The Timeless Artistry of Max Fleischer Cartoons
In the wake of Disney extension of its domination over the film business of its acquisition with purchase of Fox it is noteworthy to remember a time when the corporate giant faced stiff competition from a rival in the animation sphere: the pioneering, ever-inventive Fleischer Studios, founded by the one and only Max Fleischer. From 1924 to 1940, Fleischer brought to the silver screen a host of iconic characters, including Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye, Superman, and many more. Whereas Disney’s style was light and polished, Fleischer’s was known to be gritty and rough-around-the-edges. When Disney highlighted anthropomorphized animals in its cartoons, Fleischer’s leading stars were largely exaggerated humanoids. And, rather than highlighting idyllic meadows and quasi-European fairy tale settings, Fleischer’s cartoons took place in something resembling the real world — full of grimy, urban locales which reflected the anxieties of the Great Depression. But even if the content of Fleischer’s noted works register as slightly left of center, their visual and technical presentation was always second-to-none, owing to the forward-thinking ingenuity of their creator.
After graduating New York’s Cooper Union in 1902, Max Fleischer landed a series of jobs for local newspapers, drawing political cartoons. Before long, the young illustrator begin experimenting in the nascent field of animation, creating an optical device known as Rotoscope — an easel/film projector which allowed the user to trace directly atop live footage to create breathtakingly realistic animation. In 1921, Max went into business with his brother Dave, and, using this technology, parlayed his success into a deal with Paramount Pictures, officially incorporating their partnership as Fleischer Studios. One of their early test reels involved Dave dressing up in a clown costume, which was rotoscoped into Koko The Clown — a puckish figure who would interact with his “real world” surroundings in a series of shorts which veered into violent and hallucinogenic territory. In 1930, Fleischer was inspired by African-American crooner Esther Jones to create one of his most popular characters: the baby-voiced lounge singer Betty Boop. With her swaying hips and flapper’s appearance, Boop took lead in cartoons that paired innuendoes with subversive visual gags. One such short, 1931’s “Bimbo’s Initiation”, took aim at Disney, with a story involving Boop’s dog Bimbo being kidnapped and tortured in an underground chamber by a character who bears a striking resemblance to Mickey Mouse.
After Betty Boop scintillated viewers nationwide, Fleischer continued his expansion by optioning the rights to Popeye the Sailor, a popular E.C. Segar comic character, creating a series of animated shorts which were known for their freewheeling storylines and dialogue. Although the super-strong sailor with a spinach habit was famous for his catchphrase, “I yam what I yam,” many of the series’ most humorous lines were the product of ad-libbing from voice artist Jack Mercer. Indeed, while Walt Disney was known for forcing his animators and vocal talents to tow the party line creatively, Fleischer took a looser, more idiosyncratic approach, which favored the immediacy of gonzo sight gags and spur-of-the-moment wisecracks over thoughtfully planned out narrative arcs. Despite this unorthodox approach, audiences responded in droves, and, by 1937, the demand for Popeye became so great that Fleischer’s animation department participated in a labor strike, crippling their workflow for five months.]
Following the strike, the Fleischers moved operations to Miami, where Max managed to secure an option to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s popular Superman comic books, adapting them into an animated serial in 1940. The cartoons were rendered with a larger-than-life, heavily stylized art deco sheen that set them apart from any other animation at the time. The tone of their adaption was inspired largely by the film noir movement, as well as the angular futurism of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon series’, with moody lighting, smoke-draped silhouettes, and dazzling effects like electrical currents and x-ray vision. The Superman serial’s influence is still felt today, having inspired properties such as Godzilla, Waking Life, and Batman: The Animated Series. Sadly, in the aftermath of Superman, Fleischer’s fortunes began a steady decline. In 1942, owing to financial difficulties, Max resigned from the company that bore his name. Over the following decades, he would go on to make educational and industrial projects, but would never reach the level of success that he had in the Studio’s heyday. Nevertheless, Max Fleischer’s body of work places him among the “founding fathers” of animation, and the processes he developed laid the groundwork for countless contemporary classics.
Many Fleisher Studios cartoons are now in the public domain. The RetroFilm Vault specializes in carrying broadcast quality public domain cartoons for media professionals.