Fleischer in Florida, pt. 2 - Up, Up, and Away!
Fleischer in Florida, pt. 2 - Superman
It’s ironic to think that no one in Miami knows where the Fleischer Brothers studio exactly was. Many residents don’t even realize who Max Fleischer was, or even what he did. Some people claim part of the complex is now a children’s center. Others say the entire studio was torn down to become a Miami Beach hotel, which has since been torn down.
None of the original Fleischer Brothers—Max, Dave, or Lou—are alive today. Apparently only one offspring, Dave’s daughter, even lives in Florida, in a suburb called Pembroke Pines. Max’s best-known son, the director Richard Fleischer, died recently, and is survived by at least one son, Mark.
It seems that by the end of their studio, the original brothers, especially Max and Dave, weren’t talking to each other…AT ALL. The cause for this split is shrouded in mystery. What’s even more emphatic is even none of the surviving Fleischers will talk about it, although according to number of historians, all the brothers share blame.
And that’s only part of the reason why Paramount shut the doors on Fleischer Studios.
Ironically, while the Florida years would mark the end of the studio, it was also the period where they achieved their greatest success, primarily due to a certain iconic superhero.
Fresh of the success of Gulliver’s Travels, Paramount gave the Fleischers a green light for a second feature film. It would be called Mr. Bug Goes to Town and was based on the book The Life of a Bee. Paramount fronted the Fleischers $500,000 for the project.
At the same time, Paramount itself was making a deal with an up-and-coming publisher called National Periodicals, which would one day become DC Comics. National, as most anyone knows, put superheroes like Batman on the map. Their best selling title was of an alien orphaned to live on Earth, the last son of the planet Krypton, who under the guise of a meek, mild-mannered reporter… you know the drill. If that wasn’t enough, by this time Superman was also a hit radio show as well as comic book. Paramount thought an animated series on the Man of Steel was a natural.
Apparently, Dave Fleischer didn’t think so.
“As the story goes, they didn’t want to do Superman,” says Reich. “Dave Fleischer said that it would be too expensive to do right. Paramount said name a price. They said $100,000 a cartoon, when a good cartoon cost $20,000. To the Fleischer’s shock, Paramount said go ahead and do it.
What everyone has to understand in these post-Batman: The Animated Series days is there was absolutely NOTHING that looked like those original Superman shorts. Visually, they set the animation world completely on its head.
One of the key reasons for this was the studio itself did something it very rarely did before, pencil tests. Previous to this, the Fleischers were known for literally flying off the cuff, improvising visual and other gags as they popped into their heads. Not so with Superman.
“They were very carefully laid out ahead of time,” animation legend Myron Waldman told Leonard Maltin in the book Of Mice and Magic. “The stories were very complete. Then we had to keep the tempo going, and to pick it up to the climax…That required a bit of thought.”
With the release of the Fleischer Superman DVD collection this month, it’s now easy to see what the studio was capable of if they put their collective will to it.
“We got some very simple, basic rules from them,” says current day Warner Bros. supervising producer Bruce Timm, who would do his own Superman series 55 years later. “Things like not having to draw an entire room when a desk and one light being on can look like an entire office. They were simple cheats, but they were done with extreme elegance and design. They were really smart about not having to draw every single muscle or hair. They could do a lot with just one bone ridge on a face. They kept things really simple yet graphic. Look at Lois’ face. Her nose is basically only two dots. So, again, a broad influence.”
As the DVD extras point out, the animated series also had its effect on the comic book. Probably the biggest was before the Fleischers came on board, Superman’s main form of locomotion was his ability to jump tall buildings in a single bound. When crossing major continents, many of these leaps made him look pretty ridiculous. So another cheat they came up with was to have him simply fly. If anything, it cut down on the animation workload, too.
The payoff was the Brothers’ biggest success during their Florida period. It didn’t hurt that Paramount gave the series the full publicity treatment, right down to advance announcements at local theaters (unfortunately the only thing not included in the DVD set).
“Superman became so popular that many theaters started using it as a feature,” says Tom Reich. “It would go on the screen after the other shorts and just before the main feature film. I honestly believe Superman was the most wildly popular thing they ever did.”
As for effect? When Timm and then partner Eric Radomski were well into development of their Batman: The Animated Series in 1990-1992, Warner Bros. Animation president Jean MacCurdy gave them some very specific instructions.
