The little-known 1933 short film called "Stoopnocracy" opens with two cartoon dogs driving a truck painted with the words "Nut House Wagon." A dispatcher's voice commands them to "go to 1600 Broadway--big nuts just broke loose!"
It wasn't such an outlandish observation. Back then, the building at 1600 Broadway, on the corner of 48th Street, was the real-life home to Fleischer Studios, where the winsome young brunette Betty Boop was born and countless irreverent shorts like "Stoopnocracy" were churned out. It is easy to see how the film's creators might have fancied themselves nuts; they were working for the biggest animation company in the East Coast and producing films, some 600 in all, noted for their clever gags and surreal images. The same year "Stoopnocracy" was made, the studio headed by Max Fleischer animated a comic strip character who, in his heyday, proved more popular than Mickey Mouse. His name was Popeye.
"When I was a kid, just mentioning to a theater manager that I was Max Fleischer's son got me into the movie for free," Richard Fleischer, the director of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," wrote in "Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution," just published by the University Press of Kentucky.
But last December, the old Studebaker Building at 1600 Broadway, which had housed the studio, was razed to make way for luxury condominiums. The only trace of the cartoon animation empire that existed there from 1923 to 1938 is the Betty Boop paraphernalia for sale at a string of gift shops on a nearby block of Seventh Avenue. When one thinks of cartoons, the name Walt Disney comes to mind, not Max Fleischer.
"Disney made his name a trademark synonymous with cartoon animation," said Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at Film Forum, which will show 10 Fleischer cartoons tomorrow and Tuesday as part of the theater's "Paramount Before the Code" series. "He owned animation like Starbucks owns coffee, though of course he didn't. Disney was an incredible visionary, but he didn't invent animation."
Although Disney is credited with releasing the first synchronized sound cartoon, "Steamboat Willie," in 1928, it was Fleischer, collaborating with the inventor Lee DeForest, who had introduced sound four years earlier in several less successful cartoons. That year, 1924, Fleischer along with his brother Dave also created the memorable bouncing ball that skitters along over song lyrics, and in 1917, he invented the Rotoscope, which enables an animator to trace images over film of real people or animals. The device is still in use.
"He was a genius with mechanical things," says Myron Waldman, 97, who animated "Hunky and Spunky," one of three Fleischer cartoons that were nominated for an Oscar.
Or, as Greg Ford, a New York historian of animation and cartoon producer, put it: "The cartoons were very mechanically minded. There's beautiful technical work on the robots and anything mechanical in the Superman pictures." Mr. Fleischer, he added, pioneered "a style of cartoon where the surrounding world is more important than the lead character."
Continue reading the main story
The emphasis on plots driven by the environment rather than by character springs in part from the inexhaustible opportunities that the studio's location, at the heart of Times Square, presented to Fleischer employees. "They were drawing on talent from the nightclubs and shows at the Paramount Theater, which was right around the corner," Mr. Goldstein said. "This gave the cartoons a vitality that others don't have." Some of the studio's films featured live-action shots of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Ethel Merman.
The city is the literal backdrop for many of the Superman and Popeye cartoons, and shows up in other shorts like "Betty Boop for President," in which the cartoon candidate proposes solutions to typical big-city problems, like carpeting over potholes and halting unwieldy traffic so people (or in this case, kittens) can cross safely.
In Mr. Goldstein's opinion, the studio's move to Miami, in 1938, blunted the cartoons' urban edge, and in a way that was not necessarily beneficial. "They're much sunnier; they're cuter," Mr. Goldstein said. "You can tell they're not animated and written by guys who have to get on the subway every day, let's put it that way."
The New York sensibility of the early films -- their sometimes gritty subject matter, and what might today be considered off-color humor -- was also the logical bent of an ethnically diverse staff. "Practically all the boys spoke a foreign language at home," Shamus Culhane wrote of the studio in his autobiographical "Talking Animals and Other People," but New York street English "was the lingua franca of Fleischer Studios."
Mr. Fleischer himself lived a New York-style American dream. His family relocated from Austria to Manhattan in 1887, when he was 4. A stint at art school after attending a vocational high school ultimately led him to form Out of the Inkwell Films in 1921, and in 1923 that company settled into the sixth floor of the Studebaker Building. Six years later, the company became Fleischer Studios, and secured Paramount Pictures as a financier and distributor.
In the 30's, Mr. Fleischer's Betty Boop and Popeye shorts were sometimes billed above feature films on marquees, and he basked in the studio's success by moving to a river-view apartment in the Windermere Hotel, at 666 West End Avenue. But in 1937, when Disney released the world's first full-length animated feature, Mr. Fleischer's tides turned. "'Snow White' is what did it," Mr. Ford says. "The Fleischers never really came back."
Mr Fleischer moved the company to Florida and tried to produce a movie to rival "Snow White," but the fruits of that effort, "Gulliver's Travels" in 1939 and "Mr. Bug Goes to Town" in 1941, did not approach the success of the Disney film. Even the animation of the first, much-praised Superman cartoons in 1941 did not keep Paramount from severing ties with Fleischer Studios that year.
Mr. Fleischer signed a contract that in effect turned over to Paramount the rights to all the studio's films and even his original creation, Betty Boop. When Stanley Handman, the family's lawyer, met Mr. Fleischer in 1956, he was not the man he had been.
"Max was kind of a beaten guy," Mr. Handman said. "Somebody that had all this wonderful creative energy for years, and everybody took him apart." Fleischer films had been running on television with Fleischer Studios credits removed. Some had even been re-edited. In 1959, Mr. Handman was able to get the Boop copyright returned to Mr. Fleischer. And in 1972, a month after Mr. Fleischer died, Mr. Handman struck a licensing deal with King Features Syndicate that enabled Fleischer Studios to market its star character. According to King Features, Betty Boop merchandise pulls in almost $1 billion in worldwide sales in a year.
A Boop musical is planned for 2007, with Bill Haber producing. Then there are the films. "His shorts really endure," Mr. Goldstein said. "The audience reacts probably the way they did 70 years ago. Even more so. I think audiences are hipper to some of the jokes now."