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Max Fleischer, the Psychedelic Animator

Debbie Burke
May 13, 2017

by Debbie Burke

HE GAVE US Popeye the Sailor Man, Betty Boop and Koko the Clown, and Superman – some of the iconic images that Baby Boomers grew up on – as well as inventing and inaugurating the technology for “Follow the Bouncing Ball” songs. He invented the Rotoscope, a method to create smoother animation (movements were traced by hand, frame by frame). And he was the first to mix live-action with cartoons, as when Koko the Clown “spilled out” of the animator’s inkwell and climbed up his arm.

Less known about Max Fleischer were his bicycle-trick courtship methods and his love letters to future wife Esther (“Essie”) Goldstein that included doodles with double hearts pierced by a single arrow. He enjoyed a stint as art editor for Popular Science and penned a few political cartoons in his early years, one of which illustrated the reach of municipal corruption. He also played mandolin, and when he started earning the big bucks, he developed a penchant for big, expensive cars.

Animator Max Fleischer was born “Majer Fleischer” in Kraków, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1883. His father Aaron (later modernized to Wilhelm and then William), was a custom tailor who practiced Orthodox Judaism. The family immigrated to the United States in 1887, eventually settling in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

During his teen years, Fleischer aspired to be a circus performer, often doing tricks with his brother Charles. Meanwhile, he completed his education at the Mechanics and Tradesmen’s School and enrolled in the Art Students League and later at Cooper Union, where he studied art and freehand drawing.

Fleischer was a self-made man, starting his career in the newspaper business. According to his son, Richard, in Out of the Inkwell (University of Kentucky Press, 2005), young Max told the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that he would pay two dollars a week to sit by the side of the paper’s cartoonist in order to receive an informal artistic apprenticeship. When the editor saw his renderings, they turned the tables: Max was offered twice that to deliver papers and be the art department’s errand boy. He was later promoted and became the Eagle’s staff cartoonist.

AFTER A SERIES of jobs as an artist and engraver, and following the bankruptcy of the Out of the Inkwell Films he had co-founded with his brother, Fleischer formed Fleischer Studios in 1929, at a time of change for American mores. Fleischer was known for his free and wild imagination, but the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, which was strictly enforced by 1934, began cramping his style. When Betty Boop first appeared in film, for example, her skirt was dangerously short and close to her pipik. Then, as the Code took hold, it began migrating almost imperceptibly down past her knees, strangling any risqué portrayals and making Miss Boop less an attractive hottie and more like a hausfrau.

Betty Boop would also entangle Fleischer in quite a legal to-do. In a famous lawsuit in 1932 (Kane v. Fleischer), showgirl Helen Kane – Fleischer’s first voice actress for Betty Boop – alleged that her likeness and trademark phrase “Boop-Oop-A-Doop” had been stolen by Fleischer for the Boop character. But the defense was able to demonstrate that the source of the cutesy-pie voice and famous catch-phrase was actually jazz singer Gertrude Saunders, aka Esther Jones, stage name “Baby Esther.” Little-known footage from the 1920s shows “Baby Esther” singing in her hallmark “baby-talk” style, and some believe that Kane had stolen it after watching Baby Esther at a cabaret show in April 1928. Max Fleischer was exonerated.

Fleischer was influenced by Rube Goldberg and often placed Goldberg-like contraptions in his cartoons, especially when frustrated inventor Grampy was attempting to save Betty Boop from the inevitable evil men placed in her way.

Anyone who has seen Fleischer’s cartoons (i.e., who hasn’t been living under such a rock as to escape being touched by Betty Boop or the original Superman) might be left with one lingering, nagging question: Where did the strange images in his animated cartoons come from, with people, animals and objects morphing into surreal weirdness and being driven to torture one another? These images could only be described as “trippy.” In discussing his affinity for Fleischer’s portfolio, guitarist Gary Lucas (who recorded an album called “Fleischerei,” which was a tribute to the great cartoonist) said in a 2016 DownBeat interview:

“The Fleischers have a real New York Jewish thing all their own…New York looks like a grim, fun but sinister place, with broken windows and torn-up sidewalks…this stuff is pretty psychedelic, too…Everything’s in motion, the flowers are talking, everything is rubbery and anthropomorphic. What were they smoking up there? That’s what I want to know.”

