|Industry Motion pictures|
Parent organization Paramount Pictures
|Number of employees Approx. 800 by 1939|
Defunct 27 May 1942
|Fate Acquired by Paramount Pictures, reorganized as Famous Studios|
Key people Max Fleischer (co-founder, producer/director/actor)Dave Fleischer (co-founder, producer/director/actor)
Products Animated short subjects and feature films
Successor Famous Studios (fully owned subsidiary of Paramount Pictures, known as Paramount Cartoon Studios after 1956)
Headquarters New York City, New York, United States
Founders Max Fleischer, Dave Fleischer
Films produced Superman, Gulliver's Travels, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sin, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali, Dizzy Dishes
Fleischer Studios, Inc., was an American corporation which originated as an animation studio located at 1600 Broadway, New York City, New York. It was founded in 1921 as Inkwell Studios (Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc.) by brothers Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer who ran the pioneering company from its inception until Paramount Pictures, the studio's parent company and the distributor of its films, acquired ownership. In its prime, The Fleischer Studio was a premier producer of animated cartoons for theaters, with Walt Disney Productions's becoming its chief competitor in the 1930s.
- Lasting Influence
- The Silent Era
- Betty Boop Jazz Baby
- Color Ventures
- Fleischers Box Office Champion
- Turning Point
- Acquisition by Paramount
- Popeye and Superman
- Home Video
- Fleischer Studios today
- Theatrical shorts series
- Two reel shorts
- Feature films
Fleischer Studios is notable for Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Bimbo, Popeye the Sailor, and Superman. Unlike other studios, whose characters were anthropomorphic animals, the Fleischers' most successful characters were humans. The cartoons of the Fleischer Studio were very different from the Disney product, both in concept and in execution. As a result, the Fleischer cartoons were rough rather than refined, commercial rather than consciously artistic. But in their unique way, their artistry was expressed through a culmination of the arts and sciences. The approach was sophisticated, focused on surrealism, dark humor, adult psychological elements, and sexuality. And the environments were grittier and urban, often set in squalid surroundings—a reflection of the Depression as well as German Expressionism.
The loose, improvisatory animation, frequently surreal action generally termed, "The New York Style," (particularly in films such as Snow White and Bimbo's Initiation), grungy atmosphere, and racy pre-Code content of the early Fleischer Studios cartoons have been a major influence on many underground and alternative cartoonists. Kim Deitch, Robert Crumb, Jim Woodring, and Al Columbia are among the creators who have specifically acknowledged their inspiration. And much of Richard Elfman's 1980 cult film Forbidden Zone is a live action pastiche of the early Fleischer Studios style. The Fleischer style was also used in the 1995 animated series The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat.
The Silent Era
The Fleischer Studio was built on Max Fleischer's novelty film series, Out of the Inkwell (1919-1927). The "novelty" was based largely on the results of the "Rotoscope", invented by Fleischer to produce realistic animation. The first "Out of the Inkwell" films were produced through The Bray Studio, and featured Fleischer's first character, "The Clown," which became known as Ko-Ko the Clown in 1924.
In 1921, The Bray Studio ran afoul with legal issues, having contracted for more films than it could deliver to its distributor, The Goldwyn Company. The Fleischer Brothers left and began their own studio with Dave as Director and Production Supervisor, and Max as Producer. In 1924, Veteran Animator, Dick Huemer came to The Inkwell Studio and redesigned "The Clown" for more efficient animation. Huemer's new design and experience as an Animator moved them away from their dependency on The Rotoscope for fluid animation. In addition to defining the clown, Huemer established the Fleischer style with its distinctive thick and thin ink lines. In addition, Huemer created Ko-Ko's companion, Fitz the Dog, who would evolve into Bimbo in 1930.
Throughout the 1920s, Fleischer was one of the leading producers of animation with clever moments and numerous innovations including the "Rotograph", an early "Aerial Image" photographic process for compositing animation with live action backgrounds. Other innovations included Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes and sing-along shorts (featuring the famous "bouncing ball"), a precursor to Karaoke.
In 1924, Distributor, Edwin Miles Fadiman, and Hugo Riesenfeld formed the Red Seal Pictures Corporation. Riesenfeld was the Theatrical Manager of the Strand, Rivoli, and Rialto theaters on Broadway. Because the Out of the Inkwell films were a major part of the program in Riesenfeld’s theaters, the Fleischers were invited to become partners. The Red Seal Company committed to an ambitious release schedule of 26 films with The Inkwell Studio as the primary supplier. The following year, Red Seal released 141 films that included documentaries, short comedy subjects, and live-action serials. Carrie of the Chorus, also known as Backstage Comedies, was one of the Red Seal series that featured Max’s daughter, Ruth in a supporting role. Ray Bolger made his screen debut in this series and dated Ruth for a short time.
