town, which was the first American animated feature not to be based on a previously written book or literature. Mr. Bug is a profound improvement over Gulliver; much of this is not only because they recruited more proficient artists, but also because many of the hard lessons learned in Gulliver prepared them to produce something very dexterously animated. The film's budget was also considerably lower than Gulliver's, and deadlines were shorter and were less flexible.
Superman was also being brought into production around the time of Paramount's takeover. Paramount had successfully bid for the rights of the character and convinced the Fleischers to make it. Reluctant and skeptical because they had little experience in the science fiction genre, Dave tried to talk Paramount out of it by demanding $100,000 per cartoon budget. Paramount responded by offering half the amount, and at $50,000 it was still considerably higher than the average Fleischer short subject. The series relied heavily on the rotoscope, but had effective narratives, proficient use of effects, and more sophisticated designs in comparison to previous series. The series was one of the most pervasive in the renaissance of animation fifty years later, especially providing influence for Bruce Timm and all the animated science fiction adventure programs that subsequently followed.
Max, trying to exert any kind of creative control, sent a memo to Dave (who was directing Mr. Bug) on what parts of the narrative could be improved. Dave replied by denying that there were any problems with the film. Dave once again proposed his involvement with composing the film, and as usual was rejected and replaced by a professional songwriting team. Dave's total alienation with his brothers along with his apathy for the work he produced compelled him to leave Fleischer Studios following Mr. Bug's completion to replace Frank Tashlin as head of Columbia's cartoon division, Screen Gems, in 1942. Mr. Bug opened the week of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December of 1941; regardless of the event, however, Mr. Bug was doomed because of Paramount's reluctance to promote the film and give it the publicity it needed.
Paramount was actually willing to return Max's shares for the studio, however Dave's moonlighting made Paramount convinced that the studio should be a subsidiary without Max's involvement, and the studio was re-organized as Famous Studios in the summer of 1942. Dan Gordon and Isadore Sparber survived the massive layoffs Paramount had after they began to clean house following Max and Dave resigning from the studio. Seymour Kneitel was creatively put in charge to intimidate Max not to sue Paramount after being ousted from his own studio.
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 studios features. His life long ambition was to produce a third feature entitled Pandora's Odyssey which failed to come to fruition; however, the concept did appear in Variety Magazine.
After Max tried to unsuccessful raise the money to have a new studio at his estate in Miami, trying to recruit his other brothers who were less hostile than Dave, Max was visited by Jam Handy who wanted to know the status of the situation. Jam benevolently offered him employment at his Detroit facilities and Max Fleischer was recruited by this former Bray associate to act as a supervisor for many of the studio's productions. This included the original animated adaptation of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1948. He also continued to patent countless inventions, following Paramount acquiring the rights to his previous patents — which, although not directly associated with Fleischer Studios, were still taken because of loopholes in the contracts he signed with them. Max also made a semi-autobiography entitled Noah's Shoes in 1944, which made reference to his association with Paramount and Dave and how they played a role in ousting him from the company he spent years building. Max used several different tropes to discuss his contempt for Paramount's management and Dave using Noah's Ark metaphors. Max than briefly re-associated himself with John Randolph Bray in 1953; the two hadn't professionally worked with one another since Max departed his studio in 1921. The creative partnership lasted three years, but nothing seemed to have come out of it. Max decided to sue Paramount in 1956 after he discovered that Paramount not only broke their promise for Max to receive royalties for his cartoons' television airings, but also replaced his name in the credits with Paramount head Adolph Zukor. Stan Handman represented Max, and not too long after, Dave Fleischer commenced a lawsuit against Paramount trying to argue how Max conspired with Paramount to get Dave out of the picture.
Max continued to actively produce documentaries, and educational films, and also resurfaced in Hal Segar's 1959 adaptation of Out of the Inkwell, for which he was appalled by the low budgets and visibly poor quality that couldn't 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 and would direct 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, retired 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.
- Swing, You Sinners!: One of the most notable shorts in the 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.
- The Color Classics also had its own seven-short sub-series, Hunky and Spunky (1938-41), a series of films about a mother donkey and her son. Famous Studios later produced two cartoons starring Spunky alone in 1944 & 1958 as part of their Noveltoons 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!
- Follow the Bouncing Ball: Trope Namer and Trope Maker.
- Inkblot Cartoon Style
- 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.
- Mickey Mousing
- 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.
- Panty Shot: The pre-code Betty Boop shorts often used this for gags and sex appeal.
- 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.