Saturday 1 June 2019

The Story of Max

I’ll say it up front. Max the 2000 Year Old Mouse stinks.

Yes, I realise there will be some who will howl in anger because they watched the cartoons when they were four and are nostalgic about them. But they really do stink. The bulk of the action is a camera panning over still drawings as the fine Bernard Cowan narrates, interspersed with some barely moving mouse animation involving “humour.”

The men responsible for these were the same guys who brought you Fritz the Cat—Steve Krantz and Ralph Bakshi.

I’ve found two lonely articles about the series from when it was being produced, both from New York-based weekly Back Stage. The first is from March 7, 1969.
“Max, The Mouse” In Krantz House
“Max, the 2,000 Year Old Mouse,” a unique new series of fifty two 5-minute cartoons combining education and entertainment, has been placed in production by Krantz Films, Inc., it was announced by Stephen Krantz. First sales of the series, scheduled for the Fall season, have been to Kaiser Broadcasting for their stations in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, Cincinnati and San Francisco, and to KCOP in Los Angeles. Created by Ralph Bakshi of Krantz Animation, Inc., the new series is a merger of entertainment and educational material designed for pre-schoolers to fifth graders. All of the background for the series will be taken from original photographs or authentic drawings, paintings, prints and lithographs of historical happenings.
How did Krantz and Bakshi get to this point? Well, let’s back up a bit.

Krantz left a programme director job at WNBC-TV in New York to work for Screen Gems. After eight years, he quit in September 1964 to set up his own company, Krantz Films.1 Krantz had spent three years as general manager of Screen Gems of Canada, and he hoped his company would “increase the amount of Canadian production suitable for sale around the world.”2

A deal was soon worked out to produce a colour, half-hour cartoon series based on the Wilhelm Busch characters Max and Moritz, with voices apparently to be recorded in Germany.3 It doesn’t appear to have gone anywhere. Krantz then inked a contract for Western distribution outside the U.S. for four TV shows owned by Trans-Lux Television Corp., including Felix the Cat and Mighty Hercules made-for-TV cartoons.4

Now came a huge break. Krantz jumped on the super hero craze and inked a contract with Marvel in March 1966 to animate its characters. RKO signed a million dollar contract with Krantz for 195 six-and-a-half minute cartoons featuring Captain America, Sub-Mariner, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor and Iron Man.5 The Grantray-Lawrence studio in Hollywood made some of the cartoons6 but Shamus Culhane in his autobiography Talking Animals and Other People pointed out his staff at Paramount animated The Mighty Thor while four studios in Hollywood handled the remaining cartoons. Unfortunately there were production problems under rookie director Chuck Harriton.

Krantz wanted to break into live-action programming. A half-hour series starring Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington was in the works7. His next animation venture was in conjunction with Cracked magazine and called The Flipsides. It was a half-hour show filmed in Australia, featuring cartoon rock groups in three, 6½ minute adventures. A pilot film was made.8

All this led up to Krantz’s biggest TV success. He sold Spider-Man to ABC in January 1967 with Grantray-Lawrence handling the animation.9 As anyone familiar with the show knows, the voice tracks were cut in Toronto and featured veteran actors well-known in Ontario’s capital. But Krantz was working on another cartoon series with a Canadian connection. By March 1967, trade ads were being taken out announcing Rocket Robin Hood was in production. Not only were the voices Canadian, the animation was made in Toronto as well at a hastily-expanded Al Guest Animations under the eye of executive producer Shamus Culhane (Variety reported on May 24, 1967 that Culhane had been appointed head of animation at Krantz Films). Somehow Culhane avoided mentioning this part of his career in his book. It’s no wonder. Rocket Robin Hood is embarrassingly bad, though it did provide work to Canadian animators. Being produced in Canada meant the series qualified as Canadian content, ideal for sale to both the CBC and British television. The latter had a quota on American imports, which likely was Krantz’ incentive to have it animated under the Maple Leaf flag.

Rocket Robin Hood was Krantz’ idea, and he apparently was nuts about outer space. He announced production would begin in March 1968 on a feature called Space Pirates of Treasure Island, very loosely adapted from the Robert Louis Stephenson novel, in co-production with the Toei Company in Japan and starring American actors (sorry, Bernard Cowan).10 He also had three live-action shows in the hopper.

