By 1927, Adolph Zukor, the Hollywood mogul behind the rapidly-expanding Paramount-Famous Lasky Corporation, had built a veritable entertainment empire. The studio had moved into a new, multimillion-dollar twenty-six acre lot off Melrose Avenue. They had amassed a chain of nearly two thousand theaters across the country, called Publix Theatres, in which to screen their many productions. Paramount was the home of some of the most popular films and biggest stars of the silent era–Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino (before his unfortunate early death in 1926), Clara Bow (star of 1927’s Wings, the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture), and Gloria Swanson among them. By the end of 1928, Paramount would move forward technologically with the release of their first all-talking film, Interference, starring William Powell. It was a time of success and unchecked progress, but Zukor wasn’t through expanding his empire. His ambitions soon led him to the one area Paramount had yet to conquer: animation.
Meanwhile, in New York, the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, had themselves built an animation studio that garnered much acclaim for their wildly inventive cartoons. In 1914, Max invented the rotoscope, which allows an artist to trace over live-action footage to create realistic-looking animated movement. Dave would don a clown costume, and Max would trace over his movements to produce the antics of a character they christened “Koko the Clown.” This gave rise to a series of animated vignettes called Out of the Inkwell, which depicted the adventures of Koko and his companion, a dog named Fitz. The Inkwell shorts were not just animated, however; they typically began with live-action footage of Max Fleischer interacting with his characters, much in the way Winsor McCay had done with his legendary dinosaur, Gertie, in 1914. The Inkwell cartoons were initially distributed through Bray Productions, a studio that focused singularly on producing animated content, and were included regularly in Bray’s newsreel features for Paramount. By 1921, the Fleischers (along with their brother, Lou) took control of production and formed the Fleischer Studios. The move was a prolific one for the brothers, as they produced more than sixty animated Inkwell shorts between 1921 and 1926, which were distributed by several studios, including Warner Bros.
But the Fleischers’ output didn’t stop there; in addition to the Inkwell cartoons, Max had begun to dabble in combining sound and animation in a series of shorts called Song Car-Tunes, beginning in 1924. While Walt Disney’s 1928 classic Steamboat Willie is generally recognized as the first cartoon to feature synchronized sound and music (even though Paul Terry’s Dinner Time technically premiered–and failed at the box office–more than a month before Willie), it’s important to note that the Fleischers were experimenting with the combination of animation and sound years before Mickey Mouse was created. The Car-Tunes soon employed a new gimmick created by either Dave or Max (there’s some dispute as to who actually came up with the idea)–the “follow the bouncing ball” routine. As the lyrics to a popular song appeared on the screen, the ball would bounce across the words to indicate the proper rhythm and cadence of the song, so viewers could follow and belt out the tune along with the rest of the audience. The first short to utilize the technique was the 1925 entry My Bonnie Lies Over the Sea, featuring the Scottish tune of the same name.
In 1927, Paramount made a deal with Fleischer Studios to distribute their cartoons. It would be a lucrative partnership. Out of the Inkwell became Inkwell Imps, producing over four dozen more Koko-starring shorts before being discontinued in 1929. Song Car-Tunes (which ended its run by the end of 1927) was then reborn as Screen Songs in 1929, and featured appearances by Paramount-contracted entertainers like Rudy Vallee, Cab Calloway (who also appeared in several other cartoons for the studio), and Ethel Merman. At the same time, Max and Dave collaborated on a new series of shorts called Talkartoons, in which Koko’s sidekick, Fitz (now rechristened Bimbo) became a star. Max’s preferred method of rotoscoping was eventually phased out in favor of more ambitious, stylized animation, led by the talented, young animators who flocked to the Fleischer studio, allowing Paramount to compete on the same level as animation giant Disney. And one of those fresh new cartoonists–Grim Natwick–produced Paramount’s first bona fide animated star in 1930, when Bimbo was given a girlfriend named Betty Boop.
Betty Boop wasn’t just popular; she was a phenomenon. Originally starting out as a canine companion to Bimbo, in 1932, Betty was made over into a human character, a flapper girl with naughty hemlines and a heart of gold. She sang and simpered her way through dozens of adventures–usually involving a lecherous threat to her treasured “boop-oop-a-doop.” By 1932, Talkartoons ceased to exist, and Betty was given her own series, with Bimbo and Koko as her frequent companions. She remained a popular figure and sex symbol until 1934; when strict enforcement of the Production Code took effect in July of that year, Betty’s hemlines were lowered, her overt sexuality was greatly tamped down, and the endearing naughtiness that made her cartoons so appealing was essentially gone. The Fleischers continued to produce Betty Boop cartoons through 1939, but the character never regained the same wild level of popularity that she had enjoyed in the early 1930s, and the series was finally discontinued.
