Sunday, February 17, 2013
This is the first part of a draft of my chapter on the silent cartoons of Max Fleischer.
In just a few short years, Max Fleischer went from being a hired hand at the Bray Studios to the head of not just his own studio, but of a releasing company, which expanded and then imploded under its own weight.
It must have been a heady ride for Max and his brother Dave. Breaking off from Bray in 1921, by August, 1926 Max’s Red Seal Pictures Corp. announced how it was releasing a series of live-action comedies as well as the Out of the Inkwell cartoons, the “Ko-Ko Song Car-tunes,” newsreels, the “Animated Hair Cartoons,” and many more shorts.
Red Seal had 22 exchanges throughout the country and did not rely on the states rights method of getting their films into theaters.
But, as fast as the rise was to the top, the ride down was equally quick. By November 1926, Max had lost control of Red Seal and was soon an employee in his own company.
How did the film industry, audiences and critics view animation in the 1920s? An interesting perspective is provided by “The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23” edited by Robert E. Sherwood, a prominent critic of the time whose reviews appeared in “Life” and the New York Herald.
Sherwood introduced his chapter on the year’s short subjects by writing, “It is unfortunate that this book must necessarily be devoted to consideration of feature pictures (of five or more reels in length), with insufficient consideration of short subjects: comedies, scenics, animated cartoons, news reels and travel pictures. I do not hold with the notion that a one or two reel film is not better than ‘filler,’ and may dismissed as such. Many of the best pictures that have been compressed into brief form.
“I don’t want to ignore that short subjects and yet I am painfully aware of the fact that it is utterly impossible for an one writer to comment authoritatively on this tremendously wide field. There are so many hundreds of short subjects and their release schedules so uncertain, that I have been unable to cover them with any great degree of accuracy.
“However there have been certain producers whose one- and two reel products have stood out from the rest …”
Sherwood then details how Buster Keaton was the leader of the shorts performers and writes later in the essay, “Foremost among the animated cartoons have been Paul Terry’s ‘Aesop’s Fables’ and Pat Sullivan’s ‘Felix the Cat.’ The romantic adventures of Mutt and Jeff have been discontinued, but Max Fleischer’s ‘Out of the Inkwell’ goes on.”
It’s vital to assess cartoons from 1920 until the mid-1950s understanding several important points. Exhibitors competed with one another. In this era in which chain theaters are alike, it’s difficult to imagine that theater owners were considered showmen who cared deeply about what they presented in their theaters and how they presented it.
As they had done in vaudeville, owners of movie theaters assembled elements of features and shorts that they believed would attract and satisfy their audience. They did so by building programs. Many of these programs were assembled for both adults and children.
Cartoons were among those building blocks. Just like comic strips were a selling point for newspapers during that time, the right cartoon series could contribute to a theater’s success.
That’s why the trade papers of the day actually paid attention to short subjects and to animated cartoons.
Film Daily, for instance frequently noted how the larger New York theaters were programmed by announcing that a particular house had certain live acts or performances – many larger theaters had more than just an organist or pianist during the silent era, but a full band. These notices carried which specific feature was shown with which shorts. The goal was to give other theaters owners in smaller markets an idea of what was happening in the larger communities. Max’s cartoons were part of that mix in some of the best-known venues in the city.
Contributing mightily to the success of an animated cartoon series was how it was being distributed. Even if a producer made the best series from an artistic viewpoint, it did him little good if he couldn’t get his product into theaters.
There were two basic ways to distribute a motion picture. Several of the major studios owned theater chains that featured their own product. Many independent producers needed a middleman to get bookings. One of the most common approaches for them was to sell their films through the state rights system. Essentially, a producer would franchise his product to a booker who had a territory. That booker would seek theaters to show the films he represented.
Max used this system and, in a Film Daily trade ad on Aug. 6, 1922, announced he was “seeking territories through state rights distribution” for his “Out of the Inkwell” cartoons, “a marvel of comedy creations.”
