Sunday, January 08, 2006

I recently purchased Richard Fleischer’s book Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution.

In a way it was an act of courage to do so. After researching Max and his studio for many years and never able to secure a publishing contract – near misses don’t count – I was afraid this book would permanently sink any chances for my work to be released.

Over the years, I realized that without Richard’s help, I could never write a comprehensive biography. Readers of my blog might remember the posting that detailed my relationship and arrangement with Richard and my efforts to get a publishing contract.

Instead it became clear that what I needed to do was to write about Max, his employees, their cartoons and their considerable legacy. It could not be just a book about Max.

So with this in mind I paid my $18 or so to Amazon and received Richard’s book.
In hindsight I really never had any reason to be worried that his book would trump mine.

Or mine his.

Despite a very misleading title Richard’s book is a compact memoir, a love letter to a man he clearly idolized.

I expected much much more, especially with that title. I thought Richard would analyze what made the Fleischer cartoons so special that 60 and 70 years after their release they are still finding audiences and influencing today’s animators. There is little of this kind of material in the book.

What the book focuses on is telling Max’s life story with particular emphasis in earlier chapters on the relationships between Max, his wife Essie, and their two children Ruth and Richard.

Another emphasis is on Max’s business arrangements and although Richard doesn’t come out and say it, it’s clear that Max was not a great businessperson.

The strongest point of Richard’s book (besides recounting incidents from his childhood of Fleischer family life) is his detailing of Paramount’s take-over of the Fleischer studio. These chapters are quite shocking in their account of the naked power exercised by Paramount over Max and Dave Fleischer.

Despite it many strengths, the book leaves a number of questions unanswered and make statements of fact that I question.

Richard does not ever explain just what corporate arrangement there was between Max and Dave and why the other brothers were left out of any ownership of the studio. Lou, Joe and Charles were just employees.

Dave played such a key role in the studio’s history and yet Richard does not recount what happened to Dave in his later life. He lived quite a few years past Max and Richard writes of his fondness for his uncle, but there is no follow-through.

Richard relates the success of Max’s Theory of Relativity feature and implies that his father was the producer and creative force behind the film. The four-reel documentary was actually produced by Edwin Miles Fadiman. Max is credited as the “arranger” of the “popular version.

According the the trade paper Moving Picture World, Max was hired by Fadiman to edit some 18,000 feet of footage produced on the theory in Germany and provide animation. Variety panned the movie, but it did do business at key theaters such as the venerable Rialto in New York City.

Richard maintains that Max created Betty Boop. Not only does this statement is controversial in itself – I’ve never interviewed anyone who has said – but it brings ups and does not address the division of labor at the studio.

It’s clear that Max was more actively involved in the production of the silent cartoons because he was actually part of them on screen. Once sound came in, the general consensus is that max and Dave had an agreement: Dave was in charge of production while Max managed the business end.

Ruth Kneitel (Max’s daughter) showed me a script for a proposed cartoon on mermaids that was covered in notes written in red pencil made by her father. There was no date, but the test drawings that went with the script clearly were from the late 1930s or early 40s in sophistication.

So I have never discounted that Max was thinking about the cartoons he produced. However every animator I’ve spoken with has said they all reported to Dave and never mentioned Max in that creative capacity.

Jack Mercer said that he considered Dave and Lou Fleischer his direct boss, but that Max was like the “godfather,” and you would go to him if you had a problem.

Richard makes a reference to Max’s attempt to streamline production through the invention of a new pencil that would eliminate the inking step. Richard acknowledges that the system wasn’t reliable and wasn’t used, but then he writes that his father almost invented Xeroxing! Max’s invention was nothing like the Xerox machine, which eventually was used successfully to eliminate inking.

Edith Vernick is listed as one of the studio’s pioneer women animators. Vernick was given a chance but could not keep up with the pace and really shouldn’t be put in the same classification as Lillian Friedman.

