Saturday, 10 June 2017

Max Fleischer Tells His Story

The production of the feature-length cartoon Gulliver's Travels by the Fleischer studio was accompanied by a huge raft of publicity. Some focused on the cartoon itself, some focused on the studio.

Here's a feature story on Max Fleischer published by This Week, a newspaper magazine supplement, on December 10, 1939. The stock photos accompanied the article.

Out of the Inkwell
Max Fleischer upset an inkwell on the rug 20 years ago, and out poured a host of movie stars: Betty Boop, Popeye and, now, the famous globe-trotting Gulliver

by Frederick James Smith
Max Fleischer is the unknown man of the movies.
Out of an inkwell he manufactures fantasy—turns out an exact amount of that elusive thing of dreams each week. And he is as fantastic as anything he creates.
Fleischer was one of the first men to make drawings move, to give life to pen-and-ink characters. For twenty-two years he has been amusing the public with animated cartoons. Today he is head of a $1,250,000 motion-picture studio, a colossus of cartoons. Yet when he steps outside of the studio, that fantasy built he is just a gray-haired little man of five feet, five, whom nobody knows.
It was Fleischer who produced the Out of the Inkwell comedies and Ko-Ko the Clown. It was Fleischer who did Betty Boop and Popeye, who produced those animated lures to mass-audience—singing the melodies with the bouncing ball. And it is Fleischer who has made the newest feature-length picture of ink, color and celluloid, Gulliver's Travels. By all contemporary standards he is entitled to a whole corps of yes men to follow him around his studio—but he goes alone. Nobody opens doors for him. His employees just say hello and Max nods politely.
Fleischer's pictures have made many box-office millions. But he always does his personal shopping on the installment plan—says he can't save money, even though he never bets on the horses. He spends it all working out eccentric ideas, such as a mechanical ash tray or a trick inkwell. And any scheme to improve cartoon comedies interests him vitally.
Fleischer has twenty-eight patents for cartoon devices. He heads one of the two biggest animated-cartoon "plants" in the world. The other belongs to Walt Disney. Fleischer's studio occupies a complete city square in Miami, Florida, and employs 650 people. And it all started in a Brooklyn apartment.
That was twenty-two years ago. Two or three years before that Winsor McCay had made the first animated cartoon ever created, presenting "Gertie, the Dinosaur." McCay used it as part of a vaudeville act—and aroused a lot of skeptical laughter when he predicted that animated cartoons would someday take their place with human films in the movie houses of the country. It was Gertie who inspired Max Fleischer to follow his ink-and-celluloid career.
Born in Austria, Max had been brought to this country at the age of four. He had studied art at the Art Students League and mechanics at the Mechanics and Tradesmen High School in New York, while working as copy boy at two dollars a week on "The Brooklyn Eagle." He had advanced quickly to the art department of the "Eagle," and moved on to the post of cartoonist. In the same department was J. R. Bray, another pioneer in making cartoon films. The two talked over their ideas, worked together nights trying to perfect them. Finally, after a year, a 150-foot cartoon comedy was turned out Fleischer took it around to a movie distributor, who looked it over with interest.
"I'll buy one a week," he announced. Sadly, Max told him how long it had taken to make the 150-footer. The distributor lost interest. But Fleischer went back to work and devised a way to produce a hundred feet every fourth week.
Two of his brothers, Dave, then a photo-engraver, and Joe, a mechanic, were his helpers, and their workroom was the parlor of the six-room apartment in Brooklyn where Max and his wife lived. One night the boys spilled a bottle of ink on the rug. Mrs. Fleischer had gone to bed, so the movie-makers quietly shifted the rug around until the ink-spot was hidden under the piano. Mrs. Fleischer discovered it eventually, but, anyway, it gave the boys a name for their movie: "Out of the Inkwell."
The Fleischer boys kept their jobs, but they also kept working in the parlor at night, perfecting speedy methods of animating drawings. The World War interfered for a time. But even while he was in the Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Max worked out a cartoon that showed recruits what happened when they pulled the trigger of their rifles. It was most effective when run off in slow motion.
After the Armistice the brothers went to work in earnest Fleischer produced two feature-length animated-drawing films—some years before Walt Disney's Snow White. One, called Relativity, explained the Einstein theory by way of drawings. The other, based on Darwin's theory of evolution, was made at the time of the William Jennings Bryan-Clarence Darrow battle in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee.
Fleischer's greatest success, however, has been by way of short comedies. Successful cartoon characters frequently are accidents. A minor figure steals the picture, much as a bit player often walks off with a screen drama. That is how Donald Duck emerged from a Mickey Mouse background. Betty Boop was just such an accident. She appeared as an incidental figure in the background of a cartoon cabaret scene, and stole the show. That was in the boop-a-doop era, and the public demanded more of Betty. She became a star, and lasted as long as the boop-a-doop era. Fleischer became interested in Popeye because one of the elevator boys at the New York hotel where he lived waited each night for a comic sheet presenting the spinach specialist. Fleischer says he came to like Popeye because "he'd fight for peace, go to jail to uphold uphold the law."
