Mickey Mouse’s Jewish Competitors: The Story of the Fleischer Brothers / Raz Greenberg

translated by Margalit Rodgers

When we think about the art of animation, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Walt Disney and the studio he founded. However, despite its continuing dominance in the field, the Walt Disney Company was not the first to engage in animation productions – in the world or even in North America, where it was founded on the foundations laid by studios that preceded it.

One such studio was founded by Max (1883-1972) and Dave (1894-1979) Fleischer, sons of a Jewish family that immigrated to the US from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Besides being responsible for numerous technological developments, and setting the standards for division of labor in animation productions, the artistic influence of the films produced in the Fleischer brothers’ studio is evident to this day in several surprising places, from the comics industry, through Japanese animation, to video games. In fact, if the studio founded by Walt Disney is recognized for family-friendly productions, the Fleischer brothers’ productions now appeal to a completely different group of viewers – the geek culture.

The Fleischer brothers’ Jewish background contributed considerably to their popularity within this group. As sons of an immigrant family, Max and Dave Fleischer were American patriots who believed in the unlimited possibilities that modern America represented, in contrast with the anti-Semitism to which their family was subjected in Eastern Europe. This is particularly true of Max Fleischer, who admired the technological wonders of the New World, and before turning to a career in animation served as art editor for Popular Science Magazine, where he was regularly exposed to new inventions and developments. Shortly before embarking on production of animated films, Fleischer published and illustrated an article in the magazine describing a utopia that combined the advantages of advanced urban technology with the possibility of extensive agricultural development of the kind found in rural America. The idealization Fleischer ascribed to the modern American metropolis was already evident at this stage.

From the late 1920s to the early 1930s, the studio founded by the Fleischer brothers became a leading force in the American animation industry. Max Fleischer exploited the extensive technological knowledge he had acquired while working at the magazine to develop a range of filming and animation innovations, from rotoscoping (projecting films frame-by-frame, allowing animators to reproduce realistic motion), to early experiments in synchronizing sound with film projection; although Walt Disney is frequently credited with producing the first talking animated film (Steamboat Willie in 1928, which also introduced Mickey Mouse to the public), the Fleischer brothers preceded him by two years when they released My Old Kentucky Home, a short singalong film, a popular genre in silent films in which the lyrics of familiar song were projected onto the screen, and the audience, usually accompanied by piano, was invited to sing along. In My Old Kentucky Home, the Fleischer brothers not only added singing to the lyrics, they also included an amusing introduction to the film that featured sound and speech. For a number of reasons – from using an experimental (and unsuccessful) system to synchronize sound, to the fact that the song chosen for the film is not considered politically correct nowadays – this achievement by the Fleischer brothers was relegated to the sidelines.

However, the introduction of sound into animated cinematic productions opened a completely new creative world to the Fleischer brothers. Collaborating with some of the top jazz performers of the day, they produced dozens of films presenting an odd and bizarre form of humor against the backdrop of the poor immigrant neighborhoods of New York – neighborhoods that were depicted as dangerous yet appealing places where daily hardships contributed to the creation of some of the greatest hits in America’s popular music industry. In 1930, a young woman dressed in revealing attire, whose name was Betty Boop, became the star of these films, and for a time she was one the greatest stars bestowed on the American animation industry by Fleisher Studios. In one of the studio’s masterpieces, Minnie the Moocher, viewers discovered that under her modern American appearance, Betty is in fact a Jewish girl from a good home who was led astray and corrupted by New York culture:

Towards the mid-1930s, as a result of pressure from the Hollywood censorship, the Fleischer brothers toned down the films featuring Betty Boop, and the result was a sharp decline in the character’s popularity. However, they already had a new star – Popeye the Sailor, who was originally created by cartoon artist Elzie Crisler Segar, and in the Fleischer Studios films was transformed from a yokel from the American Midwest into a hot-tempered New York bullyboy who gets superpowers from eating spinach (a rather insignificant element in the comic strip that became a central feature in the Fleischer Studios animated films). The Fleischer brothers’ early Popeye films transformed the character into the most popular animated star in 1930s America – even more popular than his biggest competitor, Mickey Mouse – and like the Betty Boop films before them, these films, too, were an ode to the poor immigrant neighborhoods of urban America. However, in contrast with the Betty Boop films, the Popeye films also predicted a rosy future for those neighborhoods that was just around the corner – Popeye eating spinach was a metaphor for how modern science and technology could transform these neighborhoods into a good place to live. In this regard, the most charming of the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye films is probably The Paneless Window Washer, in which the hero and his archrival Bluto compete over the title of best window washer:

