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Max and Dave Fleischer

The inventor Max and the inventive Dave built a cartoon industry, with a little help from Ko-Ko, Betty Boop, Popeye, and the Bouncing Ball

Max Fleischer was born in Austria in 1885 and came to the United States at the age of five. After some training in art and mechanics at the Art Students’ League, Cooper Union, and the Mechanics and Tradesmen’s School, Max sought employment at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It is said that he offered to pay the Art Editor two dollars a week for the training: the startled editor hired him on the spot.

Max left the Eagle, and after several years as a photo engraver, returned to journalism as the Art Editor of Popular Science Monthly, which allowed him to pursue his mechanical and artistic interests. Encouraged by Waldemar Kaempffert, the Editor-in-Chief, Max, with his brother Dave, attempted to develop a method to facilitate the production of motion picture cartoons by machinery, in order to cut the costs and improve the motion of animation. The result of their experimentation was the rotoscope, which projected a film of a live figure frame-by-frame, serving as a guide for the drawing of an animated figure.

In 1915, the Fleischers had completed their first cartoon by this new method. The film, one hundred and seventy-five feet in length, starred Ko-Ko the Clown, a rotoscoped version of Dave Fleischer in a clown suit. Cartoon in hand, Max went out in search of a distributor, and found John Bray, his erstwhile colleague on the Eagle, whose studio was the exclusive producer of cartoons for Paramount Famous Lasky. Bray hired the Fleischers to produce a series of short cartoons that featured Ko-Ko, but the First World War interrupted the association.

In 1917, the Army established a film studio at Fort Sill to produce training films. Max enlisted in the army, and due to a series of articles he had previously done on military equipment for Popular Science, he was assigned the direction of a series of training films. These animated films, HOW TO READ AN ARMY MAP and HOW TO FIRE A LEWIS GUN (both 1917), may have been fhe first educational cartoons, although Bray has a similar claim. Dave spent the war in Washington, editing films for the Medical Corps. After the end of the war, Max and Dave returned to the Bray Studio, until 1921, when they began to release their “Out of the Inkwell” cartoons through Winkler, then Standard, Arrow, and Red Seal Pictures.

MODELING, an early “Out of the Inkwell” cartoon (1921), begins, as usual, with Max at his drawing board. He sketches circles that form themselves into the shape of Ko-Ko the Clown, who complains that he is weak because Max uses stale ink. Max demands that the clown show more pep, and prods him in to action with a sharp pen. As Ko-Ko cavorts, we see another part of the studio, where Dave is modeling a likeness of an ugly client in clay. The model complains that the bust looks too much like him, and Max, after drawing a winter scene into Ko-Ko’s world, goes to arbitrate the dispute.

Ko-Ko and Betty Boop in Snow White (Dave Fleischer, 1933)

Ko-Ko, left alone, slips along the ice, but regains his balance and skates confidently off screen, sticking out his tongue at us. He reappears over the horizon, and traces a caricature of the model on the ice. A polar bear steals Ko-Ko’s hat, and after a long chase, Ko-Ko rolls the bear up into a giant snowball, which he molds into the likeness of the model.

The three men are angered by this display, so Ko-Ko takes refuge in the sculpture. Max, Dave, and the model are horrified by the subsequent behavior of the bust’s nose, as it begins to crawl along the floor. Terrified, they jump on the piece of clay, but Ko-Ko escapes to the drawing board. The men fight until Max realizes who is to blame. Ko-Ko sees this, and jumps back into the safety of the inkwell. In revenge, Max pours out the ink in symbolic filicide.

In MODELING, the Fleischers tried to solve two of the early problems of animation: elaborate movement, and the illusion of depth. Through the use of the rotoscope, Ko-Ko was able to move in an elaborate and smooth manner through a live set. The Fleischers reveled in the freedom their invention gave them, keeping their silent cartoons in almost constant motion. MODELING illustrates Significant themes in the Fleischers’ work. The animated characters move without necessary cause, and often in a rhythmic pattern. This movement is not limited to change in location. Many things in the film change their shape or properties, such as the drawn circles that transform themselves into the living Ko-Ko, or the nose of the sculpture that crawls like a worm along the floor. These constant transformations run throughout the Fleischer silents. In BEDTIME (1921), Ko-Ko grows gigantic, and stalks, Kong-like, through the streets of New York. In KO-KO’S HAUNTED HOUSE (1928), the inkwell is stretched into a model house, and Ko-Ko’s pet dog Fitz turns himself inside out. In HAREM SCARUM (1928), the chopped-off heads of Ko-Ko and Fitz sprout legs and walk back to their bodies. The Fleischer cartoon world is one in which everything is potentially something else, with a resultingly bizarre imagery that finds its fullest expression in the cartoons of the early Thirties.