Richard writes that the attack on Pearl Harbor was responsible for the failure of Mr. Bug Goes to Town at the box office. Variety’s trade review was in its Dec. 10, 1941 edition and noted that Paramount “already has a sweeping publicity campaign. Mr. Bug was supposed to be a Christmas release, so how come Time didn’t review the film until Feb. 23, 1942? Was it pulled from the Christmas schedule and then later re-released?

These are my main concerns about this book. I thank Richard Fleischer for the insights he provided into his father’s life and these are the book’s strongest points.


SRBissette said...

I'm eager to snag my own copy of Fleischer's book, but appreciate your own considerable insights here, Mike. Glad to know, too, this has only fueled your own decision to forge ahead. As you know, 'authorized' books often mean the real stories remain untold.

Marky Mark said...

re trumping:

Maybe some of the other reviewer/writers can chime in here too.

Is the general public going to be more inclined to want the son's book for the human interest element? Know what I mean? Are they going to care, or even know, if facts are not exact?

I can imagine that toonheads are going to prefer the more factually-accurate book, but Joe Schmo, I dunno.

On the other hand - is there really an audience for ANY book on Fleischer outside of toohead-dom. I suppose a lush full-color coffee-table book with lots of pictures by a "celebrity" like Leonard Maltin may hit the display table at Barnes & Noble. Other than that, what are the odds?

Just curious, genuinely. I too am in a very marginal gutter of the publishing market. Actually a little trickle off of an actual gutter. So I always wonder what are the odds for a book really breaking through the glass ceiling, or the paper diaphragm, or whatever a good metaphor might be.

Mike Dobbs said...

I think there is a difference between what people might see as interesting as what publishers see as interesting.

That has always been my problem with this material. cartoon fans seem to want it – or did in the past – while publishers don't know what to make of it.

I still think – considering the on-going popularity of these cartoon and the influence they still have – there is a market for the book.

SRBissette said...

Niche market or mass market: it's always been something that cannot be predetermined, and even "sure things" are a shot in the dark.

Last week a friend in town, who had no affiliation with comics and never expressed any interest in the form during the 25 years I've lived in this area and known him, walked up to me aching to talk about the Robert Crumb KAFKA book, which he'd bought intending to give it as a Christmas gift and decided to keep for himself instead. This is a book that I recall Denis Kitchen bemoaning low preorder sales on when Kitchen Sink first published it -- it sold about 900 copies when it was released. "You'd think the combination of a universally-acclaimed writer like Kafka and a world-renowned cartoonist like Crumb would add up to at least a thousand copies sold," Denis sighed.

The book is still in print, still circulating, still getting out there. More to the point, I just bought a brand-new illustrated hardcover "novelization" of SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (with DVD included!) from Penguin -- I mean, who can say what or what won't fly in the current market? And does it matter?

Like Mike (and you, Mark), I'm at the point of just doing the books I WANT to do as time and income permits. Go for it, Mike!

Marky Mark said...

Yes yes of course - you wanta do the book, and should. I'm not poo-pooing the whole idea, just wondering if it will indeed "trump" the son's book etc. And even if it doesn't - like you say, so what?

Your friend - I wonder if he'd buy a comic solely on its comics-ness. Or was he buying a "Kafka book"?

For all the well-deserved fuss and bother over the occasional MAUS success story... well, we shall see.

How the hell can you be blowing money on something as stupid as that Santa Claus book in this economy? You better be ready to eat that book soon!

Mickey Smith said...

I'm Lillian Friedman's son in law. I knew her for 25 years or so before she died. She said she morphed Betty's ears from dog ears (she was a dog) into loopy earrings. Also, she was promoted to animator, but only through the trickery of Myron Waldman, who said "...let's promote Friedman" - neglecting to say she was a woman. She was promoted, and when Max found out, paid her 1/3 of the mens' salaries.

Mickey Smith said...

I'm Lillian Friedman's son in law. I knew her for 25 years or so before she died. She said she morphed Betty's ears from dog ears (she was a dog) into loopy earrings. Also, she was promoted to animator, but only through the trickery of Myron Waldman, who said "...let's promote Friedman" - neglecting to say she was a woman. She was promoted, and when Max found out, paid her 1/3 of the mens' salaries.