Thursday, April 20, 2017

Fleischer Studios

Fleischer Studios started out as Inkwell Studios in 1921 in New York City, founded by the Fleischer brothers Max and Dave. The early days of the studio brought new innovation to the medium with their Song Car-Tunes which were three minute shorts that had the audience "follow the bouncing ball" and sing along to a song. This was the first instance of this karaoke precurser, and the series would also be the first to use sound film to animation, four years before Disney's Steamboat Willie. Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope, a device that allowed for animation to be more lifelike by tracing motion picture footage of human movement. Their first major cartoon character, Koko the Clown, was a product of rotoscoping. In 1929 they changed the studio name to Fleischer Studios. It was also around this time that the studio started to experiment with sound. Talkartoons became a hit with the studio going into the early 30's with their character Betty Boop eventually becoming the star and getting her own show which ran until 1939. 

Fleischer Studios had their biggest hit when they licensed E.G. Seger's comic character Popeye starting in 1933. Popeye even surpassed Micky Mouse in popularity at the time. The studio was hitting its stride by 1936, and this made their parent company, Paramount, demand more output in shorter amounts of time. This led to the first ever strike in the motion picture industry. The strike lasted five months and resulted in Fleischer cartoons being boycotted throughout the strike's duration. Max Fleischer had been bugging Paramount to let them do a full length animated film, but they didn't go for it until Disney pulled it off with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Once Disney had proven that it could be done and people would go see it (and see it they did, Snow White still tops box office returns when adjusted for inflation for animated films), Paramount then demanded a movie be done by Christmas 1939. 

The first of two feature films made by Fleischer Studios was Gulliver's Travels, the classic story by Jonathon Swift. The production of Gulliver's Travels was not a smooth one. Paramount demanded a film in 18 months, a daunting task considering that Snow White was made in twice that amount. On top of this was the Studios move from New York to Miami, Florida. While the studio gained a bit of freedom on how they were making the film, the remote location made their relationship with the Technicolor lab. Rotoscoping was used for many of the main characters to give them more life-like movement, and like Disney would eventually do, used the voice actor as the live-action model. Even with Paramount constantly threatening to cancel the film, the studio was able to get it done in time for Christmas 1939. The film was a success, grossing $3.27 million domestically, a feat made even more impressive considering it was only playing at 50 theaters. Paramount was happy enough with Gulliver's Travels and wanted another movie for Christmas 1941. Despite the profit made from the movie, Paramount still penalized Fleischer Studios for $350,000 for going over budget. This was just the start of Fleischer's financial woes.

Things were going downhill quickly for the Fleischer brothers. The move to Miami and the stress of trying to get Gulliver's Travels made had damaged their relationship. They eventually stopped talking to one another after Max slept with Dave's receptionist. Dave eventually gained full control of production, with Max dealing with business affairs and research. Things didn't go much better with Dave picking what to make. Their new cartoons were very unpopular, with only Popeye sticking out as a money-maker. Max attempted to save the studio by acquiring the rights to Superman, which was a very popular character, but was too little too late. Superman was also expensive to product. Their first short featuring Superman cost $50,000, the highest of any short of that time.

Fleischer Studios still hadn't paid Paramount all their penalties and Paramount eventually fully acquired them, though letting them keep producing cartoons. They hoped that Popeye, Superman, and the studio's second film could get things going again. Mr. Bug Goes to Town, the studio's second feature, was not going to save them. It was first previewed on December 5th, 1941. Critics enjoyed it, but theater owners rejected it. Two days later, Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese and Paramount canceled the release of the film until February. Paramount had had enough of the Fleischer brothers and had made them sign resignation forms ahead of the films release to be used at the company's discretion. Dave quit, and Max was fired shortly after. Mr. Bug Goes to Town, originally titled Hoppity Goes to Town, was a complete bomb, and that, together with Paramount noticing that both of Disney's recent releases, Pinocchio and Fantasia tanked at the box office too, led Paramount to completely abandon making animated films. Fleischer Studios was renamed Famous Studios in 1942.

Fleischer Studios still exists today, but not as a traditional studio. Max's grandson, Mark Fleischer, currently owns the studio, which owns the rights to Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Bimbo, and Grampy. Mark basically controls merchandising on these characters. I'm guessing Betty Boop is the only one making anyting. Superman was eventually bought by Warner Bros., and Popeye's cartoons are owned by Turner Entertainment.

Not all of these will be this long. Fleischer Studios holds a place in history and their studio history is more interesting than their two films. Fleischer Studios found success because they were drawing in a way that no one else was. They had a rougher feel, but along with rotoscoping and more human characters, it felt more life-like. The settings in the cartoons tended to be more urban, in areas that looked all too familiar to the lives of those living during the depression. Disney did funny cartoon animals, while Fleischer tended toward more human characters. Most studios went with animals, so this really helped with Fleischer's popularity. All of their cartoons have a very specific look, and you know one when you see it. This animation style is not altogether gone either, as there is currently a video game in development that uses that same style called Cuphead. It's nice that the early animation giants are still remembered in some ways today.


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