Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Out of the Inkwell

Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution

Richard Fleischer
With a Foreword by Leonard Maltin
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 232
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Out of the Inkwell
    Book Description:

    Max Fleischer (1883--1972) was for years considered Walt Disney's only real rival in the world of cartoon animation. The man behind the creation of such legendary characters as Betty Boop and the animation of Popeye the Sailor and Superman, Fleischer asserted himself as a major player in the development of Hollywood entertainment. Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution is a vivid portrait of the life and world of a man who shaped the look of cartoon animation. Also interested in technical innovation, Fleischer invented the rotoscope -- a device that helped track live action and allowed his cartoons to revolutionize the way animated characters appeared and moved on-screen. In the 1920s, Fleischer created a series of "Out of the Inkwell" films, which led to a deal with Paramount. Their character KoKo the Clown introduced new animation effects by growing out of Fleischer's pen on-screen. As the sound revolution hit film, the studio produced shorts featuring the characters interacting with songs and with the now-famous bouncing ball that dances across lyrics projected on the screen. Max Fleischer's story is also one of a creative genius struggling to fit in with the changing culture of golden age cinema. Out of the Inkwell captures the twists and turns, the triumphs and disappointments, and most of all the breathless energy of a life vibrantly lived in the world of animation magic.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7209-5
    Subjects: History, Film Studies, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Leonard Maltin

    Max Fleischer is animation’s unsung hero. If Walt Disney is the most celebrated and chronicled producer in the history of the medium, Fleischer is his polar opposite.

    Animation fans love his work and revere his cartoons’ unique personality and technical achievements. Watching the innovativeOut of the Inkwellshorts from the 1910s and 1920s is as joyful and exciting today as it must have been when they were new. Those shorts also give us a glimpse of Max, as he appears on-screen opposite Ko-Ko the Clown. ThePopeyecartoons continue to delight audiences lucky enough to see them after nearly...

  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 They say that it’s difficult being a famous man’s son
    (pp. 1-8)

    They say that it’s difficult being a famous man’s son, that you live in his shadow, that comparisons with him are always odious. Well, I grew up as a famous man’s son, and I didn’t find it difficult at all. In fact, it was great. My father, Max Fleischer, was a famous man and a celebrity for my entire childhood and young adulthood, and far from living unhappily in his shadow, I thoroughly enjoyed basking in the reflected glow of his limelight. When I was a kid, just mentioning to a theater manager that I was Max Fleischer’s son got...

  6. 2 Two years after joining the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
    (pp. 9-12)

    Two years after joining theBrooklyn Daily Eagle, Max Fleischer was probably the youngest major-newspaper staff cartoonist in the country. Not only was he drawing editorial cartoons for the paper, but he had two regular comic strips of his own,AlgyandE. K. Sposher, the Camera Fiend. Almost all his work is signed “Mack.”Algywas the earlier of the two strips and, not surprisingly, seems influenced by the Brownsville environment: unpaved, muddy streets; wooden picket fences; and tough street gangs. It was, after all, the streets of Brownsville that later gave birth to the Mafia banker Meyer Lansky...

  7. 3 If ever a job was tailor-made for anyone
    (pp. 13-22)

    If ever a job was tailor-made for anyone, thePopular Sciencejob was it for Max. As Max writes in his 1939 unpublished autobiography: “I realized I was not only artistically inclined, but had a very keen and instinctive sense for mechanics. I liked them both. A strange combination. To me, machinery was an art also. I still see great art in machinery.” So Max had his strange combination and reveled in it. True to form, he blossomed out, and, in addition to his other chores, it wasn’t long before he was writing and illustrating technical articles on the latest...

  8. 4 Brimming with pride and high hopes, Max
    (pp. 23-30)

    Brimming with pride and high hopes, Max couldn’t wait until he could show his creation to a film distributor. This is the way my father remembered that event: “I took the film to a distributor and in the blink of the eye, it was run off. He said, ‘That’s very nice. What are you going to do with it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I thought it was something, that’s all.’ He said, ‘Could you make one of these every week?’ I laughed. ‘Why, no, it’s a physical impossibility.’ ‘How long did it take you to make this thing?’ he...

