Max Fleischer (born Majer Fleischer ; July 19, 1883 – September 25, 1972) was an American animator, inventor, film director and producer, and studio founder and owner. Born in Kraków, Poland
, Fleischer immigrated to the United States where he became a pioneer in the development of the animated cartoon
and served as the head of Fleischer Studios
, which he co-founded with his younger brother Dave
. He brought such animated characters as Koko the Clown
, Betty Boop
, and Superman
to the movie screen, and was responsible for several technological innovations, including the Rotoscope
, the "Bouncing Ball" song films, and the "Stereoptical Process". Film director Richard Fleischer
was his son.
Majer Fleischer was born July 19, 1883, to a Jewish
family in Kraków
, (then part of Austria-Hungary
: Austrian Partition
). He was the second of six children of a tailor
from Dąbrowa Tarnowska
, Aaron Fleischer, who later changed his name to William in the United States, and Malka "Amelia" Pałasz.
His family immigrated to the United States in March 1887, settling in New York City, where he attended public school. During his early formative years, he enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle, the result of his father's success as an exclusive tailor to high society clients. This changed drastically after his father lost his business ten years later. His teens were spent in Brownsville
, a poor Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn
. He continued his education at evening high school. He received commercial art training at Cooper Union
and formal art instruction at the Art Students League of New York
, studying under George Bridgman
. He also attended the Mechanics and Tradesman's School in midtown Manhattan
Fleischer began his career at ''The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
''. Beginning as an errand boy, he advanced to photographer, photoengraver, and eventually, staff cartoonist. At first, he drew single-panel editorial cartoons, but then graduated to the full strips "Little Algie" and "S.K. Sposher, the Camera Fiend". These satirical strips reflected his life in Brownsville and his fascination with technology and photography, respectively—both displaying his sense of irony and fatalism. It was during this period he met newspaper cartoonist and early animator, John Randolph Bray
, who would later give him his start in the animation field.
On December 25, 1905, Fleischer married his childhood sweetheart, Ethel (Essie) Goldstein. On the recommendation of Bray, Fleischer was hired as a technical illustrator for the Electro-Light Engraving Company in Boston. In 1909 he moved to Syracuse, New York
, working as a catalog illustrator for the Crouse-Hinds Company, and a year later returned to New York as art editor for ''Popular Science
'' magazine under editor Waldemar Klaempffert.
By 1914, the first commercially produced animated cartoons began to appear in movie theaters. They tended to be stiff and jerky. Fleischer devised an improvement in animation through a combined projector and easel for tracing images from a live-action film. This device, known as the rotoscope
enabled Fleischer to produce the first realistic animation since the initial works of Winsor McCay
. Although his patent was granted in 1917, Max and his brothers Joe and Dave Fleischer
made their first series of tests between 1914 and 1916.
The Pathé Film exchange
offered Max his first opportunity as a producer due in part to the fact that Dave had been working there as a film cutter since 1914. Max chose a political satire of a hunting trip by Theodore Roosevelt
. After several months of labor, the film was rejected, and Max was making the rounds again when he was reunited with John R. Bray at Paramount. Bray had a distribution contract with Paramount at the time and hired Max as production supervisor for his studio. With the outbreak of World War I
, Max was sent to Fort Sill
, Oklahoma to produce the first Army training films on subjects that included ''Contour Map Reading'', ''Operating the Stokes Mortar'', ''Firing the Lewis Machine Gun'', and ''Submarine Mine Laying''. Following the Armistice
, Fleischer returned to Bray and the production of theatrical and educational films.
The Inkwell Studios
Fleischer produced his ''Out of the Inkwell
'' films featuring "The Clown" character, which his brother Dave originated; he had worked as a sideshow clown at Coney Island. It was one of the later tests made from footage of Dave as a clown that interested Bray.
Fleischer's initial series was first produced at the Bray Studios
and released as a monthly installment in the ''Bray-Goldwyn Pictograph Screen Magazine'' from 1919 to 1921. In addition to producing ''Out of the Inkwell'', Max's position at Bray was primarily production manager, and supervisor of several educational and technical films such as ''The Electric Bell'', ''All Aboard for the Moon'', and ''Hello, Mars''. And it was as production manager that Fleischer hired his first animator, Roland Crandall
, who remained with him throughout the active years of Fleischer's studio.
''Out of the Inkwell'' featured the novelty of combining live action and animation and served as semi-documentaries with the appearance of Max Fleischer as the artist who dipped his pen into the ink bottle to produce the clown figure on his drawing board. While the technique of combining animation with live action was already established by others at the Bray Studio, it was Fleischer's clever use of it combined with Fleischer's realistic animation that made his series unique.
