Max Fleischer (born July 19, 1883, Vienna, Austria; died September 11, 1972, Woodland Hills, California) and Dave Fleischer (born July 14, 1894, New York City, New York; died June 25, 1979, Hollywood, California) were American cartoonists and film animators, the chief rivals of Walt Disney during the 1930s, and whose studio was responsible for bringing to the screen Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman.
Sons of an Austrian tailor who emigrated to America in 1887, the Fleischers developed an interest in film making and production, specifically animation, and completed their first cartoon in 1915. Of the two Max tinkered in the mechanical aspects of the camera and invented the rotoscope, in which a previously-filmed live-action sequence was fed in frame-by-frame and allowed for the tracing of the images into animation. Between 1919-1929 this process was used for the Fleischers’ Out of the Inkwell series, beginning for New York’s Bray Studio, and starring brother Dave as an animator who’s creation on paper, Ko-Ko the Clown (Dave in a clown suit prior to rotoscoping), jumps off the page and interacts with reality, often with disastrous results.
In 1921 the Fleischers took the Inkwell series and opened their own studio, adding Song Car-Tunes (1924–26), which were silent shorts meant for audience participation, aided by a bouncing ball over the lyrics to keep tune. It was also during this time that they were competing with Disney, who’s Mickey Mouse was proving to be a money-making commodity; Disney would introduce Steamboat Willie in 1929, the first animated cartoon short with sound. The Fleischers would follow this film with a sound short of their own, Dizzy Dishes in 1930, and bring to the screen their hugely-popular creation, Betty Boop.
Betty was a late-1920s flapper, with a large head sporting a short, spit-curled hairdo and a tiny mouth, set on top of a curvaceous body; a baby-doll voice (provided by actress Mae Questel) finished her off. And she attracted some controversy of her own, for in much of the Fleischer films the stories are not so much character-driven as they are dark, violent, and sexually-suggestive. In Bimbo’s Initiation (1931), Bimbo (Betty Boop’s dog) is in an underground place, suffering a series of tortures by characters wearing chamber pots on their heads; in Snow White (1933) Betty and Ko-Ko are in a haunted, dark cavern filled with ghosts, one of which is a rotoscoped Cab Calloway. In these darker films there is also the occasional presence of evil rats bearing somewhat of a resemblance to Mickey Mouse, in keeping with the competition with Disney. Despite the risque, Betty would star in many successful shorts, reaching her peak in 1935, before declining in popularity and ending in 1939. In part, the Production Code of the 1930s tamed the sexual-suggestiveness given in the first Betty Boop films, resulting in a reason for her decline.
Ironically, the biggest reason of her decline was a character the Fleishers had Betty herself introduce in the 1933 short Popeye the Sailor. Based upon characters created by Elzie Segar, Popeye typified the Fleischers’ uniqueness from Disney, in which the idiosyncrasies of the animators came into prominence, and depended on which team was drawing. In addition, voice actors dubbed the sound on the finished films, which differed from Disney’s use of a pre-recorded sound track; the result was ad-libbing without much concern for the coordination of the sound with the lip movements, and in Popeye’s case resulted in the character’s famous improvised mutterings.
Changes were made to the character prior to putting him on celluloid. Gone were most of the population comprising the Thimble Theater strip from which Popeye was originally created; retained were Olive Oyl, Popeye's long-suffering on-and-off girlfriend; Bluto, his lumbering nemesis; and J. Wellington Wimpy, a ner-do-well with a penchant for hamburgers. Popeye was portrayed as a wisecracking sailor who tended to stay out of trouble, only to fight back when "I had all I can stans, an'I can stans no more!", in his own special mangaling of the English language. Possibly the biggest benefit came as a result of the spinach growing industry reporting increased demand; prior to the Fleischers adding a can of spinach before a fight, Popeye gained his strength by rubbing the Wishing Hen in Segar's strip. Several major spinach growing areas responded to the new fortune by erecting statues of Popeye in his honor.
During the later 1930s, the competition with Disney had gotten blurred. The Fleischers turned out films bearing more of a resemblance to Disney’s shorts than they have in the past; as a result they had lost their uniqueness. Their chief character, Popeye, had brought in much-needed income, but rather than using him in a full-length animated film (Disney’s ground-breaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937) they had settled on Gulliver’s Travels (1937) to moderate success, and followed by Mr. Bugs Goes to Town (1941), a box office failure. Trying to recover, the Fleischers produced seventeen shorts featuring National Periodical’s Superman; the shorts themselves were well-executed in their design and detail. However, the expense related to producing the Superman films, as well as the losses incurred by Mr. Bugs, caused film distributor Paramount Pictures to take over and rename it Famous Studios. The Fleischers were fired.
On their own, Max produced television cartoons and educational films, while Dave became an animation supervisor with the studios of Columbia and Universal until retiring in 1969.