“Early on, Jean MacCurdy suggested that Bruce and Eric look to the Fleischer cartoons as their guide,” fellow creator Paul Dini and co-author Chip Kidd wrote in their book Batman: Animated,” and the producers enthusiastically agreed. More than cartoons, the Superman [shorts] are brilliant mini-movies, just as timeless and innovative now as when they were first released fifty years ago.”
“They were definitely influential in terms of look and feel,” Timm corrects in a more recent interview. “The really weird thing is we didn’t sit down and study them. Personally, I had them on tape-yes, they were really cruddy copies and stuff -- and had seen them so many times I kind of had them in my bloodstream through osmosis. I did my best to resist the urge to go back and ask how they did this or how they did that. I didn’t want to just ape them. But yes, we did look at them, upfront and early on. We didn’t sit there and watch them over and over again. The Fleischer things were one of the elements of the show. It wasn’t a straight-up Fleischer homage.”
For their efforts, the studio got an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Shorts in 1941. It would be their last. An agreement the Fleischers made in order to finance their move to Florida would soon come back to haunt them.
By 1942 the studio was apparently matching Disney in terms of output, but financial return was another story.
Superman was flying high, but otherwise, Fleischer Studio was getting very mixed results with just about everything else they touched. A two-realer of Raggedy Anne and Andy got a lukewarm response. An adaptation of Poe’s “The Raven” fared worse. Attempts to turn the character Gabby from Gulliver’s Travels were duds.
Then Mr. Bug came out. It was originally supposed to be released in October, but Paramount moved it back to the first week of December, 1941 in order not to go head-to-head with Disney’s Dumbo. The decision was disastrous as Mr. Bug came out two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. No one was going to the movies that week…or for the rest of the month from the sounds of things.
At the same time, the hostility between Max and Dave Fleischer reached such fever pitch that they both sent separate notices to Paramount saying they couldn’t work with each other. Paramount’s solution was to fire both of them.
Not long thereafter, Paramount put a team of four in charge of what was Fleischer. Then they moved it — replete with a much smaller animation staff — back to New York City and under the new name of Famous Studios. More Popeye and Superman shorts came out for the time being, and when Paramount decided not to further the adventures of the Man of Steel, they moved on to Casper The Friendly Ghost. Famous would continue into the 60s becoming, eventually becoming a sad shadow of what it once was, especially when King Features took its rights back on Popeye.
With the advent of TV, things started to get murky.
“Originally, Fleischer owned all his cartoons,” says Steve Stanchfield. “When he borrowed the money to move to Miami, one of the ways he repayed them was to give Paramount all their back library. So Paramount owned all the pre-1938 Fleischer cartoons lock, stock, and barrel. Paramount acquired all the films from 1938-43 when they shut down the studio. They also got all the copyrights to the films, at least the theatrical versions. Fleischer somehow managed to retain all the other rights (i.e. musical, licensing, etc.).”
As for the Fleischers? Dave happened to be at Columbia Pictures, doing final touches on Mr. Bug, when he got his pink slip. So he made the move over there permanent.
Max made a heck of a jump, from Miami to Detroit, where he ended up initially working for the Jam Handy studio. In the late 50’s he teamed up with his former animator Joe Oriolo to do a new series of Out of the Inkwell shorts for TV, this time with Larry Storch as the voice of Koko the Clown.
Meanwhile, the rights to the Superman and Gulliver films fell into public domain, and released on dirt-cheap videotape, then 99-cent DVDs. The quality of these releases were poor. Many of the Superman cartoon were actually repackaged in black and white, as if they were recorded straight off of a TV screen.
“I honestly don’t watch them anymore,” says Timm. “I’ve seen them so many times they don’t hold anything new for me. I know Warner Bros. will hate me for saying this, but now that they’ve been remastered from the negatives, they’re still amazing to look at—I can’t believe how really bright and vivid they are—but my memories of them are the dark and grimy prints. In fact, many of the ones I had were in black and white for many years. I liked that dark, murky texture to them. It makes them feel more of their time; moodier. It’s a weird thing to see them all cleaned up.”
Timm's preference aside, their return in pristine condition should be a cause of celebration for animation fans and historians alike.