In 1921, Max and Dave established Out of the Inkwell Films, Incorporated, and continued production of ''Out of the Inkwell'' through various states-rights distributors. "The Clown" had no name until 1924, when Dick Huemer came aboard after animating on the early ''Mutt and Jeff
'' cartoons. He set the style for the series, redesigning "The Clown", and named him "Ko-Ko". Huemer created Ko-Ko's canine companion, known as Fitz, and moved the Fleischers away from their dependency on the Rotoscope for fluid animation, leaving it for special uses and reference points where compositing was involved. Because Max valued Huemer's work, he instructed Huemer to make just the key poses and have an assistant fill in the remaining drawings. Max assigned Art Davis as Huemer's assistant and this was the beginning of the animation position of "inbetweener", which was essentially another Fleischer "invention" that resulted in efficient production and was adopted by the entire industry by the 1930s.
It was during this time that Max developed the "Rotograph", a means of photographing live action film footage with animation cels for a composited image. This was an improvement over the method used by Bray where a series of 8" x 10" stills were made from motion picture film and used as backgrounds behind animation cels. The Rotograph technique went into more general use as "aerial image photography" and was a staple in animation and optical effects companies for making titles and various forms of matte composites.
In addition to the theatrical comedy films, Fleischer produced technical and educational films including ''That Little Big Fellow'' and ''Now You're Talking'' for A.T.&T. In 1923, he made two 20-minute features explaining Albert Einstein
's Theory of Relativity and Charles Darwin
's ''Evolution'' using animated special effects and live action.
In 1924, Fleischer partnered with Edwin Miles Fadiman, Hugo Riesenfeld
and Lee de Forest
to form Red Seal Pictures Corporation, which owned 36 theaters on the East Coast, extending as far west as Cleveland, Ohio
. During this period, Fleischer invented the "Follow the Bouncing Ball
" technique in his ''Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes
'' series of animated sing-along shorts. In these films, the lyrics of a song appear on screen and theater patrons are encouraged to sing along with the characters. An animated ball bounces across the top of the lyrics to indicate when words should be sung.
Of the 36 ''Song Car-Tunes'' 12 used the De Forest Phonofilm sound-on-film
process, the first of which was ''My Old Kentucky Home
'' in 1926. This preceded Walt Disney
's ''Steamboat Willie
'' (1928), which has been erroneously cited for decades as the first cartoon to synchronize sound with animation. The ''Song Car-Tunes'' series lasted until early 1927 and was interrupted by the bankruptcy of the Red Seal company—just five months before the start of the sound era.
Alfred Weiss, owner of Artcraft Pictures, approached Fleischer with a contract to produce cartoons for Paramount. Due to legal complications of the bankruptcy, the ''Out of the Inkwell'' series was renamed ''The Inkwell Imps'' and ran from 1927 to 1929. This was the start of Fleischer's relationship with the huge Paramount organization, which lasted for the next 15 years. After a year, the Fleischer brothers started experiencing mismanagement under Weiss and left the company in late 1928. Inkwell Films, Inc. filed for bankruptcy in January 1929, and Fleischer formed Fleischer Studios, Inc. in March 1929.
Fleischer Studios, Inc.
In 1935, the Mother Goose-themed short film ''The Kids in the Shoe
'' was released.
Fleischer first set up operations at Carpenter-Goldman Laboratories in Queens with a small staff (see Fleischer Studios
). After eight months, his new company was solvent enough to move back to its former location at 1600 Broadway, where it remained until 1938. At Carpenter-Goldman, Fleischer began producing industrial films including ''Finding His Voice
'' (1929), a demonstration film illustrating the Western Electric Variable Density sound recording and reproduction method. Despite the conflicts with Weiss, Fleischer managed to negotiate a new contract with Paramount to produce a revised version of the "Song Car-tunes", produced with sound and renamed'' Screen Songs
'', beginning with ''The Sidewalks of New York
At this early stage in the sound era, Fleischer produced many technically advanced films that were the result of his continued research and development that perfected the post-production method of sound recording. Several of these devices provided visual cues for the musical conductor to follow. As dialogue and songs became major elements, more precise analysis of soundtracks was possible through other inventions from Fleischer such as "The Cue Meter".
Max Fleischer's Betty Boop
character was born out of a cameo caricature in the early ''Talkartoon
'', ''Dizzy Dishes
'' (1930). Fashioned after popular singer Helen Kane
, she originated as a hybrid poodle/canine figure and was such a sensation in the New York preview that Paramount encouraged Fleischer to develop her into a continuing character. While she originated under animator Myron "Grim" Natwick
, she was transformed into a human female under Seymour Kneitel
and Berny Wolf
and became Fleischer's most famous character.
