Betty Boop, by Max Fleischer/Bud Counihan

Max Fleischer is best known as the co-founder of the famous Fleischer cartoon Studios, which he started together with his brothers Dave and Joe. Together they are world famous as the creators of 'Koko the Clown' and 'Betty Boop'. They also turned E.C. Segar's comic strip character 'Popeye' into a popular animated franchise. The Fleischer cartoons are renowned for their loose and bouncy animation, often set to the beat of jazz music. They took full advantage of the fantastic possibilities of the still young medium by experimenting with physically impossible gags and surreal imagery. In the 1920s they were easily the most groundbreaking cartoon studio in the world, inventing techniques such as rotoscoping and blending animation with live-action. During the 1930s they were Disney's only serious competitors, often offering things Uncle Walt shied away from, such as violence and sexual innuendo. The Fleischers remain one of the most influential animators of all time.

Max Fleischer was born in 1883 in Vienna, Austria, as son of a Jewish tailor. In 1887 his father emigrated to Brownsville in Brooklyn, New York City, where Fleischer would study art at Cooper Union and the Art Students League. His family were technical whizzes. Father William created several tailoring devices, while Max' brother Charles invented several patents for machines used in amusement parks and brother Joe experimented with wireless telegraphy. Max's interest in technology was therefore sparked too. In 1900 the 17-year old Max Fleischer went to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He was so desperate to become a newspaper cartoonist that he offered the manager two dollars a week, just to be able to visit their art department on a regular basis. While his offer was refused he did get hired as a paper and errand boy. Soon Fleischer moved up to the position of photographer and eventually the job he so desired in the first place: cartoonist. By 1902 he published editorial cartoons as well as two gag-a-day comic strips, 'Algy' and 'E.K. Sposher, the Camera Fiend'. 'Algy' revolved around a young street boy and his fruitless efforts to win over his sweetheart May McGinnis, while frequently being beaten up by thugs. 'E.K. Sposher, the Camera Fiend' followed a clumsy photographer. Fleischer signed many of his early comics with "'M. Fleischer", though sometimes used a less ethnic sounding pseudonym as well: "Mack". He also wrote and illustrated articles in Popular Science Monthly'. Around the same time Max' brother Dave worked as a cleaning man and usher in the vaudeville theater Palace in New York, where he witnessed many comedians perform and learned from their craft. Dave was also active as a clown for a while.

E.K. Sposher, the Camera Fiend
E.K. Sposher, the Camera Fiend (3 December 1903)

In 1914 Max and his brothers Dave and Lou saw Winsor McCay's animated short 'Gertie the Dinosaur' (1914) and decided to make animated films themselves. During World War I they created training films for the U.S. War Department, worked for J.R. Bray's animation studio and, in 1918, started the 'Out of the Inkwell' series. This marked the debut of their first cartoon star, 'Koko the Clown'. In each of his shorts Koko jumped out of an inkwell and experienced adventures in a live-action world. The character was also given a pet dog, Fitz. The format was succesful enough to enable the Fleischers to found their own studio. Max was credited as director, while Dave produced. In 1927 they signed a contract with Paramount, which would last until 1942. Among the notable people once employed at their studio were Ray Bailey, J.R. Bray, Les Carroll, Jim Davis, Tony Di Paola, Irving Dressler, Harvey Eisenberg, Frank Engli, Vincent Fago, Otto Feuer, Owen Fitzgerald, Gill Fox, Woody GelmanDan Gordon, Rube Grossman, Harry Haenigsen, Dick Hall, Dick Huemer, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Seymour Kneitel, Tack Knight, Harry Lampert, Edwin Laughlin, Pauline Loth, Steve Muffatti, Joseph Oriolo, Tony Pabian, John Pierotti, Sy Reit, Vivie Risto, Erich F.T. Schenk, Hal Seeger, Irving Spector, John Stanley, Milt Stein, Martin B. Taras, Frank Tashlin, David Tendlar, Reuben TimminsJim Tyer, Myron Waldman, Carl Wessler, Bob Wickersham, Margaret Winkler (who was the first female producer and distributor of animated cartoons), George Wolfe and Ralph A. Wolfe.

