RE:Animation – Superman (1940)

RE:Animation – Superman (1940)

Welcome to the start of my new series of retrospectives on classic superhero animated productions here at Arkhaven Blog.  And I am beginning with the granddaddy of them all. Superman (1941).

The animation quality of the 1940s Superman animated serials has never been equaled since.  The artwork was a deco dream.  The colors were vivid and vibrant.  The character movement was analog live realistic.  There was nothing it didn’t get right.  And no one has come close to recreating its level of artwork in a superhero cartoon since.

In the two years between the publication of Action Comics #1 and 1940 Superman became an unmatched national phenomenon. His comics sold in the millions (seriously, they did), he had his own radio show, a giant balloon Superman floated over the Macy’s parade in New York.  And movie studios decided it was time to get into the cartoon superhero business.

The old Republic studios got ahold of the rights at first. But negotiations with National Comics (eventually to be renamed DC Comics) broke down.  It was Paramount’s turn after that, and they had the advantage of owning controlling interest in the number two animation studio in the business right behind Disney. Fleischer Studios.  And Fleischer Studios came with Max Fleischer himself.

By 1940 Max Fleischer was at something of a crossroads in this life.  

At the age of three, he immigrated from Poland to the USA.  His family lived in one of the Jewish “ghettos” of Brooklyn.  He did the usual budding artist thing of sketching constantly, in fact, his brother David joined him in this.  He wanted to make a living as an artist, but his family insisted that he learn a trade.  So, while the immigrant Fleischer family was willing to pay for high school (not free in those days) he had to attend the Mechanics and Tradesman’s School in mid-town Manhatten.  He was however allowed to continue his art training at the Art Students League of New York.  

It turned out that combining these two educations served Max Fleischer surprisingly well.

He got a job as a sketch artist for Popular Science and began to explore his budding interest in photography.  He also began work at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He worked his way up to doing his first comic strip; Little Algie.

Max’s interest in mechanics, art, and photography were combined when he invented and patented the roto-scope.  The principle was simple enough, you used it to make a sketch of an actor that had been filmed in live-action, after you had the movement down you filled in the artwork and color.  

The nickelodeons weren’t that picky about content yet so he was able to sell his experiments with the rotoscope as the Out of Inkwell series.

The Fleischer Brothers first really big success was their wholly owned Betty Boop. 

No, I don’t get the attraction either, but she was a superstar in her day.  For some reason, this 1920s flapper really spoke to 1930s America.  Their other big success was in licensing Popeye.  Things were going pretty well for them, but the trouble was on the horizon.  Another pair of brothers from the Midwest and their talking mouse cartoons were starting to nip at the heels of Fleischer Studios.  Although it was Max Fleischer, not Walt Disney that first combined sound with animation.

In 1934 Max Fleischer began trying to sell an odd little passion project to Paramount Pictures, (his senior partner), Gulliver’s Travels.  A feature-length cartoon earned him a hasty, “no thanks.”  Even after he tried reworking it as a Popeye movie the answer remained an emphatic, NO.  

But then Disney’s massive success with Snow White instantly changed the studio’s mind.   Gulliver was released a mere eighteen months after Snow White and I’m afraid it shows.  It wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t as good as Walt Disney’s film.  It could honestly be said to be something of a classic, and I was surprised to find out that Paramount had let it slip into the public domain.  But the film was rushed and it showed.

Max and Dave Fleischer were in their mid-fifties by 1940, considering the average life expectancy was 63 at the time, they had to feel there was a lot less road in front of them than behind them.  They were being left behind by Disney and Termite Terrace was nipping at their heels.  This tends to make old men more cautious, there is a lot less time to make up for big mistakes that late in the game.  They were trying not to slip into third place, a lot more interested in hanging on to what they had than regaining past glory.

So, when Paramount came to them with the chance to be, “the very first studio to produce a superhero cartoon,” they were cold to the idea.  They went from cold to completely uninterested when they found out that the deal Paramount had inked left them with no merchandising residuals and National Comics had the right of veto on everything.

The view of the brothers was, well we can’t turn down Paramount cold.  They are our senior partner.  But what we can do is highball the hell out of them and let them do the walking away from the deal.  

Fleischer Studios came back with, “$100,000 per episode.  Take it or leave it.” That was about, 1,800,000 in 1940 dollars.

To Max’s shock, Paramount said, “how about $50,000?”  Which was still an absurdly high amount. But, at that point, he started looking over the problems involved with the production.  The biggest was rotoscoping Superman with the technology available.  The animation was smooth, but the edges tended to be rough.  You were tracing after all. It was okay if you put your characters in roomy medieval costumes but so far as the animation was concerned, his skintight outfit made Superman a heroic nude.

Another issue was Superman’s “leaping tall buildings in single bound.”  Superman was still operating off of his original rules back then.  He could jump twenty-five miles and it took an artillery shell to pierce his skin.  But Kryptonite and the rest were a ways off yet.  Fleischer just couldn’t make the jumps look good. He finally asked National Comics, “Look, can I just make him fly?”  National Comics agreed.