In 1933, a Betty Boop short was used as a platform for the animated debut of a popular comic strip character, Popeye the Sailor. The comic strip depicted the love triangle between Popeye, his “goil” Olive Oyl (originally voiced by Mae Questel, who also voiced Betty Boop), and his rival, Bluto, a buff bully. The character immediately took off, and the Fleischers gave Popeye his own series two months later. As Betty Boop’s popularity waned, Popeye’s grew exponentially, and within three years, he was Paramount’s number-one animated star, even rivaling Mickey Mouse at one point as the most popular animated character in the world. Popeye was also notable for being one of the few cartoon characters to have his own theme song, which has remained a well-known tune since its introduction in the first Popeye short, I Yam What I Yam. More than one hundred black-and-white Popeye shorts were released between 1933 and 1939; between 1936 and 1939, the series also featured three double-length color features, which inserted the Popeye characters into the Arabian Nights tales.
Max Fleischer had long sought to secure funding from Paramount to create a feature-length animated film. But it was not until the groundbreaking success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that Zukor and company agreed to give the animator free reign to complete his dream project: an animated film based on Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels (but only the first part–the most famous part, featuring the tale of Gulliver’s encounter with the tiny Lilliputians). The catch? Fleischer’s film would have to be ready in time to be released at Christmas in 1939, and, more importantly, he would have to sign over the Fleischer Studios’ assets to Paramount in order to secure the loan–a move that eventually came back to haunt Max.
Paramount built a new animation studio for the Fleischers in Miami, and in 1938, they left New York and took up residence in Florida to complete the work on Gulliver’s Travels. In order to complete the film by Paramount’s imposed deadline, Fleischer Studios welcomed an influx of new artistic talent, and poached animators from Disney and other animation studios. The new team faced many issues, not the least of which was rivalry between different factions of animators within the studio, creating an air of discord throughout the film’s production. Still, despite these issues, Gulliver’s Travels was indeed completed on time and released by Paramount on Christmas Day, 1939. Though it was successful at the box office, however, it did not reach the same heights as its Disney-produced predecessor, and it did not quite recoup the costs of its production. The Fleischer studio had to swallow the loss.
In 1941, Fleischer Studios tackled another comic character, Superman, in a series of gorgeously-animated shorts. The Superman comic books were immensely popular, and Paramount salivated over the idea of cashing in on the superhero phenomenon. But the Fleischers were reluctant. The infighting among the animators had spread to Max and Dave; neither could stand to be in the same room with the other. On top of that, Paramount essentially owned the studio by this point, having called in its loans. And on top of that, they were finishing the production of their second animated feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town. The brothers decided the best course of action would be to overestimate the necessary budget for adapting the comic book, but Paramount agreed to their terms and they were forced to undertake the series anyway. The first cartoon in the new series, simply titled Superman, debuted in September of that year, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short.
Mr. Bug Goes to Town had the great, unforeseen misfortune of being released in theaters two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This essentially killed its chances at the box office; the film was an unmitigated flop. And it spelled the end for Fleischer Studios–Dave left to take control of Columbia’s animation division, Screen Gems, which put him in violation of the brothers’ contract with Paramount, and in return, Paramount forced the brothers out of their own studio and took full control. Fleischer Studios was renamed Famous Studios (in honor of Paramount’s origins), production was moved from Miami back to New York, and Max Fleischer joined the animation arm of the Jam Handy Corporation, producing military training films and eventually overseeing the 1944 animated version of the tale of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (which was re-released in 1948 with the addition of the popular Johnny Marks-penned song of the same name).
Without the Fleischer brothers, Paramount was unable to attain the same level of animated success. Famous Studios continued producing Fleischer creations Popeye, Screen Songs, and Superman, but the heyday of those series were soon behind them. Newly introduced characters such as Casper the Friendly Ghost and Baby Huey (whose adventures comprised a new series of cartoons under the heading of Noveltoons) were no match for Disney stars like Donald Duck and Goofy, or Warner Bros. stalwarts like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. In the mid-1950s, Paramount sold most of its pre-1950 animated library, excluding Popeye (which had been sold to Associated Artists) and Superman (for which Paramount’s rights had expired); many of those cartoons have been severely edited in the ensuing years, and most are now in the public domain in one butchered form or another. By the late 1950s, Famous Studios had been downsized into a smaller unit called Paramount Cartoon Studios, and the quality of production dropped steeply.
In 1967, a year after Gulf+Western acquired Paramount, the studio’s animation department was shuttered completely. By then, it was a pale ghost of what it had been under the Fleischers. But once upon a time, Paramount was a leader in the animation business, and the only serious challenger to the Disney conglomerate in the 1930s. Five Paramount-distributed Fleischer shorts appear on animation scholar Jerry Beck’s seminal 50 Greatest Cartoons list–Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (#17, 1936); Snow White (#19, 1933); Minnie the Moocher (#20, 1932); Superman (#33, 1941); and Bimbo’s Initiation (#37, 1931). It’s undeniable that, at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood animation, Zukor’s studio empire presented moviegoers with some seriously entertaining, beautifully-drawn, and thought-provoking cartoons–animated gems that are, to this day, recognized and celebrated for their intelligent composition and artistic value.
This post is our contribution to the Paramount Centennial Blogathon, hosted this week by The Hollywood Revue. There have been some great contributions in the past two days, so head on over there and check them out!