July 19, 1883, is the birthdate of Max Fleischer, maker of the first animated film with sound and, with his brother Dave, one of the great – if today largely forgotten – pioneers of the art form. Among the most well-known cartoon characters to emerge from Fleischer Studios, in the 1930s, were Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor.
Max Fleischer was the second-born of the six children of William Fleischer, a tailor from Krakow, Poland (or, according to some sources, from Vienna).
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The father immigrated to New York in the mid-1880s and brought over the rest of the family in 1887. Max grew up in Brooklyn, and became interested in drawing cartoons while a teenager. After high school, he studied graphic arts at Cooper Union and at the Mechanic and Tradesman’s School.
In 1915, Fleischer received a patent for his Rotoscope system, a labor-saving method for creating animated movies frame by frame by tracing projected images of live-action films. Max and Dave made their first movie using the technology in 1914, and four years later employed the method in a series of shorts they produced for Bray Studios in New York called “Out of the Inkwell.”
Amazingly, the “Out of the Inkwell” films, most of which are lost today, combined live-action with animation, with images of a live-action Max Fleischer dipping a pen into an ink bottle and then putting the pen to paper to create cartoons. Two characters that recurred in the series were Koko the Clown (based on Dave Fleischer dressed in a clown suit) and his dog Fitz.
By 1921, the Fleischer brothers, joined by their sibling Lou, organized their own Fleischer Studios (initially called Out of the Inkwell Studios), and began producing “Song Car-Tunes,” sing-along shorts that incorporated a follow-the-bouncing-ball image, with a dog telling audience members to “follow the ball, and join in, everybody.” These were initially silent films, but by 1924, the Fleischers, employing a method developed by Lee DeForest, were using synchronized sound – the first animated talkies, two years before Walt Disney introduced Steamboat Willie to the world.
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Other Fleischer Studios releases included two 20-minute shorts explaining scientific concepts – one on evolution, the other on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Also innovative was their depiction of animated and live-action images of African-American jazz musicians, such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, singing their own songs.
Nineteen-thirty presaged the birth of Betty Boop, perhaps Max Fleischer’s most memorable character. Betty, a young woman who initially had certain poodle-like characteristics, was a flapper type who, at least in part unwittingly, oozed sexuality – until the Hollywood censors got to her with their Production Code. Her first appearance was as a waitress in a cartoon called “Dizzy Dishes,” and she appeared regularly in Fleischer shorts until 1939. In one film, she preserves her “boop-oop-a-doop” from a lecherous circus ringmaster; in another she is scared off by a walrus who, thanks to the Rotoscope, resembles Cab Calloway, and who sings his “Minnie the Moocher” to her.
It was in a Betty Boop picture that Fleischer’s other big star, Popeye the Sailor, made his debut. Fleischer had secured the rights to bring the comic-strip character to the screen from King Features Syndicate.
By this time, Fleischer films were being distributed by Paramount Pictures, which also invested in the company, and it was this relationship, though for some time mutually profitable, that contributed to the demise of Fleischer Studios. Paramount was resistant to investing in Technicolor technology, leaving Disney Studios to move fully into three-color movies earlier. Despite the success of Fleischer’s titles, and their artistic sophistication, they couldn’t keep up with Disney, especially after the latter brought out its full-length “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” in 1937.
In 1942, with Fleischer Studios in deep debt to Paramount, the brothers, who by now were bickering between themselves, found themselves taken over by the larger company. Max and Dave went their separate ways, and Paramount renamed their firm Famous Studios, appointing Max’s son-in-law as one of its new directors.
Max went on to make educational movies, including training films for the armed forces during World War II, and later worked for other studios, making, among other things, a full-length cartoon about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in 1948.
Max and Dave never reconciled. Max and his wife Essie (Ethel) moved into the Motion Picture Country House, a retirement community, in 1967, and he died in Los Angeles on September 11, 1972, at the age of 89.