Red Seal released cartoon novelty series such as The Animated Hair Cartoons by Cartoonist “Marcus,” and Inklings. The Animated Hair series resembled the on-screen hand drawing gimmick establish in Out of the Inkwell. In this case, “Marcus” produced high-quality ink line portraits of celebrities and political figures. Then through stop motion animation techniques, the lines and forms would break away to entertainingly re-form the portrait into another. Inklings was similar in concept to the Animated Hair films, but was more of a visual puzzle novelty using a variety of progressive scratch-off/reveal techniques and rearranged animated cutouts to change the images.
It was during this time that Dr. Lee de Forest started filming his early Phonofilms experiments featuring several of the major Broadway headliners. The Red Seal company began acquiring more theaters outside of New York and equipped them with sound equipment produced by Lee de Forest, displaying “talkies” three years before the sound revolution began. Because of Max’s interest in technology, Riesenfeld introduced him to deForest. And it was through this partnership that Max produced a number of the Ko-Ko Song Car-tunes as sound releases. Of the 36 song films produced between 1924 and 1927, 12 were produced as sound films beginning in 1926 with standard silent versions as well. The first sound release was Mother Pin a Rose on Me. Other sound releases included Darling Nellie Gray, Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’, Coming Through the Rye, My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Margie, Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning, Sweet Adeline, Old Black Joe, Come Take A Trip in My Airship, and By the Light of the Silvery Moon.
Red Seal owned 56 theaters, extending as far west as Cleveland, Ohio. But after only two years of operation, Red Seal was broke. Max (Fleischer) sought an appointment of receiver in bankruptcy in October 1926. Just as the situation looked hopeless, Alfred Weiss appeared from the horizon with a Paramount contact.
The Paramount deal provided financing and distribution. But due to legal complications of the bankruptcy, the title to Out of the Inkwell was changed to The Inkwell Imps (1927-1929). One year into the relationship, the Fleischer Brothers discovered mismanagement under Weiss and left before the end of the Imps contract. Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc. filed bankruptcy in January 1929. In March, Max formed Fleischer Studios with Dave as his partner. Operations were first set up at the Carpenter-Goldman Laboratories in Queens. With a skeleton staff, Fleischer Studios started out doing industrial films, most notably, Finding His Voice, a technical demonstration film explaining Western Electric's Variable Density recording and reproduction system. Max Fleischer secured a new contract with Paramount to produce a revival of the "Bouncing Ball" song films, re-branded as Screen Songs, with The Sidewalks of New York as the first release in 1929.
The early experiments with sound synchronization gave Fleischer Studios experience in perfecting the post-production method of recording, aided by several inventions by founder, Max Fleischer. And with the conversion to sound, Paramount needed more sound films, and cartoons could be produced faster than feature films. As the Screen Songs returned Fleischer to the established song film format, a new sound series, Talkartoons replaced the silent Inkwell Imps, the first being Noah's Lark released October 25, 1929. Earlier entries in the series were one-shot cartoons, until the appearance of Bimbo as of the fourth entry. Bimbo evolved through several redesigns in each cartoon or the first year. While the intent was to develop him as the star of the series, it was the cameo appearance of a Helen Kane caricature in the seventh entry, Dizzy Dishes that took center stage. Audience reactions to the New York preview were so great that Paramount encourage the continued development of the most famous character to come from the Fleischer Studio by that time, Betty Boop. While originated as a hybrid human/canine character, Betty Boop was transformed into the human character she is known as by 1932. Having become the main attraction of the Talkartoons, she was given her own series, which ran until 1939.
Betty Boop--"Jazz Baby"
The "Jazz Baby" Flapper character, Betty Boop lifted the spirits of Depression Era audiences with her paradoxical mixture of childlike innocence and sexual allure. And being a musical novelty character, she was a natural for theatrical entertainment. Several of her early cartoons were developed as promotional vehicles for some of the top Black Jazz performers of the day including Louis Armstrong (I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal, You), Don Redman (I Heard), and most notably, the three cartoons made with Cab Calloway, Minnie the Moocher, Snow White, and The Old Man of the Mountain. This was considered a bold action in light of the Jim Crow policies active in the South where such films would not be shown.