The plots of most early Fleischer cartoons are cyclical and fatalistic. In SPARRING PARTNER (1921), a tiny Ko-Ko is unjustly punished by Max. At the film’s end, a shrunken Max is punished by KoKo. More usually, Ko-Ko’s fate is dictated by Max, his father-tormentor; the cartoon shows how the clown both tempts fate and struggles against it. In KO-KO’S HAUNTED HOUSE, Ko-Ko and Fitz are tormented by an animator who rings a gong and blows air into their model house. The characters ask Max for help, and he draws hundreds of Ko-Kos, which frighten the animator out of the studio. At times, the conflict between the real and comic worlds grows increasingly violent. In KO-KO’S EARTH CONTROL (1927), Ko-Ko and Fitz come to a shed, they play with the controls, and Fitz attempts to pull a lever marked “Danger! Do not touch earth control. If the handle is pulled, the world will come to an end.” Despite Ko-Ko’s desperate interference, Fitz succeeds, and the cartoon world begins to crumble. The two characters jump out of the drawing to the supposed safety of the Fleischers’ office window sill. Much to their surprise, they see that the real world is also being destroyed, as the ground shakes, and time runs backwards. Horrified, Ko-Ko and Fitz jump back into the inkwell, leaving the world in a state of chaos.

The filmed process of drawing Ko-Ko at the beginning of almost every silent cartoon shows a Fleischer fascination with mechanics and processes that is evident in other ways. In KO-KO THE HOT SHOT (1924), Max is shown flipping through a stack of cels; in KO-KO’S EARTH CONTROL, we see a cartoon explanation of how nature is controlled. Much of this fascination probably originated with Max, whose interest in mechanics brought him to animation, led him to patent more than a dozen animation processes, and was to lead the Fleischers to make a number of historically significant films in the Twenties.

The Fleischers’ interest in educational films did not end after their short Army film experience. In 1922, Max attempted a four-reel animated explanation of THE EINSTEIN THEORY OF RELATIVITY (1923). This first-ever animated feature was played primarily for schools, and was so completely forgotten that a publicity sheet issued by the Fleischer Studio in 1938 neglected to mention it. THE EINSTEIN THEORY OF RELATIVITY was followed by a partly animated feature, EVOLUTION (1925), a minor sensation, made the same year as the Scopes Monkey Trial.


An even more significant achievement followed. In 1924, the Fleischers, working with Dr. Lee DeForest of the DeForest Phonofilm Company, produced the first sound-on-film cartoon, OH MABEL. In its first public showing, the audience refused to watch the feature until the cartoon was rerun. OH MABEL was the first of the “Song Car-Tunes,” which were more generally distributed in silent versions. However, the sound prints were true synchronized sound films. In MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME (1926), a dog repairs his false teeth, plays a trombone, and requests that the audience sing along and “follow the bouncing ball,” all in perfect synch. Generally, the “Song Car-Tunes” were cheaply animated in comparison with the “Out of the Inkwell” films. Most began with a stock clip of KoKo and the Ko-Ko Kwartette, who would introduce the song. Then the lyrics would roll by, accompanied by the now-famous Bouncing Ball. The last few choruses of the song would have a cartoon character replace the ball, and perform amusing actions as it jumped from word to word. Today, the films seem overlong with their endless choruses, but are still imaginative and funny.

The “Song Car-Tunes,” although popular, were made only until 1926. The Red Seal Picture Corporation, never a financially stable company, had undergone a number of changes of management, ending with Max Fleischer as president. Despite publicity tours, and the introduction of the new live-action two-reel series “Keep ‘Em Guessing” and ” Carrie of the Chorus,” the company closed in September 1926, and the Fleischers were without a distributor.

In 1927, the Fleischers released KO-KO PLAYS POOL through Paramount, an association that was to last for fifteen years. At first, the Fleischers produced a series of silent “Inkwell Imps” cartoons with Ko-Ko, but with the immense popularity of Disney’s talkies, Max and Dave returned to sound cartoons.