The Fleischers' studio pioneered many technical innovations. They are the inventors of the "rotoscoping" progress, a method where movement is animated by tracing over frames of live-action films. It allowed for a more efficient and economical production of cartoons, which was not only used by the Fleischers themselves but also by other studios to this day. They also patented the "rotograph", where the projector shows one film frame on a glass plate, with a cell laid over it. The combined image is then re-photographed with an animation camera. Another invention was the bouncing ball used to invite people in the audience to sing along with the lyrics on screen. It was first used in their cartoon 'Oh, Mabel' (1924). The 'Koko the Clown' cartoons also perfected the interaction between animated characters and live-action scenes. Their film 'My Old Kentucky Home' (1926) was an early attempt at synchronized sound, predating Walt Disney's 'Steamboat Willie' (1928) by three years. Finally, they also pioneered the "stereoptical process", where a diorama was used to make it appear as if the characters were walking in front of it, allowing an amazing sense of depth.

Max Fleischer's patent
Concept drawing for the rotoscope

In 1929 the Fleischers got caught up in legal troubles when their partnership companies Red Seal Pictures and the Inkwell Studios went bankrupt, making them unable to use 'Koko the Clown' for two years. Meanwhile they created another iconic character: 'Betty Boop', designed by Grim Natwick. Betty made her debut in 'Dizzy Dishes' (1930) and was originally a nameless dog girlfriend of Bimbo the dog. She would eventually lose her dog-like features and transform into a human female. Her dog ears, for instance, were redrawn as ear rings. The huge-headed flapper girl with the high voice soon became the first major female cartoon star (not counting Minnie Mouse, who debuted in 1927 but was merely a supporting act to Mickey). Her popularity was mostly a result of her sexy looks. Many 'Betty Boop' cartoons of the early 1930s often had her lure off horny old men, while she was subject of some quite risqué gags for the time. In that retrospect she was the predecessor of later animated sex symbols, such as Tex Avery's Red and Jessica in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' (1988).

Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl, by Helen Kane

Betty's physical appearance and voice were modelled after Helen Kane, a waning Hollywood star at the time, known for her high-pitched "boop-oop-a-doop" catchphrase, which Betty also "borrowed" from her. Kane wasn't too flattered about this and unsuccesfully tried to sue. She got a second chance when the studio negotiated a newspaper comic strip about Betty with King Features Syndicate. They couldn't agree on a price, but Kane convinced them to add her name in the title. As a result, 'Betty Boop' first appeared in strip form as 'Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl by Helen Kane'. With this feature in hand, King Features renegotiated a 'Betty Boop' comic with Fleischer. An agreement was reached and under a new title, 'Betty Boop by Max Fleischer' (1934-1937), this new comic soon pushed away the Helen Kane strip. 'Betty Boop's comics were drawn by Bud Counihan, creator of the comic strip 'Little Napoleon'. He was assisted by Ving Fuller, as well as a Fleischer animator, Hal Seeger. The same year a 'Koko the Clown' pantomime comic strip was also distributed, but only lasted four episodes. 'Betty Boop' proved more durable, even though her initial lurid appearance was somewhat toned down for readers. The same fate happened to her animated counterpart when the Hays Code was introduced in 1934. She became a domestic housewife, while the censors vetoed every suggestive gag. This effectively killed the character's popularity. Attempts to boost it up again by pairing her with other popular newspaper comic characters such as Carl Anderson's 'Henry', Otto Soglow's 'The Little King' and James Swinnerton's 'Little Jimmy' had no effect. In 1940 she starred in her final cartoon.

