In the latest Warner Bros. Popeye DVD collection (1941-'43), there was an interesting bit of extra content. It was an old Paramount Pictures newsreel showing the spanking new studio Max Fleischer, his brothers Dave and Lou, and the rest of their outfit had constructed in Miami, Florida. The crew sure looked like they were having an incredible time, working hard by day and enjoying the beach and everything else at night.
That newsreel was Hollywood glamour in every sense of the word. Florida isn’t all sunshine, mojitos and oranges. It is also has roof raising storms at the drop of a hat. The Fleischer Brothers were going to find this out. The hard way.
At the same time, it was one of the greatest creative periods in their history. It’s also one of the least known. A series of incredible DVDs have hit the market covering two of the high points of this period, Gulliver’s Travels through Koch/E1 and The Complete Fleischer’s Supermanthrough WB.
To tell the story properly, one has to step back a little bit. To the mid-1930s.
At that time, Fleischer Studios was doing pretty darn good. They created a number of hit animated shorts. Not only was Popeye going mano-a-mano with Mickey Mouse for the #1 animated character slot, but Betty Boop was still strutting her stuff. There were also experiments in color and other short subjects for additional revenue. To top it, Max Fleischer, who had worked out of New York City since he started back in 1916, had a distribution deal with one of the largest studios in the world, Paramount.
Yet things were starting to get ugly in a number of ways no one was ready for.
“The unions were taken over by the Mafia,” recalls Steve Stanchfield, an animator in his own right, as well as a prominent historian in the field. “One of the major reasons why Fleischer wanted out of New York was union pressure. Dave Fleischer was beat up. Myron Waldman (one of the legends who worked under the Fleischers) told me they put Dave in the hospital. If the Fleischers made a big fuss about it, their families’ lives would be in danger. There was some definite malfeasance going on there.”
Ever since he created rotoscoping and the Out of the Inkwell series back in the 1910s, Max considered himself something of an inventor and pioneer. Truth be told, he actually was. Yes, his arch rival Walt Disney would sometimes beat him to the punch, but Fleischer was no slouch. One of his brilliant ideas was to create the first full-length American animated feature film.
“As a matter of fact, Max wanted to do a feature as far back as 1934,” says Ray Pointer, who has restored both many a rare Disney and Fleischer short through his Inkwell Images DVD label. “The evidence is when they started their color series with the entry of ‘Poor Cinderella’ starring Betty Boop. It ran slightly longer than a normal one-reeler. So, a lot of things they were exploring were things they were exploring towards making features.
“The real trouble was Paramount was going through a number of reorganizations at that time. They vetoed his plans. Paramount was sort of a budget-minded studio. They had gone through three reorganizations. The content of their films was affected by the Hayes Commission in particular.”
“The studio had pitched a feature in 1935, a Popeye feature,” says Stanchfield. “It had been met without much fanfare from Paramount. What Paramount did instead was the extended color films, Betty Boop’s “Poor Cinderella” and the three Popeye films. Those were all made in New York.”
Then 1937 came and Disney changed Paramount’s mind for Fleischer. The Mouse Works kicked every box office gate wide open with their first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
“It wasn’t until they saw the results from Snow White that they said yes,” says Pointer. “Many people had made the assumption that because Disney had a hit with Snow White that Fleischer tried to ape Disney with Gulliver’s Travels two years later, but they had been trying much earlier.”
Actually, the initial idea would have had Popeye in the role of Gulliver. According to some sources, the idea then was changed to have a live action Bing Crosby star as the shipwrecked explorer and have the Lilliputians animated as always. Then the whole matter of moving to Miami became imperative.
Starting one’s first feature-length film would be challenge enough for any studio. The thing is the Fleischers decided to start Gulliver while relocating over 1,200 miles. To a town that didn’t have even the basics when it came to filmmaking.
“Apparently there was a lot of drama about the entire production due to their moving to Miami,” says Pointer. “Because of it they were missing many of their deadlines. The relationship between Fleischer Studios, Paramount, and Technicolor became quite strained over it. I’m not clear if they dealt with Technicolor’s lab in New York, but I did come across some letters pertaining to the Superman cartoons that said they were using the lab in Los Angeles.
“They were finishing the Betty Boops in New York and doing Popeyes, too. Part of the problem was Paramount green-lit Gulliver at the time he was in the process of moving. They had started the move in 1938, and part of the moving expense was put into the feature budget. The feature was foolishly estimated to cost $500,000, which was what Disney originally estimated Snow White would cost. In the end, Gulliver ended up costing $1.4 million. Part of that was the moving costs. That was estimated to be over $500,000 in itself. It’s now believed that Gulliver actually cost about $1 million.”