THE SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK (1929), a “Screen Song,” was the Fleischers’ first sound cartoon for Paramount, and marked a return to the “bouncing ball” format of the “Song Car-Tunes.” Paramount provided the records or film clips, and the animators, working under Dave’s direction, would devise cartoon action to accompany the music. Often, as in I’LL BE GLAD WHEN YOU’RE DEAD YOU RASCAL YOU (1932), they would incorporate animated characters into previously filmed live sequences. This use of pre-recorded material was closer to today’s animation methods than was the early Disney method of post-recording.

At first, there was no story department at the Fleischers’ studio. Max and Dave, as producer and director, would receive recordings from Paramount, and would decide on a rough action outline or theme. Then Dave would go to work with the animators. The animators were divided into units, each unit working on a different cartoon. The head animators would listen to the music with Dave, and would devise the action of the film, subject to Dave’s approval. This gave the head animators more freedom than the Disney animators, but not as much as the animators at Warners were to have.

The new sound series was far better animated than the first, but marked the decline of Ko-Ko the Clown, who was quickly losing his popularity to Mickey Mouse. The “Inkwell Imps” silents ended in 1929, and were replaced by the “Talkartoon” series. Max appeared less frequently in the films, and Ko-Ko was joined by Bimbo, a more anthropomorphic dog than Fitz. Bimbo’s presence failed to restore the series to the success of earlier silent Ko-Ko’s.

Bimbo's Initiation (Dave Fleischer, 1931)

In August 1930, the Fleischers introduced a new character, developed with animator Grim Natwick, called Betty Boop, who first appeared as a dog-like character in the “Talkartoon” DIZZY DISHES (1930). In 1931, after advertising for a girl “with a cute voice,” the Fleischers hired Mae Questel to provide the Helen Kaneish voice for the new character. Questel’s voice first appeared in BETTY CO-ED (1931), which opens with Betty Boop as she is carried by cheering college students. We see Bimbo walking to Betty’s door with flowers and candy. He is seized by two fraternity men, who bounce him into the air with a blanket. Bimbo falls into a tree, which comes to life and deposits the hapless dog at the fraternity door. After a live-action sequence of Rudy Vallee singing the title song, Bimbo gets to see Betty, and a number of shots give a satirical view of college graduation.

BETTY CO-ED illustrates the weakness of many of the “Screen Songs.” The live-action sequence in the middle of the cartoon disturbs its kinetic pace. The film just stops while Vallee sings, although it may not have seemed so to theater audiences who joined him in song. Also, at this time, the Betty Boop character was not yet fully formed, being awkwardly half-woman, half-dog.

As in other Fleischer cartoons, there is a tremendous sense of fatalism in BETTY CO-ED. Bimbo cannot get to Betty through his own attempts, but is brought to her by chance. He is tormented by fraternity members and struggles with an anthropomorphic tree in an expression of violence and mutability. BETTY CO-ED also contains strongly sexual elements.

Not all of the early sound Fleischer cartoons were psychodramas. Some were revues, composed of a number of loosely related sight gags and musical numbers. BETTY BOOP M.D. (1932) has Betty and friends in a medicine show, selling Jippo. The cartoon is a dance of metamorphosis and death as various characters drink Jippo. An old man drinks and jumps into his grave. The entire cast marches towards the camera, their bodies elongating in time with the music. Finally, a baby drinks, and turns into Mr. Hyde. Despite the gruesomeness of these images, the effect is pleasant because the characters’ movements are so closely choreographed with the infectious jazz score (penned by Lou Fleischer).

Other revue cartoons entered the realm of social satire. In BETTY BOOP FOR PRESIDENT (1932), the Fleischers parody Prohibition and campaign promises as Betty imitates a number of politicians, including Herbert Hoover. BETTY BOOP’S UPS AND DOWNS (1932) is the Fleischers’ Grapes of Wrath, where everyone on earth is dispossessed. Neither cartoon has a plot; instead, they gently poke fun at the problems of the country in a number of short, almost unrelated sight gags, and pleasant, but forgettable songs. Their charm lies in their light-hearted approach to the subject matter, in contrast to the overpowering imagery of the psycho-sexual dramas.

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (Dave Fleischer, 1936)

In 1932, the Fleischers arranged with King Features Syndicate to bring to the screen E.C. Segar’s popular Thimble Theatre comic strip character, Popeye the Sailor. Popeye’s debut was in a Betty Boop cartoon, POPEYE THE SAILOR (1933), where he was first shown in a newspaper that announced that Popeye was now a movie star. Ko-Ko was merely a re-creation of Dave; Betty had appeared with her “Uncle Max” in a few cartoons. But Popeye was the first Fleischer character who was independent of his creator, and the only one who never returned to the inkwell.

