originally published June 12, 2013
Unless you are well-versed in the history of cartoons, you probably know only a handful of names related to the industry: Walt Disney, Seth McFarlane, Matt Groening, and if you really remember your Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones. But any of those four would tip their quills in an industry salute to the group of film pioneers who laid down the stylistic pavement upon which their industry’s vehicles cruise.
Showing up right around the time cartoon sketches were first put into motion was a guy named Max Fleischer. Max may not have been the first person to bring ink to life on a movie screen, but he was part of that initial posse of innovators. He was quickly climbing the ladder of respect, but it seems a few rungs had been sawed through before he got there.
His name may have landed a few breaths short of household, but the world would have been a far blander place without Max’s contribution.
Max came to the cartoon world through the world of magazine illustrations. He was the art editor for Popular Science in 1912, where he probably picked up a few mechanical tweaks to put together the Rotoscope, which he patented in 1915. This technology is still in use – if you have ever seen the Richard Linklater film Waking Life or the iconic A-ha video for “Take On Me”, you have seen it in action. The Beatles used it in the film Yellow Submarine, and apparently Martin Scorcese used rotoscoping to artificially remove a chunk of cocaine that was hanging out of Neil Young’s left nostril in the documentary film The Last Waltz. It’s simply a machine that projects an actual filmed image onto a screen, onto which the animator can doodle, draw or fill in with color.
The series Max started up, known as the Out Of The Inkwell cartoons, consisted of a number of animated shorts between 1915 and 1919, many of them featuring Dave Fleischer, Max’s brother, dressed up then sketched via rotoscope as a character named Koko the Clown. If you aren’t familiar with Koko (and I’m not), he looked like this:
By 1921, Max and Dave had their own studio. While the cartoons weren’t hauling in mass audiences yet – no full-length cartoon features were made during this period, because the Hollywood elite hated children – Max was still the go-to name for cinematic animation. He also branched out into owning several theatres, because no one realized yet what a conflict of interest that could be.
By the mid-20’s Max was using the Phonofilm technology, which printed sound directly onto film, albeit with relatively crappy quality. Some pictures were coming out with the far-better sounding sound-on-disc technology, in which a film was meant to synch up with a record whose audio would be blasted into the theatre, but Max wanted to make use of the all-in-one solution. He came up with a series of 36 short films known as the Song Car-Tunes series, which innovated a new concept in getting kids to sing along with the on-screen sketches. Yes, Max invented the bouncing-ball-over-lyrics thing.
By the time Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie showed up in 1928, the Car-Tunes series had already run its course. Max had reached the high-brow crowd with two 20-minute live action / cartoon blends explaining Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and once the era of sound-synched films were in full force, he made rotoscoped cartoons of jazz performers like Cab Calloway, Don Redman and Louis Armstrong. This was back when black people – cartoon or not – were generally featured in films as caricatures. Max was presenting them the right way – like geniuses.
When 1930 rolled around, Disney was starting to plant its far-reaching roots, but Max was not washed away by Walt’s success. His company became a major subsidiary of Paramount Studios, and it wasn’t long before he hit it big. His studio’s first star started life as a half-human, half-poodle, and then became the first cartoon emblem of pure sex. Especially if you have a giant, unproportioned head fetish.
With Betty Boop, Max had stepped forward with Walt Disney as one of the two titans of the cartoon business. But where Walt went for the children in the audience, Max made a greater use of surrealism, adult themes and a gritty mise-en-scene. He threw in jazz music and a touch of dark psychology. Of course the big money was in marketing to kids, but Max was still keeping his bank account happy. He even posed a threat to Disney’s top-o-the-heap status when he acquired the license for the Popeye cartoon in 1933.
Then along came three-color Technicolor – perfect for spicing up the world of animation. Except that Paramount refused to use it, claiming it was just too pricy. For four years, Disney was the only company to employ the technology, and those four years are what put them permanently ahead of Max. When full color did trickle down to Paramount, Max invented the ‘Stereoptical Process’, which used an actual 3-D diorama as a background, creating greater depth and realism in his animation.
Alas, Max’s story drifted onto a rocky side-road. The infuriating Hays Code stepped in and claimed Max had to tone down Betty Boop’s overt sexuality, which killed her popularity. Then in 1937, Max’s animators went on strike. And while Dave Fleischer’s snazzy work securing the rights to the first Superman cartoon helped give the Fleischer brothers a boost, Disney earned supreme box office cred when they released Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated film.
Max’s response, Gulliver’s Travels, didn’t do as well. It went way over budget, and thanks to the new war in Europe, there was no hope for foreign box office returns. His second feature, Mr. Bug Goes To Town, hit theatres two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Max was getting thwacked by bad timing.
In 1941, Dave Fleischer, whose relationship with his brother had been souring for years, took off for L.A. Paramount swooped in and claimed further ownership of the studio, forcing Max out.
Max continued to work around the industry, but it was clear that his best days were behind him. He got a gig in 1948, overseeing production for the Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon, but that was before the accompanying song had been written, and the cartoon – which was more faithful to Robert L. May’s original story, wound up overshadowed by the much more famous TV special 16 years later.
Meanwhile, Paramount continued to reissue Max’s old cartoons, but with one tweak – they removed his name from the credits. Max held off on suing because his son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel, was still working for the company. When he did end up suing in 1955, the court agreed that Max’s case was valid, but the statute of limitations had expired, and subsequently he was entitled to nothing.
Max finished his days at the Motion Picture Country House, finally passing away in 1972 at the age of 89. His son, Richard, had a tremendous career making movies, including Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (which was made long after Max had stopped considering Disney to be his rival), and the twisted dystopian Soylent Green.
Max may not have died as well-known as his one-time competitor, but one could argue that Disney might not have hit the same degree of success without Max’s work as an animation pioneer. And with Betty Boop, Max figured out how to market cartoons to grown-ups. He is also probably responsible for the first animation-inspired erections in film-going history.
Now that’s an achievement.