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With Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928) entering in the public domain earlier this year, and making headlines in nearly every news outlet, I find myself reminded of an earlier American studio that- although forgotten by time- had premiered their first sound animated short two years prior to the Mouse. And if you’re as much of an animation geek as I am, you know exactly what I’m talking about- Fleischer Studios. This American animation studio brought Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman to life on the big screen; and many of the animation industry’s early technological advances can be credited to one half of the Fleischer Studios’ founders- inventor, actor and animator Max Fleischer. But I’m getting ahead of myself- so, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

A Revolutionary Invention and a Clown

In 1915, the world of animation would forever be altered by Max Fleischer’s invention of the rotoscope. This tool would allow animators to draw over a projection of a live action reel of film, creating more life-like and fluid animation. Partnering with his younger brother, Dave, Max would experiment with this new tool, with his first animated short taking a year to animate—a tough and strenuous learning curve for Max. But Dave’s previous experience as a clown working for Coney Island, and his access to a simple homemade black-and-white clown costume, meant Max had his own in-house actor, perfect for the lead role in the first series the Fleischer brothers would later produce—Out of the Inkwell. These shorts—possibly inspiring Walt Disney’s early Alice Comedies shorts (1924-1927)—mixed live action with animation, often with the animated portions—starring a pantomime “little clown”—interacting with live action props, like inkwells, pens, and antagonizing the artist, typically played by Max Fleischer. These shorts would gain the attention of J.R. Bray who would hire the pair to make more “little clown” shorts, until America’s entrance into World War I would cause their animated shorts to pivot, temporarily. J.R. Bray was contracted to create military training films, and so, the Fleischer brothers would have to wait, until 1919, for their “little clown” character to play on the big screen again. And it was within this time gap that Max and Dave perfected their techniques with the rotoscope, and by 1920, the pair had streamlined the process enough to produce 14 original Out of the Inkwell shorts.

KoKo the Clown and Fritz, his pet dog, in FADEAWAY (1926).

A New Home and a Bouncing Ball

1921 marks the true start of the Fleischer brother’s animation journey—they left J.R. Bray and started their own studio, aptly named Out of the Inkwell, Inc. By this time, the Out of the Inkwell series had been distributed to theaters across the country, and the “little clown” character had finally been named: Ko-Ko the clown. Their first employee, Charlie Shettler, was hired during this transitional period; Shettler would work as the studio’s cinematographer and would later be promoted to the Director of the Camera Department. He would also stay employed by the Fleischer brothers until their closure twenty years later. As the shorts became more and more popular with movie goers, and new content became more in demand, the Fleischer brothers expanded even more; moving their studio from the basement of a New York City apartment, to a floor in the Studebaker Building located on Broadway in 1923. Their team of three expanded to nineteen. This move would also provide Out of the Inkwell, Inc with their first distribution contract—with Red Seal Pictures.

The Studebaker Building, which housed Out of the Inkwell, Inc from 1923-1937. It was demolished in 2004 to make room for apartments.

This expansion, and Max Fleischer’s natural drive for technical advances in the world of animation, attracted the attention of sound technician and inventor, Lee DeForest. In 1926, using DeForest’s Phonofilm sound-on-film system, Out of the Inkwell, Inc would produce and release the first successful sound cartoon, My Old Kentucky Home. This is the first short in the Out of the Inkwell, Inc.’s Song Car-Tunes series, shorts based on or themed around pre-existing songs, using the sound-on-film system. It was in this series of shorts that Max Fleischer would perfect, and patent, the “bouncing ball” technique for sing-a-longs used in their shorts. Other shorts and films produced during this time would incorporate audience interactions, harking back to one of the first widely spread animation shorts—Gertie the Dinosaur.