In 1934, the Hays Code resulted in severe censorship for films. This affected the content of all of Paramount's films as well, which tended to reflect a more "mature" tone in the features of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and most of all, Mae West. As a result, each of these stars was released as Paramount changed the content of its films to reflect a more "general audience" in order to comply with the new Code and stay in business. Paramount had also gone through three reorganizations from bankruptcy between 1931 and 1936. And the new management under Barney Balaban set out to make more general audience films of the type made at MGM, but for lower budgets. This change in content policy affected the content of cartoons that Fleischer was to produce for Paramount, urging the emulation of the Walt Disney product.
While Paramount was a large organization with a network of theaters, its fiscal consciousness was largely responsible for preventing Fleischer Studios from acquiring the three-color Technicolor Process, leaving it available for a four year exclusivity with Walt Disney, who created a new market for color cartoons, established by Academy Award winner, Flowers and Trees (1932). Paramount relinquished to the release of the Color Classics series starting in 1934. But with the exclusivity of the three-color process still held by Disney, Fleischer Studios used the available two-color processes, Cinecolor, a two-emulsion red and blue process, and Two-color Technicolor, using red and green. By 1936, the Disney exclusivity was expired, and Fleischer Studios used the three-color process in its color cartoons beginning with Somewhere in Dreamland and continued using it for the remainder of its active years.
Fleischer's Box Office Champion
The Fleischer Studio's greatest success came with the licensing of E.C. Segar's comic strip character Popeye the Sailor beginning in 1933. Popeye eventually became the most popular series the studio ever produced, and its success surpassed Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoons, documented by popularity polls. And with the availability of full spectrum color, the Fleischer Studios produced three two-reel Popeye featurettes, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and His Forty Thieves (1937), and Popeye the Sailor Meets Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp (1939). This series of longer-format cartoons were an indication of the emergence of the animated feature film, which was finally established by the success of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
The Fleischer Studios had reached its zenith by 1936, with four series and 52 annual releases. Due to the phenomenal success of the Popeye cartoons, Paramount demanded more, and the Fleischer Studio experienced rapid expansion in order to balance out the increased workload. The crowded conditions, production speedups, drawing quotas, and internal management problems resulted in a Labor Strike starting in May 1937 lasting five months. This strike was a test case, the first launched in the motion picture industry, and produced a nationwide boycott of Fleischer cartoons for the duration.
Max Fleischer had been petitioning Paramount for three years about producing an animated feature. Paramount vetoed his proposals until the proven success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Paramount now wanted an animated feature for a 1939 Christmas release. This request came at the time of preparations for relocating to Miami, Florida. While the relocation had been a consideration for some time, its final motivation was made a reality due to lower corporate tax structures and an alleged escape from the remaining hostility from the strike.
The new Fleischer Studio opened in October 1938, and production on its first feature, Gulliver's Travels, went from the development stage begun in New York to active production in Miami. The score was by Paramount staff composer, Victor Young and recorded at the Paramount west coast facilities. While limited to only 60 theaters in a one-month release, Gulliver's Travels earned more than $3 million, in spite of exceeding its original $500,000 estimated cost. Accordingly, a second feature was ordered for Christmas, 1941, Mr. Bug Goes to Town.
The personal relationship between Max and Dave Fleischer deteriorated during the Miami period due to complications associated with the pressures of finishing the studio's first feature film and a much public sexual affair with Dave's secretary, Mae Schwartz. Max and Dave had stopped speaking to each other altogether by early 1940.
Dave gained total control of production in 1940, relegating Max to business affairs and research. The studio was in need of new product going into the new decade, but failed miserably with series that included Gabby, Stone Age, and Animated Antics. Theater operators complained, with the Popeye cartoons having the only value.
Max Fleischer acquired the rights to comic book superhero Superman to save the studio. The first entry, Superman, had a budget of $50,000, the highest ever for a Fleischer theatrical short, and was nominated for an Academy Award.
The animated Superman series, with its action-adventure and science fiction fantasy content, was a huge success, but that did not help the studio out of its financial trouble. It was penalized $350,000 for going over budget on Gulliver's Travels, and the revenues earned from the rentals of the Popeye cartoons had to be used to offset the loss of $250,000 incurred by the rejection of cartoons in 1940. The success of Superman came too late.
