Now available for pre-order is the long awaited history of the man and studio behind a few of the most famous cartoon characters and some of the greatest, most-influential animated films in the history of the medium.
Author and historian Ray Pointer is a forty-year film and animation professional. He has spent a life time devoted to research, and is recognized as a foremost expert on Max Fleischer and The Fleischer Studios. His book, The Art and Inventions of Max Fleischer: American Animation Pioneer will be published in October by McFarland Publishing.
I spoke to author Pointer, who currently resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about the project.
1. First of all, for the young folks among us who might not know, briefly tell us who Max Fleischer was, what he accomplished.
The characters, BETTY BOOP and POPEYE continue to shine after 80 years, but the man behind them has been largely in their shadows. Max Fleischer was one the the three major animation pioneers of the 20th Century, preceding Walt Disney. Fleischer’s OUT OF THE INKWELL series (1919-1927) was a landmark in its interactive use of animation and the real world. This influenced Disney in his first commercial success, THE ALICE COMEDIES (1923-1927), which reversed Fleischer’s concept by placing a live action girl into a cartoon environment.
As in all pioneering enterprises, things had to be invented to make the product possible. And Max was largely an inventor of processes and mechanisms that advanced the commercial production and appreciation of animated cartoons.
Among these inventions were The Rotosope, which enabled “frame-by-frame” tracing as an aid in complicated actions and reference markings for compositing animation with live action photography. The Bouncing Ball Song Film was a Fleischer innovation, as well as his early work with sound and synchronization devices. And anyone who has seen the Popeye Specials, SINDBAD THE SAILOR and ALI BABA AND HIS FORTY THIEVES has marveled at the three-dimensional background effects, which were another Fleischer innovation.
During the Golden Age of Depression Era theatrical cartoons, the Fleischer Studio was the top producer along with Disney, yet was unique. Anyone seeing a Fleischer cartoons can see something indescribably different. And that is why new audiences continue to embrace these cartoons. 80 and 90 years after they were made.
2. I understand you met Max Fleischer early in your career. Tell us about that.The summer before I entered high school, I interviewed at Jam Handy in Detroit. I was finishing a 30 minute production of THE WIZARD OF OZ that I had begun when I was 12. This was done with a series of animated cutouts placed on levels of glass to produce the illusion of depth much like in the old Viewmaster slide reels. In some of the scenes I had 3D Pans that emulated the Fleischer cartoons.
I set the projector up in the Camera Room, and had the sound on tape since it was still a work in progress. After a few minutes people from the department started drifting into the back of the room. They all laughed and applauded at the right spots proving that I must have been onto something. When the lights came on, there were two little square-shaped men standing in front of the group. I was introduced to them as pioneers of the industry, Frank Goldman, inventor of the Three-Hole Animation Punch, and his best friend, Max Fleischer!
Max stepped forward with an amazed look in his eyes and offered his hand to me, asking me how long I had been working on the film. It had been about two years. His response, was, “My dear young man, what you’ve done on your own in just those few years is more than we’ve have gotten from people in training for five years!” Max was also impressed with my 3D effects and asked what inspired that idea. I said, “Why, Mr. Fleischer, I was inspired by your Popeye cartoons!”.
That was 20 minutes I will remember for the rest of my life.
3. How long have you been researching your book?
My initial interest started at Jam Handy 50 years ago when I started hearing general comments about Max and his studio. Then when I entered college in 1970 I went into full force on my research. After two years, all available periodicals, magazine, and newspaper articles were exhausted, and I started to turn to the Fleischer family.
I wrote to Richard Fleischer while he was in production of THE NEW CENTURIANS. He referred me to his sister, Ruth Kneitel. This was a month after Max had passed away in 1972. Ruth was very gracious and gave me a few things. While my intitial interest was in producing a documentary, I starting thinking about a book. Ruth then told me of a book that was in the process of being written by then 19 year old Leslie Cabarga. I contacted Leslie, and it seemed we had both reached a similar dead end with so many pieces to the jigsaw puzzle to be found. We made a friendly exchange, and my notes at the time ended up in the text of THE FLEISCHER STORY (1976/1988).
Over the years I made several attempts at selling the documentary idea and received several positive responses from cable outlets provided it had been produced. which meant finding my own funding sources. In June, 2000, I nearly made a deal with AMC only to have the channel sold the following week and the programming policies changed. Then working directly with Fleischer Studios and their connections with the Hearst Organization, we were about to come out with an A&E Biography Special. And then A&E changed their programming, and the doc never got to final finish in spite of approval by Richard Fleischer before he passed away.
Because of radio appearances, retrospectives I staged, and my presence on the Internet, I have been approached by many researchers for information that is beyond the convention history, which has been repeated and distorted over the decades. And it is because I had the opportunity of meeting the brothers late in life and became acquainted with their survivors that I gained an insight that was beyond the clinical career reviews that all previous accounts contain. So because of this and also understanding the medium, after 46 years I believe I have a clearer grasp of the subject and have had the opportunity to tell this story as it has never been told before.
4. In relation to Disney, how popular were Betty Boop, Popeye and Gulliver’s Travels?There are some interesting differences about the appeal of the popular Disney characters compared to Fleischer’s First, the Disney characters were anthropomorphized animals, where Fleischer’s characters Koko, Betty Boop, and Popeye were cartoon humans. The content and approach between the Disney and Fleischer cartoons was different. Disney seemed more “Middle America” in his reflection, where Fleischer was more urban and eastern seaboard. While Disney was leaning towards serious film making, Fleischer was more commercial and comedy-oriented as he considered animated cartoons as “the cartoonist’s cartoon,” and continued to see this as a cartoon medium. Betty Boop had more connections to Vaudeville/Burlesque skit comedy built around songs. Her cartoons contained irony, visual hyperbole, and sexual innuendo, while the Disney cartoons generally steered clear of such subjects. Of course the Popeye cartoons stood out for their sitcom content that propelled the studio forward in well constructed stories and defined personalities. Polls taken in the late 1930s showed Popeye as eclipsing Mickey Mouse in popularity. And Popeye continued to be a box office champion with a theatrical career that lasted 24 years.
Objectively, Fleischer’s most successful characters were essentially derivative. GULLIVER’S TRAVELS was an opportunity for the creation of original characters. And audiences of the Fleischer cartoons can feel a connection since they featured characters seemingly related to the Popeye style with the added technical challenge of the contrasting scale of Lemule Gulliver, who is a shining example of the use the Rotoscope for the realistic animation that was required. While the film is flawed, it moves and is graced by good songs. In fact, Paramount had enough faith in it to submit the score for Academy Award consideration. Of course, it lost out to THE WIZARD OF OZ.
5. I know this is detailed in your book, but briefly how did Max lose control of his studio to Paramount?
Max’s move to Miami with the intent to produce features was not made with a good business plan. The primary mistake was with his continued dependency on Paramount for financing. Second the contracts were not written well. The production of shorts should have been a separate contract from the features. Had the features been on a Chattel Mortgage under Paramount’s financing, they would have remained Paramount’s property until the cost was met in box office earnings.
GULLIVER did well on a limited release and played for only a month, making twice what it cost. Comparisons to the earnings of SNOW WHITE are not fair since it was in release for two years. While Paramount made a $1Million profit. the production went over budget, and Fleischer was penalized for the cost overruns. This was the start of their debt to Paramount. Had Max arranged financing independently as Disney had, Paramount would not have been in the position to take control. That was the beginning of the end starting in 1940.
The Art and Inventions of Max Fleischer: American Animation Pioneer will be published on October 30th 2016. It is available for pre-order now.
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