Koko the Klown, by Max Fleischer

Luckily, the Fleischer studio had another major star. In 1933 they adapted Elzie Segar's newspaper comic character 'Popeye' to the big screen. To make the transition some important changes were made. The animators only used Popeye, Olive Oyl and Wellington J. Wimpy and introduced one new major character to function as a villain: Bluto (Bluto would later be used by Bud Sagendorf in the comics too, but under the name 'Brutus', since the Fleischers had copyrighted the name 'Bluto'). Segar's engaging storylines were reduced to a simple formula in which Popeye and Bluto constantly battle over Olive. The Fleischers also added a trademark song, "I'm Popeye, the Sailor Man" written by Sammy Lerner. Few other cartoon characters had a theme song at the time, with the exception of Paul Terry's 'Mighty Mouse' (1942) ("Here I come to save the dààààày!"). Their most important innovation was Popeye's love for spinach, which explained his super strength. Regardless of all these changes the cartoons did do the original comics justice. Segar's simple drawing style and comical violence fit the animation medium perfectly. 'Popeye' was an immediate hit with audiences, even seriously rivalling Walt Disney's 'Mickey Mouse'. By 1936 the Fleischers had enough money for two colour animated features: 'Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor' (1936) and 'Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves' (1937). Both were notably longer than most animated shorts at the time. A typical short only lasted six to seven minutes, but both of these cartoons were each 17 minutes in length. They remain the best known 'Popeye' cartoons of all time.


Still from 'Popeye Meets Sindbad the Sailor'

All throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Fleischer Studios made the most inventive and imaginative cartoons of their time, only rivalled by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer's 'Felix the Cat' and later the Disney Studios. Many Fleischer films are completely surreal, such as the classics 'Koko's Earth Control' (1928), 'Swing You Sinners' (1930), 'Mysterious Mose' (1930), 'Bimbo's Initiation' (1931), 'Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle' (1932), 'Minnie the Moocher' (1932), 'The Old Man of the Mountain' (1933), 'Snow White' (1933), 'Betty Boop's Crazy Inventions' (1933), 'Red Hot Mamma' (1934) and 'Poor Cinderella' (1934). The animation is loose and free with no effort to mimick reality. Every character can transform into something else. Even plants and objects are able to suddenly come alive. The cartooniness is accentuated by the use of music, to which characters often bounce along. The Fleischers cartoons were very popular among general audiences because they used jazz on their soundtrack. Iconic musicians like Don Redman, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong made cameo appearances in their films and allowed their music to be used, making them the first celebrity voice actors in animation. Another trademark of the Fleischers, especially the 'Betty Boop' cartoons, was their amazing sexual innuendo. Betty is frequently stalked by men who want to kiss and fondle her. Her sensual, scantily-clad dances often teased moral guardians and censors. In some scenes her dress becomes a see-through or accidentally slips down. More sneaky imagery shows men freezing in phallic shapes and subliminal nudity in certain frames. The scandals about her films made Betty all the more popular. 'Popeye' offered no jazz or eroticism but his frequent fist fights with villains were quite violent for the day. Also remarkable for the time was the Fleischers' non-stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans and Jews. The Fleischers didn't hide the fact that they and most of their studio staff were Jewish: in 'Minnie the Moocher' (1932), Betty's Boop's parents are clearly a Jewish couple, complete with her father wearing a kipple on his head and speaking with a Yiddish accent.


Still from 'Dizzy Dishes' (1930)

Near the turn of the decade Walt Disney had a smash success with his first animated feature 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937). The Fleischers made two animated features of their own, 'Gulliver's Travels' (1939) and 'Mr. Bug Goes to Town' (1941), which unfortunately both failed at the box office since they tried to hard to mimick Disney rather than remain true to their own style. While Max and Dave Fleischer blamed one another for the financial failure, Paramount stepped in to take over their studio. Dave left to join Columbia Pictures, while Max was forced to resign. The brothers would never reconcile. The Fleischer Studios were renamed into the Famous Studios and their most popular franchises, 'Popeye' and 'Superman' (1940-1943, based on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's eponymous comic strip) were continued without any of the brothers being paid, since they had sold their rights a few years earlier. None of the later 'Popeye' cartoons ever captured the magic or originality of the Fleischer cartoons. The same could be said about a short-lived attempt by former Fleischer animator Hal Seeger to revive 'Koko the Clown' as a TV cartoon series (1961-1962), which even the 80-year old Max Fleischer felt was of "bad quality". Max remained active in animation, but never managed to regain his former glory. He died from heart failure in 1972. His son, Richard Fleischer, was also a noted film director, best known for directing fantasy pictures such as '20.000 Leagues Under The Sea' (1954), 'Fantastic Voyage' (1977) and 'Soylent Green' (1973).