One example of Fleischer’s trippery was the eight-minute-long “Swing you Sinners” in 1930 (see below) involving a dog protagonist menaced by cemetery headstones that come to life and sing in sinister tones. A brick wall appears out of nowhere. Ghosts clone themselves and threaten the dog with a noose. (Interestingly, one of them has a black southern-American accent.) A plucked chicken scats some jazz phrases. A bale of hay comes alive, and shoes with their own severed feet follow him.

Another example is 1932’s “Chess Nuts” (see below) starring Betty Boop, co-starring Bimbo and Koko. The six-minute ’toon opens up with live action: two old men with Freudian beards playing chess. The ash from one of their cigars falls to the table and turns into Betty. Then Bimbo and a cartoon king appear out of the tops of chess pieces. Stop-motion photography has the real chess pieces moving swiftly around the board. Then animation takes over, with antics ensuing both on and beneath the board. The cartoon includes sexual harassment at its most offensive, but also a Betty who is determined to resist.

Fleischer’s offbeat sensibilities were on display in these early 1930s cartoons. They may even have inspired Walt Disney, whose 1941 film Dumbo included the segment “Pink Elephants On Parade” – a fantastical storyboard with its own disturbing images.

A RARE photo from 1956 shows Fleischer and Disney together. One can only wonder what each man was actually thinking about the other. Fleischer and Disney look comfortable enough together, but we don’t know if either was an admirer of the other. Fleischer’s son, Richard, recalls that when he eventually became a film director, Disney (who had seen the younger Fleischer’s work on “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea”) reached out to make him an offer and bring him on board. Richard felt it was only right to clear this with his dad; after all, they were competitors of sorts, and Richard had recalled his father mumbling unkindly about the creator of Mickey Mouse. With his father’s blessings, Richard accepted and began working for Disney.

There were other, more utilitarian applications of Fleischer’s talents. In 1916 the U.S. entered World War I, while Fleischer was working at Bray Studios. Completely out of character, it seemed, and taken from another page of his imagination, Fleischer worked on producing army training films. They were the first of their kind, tackling subjects such as reading contour maps and laying submarine mines.

Then, in 1923, Fleischer made two versions of a film on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The 20-minute short (for theater; the film for educational use was 50-minutes long) contained examples that illustrated what “relativity” means, with basic text and simple graphics, set to music that could be Jascha Heifetz playing a Beethoven violin concerto.

Much of what has been written about Max Fleischer is bogged down by a tedious and minute recounting of his decades-long legal troubles with Paramount Pictures, which took over Fleischer Studies in 1942, renamed it Famous Studios, and removed Fleischer’s name from the credits on his films. Suffice it to say that Paramount was said to have visited a relentless barrage of deceits upon poor Max. Such treatment would not have withstood our current legal system and its regulations against the infringement upon intellectual property. These terrible travails ended up breaking the man, causing a full-circle deterioration that was at once physical, mental and emotional. Even though his career ended with a modicum of relief and vindication (he won his lawsuit against Paramount in 1955 and the film credits were restored), the damage had been done.

Passing away at age 89, Fleischer did not get to see the revived (meteoric, in fact) interest in Betty Boop as an alternative to that other animation powerhouse, Walt Disney. Yet by the end, Max Fleischer had seen his inventions validated and brought to fruition. He enjoyed a full life, loved heartily, and left a positive legacy.

Son Richard said his father was “consumed” by animation. When it is your calling – your heart pumps it out and your veins bring it back – you’ll do anything to practice your art until the last boop-oop-a-doop.

Debbie Burke is the author of The Poconos in B Flat and the upcoming Glissando: A Story of Love, Lust, and Jazz. She contributes to the music education website and blogs at Debbie received her training on the alto saxophone at the New School for Social Research in New York and played in a community jazz band for three years.