In 1921, Warner Brothers had distributed the Fleischer product. It wasn’t long that Max attracted the attention of Margaret Winkler, an important player in the history of American animation. In an industry dominated by men, Winkler was a pioneer – the first woman to produce and distribute animated cartoons.
Besides distributing the Out of the Inkwell shorts, Winkler also distributed Pat Sullivan’s “Felix” shorts and Walt Disney’s “Alice in Cartoonland” films. Marrying producer Charles Mintz, Winkler eventually turned more of the business over to him, according to Donald Crafton in his landmark book “Before Mickey.”
In the Nov. 3 1922 edition of Film Daily, it was reported that Winkler, had “secured the second series of Max Fleischer’s 13 single reel ‘Out of the Inkwell’ comedies for distribution in the United States and Canada.” A few days after that the paper announced that Winkler had a distributor lined up for both the Ko-Ko and the Felix cartoons for the greater New York area.
The Out of the Inkwell shorts were being seen and reviewed well. Film Daily’s reviewer noted in its March 18, 1923 edition, “This one of Max Fleischer’s ‘Inkwell’ comedies shows the little imp from the inkwell annoying the artist who is trying to sleep. To punish the imp, he draws a high cliff and puts the little clown on its pinnacle so that he cannot get down. The clown goes to sleep and dreams – wild cartoon dreams of a giant and a cave and other things and the artist goes to sleep and dreams that the imp is chasing him all over the city in his pajamas. There are numerous laughs and the reel should have no difficulty in amusing your folks.”
Max’s interests during this early success were growing, though, beyond the animated short.
It may initially be difficult today to understand just how large a media star Albert Einstein was in the 1920s, but the nature of his fame certainly explained why an independent film producer would gamble on releasing a documentary that explained Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
Considering that Dr. Stephen Hawking has made appearances on episodes of “Star Trek The Next Generation” and “The Big Bang Theory,” a film on Einstein’s best-known work shouldn’t seem too much a stretch to a contemporary audience.
Producer Edwin Miles Fadiman bought the rights to a German documentary on the subject, which he turned over to Max and Professor Garrett P. Service for re-editing and the addition of title cards. Service was a journalist turned scientist who had written many popular books on astronomical topics. Like Max, he also had a connection to Popular Science. Service had been lauded as a writer who could translate science to appeal to “the man on the street.”
The two men completed two versions: a two reel short and a four-reel feature titled “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.”
On Dec. 8, 1922 Film Daily reported Max would complete his editing work that week for the feature. Max’s interest in the film grew as he was named an “officer and director” in Premiere Productions, which produced the film.
Some people have claimed that this was Max’s first animated feature film as it was released early in February 1923. The film is almost all live-action footage designed to illustrate the points of the theory, although Max did produce some limited animation.
The film – apparently the 40-minute version – actually received a three-week run at Rivoli Theater in New York City, according to Moving Picture World. Fadiman then released the film through his Premiere Productions and boasted in a trade ad that he had signed contracts for runs at Sid Grauman’s theaters in Los Angeles, McVicker’s Theater in Chicago and “booked solid over the Marcus Loew Circuit.”
The review by C.S. Sewell in Moving Picture World noted, “because of the large amount of newspaper publicity accorded this revolutionary theory considerable interest was aroused in the average person’s mind as to what it was all about.
“The film translated into non-scientific terms and with easily understood illustrations of the different points is a commendable effort to satisfy this curiosity.”
Essentially, the movie was an exploitation film, which took advantage of the stir in the press about the theory.
Sewell wrote the four-reel version is “a little more complicated and carries the explanation a little further, which is intended for school and colleges.”
As movie trade reviewers would do, Sewell also discussed the box office potential for the films. “So out of the ordinary is this film that is furnishes no definite basis of comparison with any other from a showman’s standpoint and it would appear to be a question for each individual exhibitor to decide as to whether it will appeal to his patrons.”