In 1929, Out of the Inkwell, Inc would sign a contract with Paramount Pictures to distribute their shorts, and later that same year, the studio would change it’s name to the iconic Fleischer Studios. Ko-Ko the Clown and Fritz, his adorable dog sidekick, were Fleischer’s only main characters, featured in sound and silent films, and the studio wanted to expand their roster of characters. Inspired by the many possibilities sound-on film animation could have, Fleischer Studios started a new series of shorts, named Talkartoons. Now starring Bimbo, a smart-talking, singing dog, Talkartoons would skyrocket into popularity with the addition of the scandalous, jazz-singing, romantic interest, Betty Boop. Introduced in 1930 in Dizzy Dishes, Betty Boop’s design would be more dog-like, with long floppy ears and a dot for a nose; she would gradually become more human-like over the next five years.

Bimbo holding onto Betty Boop, in Minnie Moocher (1932)

How Betty Got Her “Boop”

Betty Boop would become the Fleischer Studio’s main mascot, with her iconic flapper style, spunky damsel-in-distress personality, and of course, her iconic “Boop-Oop-a-Doop” catchphrase. And this is when the Fleischer brothers got their first taste of controversy—Betty Boop’s inherent knack for attracting bad press. Even as early as 1934, a popular singer and flapper-inspired actress, Helen Kane, sued the Fleischer Studios for “infringement, unfair competition and exploitation of her personality and image.” While the court ruled in favor of the Fleischer Studios, Grim Natwick, the artist who designed Betty Boop, would later admit to using Helen Kane as inspiration. Vaudeville acts don’t form in a bubble, and Helen Kane took inspiration from scat singer and entertainer Baby Esther, who took inspiration from Florence Mills. All three women made their careers as flappers, singing and entertaining, all incorporating “boops” into their performances; none would achieve such lasting notoriety and stardom as their animated counterpart.

With a new (albeit more adult) star at Fleischer Studios, the shorts developed a more rough and slick attitude. Disney’s shorts were mainly set in idyllic, farmhouse, Midwest country settings; Fleischer Studios’ shorts reflected where they were made, New York City. Jazz performers, notably Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, were brought in to star in some of the most unique and famous shorts done during this era; stories were set in cramped, skyscraper-infested big cities; and the Fleischer brothers were not afraid to make shorts that were just… weird. It was during this era that the Fleischer’s really developed what became known as the “rubber hose” style in animation; characters with wiggly, hose-like limbs, expressive pie-cut eyes, and more simplistic body shapes and designs. Even their newest star—E. C. Segar’s comic-strip strongman Popeye, which starred in his own animated series with Fleischer Studios in 1933—was animated with these characteristics.

Max Fleischer was always tinkering with new inventions and projects, and none seemed more labor-intensive—yet produced magical results—than the setback camera1. Long before Disney patented and used their multiplane camera method, layering of unique background artwork painted on glass sheets to create the illusion of depth in animation in shots, the Fleischer Studios had created and perfected their own method. The 1933 patented setback camera method involved building a three-dimensional set on a rotating base, with animation cels photographed in front of the rotating model. The sets could be re-arranged and re-filmed for numerous shorts, change a detail here or there, and the next short can be shot with a “new” background. While this method has long since been retired—and even Disney’s alternative method, the multiplane camera, has been collecting dust in a closet for the past two decades—the magic of the effect it creates is timeless.

Above GIF from Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), with background filmed using the Setback Camera method.

The Hays Code Impact

While Popeye gained more popularity on the big screen, Ko-Ko the Clown was finally retired as a Fleischer star. Betty Boop was still starring in her series of shorts, with very occasional crossovers with Popeye and his cast. The Fleischer Studios would yet again get into issues—this time, breaking the infamous Hays Code. Previously, Hollywood could produce films including any forms of violence, sex, drugs, and other perversions, without consequence. Until Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), produced and started to enforce the Hayes Code, otherwise known as the Motion Picture Production Code, as a way to heavily censor and regulate the film industry. From 1934 to 1968, the Hays Code ruled the film industry with a heavy fist—and if your film or short or character didn’t follow their strict rules, it would not be released widely to theaters. If your animated top-billing star happened to be the decade’s favorite animated icon… well, changes had to be made. And for Fleischer Studios, their precious Betty Boop was one of the most affected animated characters that needed to be changed to avoid the dreaded cutting block. She traded her traditional flapper attire for a knee-length dress and apron, and Bimbo, her anthropomorphic dog love interest, was replaced by Betty’s pet dog, and her more adventurous spirit replaced by the activities of a typical housewife. By 1935, Betty Boop had been completely transformed.

