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Max And Dave Fleischer are two of the most prolific (sadly, mostly unknown to today's audiences) men to ever work in the History of Animation. Getting their start off in the Silent Era, they pioneered one of the earliest attempts at blending live action and animation with their hit Out of the Inkwell series, starring Koko The Clown. The duo also pioneered the use of Rotoscoping via Koko, with one or the other of them dressing up in a clown suit owned from a previous job one of them had at a fair. They then proceeded to trace over the live action footage of the clown, not only giving the animation a fluid, realistic look, but also saving them large amounts of money at the same time. They would later on enlist the help of Cab Calloway, rotoscoping his dance moves into several of their cartoons in the 1930's.
The Fleischers were also the earliest known studio to openly embrace the idea of Deranged Animation (although most independent animators prior to them were pretty deranged, too - Emile Cohl especially.) One needs only look at one of their early shorts to see just how surreal, over the top, out of control, and full of imagination their works were.
And it would be interesting to note that the Fleischers had pioneered sound in cartoons years before Steamboat Willie got around to using it during the late years of the Silent Age and the early years of The Golden Age of Animation. Their Screen Songs series (encouraging audiences to Follow the Bouncing Ball and sing along to popular songs of the day) and Talkartoons shorts (centered around recurring dog character Bimbo) were quite popular among the public. In 1930, the Fleischers would stumble across their lucky charm in the Talkartoons short Dizzy Dishes-a anthropomorphic french poodle, designed by animation legend Grim Natwick, who was then employed by the Fleischers. While she was unnamed at first (and quite ugly to boot) she became very popular among audiences (for...whatever reason), enough to make recurring appearances alongside Bimbo and eventually break out into her own series, as well as earning her moniker: Betty Boop! She gradually became more popular and refined to the point where she was the most successful of the Fleischer toons, if just for being the first animation sex symbol. In most of her cartoons, she would wind up in many a shenanigan with Bimbo, who had quite a thing for Betty and vice versa, with many catchy jazz tunes popping up throughout the shorts.
However, in 1933, the Fleischers acquired the license to make short subjects based on a popular comic strip character they had a fondness for called Popeye. This is easily the most recognized of the Fleischer's works, and the series was an immediate success upon release, even eclipsing Betty Boop in popularity! (which was fortunate, since by the mid-30's the Hays Office had cracked down on her and forced her to become Bowdlerized beyond recognition.) While usually animated quickly, and with limited time for crafting the story, the series became hugely popular, eclipsing even Mickey Mouse (to the point that at least one concerned parents organization complained that, gee, wasn't it a shame that this surly, fighting, angry sailor was more popular than the charming, well-behaved mouse ... comments that were echoed eighty years later, when someone noticed that more kids knew who Mario was than Mickey.)
Meanwhile, Executive Meddling from Paramount Studios (their distributor and source of finance) drove them to play Follow the Leader with Disney and MGM's animation studios, including both subject matter (i.e. Their Color Classics lineup, which were shameless clones of Disney's Silly Symphonies) and techniques-- although they had always been technological innovators, their methods didn't match the Disney look. They even rose to the challenge of Snow White with an animated film of their own, an adaptation of Gulliver's Travels.
The reasonable success of the film led to them producing another of their most famous works -- a lovingly, lavishly produced series of Superman animated shorts. The cartoons featured Superman battling natural disasters, mad scientists, and giant robots. They're also the reason that Superman became a Flying Brick instead of just "leaping tall buildings in a single bound". The first installment was nominated for an Academy Award, and the style of the cartoons was an influence on creators ranging from Frank Miller to Hayao Miyazaki -- not to mention Batman: The Animated Series and the rest of The DCAU.
However, what is generally considered to be the point where the Fleischer studio went downhill was the release of their second animated film: Mr. Bug Goes To Town. While the film was well recieved by critics, it had the misfortune of being released two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Needless to say, the film ended up being a massive financial flop and is generally considered to be the main source of what wound up killing Fleischer studios-that, and their continual lack of funds and growing differences between the Fleischers (a feud which starting simmering after the married Dave began an adulterous affair with his Miami secretary in 1938, and was followed by more personal and professional disputes) and the final blow was struck when Dave Fleischer left to work at Columbia Pictures Screen Gems cartoons, and thanks to this breach of contract, this immediately gave Paramount the right to take control of the studio. Max Fleischer was quickly given the boot and replaced by his own son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel. Immediately the studios name was changed to Famous Studios and then Paramount Cartoon Studios. Famous continued the Popeye franchise and produced other shorts based on Little Lulu, Baby Huey, and Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Although the rift with his brother Dave was never resolved, Max eventually formed a friendship with his old rival Walt Disney, who welcomed Max to a reunion with former Fleischer animators who were by then employed by Disney. Max died of congestive heart failure on September 11, 1972, sadly never completing what was to be his greatest invention-a Perpetual Motion Clock. Dave Fleischer would go on to work as a special effects expert at Universal after his work at Columbia Pictures ended with the shutdown of its animation department, and would retire in the late 60's, and he finally died of a stroke on June 25, 1979.
