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Max Fleischer (July 19, 1883 – September 11, 1972) was an American animator. He was a pioneer in the development of the animated cartoon and served as the head of Fleischer Studios. He brought such animated characters as Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Popeye, and Superman to the movie screen and was responsible for a number of technological innovations.

Early life

Born to a Jewish family in Krakówmarker, Polandmarker then part of the Austrian-Hungarian province of Galicia, Max Fleischer was the second oldest of six children. His family emigrated to the USAmarker in 1887 and settled in New York Citymarker. He attended public school in New York City, having spent his formative years in Brownsville and Brooklyn. He attended Evening High School, received commercial art training at Cooper Union, and also attended The Mechanics and Tradesman's School. While still in his teens, he worked for "The Brooklyn Daily Eagle" as an errand boy, and eventually became a cartoonist. It was during this period he met a newspaper cartoonist from Detroit, John Randolph Bray. He married his childhood sweetheart, Ethel (Essie) Gold on December 25, 1905. Shortly afterward he accepted an illustrator's job for a catalog company in Boston. He returned to New York as Art Editor for "Popular Science" magazine around 1912, his technique first appeared in 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur.

The rotoscope

Fleischer came up with a concept to simplify the process of animating movement by tracing frames of live action film. His patent for the Rotoscope was granted in 1915, although Max and his brother Dave Fleischer made their first cartoon using the device in 1914. Extensive use of this technique was made in Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell series for the first five years of the series, which started in 1919 and starred Koko the Clown and Fitz the dog.

Fleischer Studios

Fleischer produced his Inkwell films for The Bray Studios until, in 1921, he and his brother Dave established Fleischer Studios (initially named "Out of the Inkwell Films") to produce animated cartoons and short subjects; Max was credited as the producer at the beginning of every cartoon as well. Koko and Fitz remained the stars of the Out of the Inkwell series, which was renamed Inkwell Imps in 1927.

Fleischer invented the bouncing ball technique for his " Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune" series of animated sing-along shorts. In 1925, Fleischer added synchronized sound to this series, using the Phonofilm sound-on-film process developed by Lee de Forest; these Song Car-tunes would last until 1927, just a few months before the actual start of the sound era. This was before Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie (1928), which is often mistakenly cited as the first cartoon to synchronize sound with animation.

In 1923, Fleischer made two 20-minute educational features explaining Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, and Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Both features used a combination of animated special effects and live action.

Into the early sound era, Fleischer produced many technically advanced and sophisticated animated films. Several of his cartoons had soundtracks featuring live or rotoscoped images of the leading jazz performers of the time, most notably Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Don Redman. Fleischer's use of black performers was bold at a time when depictions of blacks were often denigrating and stereotypical.

Finding success

In 1928, as film studios made the transition to sound, Fleischer revived the Song Car-Tunes as Screen Songs, with releases starting in February, 1929 for Paramount. Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc. was reorganized as Fleischer Studios in January, 1929 following bankruptcy. During this time, Walt Disney was also gaining success with Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies. The silent "Inkwell Imps" series was replaced with Talkartoon-in August of 1929 beginning with "Noah's Lark." A year into the series, Fitz was renamed "Bimbo" and became the star of the Talkartoon series, starting with the cartoon Hot Dog. But in August, 1930, a Rubenesque poodle-human hybrid made her screen debut in "Dizzy Dishes," quickly became Fleischer's biggest star, and would later be named Betty Boop. By 1931, Betty's floppy ears became hoop ear rings, and she was transformed as a fully human girl. By the time of Minnie the Moocher (1932), Betty Boop was in a class of her own, and by August of 1932, starting with Stopping the Show, the Talkartoon series was renamed as Betty Boop cartoons; by now, as noted from even the opening song from Stopping the Show, Betty clearly became the self-proclaimed "Queen of the Animated Screen." Fleischer who had been established for a decade, was the premier animation producer along with the up and coming Disney by this time. Fleischer cartoons were also very different from Disney cartoons since the content and realization of both producer's cartoons were so vastly different; though both Disney and Fleischer did use a lot of jazz in their cartoons as well. The Fleischer approach was sophisticated, focused on surrealism, dark humor, adult psychological elements and sexuality.

With his huge appeal to general audiences, Disney was clearly still on top. In the early 1930's, Fleischer Studios could not come close to matching the success of Mickey Mouse. In addition to the success of Mickey Mouse, Disney was also able to raise the stakes against Fleischer higher by significantly boosting the success of Silly Symphonies through the popular cartoon The Three Little Pigs.

Fleischer's most significant business deal came in securing the rights to the comic strip character Popeye the Sailor from King Features Syndicate. "Popeye" made his film debut in July, 1933, introduced in the Betty Boop short Popeye the Sailor. Popeye was an immediate hit for Fleischer, and his popularity would grow to outdistance Mickey Mouse by 1935.

Fleischer's studio was a major operation in New York under the support of Paramount. But Fleischer was also at the mercy of Paramount's management. During the depression, Paramount went through four name changes and reorganizations due to bankruptcies. These reorganizations affected the production budgets and created barriers for Fleischer's development. When the three-color Technicolor process became available, Paramount vetoed it based on their concerns with economic balance, giving Disney the opportunity to acquire an exclusivity to the process for four years, thus giving him the market edge on color cartoons. Two years later, Paramount approved color production for Fleischer, but he was left with the two color processes of Cinecolor (Red and Blue) and two-color Technicolor (red and green). The Color Classics series was introduced in 1934 as Fleischer's answer to Disney's Silly Symphonies. These color cartoons were augmented with a third-dimensional background effect called "The Stereoptical Process," a precursor to Disney's Multiplane. This technique was used to great effect in the longer format "Popeye" cartoons "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor" (1936) and "Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves" (1937). These series of double length cartoons were a gradual progression expressing Fleischer's desire to produce feature length animated features. And while he had concepts for full length features, it was not until the success of Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" that the Paramount executives realized the value of an animated feature as Fleischer had been proposing for the previous three years.