  9. 5 Late in 1920, the Bray organization
    (pp. 31-38)

    Late in 1920, the Bray organization began to fall apart. It seems that, a year earlier, Bray had made a contract with the Goldwyn Company to produce and distribute all Bray’s short films. Goldwyn capitalized the new venture to the tune of $1.5 million, a very substantial sum in those days. The Goldwyn-Bray goal was to release 156 reels of film a year. This was not just way beyond anything the Bray organization had ever produced before but way beyond anything it was actually capable of producing. By the end of the first year, it had released a total of...

  10. 6 There were three movie “palaces” in midtown
    (pp. 39-44)

    There were three movie “palaces” in midtown Manhattan in the 1920s that hold a special place in my heart: the Rivoli, the Rialto, and the Criterion. They were what could be called a minicircuit since they were all under the supervision of Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld, a wild impresario and music conductor. Going to see a movie at any one of the three theaters was more than just an entertainment; it was an experience.

    Each theater showed a different major motion picture, which was preceded by a huge theatrical production: dozens of elaborately costumed dancers; a full symphony orchestra; enormous sets....

  11. 7 Taking a page from his former employer
    (pp. 45-48)

    Taking a page from his former employer J. R. Bray’s book, Max put the studio into high gear when, in 1923, he formed his own distribution company, Red Seal Pictures, with the plan to make all sorts of films other than cartoons. He hired Edwin Miles Fadiman, who was experienced in the distribution field, to run the company and committed to an ambitious release schedule of 120 short subjects.

    Things started out well for Red Seal Pictures, and it looked like Max and Fadiman had a successful operation going. By 1925, Red Seal was releasingOut of the Inkwellcartoons,...

  12. 8 The addition of sound to the Fleischer cartoons
    (pp. 49-52)

    The addition of sound to the Fleischer cartoons also brought another addition to the roster of Fleischer brothers working at the studio. A highly talented, dedicated musician, my Uncle Lou was a perfect fit as head of the Music Department. Since the cartoons now contained wall-to-wall music, Lou became one of the busiest and most valuable men in the company.

    Even though other producers’ cartoons already had sound tracks, they didn’t actually “talk.” There was music, to be sure, but the cartoon characters made grunts, groans, or strangling sounds. Max decided to make cartoons that actually said words. This new...

  13. 9 Clearly, Max was riding the crest of a wave
    (pp. 53-58)

    Clearly, Max was riding the crest of a wave. Who would have thought that the sassy, ugly mutt fromDizzy Disheswould metamorphose into America’s sweetheart, and Europe’s, and the rest of the world’s too? But it turned out that an even bigger wave was right behind him.

    Max couldn’t help but notice the great popularity of the leading character, Popeye the Sailor, in Elzie Segar’sThimble Theatredaily comic strip. He had a strong hunch that the one-eyed, funny-looking sailor might work just as well, or even better, on the silver screen as he did in the confines of...

  14. 10 The fortunes of the Fleischer family
    (pp. 59-62)

    The fortunes of the Fleischer family seemed to run counter to the times. Wall Street laid an egg in 1929, and the Great Depression overtook the country and the world—but not Max. The Depression was the period of his greatest successes, and instead of going broke like everyone else, Max was starting to make money. That was because, during the Depression, the worried populace sought escape from their problems in the entertainment that was to be found in movie houses.

    The first noticeable improvement in our family’s way of life was the move from our modest apartment at 1678...

  15. 11 Several times during the writing of these pages
    (pp. 63-76)

    Several times during the writing of these pages I have quoted from my father’s unpublished autobiography. A reader may wonder why I’m going to all the trouble of writing a biography of Max Fleischer when an autobiography already exists. Well, the autobiography, written in 1939, is all of nine pages long. It is so crammed with condensed facts and philosophies that reading it is akin to trying to make a meal out of a bouillon cube.

    For example, Max describes his working habits in just these few lines: “Working hours are from 8 A.M. to 12 and 1 to 5....

  16. 12 Although this book is primarily about Max
    (pp. 77-82)

    Although this book is primarily about Max Fleischer, there was an Essie Fleischer too. When Max and Essie took their marriage vows in 1905, they really meant it—especially the “until death do us part” promise. Death parted them sixty-five years later.

    Essie was a five foot three firecracker with a constantly smoking short fuse and a slightly broken nose that was never properly set. She got that when she passed out in the bathroom of our Union Street apartment while she was pregnant with me. It was not just her fuse that kept smoking but she herself, a chain-smoker,...