POPEYE THE SAILOR provided the basic plot of many Popeye cartoons. Popeye and Bluto are rivals for Olive Oyl’s love. They compete for her favors, and Popeye eventually wins by eating his spinach, and beating Bluto in a fight. The early Popeye was a simple gruff character, but with the development of a story department in 1932, and with the later addition of actor-writer Jack Mercer (who provided Popeye’s delightful ad libs), the characters attained a richness denied earlier Fleischer cartoon characters.

In A DREAM WALKING (1934), we see development in both character and style. The film begins with a REAR WiNDOW-ish track along an apartment building wall, revealing Popeye, Bluto, and Olive asleep in their separate apartments. Olive begins to sleepwalk, and exits through a window, upsetting a flowerpot. The crash awakens Popeye and Bluto, who rush out to save her.

Olive walks along rooftops into a building under construction. The two sailors struggle with each other for the privilege of rescuing her. Their fight goes on within a marvelously mechanistic geometric environment of moving beams and girders, with the sailors using the beams and tools as weapons. After eating his spinach, Popeye wins the struggle, but Olive has walked right off the building, and is only saved from falling by the miraculous but seemingly inevitable presence of swinging beams that appear as she is about to step out into space.

Popeye reaches Olive’s window just as she reclines peacefully back into bed. The alarm clock goes off, Olive wakes, and thinks that Popeye is a peeping tom. As she hurls everything she can find at him, Popeye turns to the audience and says, “I saw my duty and done it, ’cause I’m Popeye the Sailor Man!” Popeye’s invincibility is somewhat modified by his lack of success in love in A DREAM WALKING, and his endurance of the slings and arrows of outraged Olive reveals a stoic side of his nature.

FOR BETTER OR WORSER (1935) combines grotesquerie and pessimism with the Fleischer cyclical plot. Popeye and Bluto live in a filthy tenement labelled “Bachelor Apts.” After burning his dinner once more, Popeye says “It’s no use, I have to get me a wife.” He and Bluto visit a matrimonial agency, and both select a picture of Olive. As soon as Olive enters, in gown and veil, Bluto grabs her and tries to carry her off to a Justice of the Peace. Popeye follows, but in the struggle is covered with cement, and frozen into a statue (yet another metamorphosis). As Bluto drags Olive into Justice Wimpy’s office Popeye manages to move under a pile driver, which breaks the cement and crushes him grotesquely into an accordion shape. Undaunted, Popeye rushes into Wimpy’s office, takes his spinach, and defeats Bluto. But when Popeye sees his bride, looking none the better from her ordeal, he rushes back to his apartment, where he picks up an eggbeater and beats oeuf.

By the mid-Thirties, the Fleischer studio was rivalled only by Walt Disney Productions. Although Disney was more “artistically” respectable at the time, Popeye had outstripped Mickey Mouse as the most popular cartoon character in the world. Both companies sought to refine their products in order to market more spectacular cartoons, through longer color films.

Many of the early Fleischer cartoons were tinted, including at least one sound “Song Car-Tune,” HAS ANYBODY SEEN KELLY? (1926), but the practice was discontinued in 1929, because it was unprofitable. Disney’s success with Technicolor changed that; and in 1934, the F1eischers produced their first “Color Classic”, POOR CINDERELLA. This was shot in a two-color process, because Disney’s arrangement with Technicolor prevented other animators from using the process until 1935. Max compensated for this technical deficiency by devising the stereoptical process, which, he claimed, introduced a three-dimensional effect to animation.

This process was a refinement of the first Ko-Ko cartoons. Previously, Max and Dave had presented their cartoon characters in a real world. The stereoptical process adapted a real set to a cartoon world. A miniature set was constructed on a circular table, and the cels were mounted in front of it. When the set was photographed through the cels, it appeared that the characters were moving in the set. By rotating the table, the Fleischers could get the effect of tracking through a threedimensional cartoon set. The effect was quite startling. In LITTLE DUTCH MILL (1934), the Fleischers rotate a centrally pivoted model of the inside of a windmill, as two cartoon children are chased by the villain. The three-dimensional effect given by the turning set gives a visual as well as an emotional, excitement to the scene. Aside from their use as technical exercises, the “Color Classics” were experiments with sentiment. All too often, though, they became exercises in the most maudlin sentimentality, outdoing Disney’s excesses. In SOMEWHERE IN DREAMLAND (1936), two poor little children visit the saccharine wonders of Dreamland in their sleep; when the children awaken, they find that local merchants have visited their hovel, and transformed it into a Dreamland on earth for the little tykes and their mother. The cartoon suffers further from impossibly sweet voices and a gooey choral accompaniment to the action. The F1eischers, with a few exceptions, seemed unable to deal with sentiment in an effective manner, a fault that was to harm their first sound feature.