After the Fleischer Studios folded, their cartoons fell into obscurity for a few decades. For many years they were unjustly compared to Disney and therefore seen as vastly inferior. Their cartoons made no attempt for realism, weren't as fluidly animated and lacked strong, coherent narratives. While all other studios did voice work first and animation afterwards, the Fleischers did it the other way around. Actors tried to match the mouth movements of the characters, often improvising lines over it. This gave the impression that they couldn't even properly synchronize voices. While Disney had a dignified status thanks to clean, wholesome family entertainment and the use of classical music on their soundtrack, the Fleischers looked more primitive. Betty Boop's lewd gags, Popeye's violence and the use of jazz - which had a sleazy reputation in the 1930s - made the Fleischer cartoons appear depraved.

Betty Boop and Felix by Walker Brothers
Betty Boop and Felix, by the Walker Brothers

Like many classic cartoons the Fleischer shorts were also frequently broadcast on television from the 1950s on. Still it took until the late 1960s, early 1970s before they were finally unanimously revalued. Film historians praised their technical innovations, while their cartoons were reappreciated as charming, imaginative and innovative in their own right. The unpredictability and sheer entertainment value of their storylines surpassed any criticism of their incoherent plots. The post-production voice synchronization was viewed in a new light, as the actors' improvisations were quite funny and clever to listen to. As jazz was now part of the musical establishment their soundtracks received more praise as well. Since the Fleischer cartoons were such a typical product of the interbellum their work also gained more interest from nostalgic audiences. Last but not least, their bizarre storylines and erotic metaphors had a strong influence on the underground comix movement, most notably Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Jim Woodring, Al Columbia and Todd Schorr. Leslie Cabarga, a noted underground cartoonist, published the book 'The Fleischer Story in the Golden Age of Animation' (1976), which has become the authoritative history of the studio and also brought along a revival of Betty Boop's popularity. He made various greeting cards, ceramics lines and advertisements starring Betty. In 1990 he, Joshua Quagmire and Milton Knight also created a graphic novel: 'Betty Boop's Big Break' (First Comics, 1990). By the 1980s Betty Boop made an amazing comeback in advertising. She even returned in the newspapers where she was teamed up with Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan's 'Felix the Cat'. This gag-a-day comic, 'Betty Boop and Felix' (1984-1988) was written and drawn by Brian, Morgan, Greg and Neal Walker. Betty Boop and Koko the Clown also had cameos in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' (1988), among many other classic characters from the Golden Age of Animation. Betty's original voice actress, Mae Questel, was even brought in to record her dialogue. Sadly enough, the producers of 'Roger Rabbit' couldn't clear the rights to 'Popeye'. In 1994 the Betty Boop short 'Snow White' and in 2004 'Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor' were added to the United States National Film Registry for being "historically, culturally and aesthetically significant." In 2016 famous blues guitarist Gary Lucas recorded a CD featuring recreations of the classic 1930s Fleischer soundtracks, 'Fleischerei - Music From Max Fleischer Cartoons'. The same year a new comic book series was created around 'Betty Boop', scripted by Roger Langridge and drawn by Gisèle Lagacé.

The Fleischers' free-spirited atmosphere inspired comics artists like Marten Toonder, Siem Praamsma, mcbess and animators such as Bob Clampett, Osamu Tezuka, Ralph Bakshi, Sally Cruikshank, Matt Groening, John Kricfalusi and Joe Murray. Steve Cutts' animated music video for Moby's song 'Are You Lost In The World Like Me?' (2016) also mimicks the Fleischers' style.

Max Fleischer and Betty Boop
Helen Kane and Max Fleischer

Toonopedia about Fleischer Studios
Toonopedia about Betty Boop

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