It's a Bird! It's A Plane! It's . . .
The Legendary 1940s Cartoon Shorts
by Don Charles Hampton
Ten minutes of screen time doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, but in 1941, it was more than enough to time to dazzle film critics and cause a sensation among the theatregoing public. The first animated version of Superman struck a perfect balance between fantasy and realism; the cartoon images displayed amazing subtlety and depth, and the onscreen action looked and felt true-to-life. When figures were in motion, you could practically hear the rustle of their clothing! The Fleischer brothers’ work had turned heads in the past, but nothing like this had ever been seen before. Who were Max and Dave Fleischer? They were talented graphic artists who enjoyed tinkering with machinery on the side. During the early days of filmmaking, they created a camera called the Rotoscope which miraculously mixed live-action photography with animation. In 1919, they inked a deal with animation pioneer John Bray to produce a groundbreaking series of silent cartoons called Out Of The Inkwell. Sold to Paramount Pictures, the series was so well-received that the Fleischers decided to found their own company in 1921. With Max as producer, Dave as director, and a cadre of eager young animators in tow (some of whom would later make names for themselves working for outfits like Disney and Warner Brothers), Fleischer Studios hit the ground running. For the next twenty years, it would crank out dozens of cartoon features for Paramount.
The Rotoscope camera wasn’t the Fleischer Brothers’ only innovation. One of their studio technicians invented a tiny rotating stage called a Setback which, when photographed with animation cels in front, created a three-dimensional effect on film. The Setback became a major element in what the brothers began calling their “stereoscopic” approach to making cartoons. By 1924, they had introduced the first talking cartoons. These early sound films were produced by the Fleischers as part of a series of animated musical shorts they sold during the mid-1920s. One of the vehicles for this talking ’toon format was a zany character called Betty Boop, a cartoon approximation of the short-skirted, dance-crazed young women called “flappers” who were currently generating much scandal in the news media. Spit-curled and wall-eyed, with a baby doll voice provided by singer Helen Kane, Betty became an enormous hit with the public; her string of very surreal and slightly risqué escapades delighted adults and children alike and continue to fascinate film historians. Fleischer Studios hit pay dirt again after negotiating the rights to animate one of King Feature Syndicate’s most popular newspaper strips, Popeye, The Sailor Man. Feature-length Popeye cartoons filmed in Technicolor won the brothers rave reviews. Innovative product kept their company afloat through the Depression years. During this period, the film industry honored the Fleischers with several Academy Award nominations, most notably for the cartoons Sinbad, The Sailor (1936), Educated Fish (1937) and Hunky and Spunky (1938). Their pièce de resistance and final Oscar nominee would be Superman, which Paramount Pictures licensed from National (now DC) Comics in 1940 and contracted with them to produce.
It would be the most expensive project Fleischer Studios ever tackled. Max and Dave reportedly engaged hundreds of artists, as well as several screenwriters, and they commissioned a full orchestral score from arranger Sammy Timberg. Superman’s co-creator and primary artist Joe Shuster submitted pencil tests for the animators to work from. The first short subject alone cost over $50,000, a whopping figure in the early ’40s. Subsequent shorts averaged $30,000. Bulging budgets like that would soon steer the studio on a road to bankruptcy. Even so, judging from the exceptional high quality of the ten features delivered to Paramount over the next twelve months, the money was well-spent. As Timberg’s rousing march-time music kept the excitement level mounting and eye-popping special effects leapt off the screen, Superman smashed robot monsters, battled giant apes, thwarted mad scientists and outwitted Nazi saboteurs. The Fleischers’ production values for this series set a towering standard that some believe has yet to be surpassed; even with the benefit of computer graphics, many of today’s movie cartoons look primitive in comparison. Artist’s perspective on the 1940s Superman is so realistic, the hues so vivid, and figure movement so lifelike, it often seems like you’re watching Technicolor scenes filmed on a Hollywood movie set. Moonlighting from his job portraying the Man of Steel on radio, future “To Tell The Truth” host Bud Collyer dubbed in the voices of Clark Kent and his amazing alter ego, dropping his pitch from tenor to baritone in the distinctive manner he became famous for. Joan Alexander brought a wry worldliness to her voice portrayal of reporter Lois Lane, and Jackson Beck (later replaced by Julian Noa) sounded convincingly gruff as Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet.
At roughly the same time they were spending massive amounts on Superman, Max and Dave Fleischer were also pouring money into a pair of feature-length animated movies. They hoped that Gulliver’s Travels and Mr. Bug Goes To Town would generate the same kind of profits that the 1937 blockbuster Snow White had generated for Walt Disney. Unfortunately, both films fell far short of financial expectations upon release, and by summer of 1942, the brothers found themselves drowning in debt. Right in the middle of production for Superman, their studio was forced to shut down. Paramount Pictures purchased the Fleischers’ interests, and starting with the October 1942 short subject “Showdown,” they took over production of the popular series. For the remainder of its run, Max Fleischer’s screen credit was replaced by the line "A Famous Studios Production", while a round robin of names replaced that of director Dave Fleischer. Hewing closely to the brothers' hit formula, screenwriters Seymour Kneitel, Dan Gordon and Izzy Sparber helmed the last seven features. The final one was released to theatres on July 30, 1943. By then, the Fleischer brothers had split up, some say acrimoniously. Dave went on to head the animation department at Columbia Pictures, and Max moved into production work for a distributor of corporate training films.
Superman soldiered on without them quite successfully. In the late '40s, Kirk Alyn became the first actor to portray the character in live action; with spunky Noel Neill as his Lois Lane, he headlined two Columbia movie serials. 1952 saw the debut of a smash hit television series starring the late George Reeves. In 1966, Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander returned to the voice booth and inaugurated a succession of Superman TV cartoons that's still going strong. There was also a short-lived Superman musical mounted on Broadway during this period. Between 1978 and 1987, the late Christopher Reeve donned the red cape in four blockbuster feature films produced by the Time Warner company. Since 1993, Superman has been a regular presence on primetime TV thanks to top-rated shows like "Lois and Clark" and "Smallville," setting the stage for the character's current big screen comeback in the person of Brandon Routh. Meanwhile, Max and Dave Fleischer's classic rendition of Superman has survived the passage of time and is now being appreciated by a new generation of fans. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a DVD collection! Chatsworth, California-based Image Entertainment now holds the rights to the Fleischer Superman series, and over the last two decades, the company has marketed several critically-acclaimed home video packages; the consensus among collectors is that their Diamond Anniversary Edition Complete Superman Collection from 1991 remains the best available. Retailing at less than $20.00, it makes an ideal gift for animators, animation buffs and/or Superman fans of any age. After you visit your local Cineplex and watch Superman return to the screen from wherever he’s been for the last two decades, why not see him at the beginning of his illustrious career? Sample the original excitement of 1940s audiences who saw Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s celebrated creation in living color for the first time.