These issues were challenging but not insurmountable, Max began to feel the kind of engagement with a project that he hadn’t for years.

In addition, Superman appealed to Max Fleischer’s love of science fiction and these first serials contained those elements.

No denying it was a major success for Paramount and Fleischer Studios.  People were coming to the theaters just to watch the Superman serials and that was not what they were supposed to do.  The serials were just filler before the feature, not the feature itself.

Superman also gave Fleischer a more mature subject matter that he hadn’t been allowed to explore up to that time.  Sadly, the success of Superman and Guliver led to his downfall.

Max Fleischer’s next project was, Mister Bug Goes to Town.  It was technically superior to Gulliver’s Travels, but it had was drastically more expensive with a budget of $1 million.  It would be the last animated feature that Paramount would release until Charlotte’s Web (1973).  There was a reason for that.

Part of the expense was a breakdown in the relationship of the Fleischer brothers.  They couldn’t speak to each other by 1941 and managing a studio by means of terse and abusive notes flying back and forth was as much comedy as it was a tragedy.

However, Mister Bug’s biggest problem was its release date; December 5th 1941.  After Pearl Harbor, none of the theaters were willing to touch an absurd, feel-good movie.  NONE.

Max Fleischer was called to New York and his resignation was demanded.

Fleischer Studios became Famous Studios, Superman’s budget was slashed to the bone and the blue-clad Kryptonian spent the remainder of his contract punching Nazis. The Fleischer Superman shorts are all in the public domain, which is a pity because that means no one has a motive to restore them.

Superman wouldn’t be animated again until Filmation started the Adventures of the Superman in the mid-sixties.  The quality was on par with Scooby Doo’s.

When Max Fleischer’s son, Richard was directing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the father visited the son for lunch and he invited his boss Walt Disney to join them.  The lunch was quite cordial with Max stating he was happy to be making education cartoons at this time of his life.

After lunch broke up Walt remarked to Richard that his father was quite genial and affable. 

Richard Fleisher said, that his father couldn’t say the name Disney without adding, “that son of a bitch.”

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Comments (8)

  • Brick Hardslab Reply

    The Fleisher Superman regions are my absolute favorites. Everything is simply right about them. From the animation to the voice talent it is all top shelf. I did not know that the Fleishers had started the power inflation by accident. I still don’t understand how they cannot equal or surpass the ancient work. I grew up on cheap comics. My favorite was war with westerns as a close second. Then I found the Inhumans and I became a junkie at six or seven. We didn’t have a ton of spare change so we read them over and over. I want to see them done right. Smallville and Superman and Lois have done well on tv. Arrow and Supergirl started good but became all gay all day. Nolan’s movies were good. I want my grandkids to enjoy superhero comics and movies but most of them are too degenerate for children.

    March 26, 2021 at 12:56 am
    • The Dark Herald Reply

      During my research for this article, I found out that the radio show Superman started making him fly at about the same time. They had a different problem. How do you make a super-jump Foley effect? Flying was easy, just easy use the wind sound.

      March 26, 2021 at 1:35 pm
  • TroperA Reply

    Anime fans have a lot to thank the Fleischers for. Osamu Tezuka was a big fan of Betty Boop and Fleischers’ other works and based his big eye anime style on them.

    March 26, 2021 at 1:18 am
    • Scott A.H. Ruggels Reply

      Hayao Miyazaki paid homage to this particular episode twice. First in an episode of the Television version of Lupinn III , and then with the robots from Laputa:Castle in the Sky.

      March 28, 2021 at 5:14 am
  • Raymond Solar Reply

    US Public Domain comics may be able to fill some of that void.

    March 26, 2021 at 2:27 am
  • Jack Amok Reply

    The look of that old animation really is great. Tom and Jerry from the 40’s had a slightly different look, but the same way of presenting a world that it looked like someone cared enough about to draw it well.

    Funny continuity issue in the Mechanical Monsters short. Did they just run out of time and not care that 5 and 13 kept switching back and forth?

    March 26, 2021 at 4:32 pm
  • billgray Reply

    Thank you for exposing me to this beauty. I showed it to my son today, and we both agreed that its beautiful. We’re going to watch as many as we can find.

    March 26, 2021 at 10:57 pm
  • Scott A.H. Ruggels Reply

    I first saw this Superman cartoon at Bacon in 1980. Wanting to be a professional animator, I was blown away by the quality. A year or two later, the second one I saw was featured in an animation celebration, the collections that showed up at art houses and such at the time, and the quality blew most of the rest of the offerings out of the water. Eventually, I was able to find a complete collection of all of the superman shorts on a DVD at comic con sometime in the 1990s. Sadly the scope of the stories declined as the series went, but the quality of the animation, and the character design stayed top notch until the end.

    March 28, 2021 at 5:19 am

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