  17. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  18. 13 Fleischer Studios prospered
    (pp. 83-86)

    Fleischer Studios prospered. In a couple of years after leaving the tiny, cramped quarters in Long Island City, with a minuscule staff, it occupied four floors at 1600 Broadway with a staff of about 250. New and exciting things were happening in the movie industry. By the mid-1930s, “talkies” had long taken over, and color was creeping in. Max wanted to get into color, but there was a serious case of timidity on Paramount’s part. It took the release of Disney’s seriesSilly Symphonies, in glorious Technicolor, before Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, green-lighted Fleischer Studios to make...

  19. 14 Because of Max and Dave’s personalities
    (pp. 87-92)

    Because of Max and Dave’s personalities, Fleischer Studios was a wonderful, happy place to work. Max brought it great paternalistic warmth. He loved the studio and everyone in it, and they loved him back. Dave supplied the fun, the laughter, the devilry. The studio was a place of great camaraderie. Practical jokes were nonstop. The bowling club was extremely popular, and Max never missed an opportunity to play with the gang.

    Adding to the general feeling of friendliness was the treatment of all employees, particularly women. In the early 1930s, a time when women in animation studios were limited to...

  20. 15 Max was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker
    (pp. 93-96)

    Max was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. He rarely traveled outside the city. His out-of-the-country experience, not counting his first four years in Austria, amounted to three days in Canada and one night in Mexico. He didn’t do much better within the United States. New York City was his home, and almost nothing could lure him away from it—except Miami Beach. He liked Miami Beach so much that, in 1933, he actually bought a winter home there. It was a modest two-story, Spanish-style house at 3090 Alton Road for which he paid $31,500.

    During the nasty strike business, Max started...

  21. 16 Work at the New York studio continued
    (pp. 97-100)

    Work at the New York studio continued at full force on theBetty Boops, thePopeyes, and other shorts during the five or so months it took to build the Florida studio. The greatest concentration, however, was given to deciding what story to use for the feature. I wasn’t at all surprised when Jonathan Swift’sGulliver’s Travelswas chosen. I knew it was my father’s favorite book since he used to read it to me as a bedtime story when I was a child. The section chosen, dealing with the Lilliputians, was certainly the most popular and the best suited...

  22. 17 Paramount insisted on a Christmas release date
    (pp. 101-106)

    Paramount insisted on a Christmas release date forGulliver’s Travels, which was fine, except that it had to be Christmas of 1939, which was a year and a half away.Snow Whitetook four years to make, so the challenge was intimidating, to say the least.

    The studio started hiring artists like mad. Besides the 250 from New York, at least 100 were hired from among local artists, another 300 from the training schools that had been set up, and about 100 from West Coast studios like Disney’s or Walter Lantz’s or wherever they could be found. (Walter Lantz was...

  23. 18 The studio’s move from New York to Miami
    (pp. 107-112)

    The studio’s move from New York to Miami was an apparent success; thePopeyeandSupermanseries were going great guns;Gulliver’s Travelswas breaking attendance records at box offices everywhere while another feature-length cartoon,Mr. Bug Goes to Town, was in preparation; and, to top it all, theScreen Songsseries, with the bouncing ball, was an unexpected hit. Things at the new Miami studio were humming right along without a hitch.

    Well, almost without a hitch. According to Max’s notes, he and Dave were not getting along—in fact, they weren’t even talking to each other. Dave’s playboy...

  24. 19 Max opened the contract, read the first paragraph
    (pp. 113-118)

    On May 29, 1941, Dick Murray, the liaison man between Fleischer Studios and Paramount in New York, arrived at the studio in Miami and handed Max a large manila envelope. It contained a sixty-five-page, closely typed contract, dated May 24, between Paramount and Fleischer Studios. Max was completely puzzled. It was a contract he had never seen or heard of before. Murray told him to read it as soon as he could. Max opened the contract, read the first paragraph, and was completely stunned. It stated: “All understandings and agreements, of whatever nature (between Paramount and Fleischer Studios), shall be,...

  25. 20 After the initial shock of the Paramount takeover
    (pp. 119-124)

    After the initial shock of the Paramount takeover, things at Famous Studios went on much as they had at Fleischer Studios. The films were still being released under the Fleischer Studios’ banner. The name change would not be made public until May 1943, when the whole operation was to be moved back to 1600 Broadway in New York.

    In the meantime, although the brothers were still not talking, production went smoothly. Films were completed on schedule and on budget, and the feature filmMr. Bug Goes to Townwas nearing completion. Max and Dave put their best efforts into the...

