Friday, July 3, 2009

Episode #81: The 1940's Superman Cartoon And The Fleischer's Studio!

For Father's Day this year I received a copy of the DVD collection Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941 - 1942, which was released on April 7, 2009. It included a preview of the upcoming Warner Premiere direct-to-DVD animated Green Lantern movie, a history of superhuman characters through eons of literature, and a history of the Fleischer Studio. The cartooons were reproduced from the original masters, and only a brief scene of the cartoon Terror On The Midway seemed of poor quality after all of these decades. This DVD set is perfect for any fan of animation or Superman in particular.

I thought I would interrupt my summer series on imaginary stories to highlight these cartoons and the Fleischer Studio which produced them.

Fleischer Studio began as Inkwell Studios in 1921, founded by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer. Dave served as director and supervised production, and Max served as producer. They gained experience working for J. R. Bray's Paramount Pictograph film magazine, a studio that produced silent cartoons to theaters in 1916. Bray's studio went into business two years after Windsor McCay's Gertie The Dinosaur proved animation was practical, even though it was not the very first cartoon. That honor went to Humorous Phases of Funny Faces by J. Stuart Blackton in 1906.

In 1919 Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope, a device that allowed animators to trace the movement of live actors into a cartoon, to provide the animated characters with more realistic movement. The first use on a character was Koko the clown. Brother Dave performed the actions animated in Koko. He starred in the Out Of The Inkwell series that began the same year as the rotoscope's invention.

In 1921 the Fleischers left Bray's to form their partnership. Along with Koko, the Fleischers created a series of anthropomorphic characters. Thier most famous creation ever was Betty Boop, who premiered in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes, which was released on August 9, 1930. The brothers competed with Walt Disney with their own short cartoons during this early era of animation's history.

The Fleischer brothers were innovators in animation, many of which are still in use today. They were the first to use "in-betweeners". The main animator would draw the first and last drawings of a particular motion, and an assistant animator would draw the in between drawings of the movement. They also produced the first sound cartoon, and the bouncing ball sing along. Their first sound cartoons were called Talkatoons, which premiered in 1929. The Fleischers' 3-D setback, which was a tiny stage where animation cels were hung in front of the background to create a 3-D effect were as effective as Disney's multi-plane camera.

Popeye premiered in cartoons in 1933, in Betty Boop Meets Popeye The Sailor, when the Fleischers licensed Popeye from King Features Syndicate.

In October 1938 the Fleischer Studio moved to new facilities in Miami, Florida, financed by Paramount Studios, to take advantage of tax breaks and to end union activity after a bitter strike in 1937.

The Fleischer Studio also competed with Disney with feature length animation. After Disney's Snow White And The Seven Dwarves in 1937, the Fleischer Studio produced two feature length animated movies, Gulliver's Travels (1939) and Mr. Bug Goes To Town (later released under the title Hoppity Goes To Town) (1941).

When Paramount, the Fleischers' distributor, gained the rights to the Superman character they wanted the Fleischers to produce a series of cartoons about the Man of Steel. The Fleischer studio was in the middle of production of their second feature length animated movie and didn't want to tackle this new project. In an attempt to discourage Paramount from deciding to go forward with the series, they quotede a price of from $30,000 - $100,000, depending on the source you want to believe. Much to the Fleischers' surprise, Paramount accepted the bid. The first cartoon, simply titled Superman cost $50,000, three times the cost of the average Fleischer cartoon. The rest of the cartoons in the series cost $30,000 each, for a total cost of $530,000.

While some think the Superman catch phrases "Look, up in the sky! ... " and "Faster than a speeding bullet, ..." originated with this animated series, they were introduced in the radio series. Bud Collyer reprised his role as Clark Kent / Superman from the radio show for the cartoon series, as well as Jane Alexander, who voiced Lois Lane in the radio show. The narrator for the cartoon series was Jackson Beck, who was the narrator and voiced Perry White. Beck had no previous connection with the radio show but would later join the voice cast. All three voice actors would reprise their roles for the 1960's Superman TV cartoon.

The Fleischer Studio would receive five Academy Award nominations, Sinbad The Sailor (1936), Educated Fish (1937), Hunky & Spunky and Riding The Rails (both 1938) and Superman (1941). Each year the studio lost to a Disney short cartoon. Only MGM would break Disney's Oscar streak in 1940, when the Fleischer Studio did not have a cartoon nominated.

The two feature length animated films the Fleischers produced did not make enough money to repay their loans to Paramount. This, along with the unexpected costs of the additonal overhead of the Miami studio, caused Paramount to foreclosed on the loan, take over the studio and fire the Fleischer brothers. By this point they were not talking to each other because of personal and professional differences. Paramount renamed the studio Famous Studios. The first Superman cartoon produced under the Famous Studio name was the now considered xenophobic title Japoteurs, which was released on September 18, 1942. Famous Studios also changed the introduction from the familiar "Faster than a speeding bullet, ...". In 1943 the studio would move back to New York City.

Max Fleischer would become head of the animation division of the Jam Handy Organization, which produced films for business, education, government and military.

Dave Fleischer moved to California and became the head of Columbia's Screen Gems cartoon studio.

Today, the Fleischer Studio is located in Los Angeles, California and handles the merchandise licensing of Betty Boop and other original Fleischer characters.

