Although their names may be unfamiliar to some viewers, Max and Dave Fleischer created an extraordinary animated legacy. They gave us Betty Boop and Ko-Ko the Clown as well as such familiar catch phrases as “Follow the bouncing ball” and “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”
During the 1930s, the Fleischer cartoons offered a gritty, rubbery, often risque alternative to the increasingly realistic and wholesome films of Walt Disney: By 1938, some polls showed their animated version of Elzie Segar’s Popeye rivaling Mickey Mouse in popularity.
The Fleischer studio closed 50 years ago because of the box-office failure of the features “Gulliver’s Travels” (1939) and “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” (1941) and a complicated set of quarrels involving the two brothers and Paramount, which financed and distributed Fleischer films.
Leonard Maltin pays tribute to their work in “Cartoon Madness--The Max Fleischer Cartoons,” an upbeat new Arts & Entertainment special.
Max and Dave Fleischer began experimenting with animation in 1915, when they invented the rotoscope, a device that enabled an animator to trace live-action footage frame by frame. The brothers subsequently argued over who originated the idea, but Max received the patent two years later. Dave posed in a black clown suit for a test film of the character who eventually became Ko-Ko, one of the most popular silent cartoon figures. The brothers premiered the first “Out of the Inkwell” short in 1919, the year they formed their own studio.
The Inkwell films began with Ko-Ko emerging from the familiar black bottle to interact with Max. The Fleischers weren’t the first artists to combine animation and live action, but they did it cleverly. “Ko-Ko’s Earth Control” (1928), shown in its entirety in “Cartoon Madness,” combines live action, drawn animation and cut-outs to depict a comic Gotterdammerung.
In 1924, songwriter Charles K. Harris (“After the Ball”) asked the brothers to devise a way to get theater audiences to sing with cartoons. The result was the famous “Bouncing Ball,” which both brothers also claimed to have invented, and which wasn’t really animated.
The words to a song were printed in white on a black paper roll that was mounted on the drum of an old washing machine. As the drum was turned to show one line at a time, a man wearing a black sleeve and glove moved a white ball on the end of a black baton from word to word. After the introduction of sound film, the “Car-Tunes” was retitled “Screen Songs” and featured such popular performers as Ethel Merman, Rudy Valee, Irene Bordoni, Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers.
The Fleischers’ most enduring character made an inauspicious debut as a nightclub singer in “Dizzy Dishes” (1930): Betty Boop. Animator Grim Natwick recalled that Dave Fleischer had handed him the sheet music to the song “Boop-Boop-a-Doop” by Helen Kane and asked him to design a character to perform it. Natwick drew a modified French poodle’s head on a curvaceous girl’s body and gave her a hair-do modeled after Kane’s spit curls. The original design was rather clumsy, but Natwick refined the character over the next year, making her completely human. Her floppy ears became hoop earrings and her black nose was reduced to a tiny button.
Betty was the first truly female animated character; previous cartoon girls were little more than males in high heels and skirts. Natwick had studied life-drawing extensively and was able to make Betty move with convincing feminine grace. Her comic sex appeal provided a recurring theme in the cartoons: When she gives an amorous devil the cold shoulder in “Red Hot Mama,” hell literally freezes over.
In 1934, Helen Kane sued the Fleischers and Paramount for $250,000, claiming that they had limited her earning power by usurping her singing style with Betty Boop. The trial centered on who had coined the “boop-boop-a-doop” phrase. Dave Fleischer later recalled, “In the courtroom ... we were all talking boops and boop-boop-ba-doops and boopety boop-boops, and we’d say, ‘It’s not a boop, it’s a boopety-boop
During the ‘30s, Walt Disney was training his animators to draw in a lush three-dimensional style that approximated real life. The artists at most other studios copied the look of the Disney films to the best of their abilities, but the Fleischer animators continued to develop an older, looser style known as “rubber-hose animation.”
In the early days of silent films, most of the animators drew angular figures modeled after comic-strip characters, but the straight lines flickered on the screen. Around 1917, Bill Nolan introduced a new style that emphasized rounded forms and limbs much like flexible lengths of rubber tubing. The swinging curves that resulted seemed to flow into each other.
The Fleischer artists carried rubber-hose animation to its (il)logical conclusion--a bouncy, metamorphic style in which objects casually grow and shed limbs and faces. When Ko-Ko sings “The St. James Infirmary Blues” in the 1933 “Snow White,” he transforms himself to illustrate the lyrics. Although his snazzy jazz steps were rotoscoped from Cab Calloway, his motions are pure animation with only tenuous ties to reality (the backgrounds in this sequence, delicate ink-wash drawings of skeletons playing cards and shooting dice, echo the lyrics as well). Disney insisted that every visual element in his films advance the story; in the Fleischer shorts, the story just provides a vehicle for animated insanity.
The animators used a slightly less plastic style for the “Popeye” films they began in 1933, although Olive Oyle’s scrawny limbs often seem as rubbery as anything in the Betty Boop shorts. (Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones has remarked that anyone who made love to Olive would have a hard time getting untangled.) The lavish “Superman” series that made its debut in 1941 featured stiffer animation and dramatic lighting and camera angles.
The best Fleischer cartoons were the most original ones, but the studio faltered as it came under increasing pressure to emulate Disney. The “Color Classics” were pallid imitations of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies,” and neither “Gulliver’s Travels” nor “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” did well at the box office. Disney’s reported comment on “Gulliver,” which was, “We can do better than that with our second-rate animators,” was regrettably accurate.
The release of “Mr. Bug” three days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, coupled with the increasingly bitter quarrels between Dave and Max, doomed the studio. Executives at Paramount fired both brothers and changed the name of their studio arm to Paramount/Famous. Although some of the artists stayed on, the Famous cartoons quickly sank into mediocrity--where they remained until the studio finally closed in 1967. It was an ignominious end to an organization that had produced such entertaining and original work.
“Cartoon Madness--The Max Fleischer Cartoons” airs Tuesday at 6 and 10 p.m. on A&E.;