“He set up in Miami when it was still primarily a vacation area,” adds Stanchfield. “I once talked to Myron Waldman. He told me that one of the first things that struck many of them is they couldn’t just walk down the street to get anything. What this also meant is if a camera broke, they had to order and then have it trucked in, mainly from Atlanta. It was the closest place. This meant they had to have a truck constantly going back and forth to Atlanta. The only place that could otherwise service them was the Miami Arts School, and they hired all the art students there as interns. Some of the key staffers, like Dave Tendler, were still in New York working on those Popeye films. The painting and backgrounds were done in Florida, but the majority of the animation was done in New York. Myron Waldman’s unit was the first to move to Florida. The studio officially moved in 1937, but it was only fully operational in 1938. ”
Yet the studio persevered, and Miami did have an effect on the film, as it would on all future Fleischer output.
“The difference between the New York Fleischer was made up of 100% New Yorkers who grew up on vaudeville,” says Tom Reich. “They made their 'toons to be sight gag after sight gag. When they moved to Florida, they took in some West Coast animators because they had to increase their size and production. They started to become real cartoons with real stories.”
The Fleischers also pulled out the stops when it came to staffing. Among the legends who worked on the film were the aforementioned Waldman and, when he got there, Tendler. Also among the crew were Shamus Culhane, Seymour Kneitel, Joe Oriolo, I. Sparber, Tom Palmer, Tedd Pierce, Willard Boesky, and Grim Natwick. The voice cast, although small, included the legend Pinto Colvig as Gabby and the voice of Popeye himself, Jack Mercer, as King Little. The voice of Gulliver was eventually supplied by a local Miami radio broadcaster named Sam Parker.
The overall look of the film was very different from Snow White.
“I think when Paramount told Max they wanted him to do something that would compete with Snow White,” says Reich. “He said ‘Okay. Give me the money, shut up, leave us alone and we’ll give you something that will blow you away.’ The end result is Snow White had its feet firmly in the 30s while Gulliver was looking at the 40s. Tom Palmer loved the 3-color process and he dialed in as much color as he possibly could. It could be said he went over the top with color.”
One has to admit, the opening sequence, which showed Gulliver getting shipwrecked, truly was a stunner. The film would then set things up so that a fully rotoscoped Parker would dominate the scenes that involved Gulliver. From there, the film would move to a more free-flowing animation style when it focused on the Lilliputians.
This ended up being both a good and a bad thing.
“It’s choppy and not just because of the quality of the animation. The story structure is flawed. It starts out very well, but then gets confused,” says Pointer. “One of the quotations from Max about this was Gulliver had his day and what they tried to do was shift the view to the Lilliputians after they were revealed. If they had started from the point of view of the Lilliputians, it would have been a different film altogether.
“Another thing was the film never really got the chance to use many of Fleischer’s already existing 3-D effects. There was an announcement in the New York Times saying they were intending to use them, but it never happened. What’s interesting is if you look at the original opening credits, they make reference to the stereoptical processes, but you never see them in the film itself. The only thing that comes to close to it was the model ship used in those opening credits.”
“Another problem was they were locked into producing so much product,” Pointer continues. “They couldn’t grow artistically in the mid-to-late 30s. You can see it in Gulliver in that when you compare sequences there are some that stand out more than others. They are just not well animated, and that was due to the need to just get the darn thing out. You can really see it in the song ‘Faithful’ and that terrible close up of Princess Glory. Grim Natwick told me that was due to him having so much footage to work on, it slipped by him. He had no time for retakes.
“They also didn’t know just how to stage a lot of this stuff. Many of the characters go through the motions but don’t show emotions. The audience didn’t have the opportunity to really be drawn into the film. For instance, the Prince and Princess are just there. The war over the national anthems is what really drives the film. There isn’t enough character development for it to be anything else.”
Now one would think that with this many flaws the film would have been a bomb. Apparently, even with its budget overruns, the movie made money.
“It most certainly did,” says Reich. “When it debuted, it ran in the Paramount Theater in New York. They had lines running around the block. It ran at the Paramount for a solid week straight 24 hours a day. It was #1 at the box office until Gone With the Wind.
“Over time it ended up being the most attended animated feature film of all time. It was in constant release from 1939 to 1954. There never was a day it wasn’t in a theater. It had amazing ticket sales. Of course, part of this was Disney kept on moving from one animated feature film to the next.
“What also happened is after the folding of Fleischer Studios, Paramount didn’t care about the movie anymore. It was leased by a company called NTA Associates. They constantly kept in it theaters for kids matinees. Then when television came into its own in the mid-50s, it continued to show every year somewhere until 1969.”
But that is one of the major kinks that will eventually make the restoration and re-release of this movie on DVD such a treasure. After the folding of the Fleischer Studio, which we’ll get into in a future column, Gulliver fell into a licensing nightmare. Public domain versions of the film sprung up like blights along the DVD landscape. In one way or another, the various versions suffered from cut scenes, truly sorry sound and as well as the everyday blurry copies.
“The way that happened is also quite odd,” says Pointer. “Paramount licensed that cartoon library domestically to NTA. There was some implied theatrical right that was supposed to stay in Paramount’s control. NTA released it anyway because I have movie posters showing they distributed them.”
