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Cartooning America: The Fleischer Brothers Story

A film by Kathryn Dietz & Asaf Galay

In the early 1900s, Max, Dave, Lou, Joe, and Charlie Fleischer were tinkering with gadgets and experimenting with techniques that laid the foundation for the modern animation industry. Their strength came from their diversity – each brother brought a unique talent to the team – and their ambition to succeed as a family of immigrants. They built the first rotoscope, which made cartoons actions fluid and believable. Their Out of the Inkwell series seamlessly blended animation with live action. Their subtly Jewish Betty Boop both excited and surprised viewers with her assertive sexuality. Popeye and Olive Oyl acted out the irreverent and rude humor of a Brooklyn immigrant neighborhood, and made it appealing to audiences across the country. America in the mid 1930s embraced the Fleischer ethos, and voted Popeye as their favorite cartoon character, surpassing even Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse.    

Today the Fleischers are nearly forgotten, while Disney is everywhere, the largest media company in the world. The Disney ethos of muscular men, innocent-looking maidens and happy endings has dominated American culture for over half a century. But what if history had taken a different turn? What kind of beauty norms, what kinds of ideas about immigrants, ethnicity and sexuality, would have become acceptable in American entertainment if the Fleischers had prevailed over Disney? And what have we lost, by erasing the grittier, funnier, and more fulsome characters and stories of the Fleischers?

We tell our story through interviews, archival film, cartoons, and original animations created in collaboration with the makers of the video game Cuphead. It covers the Fleischer brothers’ pathbreaking work in New York, and their move to Miami in the late 1930s after a prolonged labor strike. They transplanted employees, built a huge new studio, and created a sleek new Superman series and two feature films, Gulliver and Mr. Bug Goes to Town, while continuing to make Popeye and other new cartoons. Their distributor, Paramount, underwrote all of this. But expenses mounted, and a long simmering feud between Max and Dave became so bad that they stopped speaking. Mr. Bug was released just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and did poorly in its limited release. Finally, Paramount pulled the plug, closing down Fleischer Studios and taking over their assets. It was a swift and painful end to one of the most creative, eclectic, and entertaining family businesses in 20th century America.         

Here’s a special summer deal for anyone who would like another film by this director: 
Make a tax-deductible donation of $5 or more, and we will send you a password to watch “The Muses of Bashevis Singer.”
Enjoy, and thank you! 


Associated Members

Kathryn Dietz, Independent Filmmaker


We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation
City of Boston Arts and Culture