For two years, the “Color Classics” were the only Fleischer color cartoons. In 1936, the Fleischer Studio released a two-reel special, POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINDBAD THE SAILOR, possibly the most spectacular cartoon made up to that time. The film opens on Bluto, as Sindbad, who takes the audience on a musical tour of his stereoptical island, where the very stones resemble skulls and beasts. Sindbad spies Popeye, Wimpy, and Olive as they sail past his island, and orders the Roc to “Wreck that ship, but bring me the woman.” The Roc destroys the ship, and abducts Olive, as Popeye stoically observes, “That’s the biggest buzzard I ever saw.” Popeye and Wimpy swim to the island, where Popeye defeats the Roc, Boola the Two-headed Monster, and finally Sindbad. The film ends as all the beasts of the island join Popeye in the same song they sang with Sindbad at the film’s beginning.

POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINDBAD THE SAILOR is refreshingly free of the sentimentalities of the “Color Classic’ series. It uses the Fleischer cyclical plots but without the usual pessimism, grotesqueries, and morbid overtones of many of the earlier Popeye cartoons. The film also shows a concern for style and language that had been developed in earlier works.

Many Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons depended on the use of verbal humor for comic effect. A similar outrageous use of language occurs in SINDBAD. A sign greets visitors to the island with the message: “Enter Not. Whosoever Passeth In, Passeth Out.” Later, when Popeye combats Boola, the monster swears “By Carbonate! I make from you Chicken Fricassee Assisi!” The film also includes one of the F1eischers’ visual puns. During the fight between Popeye and Sindbad, Popeye is squeezed in Sindbad’s grip. First, his face turns as red as a beet, and then actually turns into a beet—a new development from the usual metamorphosis.

Most importantly, SINDBAD was the first true cartoon epic, impressive in length, color, and spectacle. The low-angle shots of the dark, massive Roc, and the accompanying sound of rushing wind, give a sense of menace on a scale larger than any of the Fleischers’ previous works. Although the environment of A DREAM WALKING had been as interesting in its mechanical expressionism as the set of SINDBAD was in its exotic expressionism, the gritty city streets of the Popeye series were forsaken for the exotic environments of MINNIE THE MOOCHER and SNOW WHITE.

POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINDBAD THE SAILOR was instantly successful, and was often billed over its accompanying feature. It also won the studio its first Academy Award nomination for Short Subjects, but the award went to Disney for THE COUNTRY COUSIN (1936). Encouraged by success, the Fleischer Studio began work on two more Popeye specials. Before they were released, an unsettling event occurred at the Fleischer Studio in New York.

On April 20, 1937, the Commercial Artists and Designer’s Union charged that Max Fleischer had refused to negotiate with the union after hearing the requests for pay increases and shorter hours. This was so. While Dave had worked fairly closely with the animators, Max preferred to work on management, development of techniques, and story ideas. He took a paternalistic attitude to his employees; to him the demands of the striking inkers, opaquers, and in-betweeners were like the demands of ungrateful children. Although salaried employees only received fifteen to twenty-seven dollars a week, this was on a par with wages at other animation studios. However, the work load was heavy, and since the F1eischers did not shoot pencil tests, there was not the margin for error that existed at Disney’s or Iwerks’ studios. Also, while Disney provided his staff with the latest of equipment, the Fleischers did not. As late as GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1939), the Fleischer Studio had only one Moviola, while Disney had many.

The strike went on for many months and, although it was finally settled, the new situation did not please the F1eischers. In February of 1938, the Fleischer Studios announced plans to construct a $300,000 studio in Miami, far from the labor problems of New York. In the meantime, production continued in New York, and the Fleischers released perhaps the best of the two-reel Popeye cartoons.

Max Fleischer and friend at work on Gulliver's Travels (Dave Fleischer, 1939) Director: MGM USA On/Off Set

POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS ALI BABA’S FORTY THIEVES (1937), opens once more with a musical introduction by Bluto, this time as Abu Hassan, the scourge of the East, as he rides with his band through a stereoptical desert. Popeye, Wimpy, and Olive, stationed at a Coast Guard base, are ordered by radio to stop Hassan. Popeye’s boat metamorphoses into an airplane, which crashes in the desert.