Gradual (and Not-So-Graceful) Downfall of Fleischer Studios

In 1938, Fleischer Studios had expanded to 250 employees, and occupied a full four floors of the Studebaker Building in New York City. Later that year, the entirety of the studio, including all 250 employees moved down to Miami, Florida, and with funds provided by Paramount Pictures, the Fleischer Studios spent the next eighteen months working on their first feature-length film, and further expanding their team to a massive 700 employees. Using Max’s rotoscope to animate the main character, Fleischer’s first feature film, Gulliver’s Travels (1939) met Paramount’s tight deadline and astonished audiences. Yet, Dave and Max Fleischer’s fights during Gulliver’s Travels created a lifelong rift between the two brothers, and it only worsened over the next few years.

1941 proved to be an even busier year for Fleischer Studios. America’s favorite superhero got his first animated serial, the 17-episode Superman cartoon that premiered on the silver screen from 1941-1943, based on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s pre-existing comic book stories. Fleischer Studios animated the first 15 episodes, while Famous Studios animated the last two. All of the cartoons from the Superman series entered the public domain in the late 1960s after the copyrights lapsed. After Paramount celebrated the successes of Gulliver’s Travels, they poured funding into the Fleischer Studio’s next feature film—a loosely based animated adaption of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee. Fleischer Studios’ second film, Mr. Bug Goes to Town (sometimes named Hoppity Goes to Town), could not have been released at a worse time, with the premiere taking place a mere two days before the Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Paramount Pictures was also aware of the growing internal conflict between Fleischer Studios’ founders, and created a clause in their last contract with the studio that one—if not both—of the brothers must resign after Mr. Bug Goes to Town hit theaters. Dave Fleischer submitted his letter of resignation in November 1941. Once Paramount Picture’s contract with Fleischer Studios ran out in Spring 1942, Paramount officially owned the animation studio and ran it without either brother’s interactions until July 19422, when the Fleischer Studios’ doors were officially shut for the last time… and re-opened under Paramount Picture’s Famous Studios3 rebrand.

Max and Dave Fleischer never spoke to each other again. They relocated, separately, to California. Dave Fleischer would continue to work in the film industry, producing cartoons for Republic Pictures and Columbia Pictures, animating advertisements for Filmack (including the iconic “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” ad used in drive-in theaters). Dave would work as a technical specialist at Universal Studios, retire in 1967, and pass away on June 25, 1979. Max Fleischer would go on to continue tinkering with his inventions, working with The Jam Handy Organization and producing military and navy training videos for the war. In 1958, Max revived Out of the Inkwell, Inc. and with Hal Seeger as lead animator, created 100 episodes for the Out of the Inkwell cartoons that aired on television from 1960-1961. Animated in a style akin to UPA Animation popular in the 1950s, this version of the Out of the Inkwell cartoons has been largely forgotten by time, and is considered lost media, with only a handful of the shorts uploaded online. Max would retire from the film industry in 1967, and would pass away on September 25, 1972.

Lasting Legacy

Fleischer Studios might not have lasted nearly as long as Warner Bros Animation or Walt Disney Studios, but their impact on the animation industry continues to be seen to this day. Whether in cheeky film cameos (who could forget Betty Boop’s waitressing role in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) or in parodies (like Betty Boop’s raunchy caricature in Comedy Central’s Drawn Together), the Fleischer Studios most well-known star continues to grace the screen. Modern cartoons and video games are also heavily inspired by the Fleischer Studio’s “rubber hose style”—with the makers of Cuphead (both the 2017 video game and the 2022 Netflix animated show) directly stating their “north star” in the art direction of the franchise to a handful of Fleischer Studios shorts. The result? A beautifully designed and traditionally-animated platformer game, that’s as fun to play as it is to watch. Bendy and the Ink Machine, a 2017 survival horror video game, also took style inspiration from the Fleischer Studios catalogue—and their knack for creating violent and crass shorts that lends the tone perfectly to an unsettling horror game.

