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The Animated Life of a Film Giant

Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and The Animation Revolution

By Richard Fleischer

(foreword by Leonard Maltin)

University Press of Kentucky, 232 pages, $27.50.

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In 1925, pioneering New York film animator Max Fleischer decided that what the world needed was a five-reel feature film that combined animation and live action, to explain Darwin’s theory of evolution to the common man. At that moment, John Scopes was being tried in a Tennessee court for teaching Darwin’s theory, and Fleischer — who had just made an acclaimed four-reel, live-action film explaining Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to general audiences — thought that Scopes needed some help in making his point. The public response was mixed, to say the least. Crowds packed theaters wherever the movie played, but audiences were prone to break out in fistfights.

The gesture was pure Max Fleischer, in a way that might aptly describe the larger arc of his career: brilliant, naive, stubborn and doomed. Born in Austria, Fleischer was one of the most influential figures in the early years of film animation. He invented several key cinema technologies, created some of America’s most memorable cartoon characters — including Betty Boop and Popeye — and was the only real rival to Walt Disney during the industry’s formative years. And yet, just as cartoons were reaching their peak in the early 1940s, Fleischer lost control of his studio, found himself without a job and spent his last 30 years in relative obscurity.

Today, Max Fleischer’s name is perhaps most often cited among hard-core film aficionados, although other people older than 60 remember it, as well. For the general audiences who went to see his Darwin film in 1925, however, he was a familiar figure. His studio, which he founded in New York in 1919 with his brothers, Dave and Joe, was the dominant force in the early years of animation. He revolutionized cartoons with his utterly charming commercial series of cartoons-and-live-action, “Out of the Inkwell,” a groundbreaking marriage of animation and live-action film in which a live artist’s hand — Max Fleischer’s own — is shown bringing a cartoon character to life. His wildly popular “Follow the Bouncing Ball” sing-along cartoons, introduced in 1924, were the first true sound movies, anticipating “The Jazz Singer” by a full three years. Over the next decade-and-a-half, he would bring to the screen such familiar characters as Betty Boop, Popeye and, especially, Superman, the already popular character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster for Action Comics.

As Fleischer’s biographer, his filmmaker son, Richard, a veteran Hollywood director, persuasively tells us in the book he has named for that early series — an eminently readable, eye-poppingly informative and ultimately tragic story of his father’s rise and fall as one of the creative amazements of American movies — “the Superman cartoons still rank among the best cartoons ever put on the screen… even the music and the slogan they contributed: ‘Look! Up in the sky…. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!’ That slogan swept the world and, like other Fleischer creations, became a permanent part of our culture.”

By the time he was 37, practical scientist Fleischer had a raft of cinema-related inventions to his credit. One of them was the rotoscope, a machine that made it possible for animators to trace the outlines of moving figures on a film. This device became crucial to animation studios of all kinds. Indeed, he already was producing “Out of the Inkwell,” with himself at the drawing table and with his invented character, Ko-Ko the Clown, cavorting between two dimensions and three. As far as being able to explain things was concerned, in addition to breaking down Einstein’s theory for a movie audience (with the help of a few distinguished science writers), Fleischer had worked during World War I for the U.S. Army with his friend Jack Leventhal to produce the first Army training films ever made. Using film and animation once again, he had explained to recruits the process of contour-map reading, the operation of mortars and machine guns, and the laying of submarine mines. Animation is a labor-intensive endeavor. With rare exceptions, even a brief cartoon usually requires a sizable team of variously skilled individuals to produce it. Before the miracles of current technology, which can do some of the visual work mechanically, this team would include conceptualists, artists, writers, inkers, “in-betweeners,” a director, actors, musicians and, at the Disney studios, live models. From the 1920s onward, there were Jews working in most of these categories. One of them was Lillian Friedman, who worked at the Fleischer studio. Friedman was the first woman in America to become an animator. Some, such as Frank Sherman, went on to make cartoons that are now prized by animation buffs. Others, such as Jack Kirby, rose to prominence in related fields. Kirby began with Fleischer and went on to the comics to create the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Hulk. However, when one thinks of leading Jewish animators — names recognizable to a nonspecialist audience today — the list seems to be short albeit impressive: the Fleischer family, Friz Freleng (known for his work on Looney Tunes at Warner Bros. and, with co-creator Hawley Pratt, for credits in the Blake Edwards “The Pink Panther”movie as well as for the subsequent cartoon series — which brought Freleng yet another Oscar) and Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”).