As day turns into night, and back again, we see Popeye, Olive, and Wimpy trudge wearily through the desert, as Popeye whimsically mutters “I wish there was a boardwalk on this beach.” When Olive collapses, Popeye pushes her into the shape of a camel, and they continue on until both Olive and Wimpy collapse. Popeye transforms them into a tank tread, and in this form they rush through the desert and in to a town. While the travelers refresh themselves in a cafe, Hassan and his men raid the town. When Popeye pulls Hassan off his horse, Hassan bellows “Think you’re a tough guy, eh?” The embarrassed Popeye blushes and says “You can take me home for only $1.98.” They fight, and Popeye is defeated. Hassan and his men leave town with Olive and Wimpy, Popeye pursues them, and cuts his way into Hassan’s cave with the flame of his pipe.

The sumptuous, three-dimensional interior of the cave has no equal in any of the Fleischers’ work. Popeye proceeds apprehensively past brightly-colored heaps of jewels and gold, and finds that Olive and Wimpy have been enslaved by Hassan. Popeye pulls out his spinach, says “Open Sez-Me,” and the can miraculously opens. His flexed bicep shows the form of a tank within—a typically mechanistic expression of strength. In a battle royal, he defeats Hassan and the forty thieves, and returns in glory to the Arab town.

ALI BABA was a distinct improvement over the first two-reel Popeye. It replaces Sindbad’s long, tedious musical introduction, with a shorter introduction of Abu Hassan that is intercut with the introduction of Popeye. ALI BABA shows much more verbal and visual wit than its predecessor. And it is enriched by a reference to some of the darker psychological themes of the earlier works. When Popeye first enters Abu Hassan’s cave, he remarks: ” I don’t like it in here a bit!” This is reminiscent of the anxieties of Ko-Ko and Bimbo in the caves and hallways of KO-KO’S HAUNTED HOUSE, BIMBO’S INITIATION, and SNOW WHITE.


The last of the Popeye specials was not the equal of the first two. ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP (1939), a Hollywoodized version of the Aladdin story, is interesting for two reasons. First, it has a different type of self-consciousness from the silent Fleischer films. No animator appears in the Popeye cartoons, yet Popeye is aware that he is in a film. When he kisses Olive in ALADDIN, Popeye hesitates shyly and says, “Gosh, I’ve never done this in Technicolor before.” This kind of self-consciousness had occurred in POPEYE THE SAILOR, when a newspaper proclaimed Popeye as a star. It was developed further in HOLD THE WIRE (1936), when he temporarily forgets his part. Olive has to remind him that he is supposed to take his spinach. “I never thought of that,” he replies.

Popeye’s self-consciousness finds greater expression in GOONLAND (1938). A climactic battle between Popeye, his father, and the hostile Goons is so fierce that the film “breaks,” and all of the Goons falloff the screen. Popeye comments, “That was a lucky break!”, pulls the two halves of the broken film together, and the cartoon continues. Unlike all the earlier Fleischer characters, Popeye does not need the intercession of an animator to control his fate.

As the Betty Boop character became more domesticated in the late Thirties, her popularity declined, and when Mae Questel refused to move with the studio to Miami in 1939, the series was dropped. The Popeye character continued to change as well, becoming increasingly gentle, often to the point of being foolish. In LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE (1939), Popeye frees all the animals in Olive’s pet shop despite a wise parrot’s advice to leave well enough alone. Popeye realizes that he is wrong when the dog catcher rounds up the hungry strays. In PUTTIN’ ON THE ACT (1940), Popeye and Olive polish up their routines after reading a newspaper article on the renaissance of vaudeville. Swee’pea dampens their enthusiasm when he points out that the paper is several decades old. Popeye’s senile father, in WITH POOPDECK PAPPY (1940), wants to spend his nights carousing, but Popeye worries about the old man’s health. After many attempts to get Pappy to bed, Popeye finally chains him down. Popeye climbs into his own bed, turns out the light, and says “Goodnight Pappy.” No answer. Popeye turns on the light, and finds that he is chained to his bed, and the old man has escaped. This was a far cry from the gruff character of POPEYE THE SAILOR.

