Out of the Inkwell Films/Fleischer Studios
Filed under: Studios, 1921, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Betty Boop, Betty Boop series, Color, Early Sound, Inkwell / Fleischer Studios, Koko the Clown, Musical, Paramount Pictures, Popeye, Rotoscope, Silent, Superman, Technicolor, U.S.A.,
Out of the Inkwell FilmsAlso known as:
Out of the Inkwell Films, renamed Fleischer Studios in 1929, was founded by brothers- Dave and Max Fleischer, in 1921. The Fleischers’ studio was one of the most influential and successful animation studios in the silent era as well as in the Golden Age of animation. The beginning of Out of the Inkwell Films can be traced back to 1915 when The Fleischers invented the rotoscope. This device, which assisted in making lifelike animation, was such an important invention that it landed the Fleischer brothers a contract with Bray Studio in 1919 to produce their own series, which they called Out of the Inkwell.
The series featured yet unnamed clown, named Koko the Clown in 1923, and Fitz the Dog, who would evolve into Bimbo in 1930. The series was extremely popular and run until 1929. One of the reasons for its popularity was the juxtaposition of animated and live action worlds. In each cartoon, Koko plays in the live setting, often interacting with his creator, Max Fleischer himself, but eventually is transformed to an animated world. The Fleischers continued to produce the series for Bray Studio until 1921 but founded their own studio, Out of the Inkwell Films, in the same year, when Bray Studio started to diminish. Even though Out of the Inkwell Films focused primarily on producing the Out of the Inkwell series, the Fleischer brothers also devoted their time to other innovative projects.
It was Out of the Inkwell Films that released one of the first sound cartoons, My Old Kentucky Home (1926), and the first series with synchronized sound, Ko-Ko Song Cartunes. Moreover, Out of the Inkwell Films was arguably the first studio to produce a feature length animated film, The Einstein Theory of Relativity (1923). The end of the 1920s brought important changes to Out of the Inkwell Films. First, the studio was renamed to Fleischer Studios. Second, the Fleischers discontinued their successful run of the Out of the Inkwell series, and moved to new projects. Third, 1928 marked the official transition to sound, which pushed both animation and live action studios to fully incorporate this new invention into their films.
Fleischer Studios’ response to this technological invention was the revival of their Ko-Ko Song Cartunes series as the Screen Songs series, which run from 1929 to 1938. The series became popular and featured both animated stars of Fleischer Studios, such as Bimbo and Betty Boop, as well as music, theatre and film stars, such as Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Eddie Cantor, the Mills Brothers, and the Boswell Sisters, just to name a few.
During the same time, Fleischer Studios produced another popular series, Talkartoons, which ran from 1929 to 1932. At the beginning, the series was relying on various characters but in the mid 1930s, Bimbo and his girlfriend Betty Boop became the stars of the series. Koko the Clown was also revived, and he became a regular character of the series by the end of 1931. Due to the popularity of Betty Boop, the Talkartoon series was renamed Betty Boop cartoons in 1932. Betty Boop was arguably the most popular star of the Fleischer Studios. After appearing in the Screen Songs and Talkartoons series, the Fleischers decided to create a series devoted primarily to her, which ran until 1939.
With her voluptuous curves, revealing clothes, overtly sexual moves and behavior, became an instant sex symbol. It has been argued that Betty represented the flapper girl of the 1920s and 1930s, a woman conscious and comfortable with her own sexuality. This portrayal of women was different from other representations in this period, both in live action films as well as in animation, particularly from Disney’s representation of femininity.
The 1920s and the first half of the 1930s proved to be the most successful years for Fleischer Studios. This popularity could be attributed to studio’s production of animations that resonated well with the working class and immigrant population of large cities, such as New York or Chicago. In their animations in this period, the Fleischers relied heavily on immigrant tensions and issues, ethic jokes, vaudeville and blackface minstrelsy references and humour, urban culture and jazz music, which were all aimed at a specific type of audience. Even though the Fleischers’ cartoons were popular in this period, their market specific animations, and inability to create animations for middle class white Americans will prove to become one of the reasons for the downfall of their studio.
The 1930s brought challenges for Fleischer Studios. First, the studio was limited by the Hays Code, since Betty’s persona and popularity depended mostly on her sexuality. Her neutralization in order to meet the Production Code’s guidelines proved damaging for the character and the series. Also, Fleischer Studios started to have problems with its distributor, Paramount, in the 1930s. Paramount went through three bankruptcy related reorganizations, and the new management demanded more cartoons that would resemble Disney’s, both in content and style, and be suitable for a more general audience, not for working class and immigrant groups like those referred to in the Fleischers’ earlier cartoons.
Even though the Fleischers created the Color Classics series (1934-1941), which was a direct emulation of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, the series was not very successful. Despite the challenges, the Fleischers tried to save their studio by opening it to new opportunities and trends. This can be seen in the acquisition of rights to E.C. Segar’s comic strip character Popeye the Sailor, who became, perhaps, the most popular of all Fleischers’ characters. Popeye had his debut in a Betty Boop’s cartoon, Popeye the Sailor, in 1933, but due to a decline in Betty’s popularity, Popeye received his own series by 1936. The series was very popular, and was a true rival to Disney’s Mickey Mouse shorts.
To further rival Walt Disney’s studio popularity, Fleischer Studios also decided to produce an animated feature film, following the success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). In order to handle the production of a feature animation, and in attempt to avoid union troubles, the Fleischer Studios moved to a bigger and better equipped location in Miami, Florida in 1938. The studio managed to produce two animated feature films, Gulliver’s Travel (1939), and Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), which due to uneven quality, both in story and animation, were only mildly successful at the box office. In between producing the two feature films, Fleischer Studios produced another successful series, Superman, based on another comic strip, featuring the superhero of the same name. This was Fleischers’ most expensive cartoon series, produced in Technicolor, with the first having a budget of $50,000, the highest cost ever for a Fleischer theatrical short. Even though the first animation, Superman (1941), was nominated for an Academy Award, the series did not save Fleischer Studios from bankruptcy.
The studio managed to produce only nine cartoons in this series before it was taken over by Paramount. Despite the success of the Superman series, the Fleischer Studios’ financial situation was so dire that Paramount demanded that the Fleischers repay their loans. When the Fleischers were unable to, Paramount assumed ownership of the studio in 1941, and renamed it Famous Studios in 1942. Even though the Fleischer brothers remained in control of the production until the end of 1941, personal and professional disagreements prevented them from producing any successful animation.
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