Ray Pointer’s THE ART AND INVENTIONS OF MAX FLEISCHER is a highly welcome (and highly readable) addition to the cinema bookshelf. It details the birth, life and too early death of the most singularly original animation studio in the history of the art.
The key characters that are most remembered today from that studio are, of course, Betty Boop and Popeye. In 1980 and 1982 I brought animation legend Grim Natwick to Toronto. Grim was and is regarded as the creator of Betty Boop and rightly so. As the star of the film was a dog named Bimbo Grim doodled up a poodle chanteuse with long poodle ears who was only meant to be a feature of that one film.
David Mamet, in his books TRUE AND FALSE and BAMBI VS. GODZILLA writes the audience is the only teacher. I’m with Mamet. From the start the girl in DIZZY DISHES was a hit with the public. That meant more films with her in them were called for. Grim animated on only the first three Betty Boop films before leaving for Ub Iwerks’ studio in Hollywood. Pointer is right in saying other artists developed the character of Betty. What a character she was for the brief moment before the censors stepped in causing audiences to lose interest in her pictures.
It seems strange that Paramount, Fleischer’s distributor, balked at producing cartoons starring Popeye the Sailor. Nonetheless, they did. According to Leslie Cabarga’s THE MAX FLEISCHER STORY (on which Pointer worked) not only did Paramount balk, so did King Features Syndicate. When Max went to King Features for the rights they said, “What do you want with that ugly thing?” Paramount said the same.
Popeye was a huge hit in the theaters. He quickly passed Mickey Mouse (who had his own problems with the censors) as the number one cartoon star which he stayed until, again, the censors toned him down and Bugs Bunny stepped up.
Max’s first star character was Koko The Clown. His first major invention was the Rotoscope, a device used as an aid to transforming live action footage into animation.
His second big success (and it was huge) was the creation of “FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL AND SING A LONG” Cartoons. This was in the days when first run theaters sat up to 5,000 people. When the first BOUNCING BALL cartoon was shown it was such a big hit that the theater played it three times in a row.
In the 1920s over 65% of the population went to the movies on a regular basis. Today, according to THE CINEMA YEAR BY YEAR 1894–2002, that figure is less than 15%. It is easy to see why. Going to the movies once was fun, lots of fun (imagine sitting in a theater with 5,000 people and all of us singing our hearts out).
People like Max Fleischer made it fun.
But then the fun ended. Max and his brothers Dave (Direction), Lou (music) and Joe (machine shop) found themselves out of work. The studio they created was surrendered over to production manager Sam Buchwald and artists Seymour Kneitel (Max’s son-in-law), and Izzy Sparber to run largely due to complications between Max and Dave Fleischer who no longer seemed willing or able to work with each other. It’s a shame really as Paramount had neither the desire nor the inclination to run the studio. Max and Dave seemed unable to realize their fighting would bring down their house.
Max’s father, a successful tailor, was lured to move his business into a department store. Once they had his clientèle the store gave Max’s dad the boot.
To give Paramount credit, it was not quite like that. The details are in Pointer’s book. It is essential reading for everyone hoping to create a career in the industry.
The last feature from the Fleischer Studio was 1941’s MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN. I feel it is the finest animated feature film produced anywhere. The late Tisse David (whom I met when I first brought Grim Natwick to Toronto) agreed with me on that.
Before they lost their studio the Fleischers brought SUPERMAN to the screen in a set of films that are a high water mark in the history of animation. These films show that the Fleischer Studio not only met the challenge from Disney they surpassed it.
However, unlike Walt, Max did not own his films. When we build we must make certain our foundation is strong.
There are many great tales in the Fleischer story. Ray Pointer’s more than welcome book tells them.
Get yourself a copy.
–Reg Hartt 02/11/2017.
Note: I once had a friend bring a conceptual artist from Eastern Europe by to see FANTASIA. “Kitsch,” he said after having seen it adding, “Is all Hollywood animation like this?” In answer I showed him the Max Fleischer Studio’s KOKO THE KOP. “I had no idea American animation was once so excellent,” he said. https://archive.org/details/KokoTheKopVideoDailymotion
“You will encounter in your travels folks of your own age who chose the institutional path, who became administrators rather than doers. These folks chose to serve an institutional authority in exchange for a paycheck, and these folks are going to be with you for the rest of your life, and you who come up off the street, who live without certainty day to day and year to year are going to have to bear with being called children by these institutional types; you will, as Shakespeare tells us, endure ‘the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes.’ “It is not childish to live with uncertainty, to devote oneself to an idea rather than an institution. It’s courageous and requires a courage of the order that the institutionally co-opted are ill equipped to perceive. They are so unequipped to perceive it that they can only call it childish, and so excuse their exploitation of you.”– David Mamet, TRUE AND FALSE. (Edited)
Columnist Terry Ramsaye reported in the MOTION PICTURE HERALD of February 28, 1931:
Mickey Mouse, the artistic offspring of Walt Disney, has fallen afoul of the censors in a big way, largely because of his amazing success. Papas and Mamas, especially Mamas, have spoken vigorously to censor boards and elsewhere about what a devilish, naughty little mouse Mickey turned out to be. Now we find that Mickey is not to drink, smoke, or tease the stock in the barnyard. Mickey has been spanked. It is the old, old story. If nobody knows you, you can do anything, and if everybody knows you, you can’t do anything – except what every one approves, which is very little of anything. It has happened often enough among the human stars of the screen and now it gets even the little fellow in black and white who is no thicker than a pencil mark and exists solely in a state of mind.