Max Fleischer was an animator, director and inventor of some 30 patents for animation production. He is best known for creating animated cartoons featuring popular characters including Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor Man and Superman. He is considered one the three major pioneers of American animation of the 20th Century, along with Winsor McCay and Walt Disney.
Max Fleischer was born to Jewish parents on July 18, 1883, in Krakow, in the province of Galicia under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and arrived in New York City at age five. His father established a successful tailoring shop which catered to wealthy clients. Fleischer attended public school, and after graduating from Evening High School, he attended The Mechanics and Tradesman School, The Art Students League and Cooper Union, where he received a commercial art degree. His career began at The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he worked his way up from running errands to the positions of photographer and staff cartoonist while still in his teens. He began drawing single panel political cartoons for “fillers,” and later drew two daily comic strips, Little Algy and E.K. Sposher, the Camera Fiend.
In 1905, while at The Eagle, Fleischer became acquainted with Illustrator/ cartoonist, John R. Bray, who recommended him for a technical illustrator job for The Electro- Light Engraving Company in Boston. On Christmas Eve that year, Max married his childhood sweetheart, Ethel Goldstein. A year later their daughter, Ruth, was born. Their son Richard was born in 1916.
In 1909, Max and his family moved to Syracuse, New York, where he was a catalog illustrator for the Crouse-Hinds Company. A year later, he moved back to New York and became art editor for Popular Science Magazine. It was during this period that Max became involved in animation at the suggestion of his boss, Waldemar Klaempffert. Having seen a crudely produced animated cartoon at a movie the previous evening, he suggested that Max find a way of improving animation through the application of photography and mechanics. The result was The Rotoscope, a combination of a film projector and easel, designed to trace figures from motion picture footage to produce fluid, realistic animation. After two experiments, he filmed his younger brother, Dave in his Coney Island clown costume for an original subject.
The result led to his being hired by John R. Bray as production manager and producer of a series of monthly releases titled, “Out of the Inkwell.”
The first releases (1918-1921) were produced at the pioneering Bray Studios, included in the Bray-Goldwyn Pictograph film magazine series. The series was popular with movie audiences due to its clever combinations of animation with live action, showing Fleischer drawing the clown and interacting with him. The climax of each film would involve the animated character “crossing the fourth wall” and pulling some prank or act of revenge in the real world.
In addition to entertainment novelty series such as “Out of the Inkwell,” Fleischer produced several educational films during the silent era, beginning with a series for the U.S. Army during World War I on subjects including “Contour Map Reading,” and “Firing the Stokes Mortar.” Fleischer also produced a number of films on astronomy, including All Aboard for the Moon and Hello, Mars.
The Inkwell Studio
Max Fleischer formed Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc. with his brother, Dave in 1921, and continued with technical advancements, including the Rotograph technique, an early optical process that allowed for the re-photographing of live action film footage with animation cels. His invention was the precursor to the aerial image process used widely in the 1960s and 70s for compositing titles over live action background footage. In 1924, Fleischer invented the “bouncing ball” sing-along films, first known as Song Car-tunes, and later Screen Songs. Several of the early Song Car-tunes were released with soundtracks between 1926 and 1927, prior to the official start of the “talkie era” and preceding Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie as the first sound cartoon by two years. It was in this period that the “Fleischer Clown” became known as “Ko-Ko the Clown,” (a.k.a. Koko the Clown).
In 1923, Fleischer produced two important 20-minute science films, Evolution and Relativity, both using live action and animation special effects to demonstrate these theories.
The Sound Era
With talking motion pictures taking hold by 1929, Fleischer had a secure financial/distribution arrangement with Paramount Pictures and its large network of theaters. Then in 1930, Fleischer found great success in what started as a cameo character, who transformed very quickly into its most successful character at that time, Betty Boop. In 1934, popular singer, Helen Kane sued Fleischer and Paramount over the Betty Boop character, only to loose when it was proven that Kane had stolen the singing style from an African-American performer, “Baby” Esther Jones.
Fleischer’s greatest business move came with securing the screen rights to the E.C. Segar comic strip character, Popeye the Sailor. The huge success of the Popeye series propelled Fleischer’s studio into unheralded success. And the continued demand for Popeye cartoons led to a major labor strike in 1937.
Fleischer was at the zenith of his career with his most impressive technical development in the Stereoptical Process shown to great affect in the Color Classics series and most importantly in the two-reel Popeye specials — Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936) and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves (1937).
Following the settlement of the strike, Fleischer announced plans to relocate to Miami, Florida with a new production schedule of short subjects and features. Fleischer’s gradual move toward longer animated films paved the way for animated features, allowing for the success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,Paramount backed Fleischer on his first full-length feature, Gulliver’s Travels (1939).
Fleischer’s next major business move was with the Superman screen rights, which propelled his studio into relevance in the 1940s with its science fiction fantasy content. While Superman was an instant hit, it came too late. The working relationship between Max and Dave Fleischer had deteriorated during the production of Gulliver’s Travels, and Fleischer’s organization came under reorganization following Paramount’s losses over their final feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941). While set for release as Paramount’s 1941 Christmas film, Mr. Bug was plagued with problems. It was rejected by theater operators, and its release was further complicated by the national panic set off by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Due to continued losses, Max Fleischer resigned and Fleischer Studios reorganized as Famous Studios on May 27, 1942. Fleischer parlayed his experience producing educational and industrial films into a new position as head of the animation department at The Jam Handy Organization, which required him to move to Detroit, Michigan where he remained until 1956. His career came full circle as he returned to The Bray Studio as production manager and developed pilots for educational television series, including Imagine That!
In 1956, Fleischer sued Paramount for $2,750,000 over the sale of the cartoons produced under his contracts and won the lawsuit. In 1958, he resurrected his old company, Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc. to bring Koko the Clown to television. And in 1960, 100 new color cartoons were produced by Max’s former animator, Hal Seeger.
After years of battling with Paramount, Fleischer's health began to deteriorate. During that time, he fought to regain the title to Betty Boop, a battle he eventually won by the time if his death. When Fleischer passed away on September 11, 1972 from arterial sclerosis of the brain, Time magazine referred to him as “Dean of Animated Cartoons.” His son Richard, a film director, wrote Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution (University Press of Kentucky), a biography about his father which was released in 2005. The Art and Inventions of Max Fleischer (McFarland, 2016) by Ray Pointer also covers the Fleischer's life and pioneering work.