“Rush,” the reviewer from Variety, certainly had another view of the film. The critic wrote, “The picture occupying just 40 minutes and doesn’t hold for that stretch of time. What inspired them to book it into the Broadway film house is a mystery. A title quotes Einstein as saying that only 12 scientists in the world are capable of understanding the theory. That ought to be enough to keep it from boring a mixed lay assemblage if Valentino and Swanson fans and the army of women who do their popular science reading in May Manton and the Butterick publications.
“The film isn’t even illuminating in a popular way. It doesn’t explain anything that wasn’t already clear. It seems a waste of footage to create elaborate and intricate diagrams to demonstrate that if you step off the earth’s surface there is no such thing as east and west; that there is no meaning to the conception of large and small unless you establish some fixed standard of comparison and that fast and slow don’t mean a thing except in relation to something else. It’s just a labored exposition of the obvious. The picture toils through a morass of these elemental matters and then gets down to the obtuse substance of Einstein’s theories.
“The conception of bent space and bent light rays is illustrated by elaborate diagram, but they give no enlightenment. They use up an immense footage to demonstrate that if a man walks toward the stern of a moving boat at the boat’s exact speed forward, he is standing still in relation to the shore, but moving backward in relation to the boat itself. A title would have covered that. But when they come to deal with that bending of light they merely declare the principle and let it go at that.
“The diagrams are extremely ingenious to elucidate obvious things but when they get Einstein into the rarefied atmosphere of pure scientific reasoning they are baffling and the spectator is befogged. The thing is meaningless and gets down to the mere juggling of words. They establish the meaning of the yardstick of ‘time space’ and then describe the mysterious ‘fourth dimension.’ If the three known dimensions are up and down, right and left, and near and far, the fourth is ‘sooner or later.’
“The whole thing is about as clear and useful as this description of it, and it will probably bore the film fan stiff.”
I have seen several prints of the film at several different times but they have always been the two-reel version of the film. It’s possible the four-reel version has not survived.
I tend to agree with “Rush,” more than Sewell in a contemporary assessment of the film. It’s not the engaging film to watch and I’ve never seen it with a musical accompaniment, which certainly adds a certain burden to it. What does fascinate me about the film is its earnest effort to explain this theory for the masses. There is a certain democratization at work, but of course, with the real motive being to make money about a subject that is in the news.
Later in 1923, another documentary on which Max worked was released, “Adventures in the Far North.” Max apparently edited the film which was initially released as a five-reeler – about 50 minutes – but later trimmed to a four-reel version.
According to a Sept. 13, 1923 review in Variety, the film was “ a consistent digest of the travels of Captain [F.E.] and Mrs. Kleinschmidt through the inner passage to Alaska, which extended over a distance of 5,000 miles from Seattle and return … The trip was made on a former submarine chase which Capt. Kleinschmidt now calls the ‘Silver Screen,’ with him supervising the work of several camera men who made the picture. The trip began in May 1922 and lasted seven months … Scenes in Glacier Bay show the breaking up of a 40-foot sea wall and the huge waves caused by the collapse, the capture of a school of whales and the disposition of their carcasses at the whaling station … A thrilling is where Capt. Kleinschmidt, his wife and a cameraman are adrift on an ice floe and [are] forced to seek refuge on the top of a giant iceberg.”
Kleinschmidt was a veteran documentary filmmaker who had risen to some prominence in 1914 when his film “Arctic Hunt” was shown to members of Congress, according to Moving Picture World, “who were then legislating or trying to legislate upon Alaskan affairs. The captain’s information in motion pictures was greatly valued by the legislators, who freely declared that nothing less than a trip to a long residence in the territory could have supplied them with the facts recorded by the captain’s pictures.”
Max’s daughter Ruth recounted to me how a sequence involving Kleinschmidt capturing a polar bear cub, but relenting and returning it to the mother was a section of the film that Max had deliberately included.