The "Betty Boop" series began in 1932 and became a big success for Fleischer. That same year, Helen Kane filed a lawsuit against Fleischer, Fleischer Studios, and Paramount claiming that the cartoons were a deliberate caricature of her, created unfair competition, and had ruined her career. The suit went to trial in 1934. An early-sound test film of an obscure Black performer, "Baby Esther" Jones
, was shown as key evidence—disproving Kane's claims as originator of the singing style. Judge Edward J. McGoldrick ruled, "The plaintiff has failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative force." In his opinion, the "baby" technique of singing did not originate with Kane.
[''The Mansfield News'', May 5, 1934.]
Popeye the Sailor
Fleischer's greatest business decision came with his licensing of the comic strip
character Popeye the Sailor
, who was introduced to audiences in the Betty Boop cartoon short, ''Popeye the Sailor
'' (1933). Popeye became one of the most successful screen adaptations of a comic strip in cinema history. Much of this success was due to the perfect match of the Fleischer Studio style combined with its unique use of music. By the late 1930s, a survey indicated that Popeye had eclipsed Mickey Mouse
in popularity, challenging Disney's preeminence in the market.
During its zenith by the mid-1930s, Fleischer Studios was producing four series, ''Betty Boop
'', ''Screen Songs
'', and ''Color Classics
'', resulting in 52 releases each year. From the very beginning, Fleischer's business relationship with Paramount was a joint financial and distribution arrangement, making his studio a service company supplying products for the company's theaters. During the Great Depression
, Paramount went through four bankruptcy reorganizations, which affected their operational expenses.
As a founding member of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers
, Fleischer was aware of the technical advancements of the industry, particularly in the development of color cinematography. Due to Paramount's financial restructuring, he was unable to acquire the three-color Technicolor process from the start. This created the opportunity for Walt Disney
, who was then a small fledgling producer, to acquire a four-year exclusivity. With this, he created a new market for color cartoons beginning with ''Flowers and Trees
'' (1932). In 1934 Paramount approved color production for Fleischer, but he was left with the limited two-color processes of Cinecolor
(red and blue) and Two-Color Technicolor (red and green) for the first year of his ''Color Classics
''. The first entry, ''Poor Cinderella
'' (1934) was made in the two-emulsion/two-color Cinecolor Process and starred Betty Boop in her only color appearance. By 1936, Disney's exclusivity had expired, and Fleischer had the benefit of the three-color Technicolor Process beginning with ''Play Safe''.
These color cartoons were often augmented with Fleischer's patented three-dimensional effects promoted as the "Stereoptical Process", a precursor to Disney's Multiplane animation. This technique used 3-D model sets replacing flat pan backgrounds, with the animation cels photographed in front. This technique was used to the greatest degree in the two-reel ''Popeye Features'' ''Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor
'' (1936) and ''Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves
'' (1937). These double-length cartoons demonstrated Fleischer's interest in animated feature films. While Fleischer petitioned for this for three years, it was not until the New York opening at Radio City of Disney's ''Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
'' (February 1938) that Paramount executives realized the value of animated features and ordered one for a 1939 Christmas release.
The popularity of the Popeye cartoons created a demand for more. To meet Paramount's demands, the studio was challenged with rapid expansion, production speed-ups, and crowded working conditions. Finally, in May 1937, Fleischer Studios was affected by a five-month strike, resulting in a boycott that kept the studio's releases off theater screens until November. Having a paternal attitude towards his employees, Max took it personally, as if he had been betrayed, and thus developed an ulcer. Following the strike, Max and Dave Fleischer decided to move the studio for more space and to escape further labor agitation.
In March 1938, Paramount approved Max's proposal to produce a feature just when he was preparing to move the studio from New York City to Miami, Florida
. Once in Miami relations between Max and Dave began deteriorating, beginning with the pressures to deliver their first feature, complicated further by Dave's adulterous affair with his secretary, Mae Schwartz.
Jonathan Swift's classic, ''Gulliver's Travels
'', was a favorite of Max's and was pressed into production. Fleischer and Paramount originally budgeted the film at $500,000—the same miscalculation made by Disney with ''Snow White''. The final cost for ''Gulliver's Travels'' was three times budget, or $1.5 million. It played limited engagements in only 30 theaters during the 1939 Christmas season, but grossed more than $3 million, giving Paramount a profit of $1.5 million before going into foreign release. But Fleischer Studios was penalized $350,000 for going over budget, and the contract did not allow Max and Fleischer Studios participation in the foreign earnings. This was the beginning of the financial difficulties of Fleischer Studios with reduced royalties due to this debt to Paramount.
