Their most well-known cartoon is one of the most recognizable symbols of the Jazz Age. They were largely responsible for launching the career of Superman as a cinematic star. They were Walt Disney's archrivals in the realm of animation before Pixar and DreamWorks. After being taken over and renamed by its distributor and steadily depleted by its distributor during World War II, Fleischer Studios did meet an unfortunate end. The lack of commercial savvy and animosity between brothers Dave and Max Fleischer trumped all other factors, including talent and some of the best cartoon characters ever created. It was a heartbreaking way to end a magnificent narrative of triumph.
Animation pioneers were the Fleischers. A young Max became a cartoonist at Bray Studios after being inspired by a fortuitous viewing of Winsor McCay's 1914 "Gertie the Dinosaur." As an inventor, he quickly invented the rotoscope, a device for displaying live-action video so that animators could trace the movement. This method, known as "rotoscoping," is known to have a mixed reputation among cartoonists since it may result in rigid and unnatural motion that conflicts with the character's design. However, when it was first developed, it was a major advance. Animation, with the rare exception of "Gertie," was a novelty in a theatrical program, a display of basic humor, rubbery motion, and a careless disregard for physical laws. The rotoscope gave animation a fluidity and authenticity it had never had before.
Max teamed up with his younger brother Dave to demonstrate his newest creation. Dave had his own clown suit for infrequent appearances at Coney Island, and the brothers developed a series of cartoons featuring an animated clown coming out of the page to interact with Max in the cartoons. Koko, the hero of the Out of the Inkwell series, was the perfect mix of risk-taking and wide acclaim. Koko was such a success that the Fleischers were able to keep her when they left Bray Productions to start their own company, initially as Out of the Inkwell Films, and then as Fleischer Studios.
Max and Dave were the sole proprietors of the new studio, but their other siblings helped out in different roles. Max was the official producer and Dave was the official director. In the cartoons, they were attributed as such. Nevertheless, Max maintained a public image of being the studio's hands-on parental head while Dave was forced to participate in business activities as a co-owner. Dave's cartoons would benefit from Max's innovations, so he kept working on them. It's possible to have a ball bounce across the words in a string. Disney and Mickey Mouse are often given credit for introducing sound to animated cartoons with their "Sing-Along" segments, which were popular song parodies (though it must be said the sound system Disney used worked better and more seamlessly integrated with the footage).
Fleischer Studios, on the other hand, was more than just a place for novelty films and TV shows. Because they were the progeny of immigrants who had made New York City their permanent home, the Fleischers' studio thrived and prospered throughout the Great Depression, and their cartoons represented this cultural upheaval. The most well-known of their creations, Betty Boop, was a parody of flappers. Cab Calloway, for example, often appeared in her films, which were often used as promotional platforms for the jazz musician. A series based on the comic strip "Popeye" by E. C. Segar transplanted the character into an urban environment and reveled in humor and brutality when he wasn't on the open seas. Surrealist and Expressionism were echoed in the backgrounds and suppleness of the Fleischers' figures. A free, spontaneous approach to the studio's way of recording speech, which was frequently recorded post-synced to the animation rather than prerecorded allowed for some of the New York attitude to be represented.
Betty Boop cartoons in the 1930s helped bring back this sense of humor. During the era of Hays Code censorship, her sexual exploits were scrutinized for anything "immoral." Betty's film career came to an end before the 1920s were through because of the demise of flapper culture, a double whammy. When it came to getting around Hollywood, Popeye was a hit with audiences and gave an awful vegetable an acclaim it didn't deserve. The Fleischers' answer to Disney's multiplane camera: turntable miniature sets that the animated cast could move through. He starred in three two-reel Technicolor spectaculars adapted from One Thousand and One Nights. For a while, Popeye's cartoons outperformed Mickey Mouse's in terms of popularity and money. These are some of the top cartoons of their period.