Film Daily’s review of May 14, 1923 noted that sequence. “By far the most interesting of all, though, are the pictures of a huge white polar bear swimming with her young offspring hanging on. Remarkable are the shots showing the efforts to rope in the young bear and the frantic attempts of the mother to battle off the captors and her eventual content when the little bear is allowed to go free.”
The Film Daily review concluded, “The picture is worthy of exhibition anywhere and should be heartily received.”
Considering Max’s pride in his work in the Signal Corps in World War I producing instructional films, one might draw the conclusion that these films spoke to his love of science. Perhaps, as well, they added a greater legitimacy to his career than the animated adventures of Ko-Ko.
Max’s career as an editor of non-fiction footage took an interesting turn in October 1925 when Moving Picture World announced that he had signed a contract with Urban-Kineto Corp. to be “editor in chief” of two new films series for the company, “Reelviews” and “Searchlights.”
“Reelviews” appears to have been a newsreel series and the story reported that “Fleischer will have a staff of cameramen, reaching around the world, ready at a moment’s notice to go out and take the needed scenes” – undoubtedly a bit of press release hyperbole.
Charles Urban’s company produced non-fiction short subjects, one of which, “Nature’s Handiwork” secured a favorable mention in a New York Times movie column in February 1921.
According to an essay written by Luke McKernan, Urban was a film pioneer who had built a large library of stock footage. He was also a proponent of color film technology and had a vision for a film-based encyclopedia that would be sold to schools.
Although he did have two theatrical series of short subjects, Urban’s plans did not succeed and in August 1925, a former investor C.M. Bortman bought the assets of the company, which included 2 million feet of footage.
In the summer of 1925, Max’s feature film “Evolution” was released theatrically. Although a trade ad described it as “an Urban-Kineto production edited by Max Fleischer,” it was released by Red Seal, the new company headed at the time by Fadiman to distribute the Fleischer product.
The film is comprised of stock footage with some animation by Willis O’Brien from his 1918 film “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.”
The trade ad from Red Seal was breathless: “ Everybody is talking ‘Evolution;’ Everybody wants to see ‘Evolution’ … A front page story in five absorbing reels.”
Whether or not the film was a sincere reflection of Max’s considerable interest in science is not known. What is definite is that the trade review in Moving Picture World was published on July 25, 1925 is the name recognition of the subject. The review was published just four days after John Scopes, a teacher in Tennessee had lost a court case due to his presenting the theory of evolution in his class, an action against state law.
The nation was obsessed with what became to be known as “the Monkey Trial” and “Evolution,” like “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity,” was in the purest definition an exploitation film.
It proved to be a well-received exploitation film. Moving Picture World reported, “The New York critics hailed the film enthusiastically. Harriette Underhill, in the Herald-Tribune, declared, ‘Don’t miss it whatever you do. We sat through it twice.’
“The Sun reviewer declares that ‘Evolution’ is ‘an absorbing picture tracing the ascent of man. Your beliefs, pro or con, do not prevent your enjoyment of an exhibition presenting in pictorial forms the beliefs and deductions of the best known scientists of the world. A wave of applause swept over the audience.’
“‘Absorbing, timely and well-done,’ says Rose Pelswick in the Journal. Quinn Martin in The World called it, “Unusually interesting and instructive as well’ is the verdict of the Post…
‘The Times put is official stamp of approval on it with ‘the audience applauded ‘Evolution,’ which proved interesting as a means of popularizing an abstract question.’ ‘Applauded for almost a minute,’ recorded the Telegraph.”
The film uses the stock footage to show the development of the earth, the links between various animals and fossil remains of dinosaurs and early man. It’s final title card walked the line that divided the nation on the issue; “Some call it evolution, others the work of God.”