Around this time, Ralph Bakshi took over as executive producer and director of Krantz Animation, Inc.11 (Krantz Films was sold to another company which Krantz later bought). Culhane was operating his own company by June 21, 1968.12

This pretty well brings us up to 1969 and Max. Back Stage of May 30, 1969 did a follow up story.
Krantz’ 2nd Version of “Max” For Schools
A second version of “Max, the 2,000 Year Old Mouse,” the new series of 5-minute cartoons combining education and entertainment, will be produced for schools only, it was announced by Stephen Krantz, Pres. of Krantz Films.
The series, for national distribution to schools to be called “The Childrens’ Museum,” will be exactly the same as its TV counterpart with the exception of its central character, an animated mouse observer, Max, who will be eliminated from the school version.
This the series of fifty two 5-minute history lessons, with backgrounds consisting of original photographs, paintings, prints and lithographs of historical happenings, will be presented for schools only with a voice-over narration only.
The appointment of a major distributor in the educational film field for “The Childrens’ Museum” will be announced shortly. The TV counterpart has already been sold in more than twenty cities for the Fall season.
A week later, Krantz Animation announced a commercial/industrial division called “Ralph’s Spot” with Bakshi in charge.11 Within a couple of years, Krantz and Bakshi would combine to shake the preconception of animation-as-children’s-entertainment with Fritz the Cat.

Culhane, by the way, reappears on the scene in 1972. He was the producer-director of 104, 4½ minute cartoons called The Wonderful World of Professor Kitzel. The series was produced by MG Films run by Marvin Grieve, a one-time salesman for Krantz Films. There was a Toronto connection here, too. The voice of Max, Paul Soles, provided the voices for Kitzel, while Paul Kligman, who played J. Jonah Jameson on the Spider-Man cartoons, was one of the writers (along with former Paramount cartoon designer Gil Miret).

A trivia note about Max: many fans noticed the cartoons had the same opening and closing theme as the Siskel and Ebert movie review show Sneak Previews on PBS. It was from the Capitol music library, and written by Bill Loose, Emil Cadkin and Jack Cookerly.

By now, you’ve probably spent more time reading this post than you ever did watching those Max cartoons. I’m going to toss in one more thing. John Canemaker, in his essay on Bill Tytla published in Cinefantastique, Winter 1976, talks about the ex-Disney animation legend in his final years:
While in California [in the early 1960s], Tytla tried to sell a cartoon film idea he had been planning for five years, “Mousthusula, the 2000 Year Old Mouse,” and for which he had made many charming and vigorous sketches, but there was were no takers . . .
While in the hospital for a “routine prostate operation,” Tytla had another stroke and was unable to speak or write for weeks after. He tried to print words during this period and even managed to draw some additional Mousthusula sketches, but these drawings are sad to see—scribblings of a giant who had lost the power.
Did someone steal the idea for Max from Bill Tytla?

You decide.

1 Weekly Variety, Sept. 23, 1964, pg. 37.
2 Weekly Variety, Oct. 7, 1964, pg. 28
3 Weekly Variety, Nov. 25, 1964, pg. 30
4 Back Stage, May 28, 1965
5 Broadcasting, March 21, 1966, pg. 58
6 Weekly Variety, March 23, 1966, pg. 48
7 Weekly Variety,, May 11, 1966. pg. 34
8 Back Stage, July 22, 1966, pg. 3
9 Weekly Variety, Jan. 25, 1967, pg. 26.
10 Weekly Variety, Feb. 28, 1968. pg. 20
11 Back Stage, June 6, 1968, pg. 17
12 Back Stage, June 21, 1968, pg. 7


  1. I remember watching the "Prof. Kitzel" cartoons mainly because I had to get up early to get ready for school, and this was the only thing being broadcast at that time period. Years later, when I learned more about Hollywood animation, I was amazed to see that Culhane, who worked on some of the Fleischer Bros.' Popeye cartoon classics, was responsible for this drek. I'll bet he never mentioned THIS cartoon very often, either.

  2. The "Wonderful World of Professor Kitzel" was almost exactly the same formula as "Max", still photos and paintings with wrap-around introductions by the Kitzel character. I can't remember if Professor Kitzel spoke with a Yiddish dialect or not, but "MISTER Kitzel", a recurring character on Jack Benny and Al Pierce radio shows, was voiced by Artie Auerbach in his best Kosher accents. Perhaps Culhane or the Producer remembered the radio character's name and used it for the cartoons.

  3. I used to feel the same way about Crusader Rabbit. And Colonel Bleep... although the still artwork in Col. Bleep was absolutely first rate.

  4. I don't recall seeing the Mr. Kitzel cartoons, though they appear to be in the same vein as "Funny Company" and "Big World of Little Adam."

    Steve Krantz' wife Judith would later become a best-selling novelist.

  5. Aw, come on, it wasn't that shitty. You should see the stuff that comes out now.

  6. Thank you for confirming that the Flipsides pilot was actually made! As you may or may not know, I wrote the 2-volume history of Cracked Magazine called "If You're Cracked, You're Happy". I could have sworn that I've seen The Flipsides when I was a kid as just a random cartoon shown on TV, most likely KTVU Channel 2 in San Francisco, which also ran Krantz's Spider-Man or KICU Channel 36 which ran The Marvel Super-heroes, both back in the 80s and 90s. If you have seen or have any further information of The Flipsides, I'd be keen to know it or see it!