Today, September 26th marks the 70th anniversary of Fleischer Studios Superman Animated Shorts. Widely regarded as one of the definitive interpretations of the Man of Steel, this series of 10 minute animated shorts consisted of 17 Superman adventures, the first nine were produced by Fleischer Studios while the following eight instalments were produced by Famous Studios.
Fleischer Studios was founded in 1921 by Polish cartoonist Max Fleischer, and his younger brother Dave. The studio stood out among other animation companies thanks to their rotoscoping technique. Rotoscoping, invented by Max, allowed animators to trace over live action models, leading to a more fluid and realistic look in the movements of cartoon characters. They were also home of Betty Boop, one of the most popular cartoon creations of all time. In 1939, burdened by the censorship of the recently introduced Hays Code, the studio decided to put an end to their Betty Boop series. Instead they began to focus their efforts on making Popeye the face of their company.
It was around this time that Paramount Pictures, the company that distributed Fleischers cartoons, had acquired the rights to Superman. Knowing that using the character in live action movies may prove quite difficult and expensive they offered Superman to the Fleischers and assumed that the animators would jump at the chance to work on such a beloved property. They were wrong. Max Fleischer figured that doing a character such as Superman would require a much more advanced style of animation and a deeper more involved commitment to human anatomy unlike the talking cartoon animals they had been used to dealing with. The Fleischer’s quoted Paramount with a budget of close to $100,000 per episode which was a huge sum at the time for the medium. To their surprise Paramount agreed to a budget of $50,000, although half of what they were expecting was still a very good deal, especially compared to the $14,000 it cost per Popeye episode.
Dave began work on designing the streets and architecture of Superman’s home town of Metropolis and he drew a lot of inspiration from the art deco styling’s of the eponymous Fritz Lang science fiction movie. Superman himself was visually portrayed very close to his comic book counterpart. Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander were cast as the voices of Superman and Lois Lane. The two actors had previous experience voicing the characters from the incredibly popular Superman radio series for New York’s WOR radio station. Collyer brought with him his famous ‘This looks like a job for… Superman’ routine, in which he would lower his voice whenever Clark Kent would change into his superhero persona. This was a trick he developed during the radio show, to help listeners differentiate between both characters, it followed through to the animated short.
Produced by Max and directed by Dave, the first instalment was simply titled ‘Superman’ and was released in theatres on September 26th 1941. The story followed Superman as he attempts to rescue both Lois Lane and Metropolis from a mad scientist hell-bent on destroying the city with his lethal death rays. Lit, shot and scored like a live action film noir, the cartoon was incredibly impressive, the likes of which had never been seen in animation before. The short won critical acclaim as well as earning an Oscar nomination for best animated short.
Such was it’s success that Fleischer went to work on developing more adventures for the Man of Tomorrow. The second short ‘The Mechanical Monsters’ debuted on November 28th of the same year and featured Superman facing off against another mad scientist and his army of flying robots. It’s also the first and only time in this animated series that depicts Superman using his X-Ray vision. In the fourth short ‘The Artic Giant’ Superman came face to face with a giant Siberian lizard like monster who may have been an inspiration to Tomoyuki Tanaka when he created Godzilla twenty years later. Fleischer Studios would go on to make a total of nine separate Superman cartoons in the space of a year. Paramount soon made claim to Superman being their most profitable cartoon in their company’s history.
Unfortunately, tensions were growing among the Fleischer’s. Max and Dave’s relationship was beginning to strain. Their main rival Disney were getting ahead with their move into feature films. ‘Snow White’ proved to be so popular that the Fleischers had no choice but to compete with Disney. In 1939 the brothers produced an animated feature film version of ‘Gullivars Travels’. Unfortunately the film could not complete with Snow White, and in 1941, the Fleischers took another blow when their second feature ‘Mr Bug Goes To Town’ had the unfortunate and obviously unforeseen misfortune of being released two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Paramount decided to buy out Fleischer Studios with Max and Dave complying and handing in their letters of resignation. The remainder of their Superman cartoons continued to be distributed by Paramount up until August 28th 1942 with the release of ‘ Terror on the Midway’ the 9th and final Fleischer produced episode.
Now under Paramount’s control, the animation studio was renamed Famous Studios and was now under the leadership of Sam Buchwald, Seymour Kneitel and Isadore Sparber, all of whom had previously worked for the Fleischers. Not willing to let their biggest hit escape them amid the changeover, Famous Studios continued to produce new Superman adventures. The producers of these new shorts kept the same visual style, structure and voice cast. Cosmetically there was no huge difference between the Fleischer’s and Famous Studio’s Superman adventures, but story wise there was a change. Gone were the science fiction elements of earlier episodes. Superman was no longer battling monsters, robots and evil scientists, instead he was brought into World War II where he faced off against German soldiers and Japanese agents. It was all part of World War II propaganda. Superman was no longer a global protector, he was now upholding the American Way much like his comic book counterpart.
Famous Studios produced a total of eight Superman shorts before calling it a day. It has been suggested that they struggled to find suitable wartime tales for our hero without insulting the real solders out on the battlefield. It’s also said that they simply couldn’t afford to keep making these pictures and towards the end of their run you could see that they were lowering the budget. ‘Secret Agent’ the final Superman cartoon from Famous Studios arrived in theatres on July 30th 1943 just shortly after Paramount passed on renewing their rights to the character. In the end Superman had a healthy and successful two year run on the screen. Over twenty years later, in 1955 Paramount was under new management and saw no use for these outdated short cartoons so they sold all of Fleischers cartoons to television distributers for a very healthy sum of over $4,000,000. The saddest part of this story is that Paramount removed Max and Dave’s credits from the cartoons in this sale which prohibited them from receiving any royalties.
Paramount were so glad to be rid of these once profitable and popular cartoons that they never renewed the copyrights, and as a result the work of the Fleischers and their amazing team of writers and animators is now in the public domain. It was a sad end for the brothers but their legacy still lives on. Superman now stands alongside Popeye and Betty Boop as a symbol of the brothers who were amazing pioneers of animation. The rotoscoping method of animation is still used by special effects companies today, although oddly enough many people believe A-Ha’s classic ‘Take On Me’ music video to be the beginnings of that technique.
As much as Superman has helped maintain the Fleischer’s legacy, they have also been incredibly important to his. Their series is responsible for gifting Superman with the power of flight. The character as originally conceived in the comics, was not able to fly, but instead was only able to make giant leaps. When animating Superman, the Fleischers found that seeing our hero bounce around everywhere looked a little silly so they simply changed this and made him fly. This idea caught on instantly and is now so synonymous with Superman that it’s hard to believe it didn’t originate from his first appearance in the funny books. The cartoon is also notable for writer Jay Morton’s now famous introduction to the character. “Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap buildings in single bound…”. This intro became so popular that not only did it later become incorporated into the aforementioned Bud Collyer radio serial and the classic George Reeves live action television series but also into the fabric of popular culture.
The cartoons are amazing to watch, they still stand the test of time after all these years. Not only are they incredibly entertaining but they are also a nice reminder of Superman’s relevance throughout the ages. Seeing him fight flying robots and face off against Nazi’s are great little nuggets of history and times gone by. They are definitely worth your time whether you have a love for comics, cartoons or history. Below is the first Fleischer Superman short. Please check it out. It’s worth your time and it’s also worth remembering how important the Fleischer’s were to the world of entertainment.
This article was first posted on September 26, 2011