While the Fleischer brothers and their star characters have long since passed, their influence in the medium of entertainment must not be underestimated. Besides the aforementioned examples of Miyazaki and DCAU, the Fleischers, along with Disney were a heavy influence on anime legend Osamu Tezuka, whom would take many of the Fleischer's techniques (and their limited animation) and integrate it into his own style in his manga and anime like Astro Boy and Kimba the Lion-stuff which would go on to make the anime industry into what it is today. Animation legend Bob Clampett of Looney Tunes fame also seemed to take a lot of inspiration from the Fleischers, taking many a queue from them by making his cartoons as wacky and surreal as possible, as well as intergrating music in a very similar way Fleischer did into his cartoons. Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi also cites the Fleischer brothers as a major influence in his works.
If you want to find more info on their history, check out the books "The Fleischer Story" and "Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution".
Works of the Fleischer Brothers (in as close to chronological release order as possible) include:
- Koko The Clown: The original star of the Fleischers, starring in the Live Action/Animation blending Out of the Inkwell series. He lasted well into the sound era, occasionally co-starring in shorts with Betty Boop.
- Talkartoons: A series of sound cartoons made by the studio, starring recurring character Bimbo the Dog. This series eventually morphed into the Betty Boop series.
- Screen Songs: A series of sound cartoons centered around loose plots, serving as the music videos of their day, featuring Max's famous bouncing ball sing-a-longs. This series would later be revived by Famous Studios.
- Betty Boop: Initially appearing as an unnamed background character in the short Dizzy Dishes, Betty became surprisingly popular upon debut, which led the Fleischer brothers to keep bringing her back short to short, refining her design as time went by. She's obviously the most well known character the Fleischers themselves made. Have we mentioned she was originally a humanoid french poodle at first?
- Popeye: While the Fleischer brothers didn't create the character (Popeye was a popular newspaper comic at the time) they helped mold and immortalize the character into what he's recognized as today.
- Color Classics: A series of Silly Symphonies clones made by the Fleischers. The general outlook of them (for the few people who are aware of them, anyways) is decidedly mixed to say the least.
- Gulliver's Travels: The 1939 feature length film adaptation made to ride off the success of Disney's Snow White.
- This movie also spawned a very short lived series of short subjects starring Gabby, the town crier in the film.
- Animated Antics: A series of short subjects, almost all of which feature misc. characters from Gulliver's Travels.
- Stone Age: A 12 short series of caveman themed cartoons.
- Raggedy Ann And Raggedy Andy: A two-reeler about two sentient dolls (not to be confused with the feature-length Richard Williams' feature film about the same characters over three decades later)
- Superman Theatrical Cartoons: The first nine theatrical cartoons made by them, anyways. (the other eight were handled by Famous Studios)
- Mr. Bug Goes to Town: The second film made by the Fleischers, and part of what ultimately brought the studio to its demise.
- The Raven: An extremely loose two-reeler adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's classic poem.
Tropes that are present in the studio's work:
- An Aesop: In particular, the Betty Boop and Popeye shorts often have the characters sing the Aesop. A common one is kindness to animals, which turns up in the Betty Boop short "Be Human", the Popeye shorts "Be Kind To Animals" and "Bulldozing The Bulls", the Color Classic "Song Of The Birds", and the Animated Antics short "Bring Himself Back Alive". Not that this stops Grampy or Popeye from hurting animals in some other shorts.
- Animated Music Video: The Trope Maker is Screen Songs.
- Captain Ersatz: The dog and hunter in the Animated Antics short "Zero the Hound" features a startling resemblance to Egghead and his dog from the Looney Tunes short "Hare-Um Scare-Um". This may be because their designer, Charles Thorson, was working at the Fleischer studio during the time that short was made.
- Deranged Animation: Swing, you Sinners! for start.'
- Distressed Damsel: In the "Cobweb Hotel" short from Color Classics, the female fly initially plays it straight when she's trapped on the spiderweb bed and her husband tries to fight off the spider to rescue her. Then she rescues herself and sets loose the spider's other prospect victims while her poor husband ends up with his wings paper-clipped together and trapped in a net of his own. His wife then saves him.
- Disproportionate Retribution: In "Swing, You Sinners!", Bimbo gets haunted, harassed, chased, terrified and eaten by spooks of all sorts, all because he tried to steal a chicken. Even after he promised never to steal again!
- Follow the Bouncing Ball: Trope Namer and Trope Maker.
- He Also Did: Dave Fleischer also did this iconic Theater Snipe.
- Inkblot Cartoon Style
- Mickey Mousing
- Musical Episode: A few shorts featured jazz hits of the day from the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
- No Ending: Some of the shorts follow this, such as "Swing, you Sinners!". It ends with a giant singing frog. Floaty heads. A skull eating Bimbo.
- Panty Shot: Betty Boop.
- Rotoscoping: Done WELL.
- Rubber Hose Limbs
- Scenery Porn
- Space Whale Aesop: In "Swing You Sinners": Don't steal chickens, or an army of swingin' ghosts will come along and spirit you away. And then you'll be sent to an Acid Trip Dimension where you'll be eaten by a giant shrieking skull.
- Sweet Dreams Fuel: "Somewhere in Dreamland", for sure. It's one of the few cartoons with no elements of nightmare fuel.