Walt Disney and Max Fleischer: bitter cartoon rivals turned New York lunch buddies.
Walt Disney was not always the avuncular figure he presented on his weekly television series; nobody could be. At various times in his life, Walt was a chain smoking, hard drinking, mood swinging, credit hogging workaholic who was intimidating, demanding, and unappreciative as a boss. He was an easy mark for red baiters, and he wasn’t above holding a grudge. But Walt could also be a warm friend, a loyal employer, a quietly generous man, and someone prepared to mend fences. And once, he forged a friendship out of an old and bitter rivalry.
Hollywood wasn’t yet the movie capital of the world when Walt Disney arrived in 1923, and it certainly wasn’t a magnet for cartoonists. To the extent that animation was a major business in the 1920s, it was centered in New York. Early cartoon pioneers Winsor McCay, Pat Sullivan, and John Randolph Bray set up their studios there. Characters like Gertie the Dinosaur and Felix the Cat popularized animation as a novelty on a theatrical program, but they weren’t achieving much more than that. While the original Gertie film shows a clear personality, many early cartoons were more concerned with simple gags predicated on animation’s ability to do anything. The movement of these films was often inconsistent and herky-jerky. Bray Productions’ Koko the Clown was an exception, due to the brothers Dave and Max Fleischer.
Dave and Max were captivated by a screening of McCay’s Gertie in 1914 and began experimenting with animation shortly after. Max was, among other talents, an inventor, and he devised what we now know as the rotoscope, a system for projecting live action footage so that the animator could trace the movement. The first Koko cartoons were created as a demonstration for the rotoscope, with Dave as the model for the clown. While rotoscoping is sometimes looked down upon in animation circles, the system did allow for much more fluid movement than anything seen up to that time. The Fleischers’ early experiments became the Out of the Inkwell series. Its popularity was such that when Bray Productions hit financial trouble, Max and Dave were able to take Koko with them to set up business for themselves.
Besides the more lifelike motion of Koko, Out of the Inkwell’s chief attraction was another novelty: combining live action and animation. Max Fleischer would draw Koko, and he would interact with his creator and get up to mischief in the “real” world. By the time Walt Disney began tinkering with animation in the early 1920s, Koko and the Fleischers were respected names in the cartoon field. And when Walt’s Kansas-based Laugh-O-Gram Studio began to falter, Walt’s instinct was to take the live action/animation gimmick of Out of the Inkwell and invert it, putting a live action girl into a cartoon environment. The resulting film, “Alice’s Wonderland,” attracted the eye of distributor M.J. Winkler, and the Alice Comedies were the first series Walt undertook when he went west and, with older brother Roy Disney, formed the Disney Brothers Studio – later to become Walt Disney Productions.
A passion for animation, a willingness to experiment and innovate, and partnering with their siblings were superficial parallels between Walt and Max, but the two men came from very different worlds. Max Fleischer was a Jewish immigrant from Krakow who came of age in New York City; Walt Disney was born and raised in the Midwest. Max was given a job by Bray in the then-epicenter of American animation, while Walt stumbled onto it while working for a film ad company and was largely self-taught. Max was the second oldest of his siblings; Walt was the second youngest. From their youth, Walt’s relationship with Roy was that of the kid brother with a protective but indulgent babysitter, and while the two had furious disagreements over the years, they remained close all their lives and put up a fierce united front against outside opposition. They also came to have clearly demarcated responsibilities at the studio, Walt on the creative end and Roy in business matters. Max and his younger brother Dave each kept a hand in the two halves of show biz (and ultimately proved inept at the “biz” half) and ended their personal and professional relationship amid a bitter family dispute in the 1940s.
As the two studios prospered, their subject matter and approach to animation came to be even more disparate than their namesakes. Koko may have been their first star, but the Fleischers won their greatest fame through Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor. Both characters made their homes in working-class New York, though their films took them around the world. Betty’s cartoons featured unashamed sexuality and urban sensibilities, often functioning as proto-music videos for jazz musicians like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. Popeye, originally a comic strip character created by E. C. Segar, gloried in slapstick and violence. As improvements in animation eliminated the need to use the rotoscope for fluidity, the Fleischer films often veered into surrealism, perhaps best exhibited by the Betty Boop short “Snow-White.” Walt, through the Mickey Mouse series, presented a more innocent and wholesome character, not adverse to slapstick or mischief when appropriate, but unabashedly unsophisticated. His Silly Symphonies series offered a dedicated testing ground for techniques, moods, personalities, and styles, though Walt ultimately pushed his animators to achieve more convincing imitations of life as opposed to the unreality of the Fleischer films.