However, the Fleischers had more than one advantage against Disney in the battle for animation dominance. Theirs was the more venerable studio, with its headquarters in the heart of the cartooning world. As a child, Walt Disney was inspired to become an animator by Out of the Inkwell's gimmick. It was after the success of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies that Disney's fame became brighter among industry professionals. From New York to California, artists were drawn to the studio's reputation for high quality and pushing the frontiers of the medium, its sunny setting, and its numerous employment possibilities. At Disney, a number of Fleischer animators defected and developed and mastered if not created almost every technique in the animator's arsenal. His intuition about a three-strip Technicolor exclusive agreement and the potential of a feature-length animation both paid off for Walt.
Because he was self-sufficient, Walt could afford to take such risks. Color and full-length films were also possibilities for Max. However, he and Dave had not been in charge of their own studio since the mid-20s. Max's hands were restricted by Paramount's tight-fisted attitude toward developments like color, which he had to deal with on a daily basis. Paramount would only budge when Disney had established a track record of success and had earned a profit on each subsequent project. When it came to the Fleischers, they weren't afraid to play dirty. Retiring Vice President warned Max that his arrangement with Paramount would leave the studio in a disadvantageous position, but he was ignored.
Their dependence on Paramount meant that the distributor might have influence on the substance of the Fleischers' films. An average of one cartoon per week was produced by the studio at the peak of output. Paramount requested Disney-style pictures as Disney's popularity grew, and the results were predictable ripoffs. Popeye, on the other hand, was so popular that Paramount refused to give it any more time or money, even as they pleaded for more.
The morale and working conditions at Fleischer Studios were adversely impacted by all of these demands, which Max and Dave failed to address until it was too late. In 1937, there was a big animation strike at the studio. The Fleischers were getting ready to move to Miami, in part to get away from the unions and in part to attempt to match Disney's draw of a nicer climate. It was also appealing because of tax benefits and the opportunity to create a new, cutting edge studio. However, the Fleischers depended on Paramount for money to pay the transfer and the building of their new facility, and if things didn't work out, it would only be the Fleischers who would be responsible.
There were so many creative and commercial conflicts whirling around them that Max and Dave's relationship started to fall apart. Max had a fatherly and cerebral demeanor, whereas Dave had an extroverted and streetwise one. When it came to credit and content, Max was ready to let their option on Popeye expire and go on to more serious filmmaking, but Dave believed it was insane to forsake their greatest celebrity, according to historian Ray Pointer. After gaining control of the cartoons in 1939, Dave had his name appear much larger on the title cards and excluded Max from the creative process. When Max found out about Dave's romance with his secretary, the two brothers became estranged. They couldn't stand one other any more and told Paramount that they couldn't work together anymore.
The Fleischers' relocation to Florida was never going to be the new start they had hoped for because of the toxicity in the air, but it turned out to be a bad financial choice. It pushed them farther away from New York's crucial infrastructure while delivering little savings. Additionally, the Fleischers' effort to break into feature films with Gulliver's Travels coincided with the relocation. For Gulliver's Travels, Paramount supplied far less funding and time than Disney did for Snow White. As if that wasn't bad enough, they purposefully suppressed critical information regarding the film's performance ahead of contract negotiations. The non-Popeye shorts started losing money under Dave's direct control. The Man of Steel provided a lifeline in the form of nine superb Superman cartoons that enlarged his ability to jump tall buildings in a single bound into flight, but they failed to generate enough revenue to pay off the Fleischers' obligations to Paramount.
In the middle of filming Mr. Bug Goes to Town, the Fleischers' penultimate movie, the final straw was pulled. Mr. Bug, like Gulliver's Travels, premiered in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, which was hurried and uninspiring in every way except for the animation. It was impossible for a movie about bugs attempting to move in such setting to attract the public's attention, hence the project failed. Dave left the company at the end of 1941, and Paramount asked Max to quit soon thereafter. Before it closed its doors in the 1960s, they had turned the studio they had bought into a formulaic exercise ground zero for Popeye, Superman, and every other series they'd ever started as Famous Studios before selling it.
The Fleischers fled to California after being cut off from their studio and their picture rights. Dave worked as a technician at Universal before going back to making cartoons for Columbia and Republic, while Max focused on his inventions and lecturing. The statute of limitations thwarted their attempt to sue Paramount for credit they were owed for their movie. Even after Max's son Richard Fleischer made peace with Walt Disney, their personal animosity persisted. Max and Dave, on the other hand, never made amends.