In 1940, Max was relegated to business affairs and continued technical development. His efforts resulted in a reflex camera viewfinder and line transfer methods to replace the time-consuming and tedious process of cel inking. That same year Fleischer and Paramount experienced lost revenues due to the failure of the new series ''Gabby'', ''Animated Antics'', and ''Stone Age,'' all launched under the leadership of Dave. After Republic Studios
allegedly failed to develop Superman
as a live-action serial, Max acquired the license that fall and initiated development.
The cost for the ''Superman
'' series has been grossly overstated for decades, based on Dave Fleischer's 1968 interview. The actual figure stated in Fleischer's contract was in the $30,000 range, twice the cost of a Popeye cartoon. ''Superman'' was a reflection of the type of "serious" cartoons that were not being made by rival studios. Their science fiction fantasy elements appealed to Max's interests, finally leading the studio into maturity and relevance for the 1940s.
The early returns on ''Gulliver'' prompted Paramount President, Barney Balaban, to order a second feature for their 1941 Christmas release. This second feature, ''Mr. Bug Goes to Town
'', was unique, having a contemporary setting. It was technically superior to ''Gulliver's Travels''. Paramount had high hopes for its Christmas 1941 release, which was well-received by critics during its December 5 preview. However, the exhibitors rejected it, fearing that it would not do business, and with the bombing of Pearl Harbor
two days after the preview, the original Christmas release was cancelled.
With the cancellation of the release of ''Mr. Bug Goes to Town'', Max was called to a meeting with Balaban in New York, where Max was asked for his resignation. Dave had resigned the month before, following the completion of post-production on the film. Paramount finished out the remaining five months of the 1941 Fleischer contract with the absence of both Max and Dave Fleischer, and the name change to Famous Studios became official on May 27, 1942. Paramount installed new management, among them Max's son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel
Unable to form a studio due to the demand for military training films, Fleischer was brought in as head of the Animation Department for the industrial film company, The Jam Handy Organization
in Detroit, Michigan. While there he supervised the technical and cartoon animation departments, producing training films for the Army and Navy. Fleischer was also involved with top-secret research and development for the war effort including an aircraft bomber sighting system. In 1944, he published ''Noah's Shoes'', a metaphoric account of the building and loss of his studio, casting himself as Noah.
Following the war, he supervised the production of the animated adaptation of ''Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
'' (1948), sponsored by Montgomery Ward
. Fleischer left Handy in 1953 and returned as Production Manager for the Bray Studios
in New York, where he developed an educational television pilot about unusual birds and animals titled, ''Imagine That!''
In 1954, Max's son, Richard Fleischer
, was directing ''20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
'' for Walt Disney. This brought about the honorary luncheon that united Max with his former competitor and reunited him with several former Fleischer animators who were then employed by Disney. This meeting of the former rivals seemed cordial, and Max remarked that he was very happy making educational films at this point in his career. However, in his collection of memoirs entitled ''Just Tell Me When To Cry'', Richard relates how, at the mere mention of Disney's name, Max would mutter, "that son-of-a-bitch."
Fleischer won a lawsuit against Paramount in 1955 over the removal of his name from the credits of his films. While Fleischer had issues over the breach of contract, he had avoided suing for a decade to protect his son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel, who was a lead director at Paramount's Famous Studios. In 1958, Fleischer revived Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc. and partnered with his former animator Hal Seeger
, to produce 100 color ''Out of the Inkwell
'' (1960–1961) cartoons for television. Actor Larry Storch
performed the voices for Koko and supporting characters Kokonut and Mean Moe. While Max appeared in the un-aired pilot, he became too ill to appear in the series, and, in poor health, he spent the rest of his life attempting to regain ownership of "Betty Boop".
Fleischer and wife Essie moved to the Motion Picture Country House
in 1967. Fleischer died from arterial sclerosis of the brain on September 25, 1972, two months after his 89th birthday, and in announcing his passing the press labeled him "dean of animated cartoons". His death preceded the reclaiming of his star character, "Betty Boop," and a national retrospective.
''The Betty Boop Scandals of 1974'' started the Fleischer Renaissance with new 35mm prints of a selection of the best Fleischer cartoons made between 1928 and 1934. This was followed by ''The Popeye Follies''. These special theatrical programs generated interest in Max Fleischer as the alternative to Walt Disney, spawning a new wave of film research devoted to an expanded interest in animation beyond trivial entertainment.
Freely downloadable Max Fleischer cartoonsThe history of the Fleischer's ''Popeye'' seriesMax Fleischer
at the TCM Movie Database
Max Fleischer BiographyOut of the Inkwell''Ko-Ko Song Car Tunes''
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Category:American animated film directors
Category:American animated film producers
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