Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Fleischer Studios, Inc. is an American corporation, that originated as a animation studio located at 1600 Broadway, New York City, New York. It was founded in 1921 by brothers Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer, who ran the company from until being fired by parent company Paramount Pictures in January 1942. In its prime, it was the most significant competitor to Walt Disney Productions, and is notable for bringing to the screen cartoons featuring Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and Superman.
The company had its start when Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope which allowed for animation in an extremely lifelike fashion. Using this device, the Fleischer brothers got a contract with Bray Studio in 1919 to produce their own series called Out of the Inkwell which featured their first character, Koko the Clown. This became a very successful series which gave them the confidence to start their own studio in 1921.
Throughout the 1920s, the studio proved to be one of the top producers of animation with clever humor and numerous innovations. These included sing along shorts which were the precursor to music videos and extended length educational films on subjects like relativity.
The studio even produced some experimental sound films years before The Jazz Singer. The sound shorts attracted little interest at the time, in part because only a small number of theaters were equipped with electronic speakers at the time.
The studio used Lee De Forest's methods to produce over a dozen early cartoons with synchronized sound tracks, including, Come Take a Trip in My Airship, Darling Nelly Gray, My Old Kentucky Home, and In the Good Old Summer Time.
Sound and Color
With the full adoption of sound films in the late 1920s, the studio was one of the few animation companies to successfully make the transition with a new series called Talkartoons with a new character called Bimbo. That character was quickly upstaged by a supporting character called Betty Boop, who quickly became the star of the studio. Betty was the first featured female character in American animation, and she reflected the distinctive adult urban orientation of the studio's product. Their success was further solidified when they licensed Segar's comic strip character Popeye the Sailor for a cartoon series of his own. Popeye eventually became the most popular series the Fleischers ever produced, and its success rivaled that of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoons. Three Technicolor Popeye featurettes were produced in the late-1930s, which were billed in many theatres alongside with or above the main feature.
Unfortunately, the studio's fortunes began to turn as the 1930s continued on. In 1934, the Hays Code was put in place in Hollywood which meant severe censorship for films. As a result, Betty was desexualized and much of her charm was lost. Even worse, the Fleischer's caved into pressure from their distributor, Paramount Pictures, to begin emulating the style and content of Walt Disney's cartoons, which robbed the studio of their distinctive flavor. The most notable example of the Fleischer's adaptation fo the Disney style was their Color Classics series, which was essentially a copy of Disney's Silly Symphonies.
Paramount's desire to have Fleischer Studios become more like the Disney studio culminated in the production of animated feature films, following the success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Paramount loaned Fleischer the money for a larger studio, which was built down in Miami, Florida in order to take advantage of tax breaks and to break up union activity resulting from a bitter 1937 strike. The new Fleischer studio opened in March 1938, and production on the first feature, Gulliver's Travels, went from the development stage into active production.
Upon its Christmas 1939 release, Gulliver performed modestly, although the quality of the story and animation was far behind that of the film it tried to emulate, Snow White. Between the release of Gulliver and the follow-up feature, Mister Bug Goes to Town, the Fleischers produced their best work from this period, a series of high quality shorts based upon the comic book superhero Superman. The first short in the series, simply titled Superman, had a budget of $100,000, one of the highest ever for a theatrical short, and was nominated for an Academy Award.
However, this late success did not help the studio lift its financial trouble. The expanded staff of the new Miami studio created a high overhead, necessitating steady production. A number of the shorts turned out during this period, such as the continuing Popeye shorts and a 1941 adaptation of Raggedy Ann and Andy, maintained a high level of quality. Others, like the Stone Age shorts, and the various Gulliver spin-off series, were among the studio's least successful output. As profits dwindled, the Fleischers had to continuously request loans from Paramount, putting more and more of the shares of their studio up as collateral. In addition, Max and Dave Fleischer were no longer on friendly speaking terms. Paramount had each brother submit an signed letter of resignation, to be used at Paramount's discretion.
Mister Bug Goes to Town was finally released in December 1941. Unlike Gulliver, Mister Bug failed to make an impression of any kind, and sunk quickly. Dave Fleischer left the studio at that time to become the head of Columbia's Screen Gems animation studio in California. With the co-owner of their animation studio now working for a competitor, Paramount produced the letters of resignation and called their loan, bankrupting Fleischer Studios, Inc. and officially removing the Fleischers from control of the studio. Max Fleischer went on to become an employee of the Jam Handy studio, and Isadore Sparber , Dan Gordon , and Max Fleischer's son-in-law Seymour Knietel became the new owners of the studio, which was re-christened Famous Studios and moved from Miami back to New York by 1943. The Fleischers were never a major force in the industry again, but their films and characters have remained popular and by the 1980s, they were recognized as the animation pioneers that they were.
Fleischer Studios is today an in-name-only company, handling the licensing of characters such as Betty Boop and Koko the Clown.
The rights to the Fleischer/Famous Studios cartoon library are complicated. With the exception of the Superman and Popeye cartoons, Paramount's cartoon library was originally sold to a company called U M & M Corp. (which later became National Telefilm Associates [NTA] and Republic Pictures). U M & M (as well as its NTA successor) altered the original negatives to a majority of the cartoons and modified their original front-and-end credit sequences, either blocking out all references to Paramount or created new but cheaply done credits. True animated historians and fans should know this was not the way these classic cartoons were originally intended to be seen.
The 1950-1962 cartoons were sold to Harvey Comics in 1962 (today they are owned by Classic Media). The copyright for the Fleischers' cartoons was not renewed by Famous or Paramount, and as a result the majority of the Fleischers' cartoons entered the public domain. This included the Color Classics series, the Superman series, and the two full-length feature films. The Popeye series did not become public domain as Popeye's trademark was enforced by King Features Syndicate and the cartoons themselves acquired by Associated Artists Productions (which became part of United Artists); however, the three two-reel Popeye Color Specials (Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves, and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp) were not included in the Popeye series and also became public domain.
The Flesichers' color films have been widely available on video since the 1980s, often on inexpensive (and poor quality) videotapes sold in supermarkets and department stores as parts of collections of other public-domain cartoons. Both animation fans and the UCLA Film and Television Archive have worked to give the classic Fleischer cartoons the credit they deserve, and high-quality restored editions of the Flesicher cartoons have also been made available on pay-cable, home video and DVD. Many of these restored prints include the original front-and-end Paramount titles.
The Betty Boop and Koko the Clown series have also entered the public domain, though they are not as widely available because of the popular belief among today's video producers that black and white and silent cartoons in general do not appeal to young children. Some of these cartoons have also appeared in restored versions (mostly with their original credits).
In any case, DC Comics (via Warner Bros.) now own the original film elements to the Superman series, while Turner Entertainment (also via Warner Bros.) owns the Popeye series outright (with the exception, of course, of the public domain shorts). Meanwhile, Paramount (through Republic, which the studio acquired in 1999), in a twist of irony, now owns the original elements to its 1927-1950 output they themselves originally released (in addition to the 1962-1967 shorts they have retained the rights to), while Lions Gate Home Entertainment (via an output deal with Republic) owns the video rights. Although there have been official releases in the late 1980s of Betty Boop compilation VHS and LaserDisc box sets by Live Entertainment (Lions Gate's predecessor), and select Superman cartoons by Warner Home Video (as part of separate VHS and LaserDisc collections of episodes from The Adventures of Superman TV series of the 1950s), sadly there have not been any official releases of the Fleischer cartoons on DVD thus far.
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