The Innovators 1930-1940: The Thin Black Line

Film still for The Innovators 1930-1940: The Thin Black Line

Animation's history may now be dominated by Disney but many of its techniques were pioneered by Max Fleischer's rival studio, which invented the characters of Popeye and Betty Boop and was the first to animate Superman. By Harvey Deneroff

In the first years of cinema few films lasted more than 15 minutes. By the time sound arrived in the late 20s, however, Hollywood was producing full-length live-action features, and animation had been cast as a medium suited to providing 'short subjects' to begin the evening's entertainment. Several of the major studios (MGM, Warner Bros) set up their own in-house animation divisions to provide supplementary cartoons, which Warner at least saw almost as proto-music videos designed to popularise songs published by its music division. Other studio distributors bought in cartoons made by independent studios and producers, such as Terrytoons, the Van Beuren Studio and Ub Iwerks. But undoubtedly the most important and profitable independent cartoon studio - and Disney's most feared rival - was that owned and run by the Fleischer brothers.

Max Fleischer was an important technical and artistic innovator and the leading proponent of the New York style of animation, in which the artificial, drawn nature of the medium is dominant. His films were ethnically inflected, reflecting the largely Jewish and Italian composition of his staff, and even in the area of narrative, where most historians credit Disney as the great innovator, he broke considerable new ground, paving the way for the Bugs Bunny cartoons and influencing such present-day film-makers as Hayao Miyazaki.

Born in 1883 in Vienna, Fleischer emigrated with his Jewish family to New York City at an early age, studying art at Cooper Union and the Art Students League. He worked as a commercial artist and cartoonist, but an interest in mechanics led him to animation. Specifically, he was driven to find a method to produce animation more efficiently and economically, which resulted in the invention - with his brothers Dave and Joe - of the rotoscope, a device used to trace movement from live-action film. The process was demonstrated in his first film, Experiment No. 1 (1915), in which Dave posed as the clown who became known as KoKo.

From 1916 to 1921 Max worked for John R. Bray, for whom he and Dave made the first Invisible Ink films featuring KoKo; he also produced educational films including some of the first training films for the US army. The Fleischers left Bray to form Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc, later subsumed by the more ambitious Red Seal Pictures (in partnership with Edwin Miles Fadiman and Hugo Riesenfeld), which produced and distributed both animated and live-action shorts for the US rights market. Though Red Seal ended in financial failure, the studio turned out some of the most inventive films of the period and from 1924 to 1926 Fleischer made the first sound cartoons (using the DeForest Phonofilm process) and invented the rotograph, a system for combining live-action and animation.

However, it was Disney's Steamboat Willie (directed by Ub Iwerks, 1928) that was the first sound cartoon to attract the nation's attention, kindling a renewed interest in animation. The following year Max and Dave formed Fleischer Studios to produce cartoons for Paramount Pictures, and it was under Paramount's protective umbrella that Max found the financial backing and distribution muscle he needed to become a major player. The coming of talking pictures led the studio to drop its star KoKo, who despite the brilliance of many of his films had never achieved the fame of Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat. After trying out various permutations of Bimbo the dog, Fleischer hit pay dirt in 1930 with Betty Boop, who made her debut in Dizzy Dishes. Betty was not only the first animated female star, but also the first animated character to deal forthrightly with sex, especially in her pre-Hays Code incarnation. She also proved the perfect vehicle for the development of the zany, surreal style Fleischer had evolved during the silent era. Grim Natwick's initial character design for Betty was based on a picture of singer Helen Kane, who had popularised the phrase "Boop-oop-a-doop", and you can see the mix of naughtiness and childish innocence Betty made famous in Kane's skit in Paramount on Parade (1930). There is also more than a little of Betty in the title character of Fleischer's Carrie of the Chorus, a short-lived live-action series he produced in 1926.

The silent KoKo films were extensions of the first animated films, in which live-action artists would bring drawings to life, as in Bray's 1910 The Artist's Dream. (These in turn grew out of the early French trick films of Emile Cohl and Ferdinand Zecca, and the lightning-sketch artists of vaudeville days.) KoKo existed in a parallel, Roger Rabbit-style universe brought to life by the pen of the live-action Max Fleischer, who at times would leap into the drawing board and assume his own animated identity, as in The Challenge (1922, directed like many of the studio's films by Dave) and The Masquerade (1924). What continues to amaze audiences are the transformational qualities of these films - as in The Hypnotist (1922), in which an accidentally hypnotised KoKo does battle with his shadow, which steals his hat, surrounds him with multiple shadows and eventually changes places with him, making him the shadow's shadow. The Fleischers' silent films have a strong improvisational character, the result in part of the seemingly off-hand manner in which they were made, with a loose gag structure - which Disney eschewed in favour of more careful plotting and acting - that allowed the animators a great deal of freedom. Max experimented with a variety of techniques, including clay animation - in Modelling (1923) and Clay Town (1924) - and photo collage, as in the climactic destruction of New York City at the end of KoKo's Earth Control (1928).

The coming of sound led to considerable changes in the way the Fleischer cartoons were made. The cut-and-slash system of paper animation used for the KoKo films was abandoned in favour of the more expensive cel-animation process, largely avoided during the 20s because of the royalties that had to be paid to the Bray-Hurd Patent Trust. Rather than concentrating on the live-action/animated interactions between Max and KoKo, the new films had more conventional stories, their screens cluttered with characters playing against fully realised settings. Songs also become more integral.

