Max Fleischer was born July 19, 1883 in Krakow, Poland.
In 1887, his family emigrated to the United States and settled in New York City.
Max’s interest in commercial art led him to work for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as an errand boy while training at Cooper Union.
It was during this time that Max met newspaper cartoonist John Randolph Bray.
Max married his childhood sweetheart Ethel (Essie) on December 25, 1905.
Shortly after his wedding, he accepted an illustrator job for a catalog company in Boston.
In 1912, Max returned to New York as Art Editor for Popular Science magazine.
Max Fleischer devised 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 system 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.
In 1921, Max and younger brothers Dave and Lou established “Out of the Inkwell Films” to produce animated cartoons.
Max then invented the “follow the bouncing ball” technique for his Song Car-Tunes series of animated sing-along shorts beginning in May 1924.
The Song Car-Tunes series would last until early 1927, just a few months before the actual start of the sound era. This was before Walt Disney’s 1928 Steamboat Willie, which is often mistakenly cited as the first cartoon to synchronize sound with animation.
However, by late 1926, Max had to file for bankruptcy, and the Song Car-Tunes series came to an end.
Then in 1928, as film studios made the transition to sound, Max Fleischer revived his Song Car-Tunes series as Screen Songs, starting with the release of The Sidewalks of New York on February 5, 1929 through Paramount Pictures.
Soon Max was able to reorganize Out of the Inkwell Films as Fleischer Studios.
During this time, Walt Disney was also gaining success with Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies. So in August of 1929, Max created the Talkartoon series, beginning with Noah’s Lark.
A year into the series, Max renamed Fitz the dog as “Bimbo” who went on to become the star of the Talkartoon series, starting with the 1930 cartoon Hot Dog.
Then, on August 9, 1930, a Rubensesque poodle-human hybrid, and Bimbo’s girlfriend, made her screen debut in Dizzy Dishes, and quickly became Max Fleischer’s biggest star.
Max renamed Bimbo’s girlfriend “Betty Boop.”
Although Clara Bow is often given as being the model for Betty Boop, she actually began as a caricature of singer Helen Kane.
By 1931, Betty’s floppy canine ears had evolved into hoop earrings, and she was transformed into a fully human girl (though she retained her romantic relationship with the dog for several episodes after her transmogrification).
By the time of Minnie the Moocher, Betty Boop was in a class of her own, and by August of 1932, Max made her the star of Stopping the Show.
Soon Max renamed his Talkartoon series as Betty Boop Cartoons, and as they say, the rest is history.
Betty clearly became the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Animated Screen.”
With Betty Boop, Max Fleischer had become one of the two premier animation producers; the up-and-coming Walt Disney was the other.
Max Fleischer cartoons were very different from Disney cartoons, in concept as well as in execution. The Max Fleischer approach was sophisticated, focused on surrealism, dark humor, adult psychological elements and sexuality. The Fleischer milieu was grittier, more urban, sometimes even sordid, often set in squalid tenement apartments with cracked, crumbling plaster and threadbare furnishings. Even the jazz music on Fleischer’s soundtracks was rawer, saucier, more fitting with the unflinching Fleischer look at America’s multicultural scene. But as popular as Betty Boop was for Fleischer, the Fleischer Studios would never come close to matching the huge international success of Mickey Mouse.
Max Fleischer would come closest through his deal securing the rights to the comic strip character Popeye the Sailor from King Features Syndicate.
Popeye the Sailor
Popeye started out as a secondary character in 1929 in the newspaper feature Thimble Theater, and made his film debut in July 1933, introduced in the Betty Boop short Popeye the Sailor. Popeye was an immediate hit for Max Fleischer, and would remain in production until 1957. During his run, Popeye even eclipsed Mickey Mouse thereby briefly surpassing Disney’s stranglehold on the cartoon market.
Fleischer’s studio was a major operation in New York under the support of Paramount Studio. But as a recipient of Paramount cash, Fleischer was also at the mercy of Paramount’s management. During the Great Depression, Paramount went through four name changes and reorganizations due to bankruptcies. These reorganizations affected the production budgets and created obstacles to 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 Max Fleischer, but he was left with the clearly inferior two-color processes of Cinecolor (red and blue) and two-strip Technicolor (red and green).
Industry Moral Censorship
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 Boop became a spinster career girl and maiden aunt character, a judgmental “good citizen” instead of the carefree, funloving Jazz Baby she had once been.
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.
Then in March 1938, Fleischer Studios moved from New York City to Miami, Florida.
They released Gulliver’s Travels in 1939 with moderate box office success.
Then their ill-fated release of Mr. Bug Goes to Town two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.
On May 25, 1942, Max left Fleischer Studio’s. Paramount renamed it Famous Studios, and moved it back to New York.
Today, the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons are considered the final triumph of this great pioneer and his innovative studio.
During World War II, Max 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, Max supervised the production of the 1948 animated adaptation of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, sponsored by Montgomery Ward.
Max Fleischer left Jam Handy in 1954 and became Production Manager for the Bray Studios in New York.
Max lost 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 to protect his son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel, who still had a position with Paramount’s Famous Studios.
The lawsuit was lost because the court decided that, though Fleischer’s case had merit, the statute of limitations had expired.
In 1958, Max 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.
Max eventually even 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, 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.
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.”
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