Decades before Pixar and DreamWorks, it was the Fleischers that offered Disney its greatest competition for animation dominance, and for Max, the rivalry was heated. “My father did not like Walt Disney,” his son Richard Fleischer recalled. “He always felt Walt Disney was a young upstart who started his career by imitating my father – which is true.” Besides flipping the Out of the Inkwell concept on its head, Walt and his studio won acclaim for introducing sound to animation with “Steamboat Willie” despite Fleischer Studios’ 1926 short “My Old Kentucky Home” having used sound two years earlier (albeit with more primitive equipment, and less successfully). Walt beat Max to using the three-strip Technicolor process for animation, he hired away top Fleischer animators, and although Max fought his distributor Paramount Pictures to make a full-length animated feature since the early 1930s, independent Walt Disney made that feat of cinema history with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While the two men never met in the 1930s, animation legend has it that upon hearing his rival’s name, Max couldn’t help but mutter “that son of a bitch.”
The competition led the Fleischers to move shop to Florida, in part to lure away Disney artists from sunny California. When they won the chance to make their own cartoon feature, Gulliver’s Travels, the film’s sensibility owed much more to Disney and Snow White than the Fleischers’ own work. A creeping imitation of Disney bled into their short product as well, to the detriment of quality and the reputation of the studio. A brief reprieve from this decline came when a Superman series offered an exciting new direction, but financial difficulties, tensions between Max and Dave, and the disruption of World War II that hobbled Disney proved fatal to the Fleischer Studio. Paramount took control from Max, rechristened the operation Famous Studios, and sent the Fleischer brothers on their way.
Cast aside from his own studio, Max Fleischer wrote, taught, and produced industrial films. His hated rival Walt Disney weathered World War II and the unstable remainder of the 1940s to spring back into the big time with Cinderella. By then, Walt’s interests had shifted, and his studio had diversified by entering live action production. Their first film shot entirely in live action in the United States was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And as pre-production began, Walt asked a young, up and coming director to take a meeting with him: Max’s son Richard Fleischer.
“So I came in, and there I saw my father’s nemesis,” Richard remembered, “and he offered me 20,000 Leagues to do…the biggest picture they had ever attempted to make.” It was a tremendous opportunity, but Richard told Walt, “I really can’t accept this without talking to my father about it first, because I wouldn’t want him to think that I was somehow being disloyal to him by working for you.”
“I understand completely,” said Walt. “Why don’t you call your father and talk it over with him?”
For all the animosity he had harbored for Walt Disney over the years, Max’s answer was immediate. “You must do that picture,” he told Richard. “You didn’t have to call me to ask me…it’s absolutely vital for you…but I have a message I’d like you to give to Walt Disney.”
“What is that?” asked Richard.
“You tell Walt,” said Max, “he’s got great taste in directors.”
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea became one of the most expensive movies ever made up to that time. The fight to create a convincing battle with the giant squid became a legendary struggle against the limits of practical effects. Richard Fleischer’s efforts delivered Walt a critical and commercial smash hit in 1954, but its production brought a more human reward. During filming, Max Fleischer and his wife traveled out to California for their wedding anniversary. Walt asked Richard to invite his father to visit the Disney studio, and personally conducted Max on a tour. A number of former Fleischer animators were assembled for lunch with their old boss, even taking a signed photo. The old rivalry was gone – more than gone. “Walt and my father became very good friends,” said Richard. “And whenever Walt Disney came to New York, he always called my father and took him to lunch. So it had a happy ending, that story.”
“If I had my older career when I was young, as an old man, maybe I can have a young filmmaker’s career.”
William Fischer is a writer, artist, and filmmaker from Nebraska, currently studying animation in Ireland while writing for Collider. His art and short stories have appeared in “Intergalactic Medicine Show,” “Bards and Sages Quarterly,” and “Another Realm” e-zine. Outside the arts, William enjoys cooking, baking, and fencing (Olympic saber and rapier).
Walt Disney and Max Fleischer: bitter cartoon rivals turned New York lunch buddies.