Acquisition by Paramount
While profits dwindled, Paramount continued to advance money to Fleischer Studios to continue the production of cartoons with it focus mainly on Popeye, Superman, and its Christmas 1941 film in the hopes of rekindling the magic. Then on May 24, 1941, Paramount demanded reimbursement on the penalties still owed after 18 months and assumed full ownership of Fleischer Studios, Inc. The Fleischers remained in control of production until November 1941. Mr. Bug Goes to Town was screened for an exhibitors' screening on December 5, 1941. Although it had good critical reviews, it was rejected by theater operators. While it has been reported for decades that its release was cancelled due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this has been found not to be the case. While the Christmas period was three weeks away, Paramount failed to find a creative solution, and held it for a second feature release the following spring, 1942, and never recouped its costs.
In spite of living up to his contractual obligations and delivering the picture, Max Fleischer was asked to resign. Dave Fleischer had resigned the month before, and Paramount finished out the last five months of the Fleischer contract with the absence of the Fleischer Brothers. The last cartoon produced at credited to Fleischer Studios was the 'Superman cartoon, Terror on the Midway, and Paramount formed a new company, Famous Studios, as a successor to Fleischer Studios effective May 27, 1942.
The issue of rights to the Fleischer Studios cartoon library is complicated. This is due to copyright issues regarding music used on the soundtracks regardless of the Public Domain status of the films. Another complication is with original Fleischer properties and licensed properties. With the exception of the Superman and Popeye cartoons, Paramount's cartoon library from prior to October 1950 was originally sold to U.M. & M. TV Corporation in 1955. A condition of the purchase required the removal of the Paramount head and tail trademarks and copyright lines from the Main Titles. U.M.& M. took care to make optical still frames, retaining the original title art and replaced the Paramount copyright line with their own re-photographed in the space. While this was done with the black and white cartoons, new titles were created with a standard yellow font over a flat red background for the color cartoons.
As soon as the Fleischer library was sold to television, Max Fleischer noticed that some of the cartoons were being shown without his name in the credits, which was a violation of his original contracts. Whether it was accidental, or deliberate, he started making extensive records of the airings of the cartoons and on June 17, 1956 filed suit against Paramount, U.M.&M. T.V. Corporation, National Telefilm Associates, Flamingo Film Sales, and DuMont Broadcasting seeking $2,750,000 in damages for the display of the films “without proper credit and authority. The infringement on his name was corrected on all subsequent prints exhibited on television, and Max’s name was saved for future generations to discover.
Before U.M.& M. had finished the title alterations, the company was bought by National Telefilm Associates. "NTA" placed their logo at the heads and tails and placed black blobs and bars over references to Paramount, Technicolor, Cinecolor, and Polacolor. NTA placed the copyright notices on the end NTA logo instead of on the title frame, which immediate cancelled the copyrights, placing them in the Public Domain.
NTA issued Eastmancolor prints to television stations, first telecast in black and white, and later in color when local stations acquired color licenses. NTA color prints were also sold to 16mm rental companies. While a major film syndication company in the 1950s and 60s, its place in the market was soon eclipsed by new product made for television. Much of NTA's library was dated, some of it falling under "Political Correctness" issues that required its removal from the airwaves. But the main problem was that the bulk of this dated library was in black and white, which kept the majority of the Fleischer cartoons off the air by the mid 60s when the original copyrights were due for renewal. NTA failed to renew the copyrights, which placed the majority of the Fleischer film library (including the Color Classics series, the Screen Songs series, and Gulliver's Travels) into the public domain. Mr. Bug Goes to Town, various Betty Boop cartoons, and the 1938 Color Classic, The Tears of an Onion, are among the few films that remain under copyright to Melange Pictures, LLC.
In the mid 1970s, NTA "converted" 85 black and white Betty Boop cartoons to color through Fred Ladd's "Color Systems" company. Unlike the "Colorization Process" supported by the Ted Turner organization, Color Systems was a Korean firm that crudely copied every other frame and remade the cartoons, generating new 16mm color negatives. The sloppy production and careless use of color were a poor reflection of the artistry of the originals produced by the Fleischer Studios making these re-makes unsalable. To salvage them, there was an attempt to package them in 1976 under the title, Betty Boop for President. This was refashioned as a compilation feature, Hooray for Betty Boop, and ran on HBO in 1980.
Paramount has reacquired ownership of the original Fleischer film library and continues to own the theatrical rights, Olive Films has the home video rights, and Trifecta Entertainment & Media currently has the TV rights.