The Fleischer plant now turns out thirty-eight one- and two-reel animated comedies a year. Besides Popeye, there is the Hunky and Spunky series about two mules. And for the last year and a half they have been working on Gulliver on the side.
Fleischer likes to explain why he made Gulliver's Travels. "Every adult is still a child at heart," he says. "They are sorry they have been told there is no Santa Claus and they would like to say, 'You're wrong, there is a Santa Claus—and there are elves and witches and fairies.' People want to believe in fantasy because it is an escape from the hard realism of the world."
When Fleischer started work on Gulliver's Travels some 7,000 sketches were prepared. Before the studio got through over a million drawings had been made, of which some 200,000 show in the final print. When Fleischer moved his studio to Florida from New York last October, two hundred specialists in the making of cartoon comedies went with him. Some had been twenty years in his employ, at least twenty-five had been with him twelve years, and forty for better than seven years. There are eighty animators alone, besides specialists who supply the voices and music, inkers, colorists, technicians, mechanics, cameramen and minor workers.
A five-day week is the rule, with a minimum pay of eighteen dollars for beginners. Fleischer never will give a raise to anyone on request. He's stubborn that way but he will do it frequently of his own accord. The chief animators and their assistants are almost all men. They earn between $65 and $350 a week. In all America there are less than five hundred qualified, able animators.
Top artists at the plant are Louis Jambor, Shane Miller and Robert Little. It was Jambor who hit upon the fantastic background that is used for Gulliver's Travels. It is actually made up of coral formations that he discovered about Biscayne Bay.
One of Fleischer's younger brothers, Dave, is really his partner in making comedies. Dave sees things in terms of laughter, Max in terms of fantasy. Max is shy and retiring, avoiding publicity. Dave, on the other hand, will enter a restaurant and start clowning with the orchestra leader. As production head of the studio, Dave supplies a lot of the comedy ideas.
Besides Dave, Max is surrounded by three other brothers. Louis is head of the music department, Joe directs the machine shop, Charles supervises the repair staff.
Fleischer moved his studio to Florida because he believed his workers would be more creative, as well as happier and healthier in tropical surroundings. He thinks they need, as he puts it, "loose clothing so your imagination can work." We walked into the patio of his studio and saw a lot of his girl employees sitting about in tropic pajamas and shorts. It was noon hour. Max obviously was pleased. "So!" he chuckled. "Healthy and happy. You see, all a matter of clothes." But he himself comes to his Miami studio as formally dressed as if he were on his way to a Wall Street directors' meeting.
Fleischer worked out every detail of the studio himself. The whole plant is air-conditioned and there is indirect lighting throughout. Fleischer's own office looks like a drugstore. That's because he is eternally experimenting with the effect of various chemicals on celluloid, ink and film. "In my spare time," as he puts it.
His only concession to Hollywood ideas in his studio is a system of loudspeakers. An announcer calls the name of anyone wanted for anything important. "I had to do it," he apologized. "Efficiency." As he was talking, the loud-speaker began calling his own name. We called his attention to it. "Yes," he sighed, with a shrug, paying no further attention whatever to the voice of efficiency.
Away from his studio and his inventions. Max Fleischer seems a little lost. You suddenly notice his gray hair and his graying mustache. "I was born with the mustache," he says, a bit vaguely.
Fleischer dislikes riding in a car unless he drives himself. He considers himself the perfect driver. "Nobody thinks of the gas or the oil or the gears." he explains, "except me."
He admits one general enemy—doctors; and he loves to put things over on them. Recently physicians have been demanding that he rest. He says yes, and gets to the studio next day at eight, staying on to five in the afternoon.
The doctors insist that he put something into his stomach every three hours. He has a habit of forgetting to eat, when he gets started working on an idea. So his secretary pursues him about the studio with a watch and glasses of buttermilk.
The fantastic Fleischer touch is as apparent in his home as in his studio. Located on Meridian Avenue in Miami Beach, his house is a seven-room Spanish-type air-conditioned bungalow. The place is illuminated at night by blue floodlights. Maybe that is his touch of whimsey. Fleischer's own study, small and cozy, is crowded with books of fairy tales.
Fleischer is very fond of music. On social evenings at home he gets together with several old friends who play the piano and violin, shyly plays the mandolin or guitar himself, and makes records of the result. Later he sits by himself for hours, listening to the records.
Max has been married for some thirty years. "Happily married?" we asked. He seemed puzzled. "Isn't that what marriage is—for happiness?" he asked. He has a son, Richard, at college, and a daughter, Ruth, who married his chief artist, Seymour Kneitel.
The Fleischers are all proud of their little, soft-spoken, pioneering Max. They understand his reticence and his dislike for publicity. Through the years they have pulled for his success. And they are happy in his skill with this vast, magic business which started with a spot on a Brooklyn parlor rug.
"That spot," sighs Fleischer. "I suppose you must mention it, what? My wife almost has forgotten it."

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