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.