“There’s two mainly different prints of Gulliver,” says Stanchfield. “One of the NTA print, who cut out about 5-6 minutes of the film. Among the things they cut out was the Lilliputians walking all over (the then unconscious) Gulliver. It shows them hearing his heart beat and then running for the bushes. It really is an unneeded scene. It’s filler. Now that scene is in all the Paramount prints. I’ve also seen TV edits where the sword fights and battle scenes are cut. I think because many of the prints are public domain that a lot of different versions exist. They are all pretty splice-y one way or another.”
“There’s a lot of nebulous area about the film being in the public domain,” adds Pointer. “The one area that continues to be a litigious detail is the underlying music and literary rights. I once worked at MGM, and they were sued for using a clip from Gulliver’s Travels, the scene where Gabby sings “It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day.” Paramount sued MGM on the music, literary and underlying international rights. Now the music is owned by Famous Studios, which Paramount also sold. The technicality is Paramount owns the ‘master soundtrack rights.’ In other words, they actually own the soundtrack.”
None of this stopped Reich. He had done a restored print of Gulliver once before, in 1999. With the advent of blu-Ray and other digital technology, he took on the task of doing it all over again.
“It was the same print I worked off of ten years ago,” says Reich. “It’s funny, it’s from the print that is technically owned by Northhampton Partners and Fox Lorber. Well, Koch is Fox Lorber and Northampton is me and my partner. We restored the original soundtrack to its exact original state. We then augmented the soundtrack with true folly under the Fleischer family supervision. What many people didn’t know is the original soundtrack were three guys with all kinds of sound effect noises while the voice actors and the orchestra played at the same time. We took the original soundtrack and broke it down into 70 tracks. We then supplied separate audio tracks on the DVD, the original for the purists and a modern one for the kids who don’t know better.
“For the colors, we went directly to Technicolor and restored the film to the exact palette of the 30’s. The unique thing about Fleischer’s 3-color process is it allowed true purple. The only other film of that time that used it was The Wizard of Oz. Movies before then used a reddish purple.
“To me, Gulliver is such an amazing work of art that I never got bored on it. It was very time consuming, going frame by frame cleaning it up. I did have a good team up in Vancouver, Air Waves, who have done a lot of other work, including some quiet side work for Disney. I also went to Technicolor for some of the clean-up.”
But restoring the visuals wasn’t the most difficult part, according to Reich.
“It was the sound,” says Reich. “The sound was absolutely gone. We had to dig through some really deteriorated sound stuff. We spent the better part of four weeks just on the sound. We did not replace anything and managed to bring the musical instruments out as they should have sounded then. From there, it had a hollow sound that a lot of restored tracks have. We had to reprocess it through perfect speakers to get that hollowness out.”
One thing Reich also did on this DVD was restoring the cut scenes that had been taken out.
“Our version of the film was old enough that it had never been chopped by censors,” says Reich. “There were some versions - like the one that had aired on AMC a while back - that did have scenes cut out of it. Now part of it could have been for TV. The film was originally 78 minutes and they probably wanted to cram as many commercials in as they could. So there are some versions as short as 65 minutes. There probably also was some consideration for kids programming as in the day a lot of stations used to put it on before The Wizard of Oz.
"There’s a sword fight between the King and a few guards. There’s another sword fight when the Prince was trying to have a quiet moment with the Princess. That scene had Gulliver actually come down and pick the two up. That scene is incredibly chopped up. In the end there’s the battle scene between Gulliver and King Bombo’s fleet, which has hardly nothing to what is called violent today, that is also cut up. Back in the day, I guess they thought the hundreds of arrows and bombs being hurled at Gulliver was too much, so they took many of them out. In the chopped version, it lasts about 30 seconds. In our version it’s over two minutes. At the very end, when Gulliver is leaving, there’s a small gag where Gabby and one of the spies, the little comic relief one, pat each other on the back and all these knives and weapons fall out of the spy’s clothes. Those disappear in some chopped versions, although it’s one of the funniest gags Dave Fleischer put into the movie. You never know with censors.”
Finish this off with two Gabby Color Classic shorts and an excerpt of the Paramount newsreel, and you have the complete E1 package.
“I’m not the biggest fan of the blu-Ray,” says Stanchfield. “I personally have a 35 mm print of Gulliver and the DVD looks very different from that. It looks mushy to me. Part of the problem is they probably should have used a clean 35 mm print to dupe instead of the original materials. I like the fact there’s a new version out legally. I don’t know if I like this new Hi Def version. I hope they do a better one before too long.”
But one thing all three will agree on is that its great there now is a professional release of the movie. No matter how flawed Gulliver is in the end, all three will also say it’s a historically significant film.
“It most certainly is!” says Pointer. “It’s the most important animated non-Disney film of that era. It’s also probably the most seen. It had more exposure than Snow White in a lot of respects through television and public domain. Also, it does have a good score. It was actually nominated for two Oscars, Best Score and Best Song. It lost out because it went against The Wizard of Oz. Paramount got a lot of mileage out of it.”
Next Column: Fleischer goes up, up and away to new animation heights…with a series of shorts the studio never wanted to do in the first place!.