Fleischer Studios Superman cartoon summaries:

Superman, the pilot cartoon, released September 26, 1941, running time 10:22. This cartoon earned the last Academy Award nomination for Fleischer Studios and lost to Disney's Lend A Paw, starring Pluto. After a brief origin portraying the last survivor of an exploding planet rocketed to Earth as a baby, being found and turned in to an orpanage and growing up to be reporter Clark Kent, the story involved a mad scientist who threatened the city with a destructive ray at midnight.

The Mechanical Monster, November 28, 1941, 10:14. Another mad scientist used an army of robots to rob the city on solo missions.

Billion Dollar Limited, January 9, 1942, 8:35. Superman protected a train, loaded with gold and bound to the National Mint, from a masked gang who attempted to hijack the train and steal the gold.

The Arctic Giant, February 27, 1942, 8:35. A frozen dinosaur was discovered in Siberia and shipped to Metropolis to be displayed, still frozen, in a museum. After the refrigeration generator malfunctioned, the dinosaur awoke and threatened the city.

The Bulleteers, March 27, 1942, 8:02. A gang, piloting a bullet shaped flying car, terrorized and robbed Metropolis. This cartoon included the first specific mention of Metropolis.

The Magnetic Telescope, April 24, 1942, 7:38. Another mad scientist used a magnet on top of an astronomical observatory to pull celestial bodies closer to Earth for observation. One fell out of control and crashed into the city, coming to a stop in the water off the docks. The city authoritites warned the scientist to stop his dangerous experiments.

Electric Earthquake, May 15, 1942, 8:42. A Native American scientist used an underwater base to cause earthquakes in Manhatten, because the island rightfully belonged to Native Americans, in his opinion. This was a less objectionable portrayal of a minority because, even though the villain was a Native American, he was brilliant, which differed from the portrayal of Native Americans in this era. Also, there were no racial comments by any of the characters. When he told the Planet staff his claims, Clark asked, "Well, what do you want us to do about it?". The villain answered, "Print the truth."

Volcano, July 10, 1942, 7:56. Clark and Lois covered the threatening eruption of Mt. Monokoa on an island. Lois was trapped on the volcano slope when it erupted, and a lava flow threatened the population.

Terror On The Midway, August 28, 1942, 8:22. Clark and Lois covered a circus, where a giant gorilla escaped from its cage and terrorized the crowd.

Japoteurs, September 18, 1942, 9:05. Japanese spies attempted to steal the world's largest bomber plane and fly it to Tokyo. This cartoon contained the typical racial caricature of oriental people in this era. As mentioned before, this was the first Superman cartoon produced under the Famous Studios name after Paramount took control of the studio.

Showdown, October 16, 1942, 8:14. A criminal wore a Superman costume while performing robberies for his crime boss, who was based on Al Capone. The real Superman was wanted by the police for the crimes.

Eleventh Hour, November 20, 1942, 7:58. Clark and Lois were held in a Yokohama hotel with barred windows. At 11:00 every night, Clark, as Superman, would remove the bars from his window and fly away to sabotague the Japanese military. Lois faced a firing squad as a spy. This was another cartoon that continued the racial caricature of oriental people common to the era.

Destruction, Inc., December 25, 1942, 8:32. The body of a munitions plant guard was found in a swamp. Lois went undercover at the plant and was discovered by a shady manager and two of his henchmen.

The Mummy Strikes, February 19, 1943, 7:46. An expert Egyptologist was found dead near the mummy of King Tush in a museum. His assistant Janet Hogan was convicted of his murder. A Dr. Wilson contacted Clark Kent about evidence he had found that might clear her name. Lois, suspicious of s story, secretly followed Clark into the museum. It was unusual to watch a cartoon with a character who had the same last name as me.

Jungle Drums, March 26, 1943, 8:00. Nazi soldiers used an ancient African temple as a base to radio the coordinates of Allied convoys to German submarines. Lois's plane was shot down and she was captured by members of an African primitive tribe loyal to the Nazi leader. He portrayed a high priest that the tribe worshipped. The African tribe was protrayed in the typical racial stereotype common to the era.

The Underground World, June 18, 1943, 8:13. The Daily Planet financed an expedition led by an explorer of hidden caverns discovered by his long lost father. Clark and Lois accompanied the explorer where they discovered an underground civilization of winged humanoids.

Seceret Agent, July 30, 1943, 7:39. An undercover woman had infiltrated a Nazi spy organization. She broke her cover to carry information about the group to her superiors in Washington, D. C. She was being chased by Nazi agents. This was the only cartoon in the series that did not include Lois Lane, but it is possible that Joan Alexander voiced the female agent. This cartoon was the last episode of the series.

For more information about the 1940's Superman cartoon and the Fleischer Studo:

Next week we return to an imaginary summer with Superman's Other Life, from Superman #132, October 1959. It was reprinted in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, Showcase Presents: Superman vol. I and Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, vol. II.

Superman Fan Podcast can be found at , , and most other podcast aggregaters. Send e-mail to . The podcast theme is Plans In Motion composed by Kevin MacLeod, part of the royalty free music library of .

My Pull List is my spoiler free comic book review blog of the titles I read every week. It can be found at . Send e-mail about this blog to .

Superman and all related characters are trademark and copyright DC Comics.

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Superman Fan Podcast and, as always, thanks to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

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