During the 1930s, the biggest figure in animation was undoubtedly Walt Disney, who started his career in the 1920s as a cartoonist and ended up becoming the face of the biggest company in the field. Despite what others may want you to believe, though, he wasn’t unrivaled: many other artists were making animated shorts during that time, whose quality was often equal (often even better) than what Disney was making. In the 30s in particular, many of those talents were working for Max Fleischer, one of Disney’s biggest rivals.
Max Fleischer was an interesting and at times controversial figure: like Walt, he was a producer and exercised control over many aspects of his own company; he also had a brother, Dave Fleischer, who was seemingly more interested in the artistic side of the business and had a role of supervisor for many of the films produced. Their career in animation started in the 1910s (way before Walt) and would be around for at least twenty years before shutting down their studio for a series of complicated circumstances.
The most important thing to note, though, is that they were outsiders: their studio was located outside of Hollywood (where most animation studios, Disney included, were producing and selling their cartoons) and was instead based in New York. It’s safe to assume that this difference played a significant role in the tone and style of their cartoons, very different from what was being produced in the West Coast.
In the course of their career, the Fleischers created and adapted several different characters for the big screen. In this retrospective, I’ll try to take a look at their major stars (and series) and judge them accordingly.
KoKo the Clown is the first major character created by the Fleischers and he’s the star of the Out of the Inkwell series. The series originally started as a vehicle to experiment with Fleischer’s new invention, the rotoscope, which is used to trace over live-action footage with the purpose of obtaining fluid, life-like, “realistic” animation. The shorts mostly involve KoKo goofing around (occasionally with a dog called Fitz as his sidekick) and interacting with the live-action world and his “boss”, played by Max Fleischer.
Though the series is innovative in many aspects, it also has a lot of flaws. The most evident is the use of rotoscoping. The whole concept of the series is based on the contrast between the real world and the animated one; but the contrast is weakened since the main character moves realistically – TOO realistically for his own good, and after a while there’s almost nothing indistinguishable between the real world and the fictional one. Luckily, the Fleischers seems to have realized this pretty soon: after a while, the rotoscope is no longer used, and the characters are finally able to act for what they are – cartoon characters, and this will become an important characteristic of their future work.
The same critique can unfortunately be applied on reverse, as well: the live-action fragments often feel like cartoon segments, more than the actual ones, thanks to the over-the-top acting and goofy situations (similarly to many Chaplin and Keaton films of that period). This problem is also partially solved later in the series: the live-action segments gradually become less important, and in some shorts they almost disappear completely. Thus the series loses its identity, but the films become better as a whole and the animators can gain more experience. Overall the series was very impressive on a technical level, but uneven when it came to the actual cartoons themselves. Still, it’s a series that had a lot of impact on other animators of the time (including, ironically, Walt Disney). Now, taking a look at some of the more interesting shorts…
The Clown’s Pup (1919): This one’s not very interesting, actually, but it’s a good example of the earliest KoKo shorts. It’s only 2 minutes long, has a very basic idea (here, KoKo has a dog), interaction with live-action footage, some metafictional gags. You can’t get much more basic than this. If you just want a general idea of how these shorts played out, watch this.
The Clown’s Little Brother (1920): This one’s noticeable for having the first character NOT animated through rotoscoping. In this case, the brother of KoKo pays a visit and seemingly outperforms him in any way, not just literally but metaphorically as well: he can stretch his body, make exaggerated poses and is a lot more flexible than the rotoscoped brother. It’s almost like the Fleischer understood the limitations of the technique (that would later be dropped almost completely). Overrall, a fun short to “study”.
Invisible Ink (1921): One of the best KoKo shorts. It’s basically just KoKo messing up with his animator, pulling up all sorts of tricks and jokes on him. The live-action/animation interaction is exploited pretty well and there are a lot of interesting effects – such as the scene where KoKo enters into Fleischer’s mouth. Probably the short that better shows the potential of this series.
Jumping Beans (1922): An uneven short. The first half is a simple adaption/parody of Jack and the Beanstalk, with nothing new added. The second half, however, is much more entertaining, and it’s once again a live-action/animation mix: KoKo creates a bunch of clones of himself and organizes a revenge against the animator. One of the most complex shorts in a technical sense, not only for the great amount of animated characters presented on screen at the same time, but also for the gradual abandonment of the rotoscope.
By 1923, the rotoscope was no longer used. The result was the series of KoKo getting gradually more surreal as the animators were gaining experience. One example is Bedtime (1923), which has probably some of the best animated scenes of the series, such as the whole segment of the Cave of the Winds, or even the final segment where a giant KoKo is chasing his creator in a live-action city (probably New York).
Same thing goes for Trip on Mars (1924), which contains some of the best special effects (several scenes where Max Fleischer is floating in space) and some rather creative designs for the aliens ecountered by KoKo.
Other notable shorts among the later ones include KoKo Trains’ Em (1925), KoKo The Convict (1926) and KoKo Needles the Boss (1927). But my favorite one is probably…
Koko’s Earth Control (1928)
Easily the best KoKo short, and one of the most surreal things the Fleischers have ever done. KoKo and Fitz go to a station where it’s possible to control the Earth… and there’s a lever that can cause the apocalypse. Fitz pulls it, of course, and the result is a sequence full of trippy animations and surreal imagery. Nothing has to make sense and this is probably one of the few examples of the Fleischer “style” in pure form: inanimated things that become alive, body distortions, and no real attempt to create a narrative structure. This style will become even more sophisticated in future films (particularly the Talkartoons and Betty Boop films), but this can be considered one of the earliest, glorious examples. Live-action segments are barely present here, showing the evolution of the series (and of the Fleischer’s studio, of course) since its beginnings. The animation is also noticeably improved: characters are more expressive and is overall smoother.
Judging the Out of the Inkwell series as a whole, it’s surely not perfect. But it already shows some of the early traits of the Fleischer style. The fictional world (the animated one) and the real one are seen as two completely different entities, each with its own set of rules. They can interact, literally (as seen in many shorts of the series) or metaphorically (through the use of rotoscoping, which will still be used in future films), but they remain distinct and each interference between the two worlds is seen as an anomaly. This will become a very important aspect in the Fleischer’s future productions, and we’ll already see the first results next time.