The idealization of the way science and technology change the face of urban America in the Fleischer brothers’ films reached its peak in All’s Fair at the Fair, which was produced to celebrate the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Ignoring the Great Depression, with the repercussions of which Americans were still contending at the time the film was made, and the winds of war that were already strongly felt in Europe, the film presented a vision of a utopian, naïve, yet captivating future:

Incidentally, when the film was produced, Fleisher Studios had already relocated from New York to Miami, but it would be logical to assume that an ardent science and technology enthusiast like Max Fleischer would not have missed the opportunity to visit the fair at least once – and one might wonder whether during such a visit, Fleischer also decided to see the exhibit devoted to Jewish settlement in Palestine, and what were his thoughts on the subject.

1939 was a turning point for Fleisher Studios, when, following the success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they decided to produce a full-length feature film. The result was Gulliver’s Travels, a mediocre adaptation of the book by Jonathan Swift, which mostly looked like a pale imitation of what was being produced at the rival studio with very little of the unique flavor of the best Fleischer productions. Gulliver’s Travels gained reasonable box-office success, but the studio’s next feature film, Mr. Bug Goes to Town – which actually contained numerous brilliant scenes (that nevertheless failed to come together into a satisfying viewing experience) – was a commercial failure that led to a hostile takeover of Fleischer Studios by Hollywood-based Paramount Studios, and the brothers’ humiliating removal from the studio they themselves had founded. Despite a number of interesting attempts, neither of the brothers managed to find a senior position in the American animation industry in the years that followed.

A short time before they relinquished control of their studio, the Fleischer brothers produced another important short animation film series – a cinematic adaptation of the adventures of comic-strip hero Superman. These films are probably the most impressive artistic achievement produced by the brothers, and, in contrast with their other unsuccessful attempts to produce animated feature films, they constitute the real response to Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: they combine the highest standards of design, animation, and musical score, alongside their creators’ personal statement on urban America of the early 1940s. In these films, America is once again presented as a paradise of advanced technological urbanism, but they also remind us that there are those who make different use of technology; the evil scientists and criminals, who use advanced weapons and frequently face the hero of the series, represented the threat to the free world that was running riot in Europe – a threat that the majority of the American public still preferred to ignore at the time:

The Fleischer brothers’ story did not end when they were removed from their studio: in fact, it just began. The studio’s new owners sold the rights to its catalogue for broadcast in a new medium that had entered homes across America and the world after the war – television – and through this medium a new generation of viewers was exposed to the alternative the Fleischer brothers provided to Disney’s films. It is hardly surprising that animated adaptations of comic-strips and superheroes found a foothold in television, much more so than in American cinematic animation; when the Fleischer brothers’ films found a home in television, the medium adapted itself to the content.

Outside America, the Fleischer brothers’ films gained considerable success when their studio still operated, but after World War II, television broadcasts turned them into a real hit. The most notable example is Japan, where the Fleischer brothers’ design and animation style influenced a wide range of creators – from Osamu Tezuka, considered the country’s greatest cartoon artist, to Hayao Miyazaki who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for Spirited Away.

Another important Japanese industry to draw inspiration from the Fleischer brothers’ films is the video game industry. Pioneering creators of games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong noted the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye films as the basis for a key concept in the entire gaming industry – power-up – which drew inspiration from the superpowers Popeye gets from eating spinach.

Alongside conceptual inspiration, there are innumerable examples in various works of design inspiration drawn from the Fleischer brothers; notable examples from recent years include Ari Folman’s film The Congress, and the Canadian video game, Cuphead. Almost eighty years after the Fleischer brothers were ostensibly deposed from their standing as an influential force in the American and world animation industry, their vision is still alive and kicking.