It is not clear why, given the fact that many of the heads of Hollywood studios were Jewish during the 1930s and ’40s, and that Jews succeeded frequently in the field of comic-book art, comparatively few animation studios were directed by Jews. Or why so few Jewish artists in the field of animation became household names. Nor is it clear how much the rollercoaster experience of the Fleischer studios was attributable to the ethnic origins of its co-founders and how much to the particular personalities involved.

A genius and a loving father and husband, Max Fleischer was also a businessman whose mixture of honesty, childlike trustfulness, indulgence and naiveté resulted in his devastating loss of all rights to his famous and beloved cartoons and in the ruthless destruction of many of the cartoons themselves: Betty Boop, Popeye, Superman, the full-length critical and popular success “Gulliver’s Travels,” the “Screen Songs” series and the other enchanting, spooky, flirtatious and abundantly musical film poems in line and song. (Fleischer, like Walt Disney an enthusiast of classical music, experimented with sound technology. Along the way, he invented the idea of “follow the bouncing ball” for sing-along cartoons.)

The son of William Fleischer, an immigrant Jewish tailor from Austria who moonlighted as an inventor, and his wife, Amelia, Max arrived in the United States at age 4. He moved with his parents and brother to Brooklyn and, while still a boy, met the love of his life, Essie Goldstein; their marriage lasted until Max’s death, at age 89. A largely untutored yet gifted draughtsman, he began working as a cartoonist for the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” well before he was 20; eventually, in a Horatio Alger trajectory, he was running his own cartoon studio in Manhattan, which employed hundreds of people. Among them were several of his brothers, including Dave Fleischer. Dave directed every Fleischer cartoon ever produced. Until 1937, when the Walt Disney studio in California released the first feature-length cartoon ever made (“Snow White”), Fleischer (working out of New York) was Disney’s chief competitor. Fleischer and his own studio met the challenge, producing “Gulliver’s Travels” in a mere year-and a-half (“Snow White” took four years to complete). The rivalry was intense, yet not bitter. Many years later, not only would Walt Disney demonstrate kindness to Max Fleischer, but he also would hire his son, Richard, to direct a live-action feature film — the masterful 1954 hit “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” whose generous budget also permitted ground-breaking, technically inventive special effects.

Some animation historians — who believe that the strength of Fleischer’s animations derived from the company’s location in New York City, where it drew on animators and gag writers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds — have identified a decline in the quality as well as in the fortunes of the Fleischer studio when Max moved the operation to Miami in the late 1930s. However, as Richard tells the riveting story, the Fleischers were

deliberately, methodically and summarily crushed in 1941 by Paramount Pictures, to which the Fleischer studio was indebted. Years later, Max would conclude that the reason for Paramount’s staggering cruelty was to cut the Fleischers out of profits from the nascent industry of television, which, even that far back, was preparing to swallow cartoons like so much popcorn to fill up on-air time. Paramount’s lies, threats and other strong-arm tactics culminated in the burning of the entire business and financial records of the Fleischer studios. This left open the door for Paramount to remove all evidence of Max from the credits of the cartoons when they did appear on the tube, as well as to butcher them to fit on-air time slots. It’s a horrifying story of corporate greed and illegality, and for Max it had no happy ending. His suit against Paramount for copyright infringement was dismissed, as the statue of limitations had run out. Max died broken in a Hollywood nursing home in 1972. Just weeks earlier, a pair of young women at King Features Syndicate — which had managed to destroy nearly all the Popeye cartoons — had come across a prototype in the files: It was Popeye guesting in a Betty Boop short, and the women had the idea that it might be profitable to use Betty Boop to sell merchandise. King Features decided to revive the character, and the syndicate approached the Fleischers to lease the rights. Max, by then near death, never knew about his impending vindication and revival.

“The terrible irony of the whole thing,” Richard Fleischer writes at the close of his tale, “was that he died 11 days after the signing of the King Features contract. He never saw Fleischer Studios blossom into a multimillion-dollar contract or got to enjoy the bright and shining newfound success of his creation, Betty Boop.”

Deeply personal, knowledgeable and very loving, “Out of the Inkwell” is a little memoir that leaves the reader with a world’s worth of knowledge about animation, filmmaking and film distribution, popular culture in 20th-century America and the business of movies. Although Max Fleischer stood only 5 feet tall, in his field he is a giant.

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