Gulliver's Travels (Gulliver's Travels, 1939)

Perhaps part of the reason that the Fleischer cartoons changed was the impact of “Disneyfication.” Many of the Fleischer staff of the Forties had worked for Disney or Iwerks in the Thirties, often moving from studio to studio. A strong Disney influence can be seen in the “Color Classic” A KICK IN TIME (1940), animated by Shamus Culhane and Al Eugster after their return to the Fleischers from Iwerks and Disney. Spunky, a baby donkey, is separated from his mother Hunky—a stock Disney theme, but uncommon in the Fleischer films. He is kidnapped and sold into slavery in a scene that bears an amazing resemblance to the end of the Pleasure Island sequence in Disney’s PINOCCHIO. In A KICK IN TIME, the usual stereoptical process was discarded in favor of a less effective approximation of the Disney Multiplane camera effect. Also the characters were more naturalistic than the funky originals developed by Myron Waldman. Many Fleischer characteristics remained, however, including a long passage devoted to the process of harnessing Spunky, and occasional Fleischeresque language, like “I’ll be back in a flash with the trash.”

In 1938, the Fleischer Studio moved to Miami, where the staff was swollen by the addition of hundreds of artists hired to work on a sound feature, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS.

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS did well at the box office, but the Fleischers were dissatisfied. Paramount, eager to duplicate the popularity of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, had forced the Fleischers to rush their film through production. Max and Dave felt that the film suffered, and indeed it had many problems. It lacked stylistic unity. Gulliver, Prince David, and Princess Glory were heavily rotoscoped, but the other characters were drawn in the free style of the Popeye cartoons. The contrast often made the rotoscoped characters look awkwardly lifelike, and the others crudely drawn.

The script suffered from an apparent inability of the Fleischer Studio to make the hero or romantic leads interesting. The observer does not care whether the lovers are united, and one suspects that the F1eischers did not care either. More attention was given to the subsidiary comic characters, particularly King Little. Like the Popeye of the later cartoons, Little is reluctant to fight, but is on the winning side, and has Popeye’s benevolent, slightly foolish quality. Bombo resembles Bluto in physique and temperament. In contrast, Princess Glory and Prince David are the antithesis of Betty and Bimbo or Popeye and Olive, replacing the former lower class comic-sexual relationships with a blandly “classy,” sexless, over-romanticized one.

Many of the backgrounds of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS recall—not always to their credit—the backgrounds of earlier Fleischer films. The interior of King Little’s palace shows the same kind of detailed chiaroscuro as the backgrounds of MINNIE THE MOOCHER or SNOW WHITE, but without the menacing imagery. Perhaps the best sequences in the film deal with mechanical processes. The binding of Gulliver begins with a bit of comic foreshadowing. As the tiny figures advance on the sleeping giant, they tie down a particularly noisy member of their party. Then, by the light of the moon, they tie cables around Gulliver, construct cranes, and lift him onto a cart. Hundreds of cartoon horses are shown in heroic angles as they strain under the weight of Gulliver. Similar attention is given to the grooming of Gulliver with scythes and rakes. Unfortunately, more detail is given to these physical properties of Gulliver the giant, than to the personal qualities of Gulliver the man.

Some of the darker themes in the Fleischers’ earlier work are repeated in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. Gulliver’s pistol is taken from him when he is bound, in symbolic castration. He does not have the power to return home until the gun is returned to him. Furthermore, Prince David does not marry Princess Glory until he takes this pistol away from his father’s agents.

The Forties found the Fleischers without a replacement for the defunct Betty Boop series. The donkeys Hunky and Spunky, had a limited success, but a proto-Flintstones series of “Stone Age” cartoons proved very unpopular. In one form or another, every comic character of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS was tried out in a “Gabby Color Cartoon” or an “Animated Antics,” but none was successful. Expenses were high at the studio, with a staff of hundreds, and this was aggravated when Paramount obtained the rights to animate Superman, the popular Action Comics character, in hopes of repeating Popeye’s success, despite Dave Fleischer’s protests that production costs would make any profit impossible.

SUPERMAN (1941) revealed some stylistic difficulties that the Pop eye cartoons did not have. Segar’s style of drawing had more in common with the Fleischer style of the early Thirties than the drawings of Superman cartoonist Joe Shuster had in the early Forties. As a result, SUPERMAN was an unhappy amalgam of different styles, combining Shuster’s more naturalistic artwork for the heroes, with the Fleischers’ more grotesque style for the villain.