Popeye and Superman
The Popeye series, a property licensed from King Features Syndicate was acquired by Associated Artists Productions (a.a.p.), which later became part of United Artists (for info on the Popeye retitling, see the a.a.p. article) and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Turner Entertainment, after failing to buy MGM outright, settled for ownership of the library, including the Popeye cartoons, in 1986. A number of Popeye cartoons have also gone Public Domain, but not nearly as many as other Fleischer series.
The Superman,the other series based on licensing reverted to National Comics after Paramount's rights to the character expired. TV syndication rights were initially licensed to Flamingo Films, distributors of the 1950s Superman TV series. All 17 entries in this series entered the public domain in the late 1960s-early 1970s, when National/DC failed to renew their copyrights.
The Superman cartoons are now under the ownership of Warner Bros. Entertainment, a subsidiary of Time Warner. WB bought the original film elements to the Superman series in 1969 after buying DC Comics. Then in 1996, Time Warner bought out Turner, giving WB ownership of the Popeye series, although technically speaking these two franchises are owned by the various units of Time Warner (Turner and DC, respectively). WB has since produced (alone or with other companies) numerous other animated works featuring Superman, including a TV series in the 1990s.
Most of the Fleischer color have been widely available on video since the 1980s, often on inexpensive (and poor quality) videotapes sold in supermarkets and discount stores. Both animation fans and the UCLA Film and Television Archive have worked to give the classic Fleischer cartoons the credit they deserve, and high-quality restored editions of the Fleischer cartoons have also been made available on pay-cable, Home Video and DVD. Many of these restored versions now include the original front-and-end Paramount titles.
Most of the silent Fleischer titles from the Out of the Inkwell/Inkwell Imps series have entered the public domain. They are not as widely available because of the popular belief that black-and-white and silent cartoons do not appeal to contemporary audiences. There was, however an official Betty Boop VHS set released in the 1990s by Republic Pictures that included Betty's only color appearance, Poor Cinderella.
At least two separate versions of the Superman series was released on DVD, both of which feature all 17 original episodes:
There have been some notable video releases for the Superman series, among the best reviewed of these was a 1991 VHS set produced by Bosko Video, titled The Complete Superman Collection: Golden Anniversary Edition - The Paramount Cartoon Classics of Max & Dave Fleischer released as two volumes which featured high-quality transfers from 35mm prints.
A third (and more "official") compilation using restored and remastered materials was released in November 2006 by Warner Home Video as part of their DVD box set of Superman films. In 2009, Warner gave these Superman shorts their own stand-alone 2-disc DVD release, Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942, using the same remasters as in 2006.
Superman cartoons by Warner Home Video (as part of separate VHS and LaserDisc collections of episodes from The Adventures of Superman TV series of the 1950s), it would take longer for any official DVD releases of the Fleischer cartoons due to Republic's ownership and video license changes, the potential film and/or digital restoration costs, and the financial viability as the result of releasing restored versions. However, as of March 2012, Olive Films, under exclusive license from Melange/Viacom acquired the rights to the 66 non-public domain Betty Boop cartoons and is currently restoring them for a DVD and Blu-ray release using the original television internegatives (with the altered credits, as no original uncut elements were available). The first two volumes of the Melange-copyrighted Boop cartoons are currently available.
Warner Home Video has released all of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons in three volumes as part of the Popeye the Sailor DVD collection.
VCI Entertainment/Kit Parker Films' DVD compilation of all the Color Classics (except The Tears of an Onion) entitled Somewhere In Dreamland, which includes only a fraction of shorts remastered from 35MM, but otherwise taken from the best available sources Kit Parker could provide VCI, and digitally recreating the original front-and-end Paramount titles, was released in 2003. Animation archivist Jerry Beck served as consultant for this box set, as well as providing audio commentary for select shorts.
VCI Entertainment also released a DVD compilation of all the public domain Popeye cartoons (both Fleischer and Famous) entitled Popeye the Sailor Man Classic Cartoons: 75th Anniversary Collectors Edition in 2004.
In 1985, DC Comics named Fleischer Studios as one of the honorees in the company's 50th anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great for its work on the Superman cartoons.
Fleischer Studios today
Today, Fleischer Studios operates as a company which continues to hold to the rights to Betty Boop and associated characters such as Koko the Clown, Bimbo and Grampy. It is headed by Max's grandson Mark Fleischer, who oversees merchandising activities. Fleischer Studios utilizes King Features Syndicate to license Fleischer characters for various merchandise.