  26. 21 Almost before the news of the studio’s sudden
    (pp. 125-130)

    Almost before the news of the studio’s sudden demise had had a chance to travel, Max was paid a visit in Miami by an old friend and alumnus of the J. R. Bray days, Jamison Handy. Max and Handy had been good friends in those early days, and now Handy was offering a helping hand to his old friend Max. Handy was based in Detroit as the president of the Jam Handy Organization, an outfit that made educational and army training films and maintained a small animation department.

    First, he asked if there was any way in which he could...

  27. 22 It seems that Max’s aim in life was to be
    (pp. 131-140)

    It seems that Max’s aim in life was to be fully occupied and challenged all the time. He had an enormous capacity for creative work. However, his mind reached out in so many different directions that I don’t believe he could ever be completely satisfied. In fact, in the middle of all the inventing and film producing that he was doing for the Handy Organization, he was getting restless. I find the following note from Max to Jam Handy revealing and touching. It is a mental giant’s cry for help:

    Dear Jam:

    My full knowledge and ability to assist JHO...

  28. 23 Leonard Miltonberg ran a company in
    (pp. 141-146)

    Leonard Miltonberg ran a company in Manhattan called Inventors Intermediaries. Inventors would come to him if they had something that they thought was marketable, and he would try to find an outlet for their work. Early in 1956, Max paid a visit to Miltonberg’s office. He had with him a new type of slide projector on which he held the patent. Instead of the conventional flat glass slides, this device used a small disc rimmed with tiny pictures. When projected, one at a time, the tiny pictures told a story, in this caseRudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. A disc...

  29. 24 He wrote myriad and lengthy memos
    (pp. 147-150)

    Max was kept busy. He wrote myriad and lengthy memos, trying to remember as many details of past events as he could. With Handman he arranged, prepared for, and attended the depositions of the many parties involved in the case. Both he and Handman worked long, long hours. And still no smoking gun surfaced.

    It wasn’t until October 14, 1957, that Dave took the plunge and brought his own suit against Paramount. Up to this time he was in court fighting a case against him for nonsupport of his family. In his Paramount case, however, he did a curious thing:...

  30. 25 The lawsuit against Paramount et al.
    (pp. 151-154)

    The lawsuit against Paramount et al., the possibility of somehow negating the ruinous 1941 contract, the chance of telling how he had signed the contract under duress, all this was something of a tonic for Max. It seemed that the tide was turning. It even seemed that the tide might be turning into something of a wave.

    A longtime friend and admirer of Max’s, a chap named Hal Seeger, approached Max with an interesting proposition. Seeger was the president of Hal Seeger Productions, a New York animation company that serviced big advertising agencies such as BBD&O and many other distinguished...

  31. 26 The whole thing was incomprehensible to me
    (pp. 155-162)

    The whole thing was incomprehensible to me. My folks broke? How was that possible? Money was never an issue in our family. Anything I wanted I got, without question or hesitation. When I graduated from public school and wanted to go to an expensive prep school, Peekskill Military Academy, because a friend of mine went there—and, besides, I liked the uniform—I went to Peekskill. In fact, when the academy got hard up for cash, my father bailed it out of the hole. When I wanted to go to Brown University and then to the Yale School of Drama,...

  32. 27 The article concerned a new copyright law
    (pp. 163-168)

    Our family was not one that regularly read the business pages of the newspapers, so we all missed an article that would change our lives forever. But Stanley Handman read theWall Street Journal, and he didn’t miss it. Thank God.

    The article concerned a new copyright law that Congress had just passed. The old copyright law stated that, if the original author had assigned his rights to a third party (which Paramount did when it sold all the Fleischer cartoons), the copyright would run for twenty-eight years and could be renewed for an additional twenty-eight years. After the second...

  33. 28 The year 1972 turned out to be
    (pp. 169-172)

    The year 1972 turned out to be a most significant one for everyone connected with the Max Fleischer story. It started with two very bright young ladies who worked in New York for King Features Syndicate, one of the largest merchandise-licensing companies in the world. It was the same King Features that had licensedPopeye the Sailorto Fleischer Studios in the 1930s.

    In going through some files, the young ladies came across Popeye’s first animated cartoon appearance, his screen test really—theBetty BoopcartoonPopeye the Sailor. It struck the two girls that Betty hadn’t been seen in...

  34. Index
    (pp. 173-184)