During his work on these feature films, Max was producing the Out of the Inkwell cartoons and his involvement with Fadiman led to the creation of Red Seal, a company that would allow Max to distribute his own product. Film Daily reported on Oct. 26, 1923, “Red Seal Pictures Corp. has been formed with Edwin Miles Fadiman, president and general manager; Harold Rodner, vice-president and Max Fleischer, treasurer. ‘Unusual and distinctive pictures’ are promised by the organization which will release via the state right market.”
Later that year, Film Daily noted, “ Fleischer Closes Foreign Deals – ‘Out of the Inkwell’ cartoons have been sold by Max Fleischer for China, South Africa, Australia, Poland and England.”
The quality of the animated shorts didn’t seem to suffer during this time of business re-organization and expansion. The trade reviews were still positive for the Inkwell shorts.
In the Dec. 2, 1923 edition of Film Daily, “Shadows” was given the following review: “Once again the imp from the inkwell becomes involved, this time with the shadows of his own figure. The result is a completely different set of difficulties, chiefly the result of Fleischer's making silhouettes of animals with his figures. These animals annoy the imp and trouble him to such an extent that finally after being chased and crushed he becomes so bewildered that he is glad to jump back into the inkwell. Very laughable, very amusing.”
The first “Song Car-tune,” also reviewed a rave from the Film Daily reviewer on Feb. 24, 1924. “Here’s a new idea in song reels, presented by Charles K. Harris, the music publisher who is responsible for the songs and Max Fleischer whose animated cartoons skip nimbly from word to word of the song and lend much charm and some laughs. There is no picturization of the action described in the song – simply the words which run along the screen in large single-line type that moves slowly from right to left in time to the music and on which the tiny cartoon figures dance. The songs included are ‘Mother, Mother, Mother, Pin a Rose on Me,’ ‘Come Take a Trip in My Airship’ and ‘Goodbye. My Lady Love.’”
What would become known as the “Follow the Bouncing Ball” cartoons grew out of the convention in theaters of the time of sing-alongs with the theater’s musicians performing a well-known song and the lyrics would be projected on the screen on glass slides.
“A Trip to Mars” (April 13, 1924, Film Daily) received this reaction: “Max Fleischer continues to inject originality and novelty into his cartoon numbers. His latest, ‘A Trip to Mars,’ on the Rivoli program last week, is a clever and amusing number that shows the. Cartoonist at his best and with his pen clown performing a series of comedy tricks that will amuse and entertain any audience. The clown is sent, via a sky-rocket, to Mars where Fleischer installs all sorts of grotesque, imaginary beings. The artist appears in his film as usual and makes a flying trip to Mars himself through means of trick photography. This is an A-l cartoon number, a good novelty and quite amusing.”
The reviewer is right. “A Trip to Mars” is a fun cartoon tackling a science fiction subject not frequently seen in the movies of the 1920s.
Contemporary critics saw the Felix cartoons as the most popular animated cartoons of the era and interestingly Felix was often compared to Charles Chaplin – in fact Chapin appears in “Felix in Hollywood” in 1923. If Felix was Chaplin, then Ko-Ko was certainly the animated equivalent of Buster Keaton. Keaton’s comedies were known for their innovative sight gags and the Ko-Ko shorts pushed the boundaries of their format.
One could say that the typical Ko-Ko short was a contest of wills between the creator and the creation. If the shorts were formulaic in that sense, they were not formulaic in how they fulfilled that format. The Fleischer staff was willing to take chances by using different styles of animation and special effects. Other animation studios took notice.
Walter Lantz’s “Dinky Doodles” series at Bray was as close as an imitation of the Ko-Ko cartoons as one could find, even with Lantz himself as the human star.
Disney’s “Alice in Cartoonland” shorts reversed the Ko-Ko format. Instead of a carton character entering a human world, a human is in a cartoon world. Although in one early short, “Alice’s Spooky Adventure (1923), there is a reason given for this interaction – the little girl dreams it – in subsequent cartoons audiences just had to accept it. The other significant different is the Ko-Ko cartoons were technically superior to the Alice shorts.
© 2013 by Gordon Michael Dobbs