Animated features and decline

The popularity of Betty Boop was irreparably damaged as a result of the enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934. Her overt sexuality was downplayed, and her racy flapper attire was replaced with longer skirts and a less revealing neckline. While the production of the cartoons had become more refined with more structured stories, the level of the content was more juvenile, largely influenced by Paramount's front office, which was changing the tone of their films to reflect a more family-oriented audience by producing films more of the nature of MGM. Betty became a spinster career girl and maiden aunt character becoming more of a judgmental "good citizine" instead of the carefree Jazz Baby she once was. As a result, "Betty Boop" lost much of her audience appeal, and the era and musical style that she represented had already faded away with the coming of the Swing Era.

In 1937, film production at Fleischer's studio was affected by a five month strike, which kept his cartoons off theater screens through the rest of the year. The strikers represented by the Commercial Artists and Designers Union were not recognized by the IATSE, which represented the majority of the motion picture crafts. But after five months, Paramount Pictures urged Fleischer to settle. Then in March, 1938, Fleischer Studios moved from New York City to Miami, Floridamarker. The reasons were many. While it was reasoned that the relocation removed the studio from further union agitation, they were in need of additional space for the production of features.

While at Paramount, Dave Fleischer was asked by the studio to put the popular comic book hero Superman into a cartoon series. Despite the high budgets that came from the series, Superman became the studio's most successful cartoon in the late period of the studio. However, relations between Dave and Max were also deteriorating. A feud started simmering after Dave began an adulterous affair with his Miami secretary in 1938, and was followed by more personal and professional disputes as well.

In the wake of Disney's triumph with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Paramount acquiesced to Fleischer's request to produce feature-length animated films, and now they wanted one for a Christmas 1939 release. In order to finance the new operation, Fleischer negotiated a loan with Paramount that in essence surrendered the studios assets for the term of the loan, 10 years. While Gulliver's Travels (1939) was a modest domestic success, it did not make back all of its costs since the production ran nearly $500,000 overbudget due to the relocation, transportation of film for processing, and costs for training of new workers. At the same time, it was reported that the escalated war in Europe just three months before cut off Paramount's foreign release potential. But recent information indicates that "GULLIVER" was released in Europe but the returns were not reported to the accounting department at Fleischer Studios. At the same time, returns on "Popeye" cartoons were also not properly accounted. These factors contributed to the continued financial losses for Fleischer's studio with the final blow coming with the ill-fated release of his second feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

On May 24, 1941, Paramount started the takeover of Fleischer's studio. Max remained nominally in charge, but a long-simmering personal feud with his brother Dave complicated the situation further. Shortly after the release of Mr. Bug, Dave left for California to take over as head of Columbia's Screen Gems animation studio in April 1942. This action taken one month prior to the renewal of Fleischer's contract caused a breach, as Dave was in violation for taking a position with a competitor while still contracted to Paramount. This breach along with the debt to Paramount gave them the right to take control. Max was then forced out as Paramount installed new management, among them Max's son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel. On May 25, 1942, the studio was renamed Famous Studios, and it moved back to New York within eight months.

Despite the disappointing performance of the feature films, one of Fleischer's most successful productions, the Superman cartoon series, was launched during this late period. Nine episodes were completed by Fleischer Studios, with the final eight made by Famous Studios after the reorganization. Today, the Max Fleischer "Superman" cartoons are considered the final triumph of this great pioneer and his innovative studio.

Later career

After leaving his studio, Fleischer was brought in as head of the Animation Department for the industrial film company, The Jam Handy Organization. While there he supervised the technical and cartoon animation departments, producing training films for the Army and Navy and was also involved with research and development for the war effort. 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 1954 and returned as Production Manager for The Bray Studios in New York.

Fleischer lost a suit against Paramount in 1955 over the removal of his name from the credits. While Fleischer had issues over the breach of contract, he had avoided suing to protect his son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel because of his position with Famous Studios under the control of Paramount. The lawsuit was lost because the court decided that though he had a case, the statute of limitations for his case had expired. 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.

Although the rift with his brother Dave was never resolved, Max found a new friend in his old rival Walt Disney, who welcomed Max to a reunion with former Fleischer animators who were by then employed by Disney.

Fleischer, along with his wife Essie, moved to the Motion Picture Country House in 1967. He died from heart failure on September 11, 1972 after a period of poor health. Max Fleischer was an artist, a writer, and an inventor of some 20 patents for motion picture production processes. On the day of his death Max Fleischer was cited as a great pioneer who invented an industry, and was named by Time magazine as the "Dean of Animated Cartoons."


  • Fleischer, Richard (2005): Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution, University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 0-8131-2355-0
  • Review by Mindy Aloff: The Animated Life of a Film Giant", The Forward, October 14, 2005. Accessed 1 July 2006.
  • Maltin, Leonard (1987): Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. Penguin Books.
  • Popeye the Sailor Vol. 2 1938 - 1940, Documentary, "Out of the Inkwell, The Fleischer Story "

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