The “Superman Color Cartoons” were well received, but were too expensive to yield any significant profits. The Fleischers desperately needed to have a hit with their next feature, MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN (1941). The advance publicity for the film had an ominous ring to it. Not since the final days of Red Seal Pictures had the studio been so press-conscious. Weird publicity stunts were tried, such as an $185,000 insurance policy with Lloyds of London on the hands of the head animators. Even hangnails were to be covered.

MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN was billed as the first feature cartoon with an original story, although Dave Fleischer admits that he was influenced by Maeterlinck’s Life of a Bee. The film opens with lyrical tracking shots through the sky, down past the buildings of a stereoptical New York, to a park, where a man discards a lit match. The camera follows the match down to the world of the insects, finishing a poetic transition from the cosmic to the microcosmic. MR. BUG tells the story of a young grasshopper named Hoppity, his wooing of the lovely Honey Bee, and his search for a safe home for the entire insect community whose existence is threatened by the construction of a skyscraper. The insects’ hopes become linked with the hopes of struggling songwriter Dick Dickens, who plans to rebuild his home where the skyscraper is to be built, if his song is sold. The evil C. Bagley Beetle, however, has designs on Honey, and tries to thwart everyone’s plans to achieve his own nefarious ends. Beetle’s attempt to hide Dickens’ check fails, and although the skyscraper is built, Hoppity, Honey, and the other insects find a home in Dickens’ penthouse apartment garden.

The connection between MR. BUG and Frank Capra’s films go beyond the similarity of the titles. In physique, sincerity, and a faith in the future, Hoppity resembles Capra’s arch-heroes, James Stewart and Gary Cooper. Mr. Beetle is the dark force that threatens the well being of the community, much like Edward Arnold in MEET JOHN DOE and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Hoppity experiences the moment of disillusionment and despair that strikes Capra’s heroes, but regains his faith and that of his fellow citizens at the end of the film.

Nevertheless, the film does show a number of typical Fleischer features. The preoccupation with construction echoes GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, as the process of building the insect wedding chapel and the skyscraper show. Rotoscoping and conventionally animated figures are used more successfully than in the earlier feature. Instead of producing a disunity of style, here the two styles illustrate a barrier between the rotoscoped human world and the insect world. This is similar to Disney’s use of rotoscoping in DUMBO, where the circus laborers are rotoscoped, but the animals are not, defining two different, but related worlds. This separation between animal and human was a fairly late development in the Fleischers’ work. In early Betty Boop and Pop eye cartoons, the two mingled on an equal basis. The Jitterbug sequence where Hoppity gets electrified is an abstract interlude similar to DUMBO’S Pink Elephants On Parade sequence in its use of music and image.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of both the Fleischer features is that they do not deal with the great fantasies and fears of childhood, as did the Disney films. Instead they concentrate on adult anxieties—fear of death, sexual fears, and fears of change—that could not effect children. Also, the studio suffered from a rift between Max and Dave Fleischer.

Since 1937, when they clashed in a personal matter, the brothers had refused to talk to one another. Apparently, they were able to function in this manner. Dave directed the films, and Max handled technical and administrative matters. Early in 1942, Dave resigned, although he retained his share of the company, and within the year he was producing “Color Phantasies” and “Color Rhapsodies” for Columbia, some of which were remakes of earlier Fleischer cartoons.

In the meantime, the returns on MR. BUG were not as good as had been hoped. Due to the war, the European and Japanese markets, which had made up a great part of the Fleischer audience, were cut off. It also seems as if Paramount wanted the Fleischer Studio to founder: the Paramount publicity office had actually sent advisors to Disney’s studio to help prepare publicity for BAMBI.

Max was now so deeply in debt that he was forced to sell the company to Paramount. In mid-1942, the studio was renamed the Famous Studio, with Fleischer employees Seymour Kneitel and Isadore Sparber as studio heads. The staff was pared drastically, and the studio returned to New York, where it was to produce cartoons that continued to decline in quality.

After losing the studio, Max developed a gunsight recording mechanism for the army. He worked for the Jam Handy Organization, a Detroit concern that produced advertising films and educational filmstrips, and then returned to the Bray Studio. In the Fifties, he was involved in a short-lived “Ko-Ko” cartoon series for television. Dave remained at Columbia for several years, and then joined Universal as a special effects man, where, he recalls, he painted cracks on someone’s glasses for THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. Max Fleischer died on November 12, 1972. Dave lives in semi-retirement in Hollywood, California. The brothers never did speak to each other again.