While researching the Fleischer Studios, I came across numerous articles calling for censorship or banning of certain shorts produced by the studio—half a century after they were produced. Even the iconic rubber hose art style has come under scrutiny as recently as 2022—coinciding with the release of Netflix’s Cuphead animated series. While this public outcry is a more contemporary issue, the subjects of some of the Fleischer Studios shorts aren’t as squeaky clean as their Mickey Mouse counterparts, featuring off-color depictions of racism, sexism, alcohol use and abuse. Betty Boop’s controversy didn’t stop in 1935, with newer claims that the Fleischer’s white-washed her design from her African American real-life inspirations… despite a PBS article debunking this theory in 2022. Yet, despite the nearly century-long controversy surrounding her, Betty Boop continues to be an American icon, sold on merchandise and adored by all.

Unfortunately, as with most early Hollywood studios, the Fleischer Studios’ catalogue is plagued with lost media—film reels lost to time, disposed of, burned, deteriorating, long forgotten in a storage unit. Restoration and preservation of the remaining films and shorts available from Fleischer Studios is essential to the future enjoyment of these shorts. FleischerToons on Instagram is a group that is doing just that—restoring Fleischer Studios shorts and showing them on the silver screen again, at numerous live events in California.

I hope this article inspires you to watch some of the Fleischer Studios films!

Disclaimer: Some of the films created in this era may depict outdated and harmful stereotypes, messages and story lines.

Fleischer Studios Materials Available at WPPL:

The Amazing World of Betty Boop

Betty Boop: Her Wildest Adventures

Fleischer Studios Materials Online:

Fleischer Studios Official Website Filmography

FleischerToons YouTube Channel

Out of the Inkwell YouTube Playlist – has most of the Out of the Inkwell shorts

Talkartoon Shorts YouTube Playlist – shorts created from 1930-1933 featuring Betty Boop and Bimbo

Betty Boop Shorts YouTube Playlist – has most of the Betty Boop shorts from 1930-1939

Popeye Shorts YouTube Playlist – some of the Popeye shorts from 1933-1939

Gulliver’s Travels Full Movie on YouTube

Superman Shorts YouTube Video – has all 17 episodes of Fleischer Studios/Famous Studios run

Mr. Bug Comes to Town Full Movie on YouTube

Out of the Inkwell: The Fleischer Story

The Trick that Made Animation Realistic – Short Documentary on Rotoscoping by Vox

Sources:

Foot Notes:

  1. The Setback Camera, often referred to in Animation textbooks as the Stereoptical Camera, was invented by Max Fleischer and patented in 1933.This filming process involved building a three-dimensional set on a rotating base, with animation cels photographed in front of the rotating model. The sets could be re-arranged and re-filmed for numerous shorts, change a detail here or there, and the next short can be shot with a “new” background. Walt Disney would patent the multiplane camera, which photographed background parts on glass sheets from above, in 1937. ↩︎
  2. Sources above state that the rebrand happened in either late May or early June 1942. ↩︎
  3. Nostalgic Showcase Presents covers Harvey Comics and Famous Studios in May 2024’s article- so remember to tune in real soon for some more nostalgic ‘toons! ↩︎

Cat B.

Cat has been a part of the Youth Services team at WPPL since January 2023, and previously worked in the Circulation Department. She has a Bachelor's of Fine Arts Degree in Animation from the Savannah College of Art and Design (2021), and has participated in four separate charity zines since graduation and creates freelance illustrations whenever her nose is not in a book.