By the time talking pictures came along Fleischer had already had considerable experience with sound from his Song Car-tunes (from 1924), in which audiences were encouraged to sing along following a bouncing ball. The animation here was decorative rather than narrative: Mike Barrier, in his Hollywood Cartoons, quotes Disney's praise for the way "the letters and characters [did] all kinds of funny things in time to the music that got a lot of laughs." This decorative approach, combined with a strong sense of the surreal and the macabre, permeates many of the early Fleischer sound cartoons. Snow White (1933), for instance, with its scene of KoKo being transformed into a phallus-shaped ghost pursuing Betty while 'singing' Cab Calloway's rendition of 'St. James Infirmary Blues', is described by Fleischer biographer Mark Langer as "something that [sexologist] Krafft-Ebing might have produced had he been an animator."

When the Hays Office began to enforce its 1934 Production Code, the Betty Boop films lost something of their joie de vivre. The studio used Betty for its first colour film Poor Cinderella (1934), an elaborate production which introduced the 3-D process (invented by Fleischer and John Burks the year before), which involved photographing the two-dimensional cels against a three-dimensional set mounted on a turntable. (The process inspired Disney to develop the multiplane camera.) A fairly straightforward telling of the story with more than a hint of a Lubitsch musical, Poor Cinderella is far from macabre, though the decorative nature of Fleischer's films comes to the fore in the ornate settings, enhanced by the three-dimensional backgrounds.

Poor Cinderella seemed an effort by Fleischer to compete with Disney at his own game. (After all, Disney encouraged his artists to look at Fleischer films and was clearly influenced by them - The Band Concert, 1935, for instance, owes a lot to Fleischer's Tree Saps, 1931, which first used the device of a tornado being animated to Rossini's William Tell overture.) Had Fleischer gone ahead with feature production at this point, using the kind of resources and talent he employed on Poor Cinderella, the history of US animation might have taken a different turn. But instead the studio lavished its attention on its newest star, Popeye, whose cartoons following Popeye the Sailor (1933) became the most popular short films in the US, eclipsing even Mickey Mouse.

The Popeye cartoons represented a major change for Fleischer, who had previously paid little attention to narrative. While the off-hand nature of the dialogue (including asides in Yiddish provided by Popeye voice Jack Mercer) was very much in the old Fleischer mould, the films had a strict, formulaic structure that introduced a new genre. Every Popeye film showed a contest between the hero and the often villainous Bluto for the hand of Olive Oyl, leading to a variety of escalating and often violent battles which Popeye wins at the last minute after eating a can of spinach. This structure provided the model for the Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry and RoadRunner cartoons, and Popeye's success forced other animation studios to take note: Warner's The Major Lied Till Dawn (1938), for instance, directed by Frank Tashlin (who along with Warner storymen Warren Foster and Michael Maltese had worked with Fleischer), has its title character use a can of spinach to vanquish Tarzan - "Well," he says, "it worked for that sailor man, it will work for me."

The Fleischer studio encountered serious labour problems and had endured a five-month strike in 1937, only to be forced by Paramount Pictures to settle. Then Max decided to move to Florida to build a new studio and break the union. He was able to do both, but it eventually bankrupted him (among other things he was forced to pay premium wages to attract artists to Miami, as well as guarantee their moving expenses back to New York or Los Angeles if they decided to leave).

Fleischer and Paramount prepared to move into feature production with a pair of elaborate two-reel Popeyes: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936) and Popeye Meets Ali Baba and His 40 Thieves (1937). But their first feature Gulliver's Travels (1939), despite some outstanding sequences including the opening shipwreck done in the manner of Japanese woodblock prints, did little to fulfil the promise of the Fleischer shorts. It performed well in the US (probably as well as Disney's Pinocchio, released a few months later) and broke box-office records in Latin America; however, its high cost and the absence of the European market because of World War II meant it lost money and kick-started a series of circumstances that led to the Fleischers having to relinquish control over their studio and their films. Disappointing too was their second feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town (Hoppity Goes to Town, 1941) - based loosely on Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee - despite some neat set-pieces including the opening sequence, played against a three-dimensional New York background and evocative music by Leigh Harline.

In the midst of these efforts, at Paramount's behest, the Fleischers produced a series of elaborate cartoons based on the Superman comic books, beginning with Superman (1941). Made on much the same scale as the studio's features, these films successfully adopted the pulp comic-book style of the original, and have a strikingly modern look: the staging, dramatic camera angles and lighting seem to be more in line with contemporary live-action cinema and early films noirs such as The Maltese Falcon than anything seen in animation. Both Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, 1963) and Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, 1997) have said they were heavily influenced by these films, and historian Fred Patten points out the similarity between the robots in Shun Miyazaki's Lupin III: Castle Cagliostro television series (1979) and those in the Fleischers' The Mechanical Monsters (1941). In the US the Superman cartoons were shown as inspiration to staff working on Warner Bros' groundbreaking television series Batman: The Animated Series (1992).

After the Fleischer brothers split up in 1942 Dave went off to Hollywood to head Columbia's Screen Gems cartoon unit and worked as a script doctor. Max went to Detroit, where he worked for former Bray colleague Jam Handy, producing industrial films and the first screen version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948). His last job, ironically, was for the Bray Studios in New York, who were by then producing training films for the US navy.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012