Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we spotlight the revolutionary Superman serial from Fleischer Studios.
Superman was a sensation the moment he hit newsstands in April 1938. Action Comics #1 sold its 200,000 print run quickly, and subsequent issues boosted their distribution to a million copies each. Two years later, movie houses were thirsting to get the character on the big screen, but where Republic Studios failed to generate a live-action serial, Paramount Pictures secured the rights to produce seventeen cartoon shorts. They had an ace up their sleeve: Fleischer Studios, their animation division. All they needed to do was convince them to take on the task.
The Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, needed cash. While their first animated feature, Gulliver’s Travels, earned a tidy profit for Paramount, their contract penalized the Fleischers $350,000 for failing to maintain the production to its budget (they projected a cost of $500,000, but it easily surpassed $1.5 million). In addition, Paramount secured all the profits from foreign sales, leaving very little left for the animation house.
When Paramount brought them Superman, Dave Fleischer was not eager to adapt the wannabe Hercules in circus tights. Yes, they needed a hit, and they needed a hit’s bankroll, but Superman was too hot a property. The demand for the character required extravagant attention to detail and a lot of money — too much money to be profitable. So, expecting a total rebuke, Dave quoted the studio $100,000 per cartoon. They said…
Instead, Paramount came back with $50,000 for the premiere cartoon, $30,000 for the additional cartoons. Considering that the Fleischers cranked out Popeye shorts for half as much, saying no to Paramount was not an option. They got to work.
Max Fleischer brought a layer of reality to animation. He knew the medium could do more than cute animals and biologically distorted humans. Cartoons could explore truth, and they could mine recognizable emotions. Max idealized performance, and to inject it into the lifeless, a new tool was necessary.
The first animated films were rigid, unforgiving ventures. The characters moved in static bursts, unable to reproduce the fluidity of a flipbook. In 1915, Max Fleischer changed all that with the invention of rotoscoping.
Combining a projector and a transparent easel, Fleischer could trace over a motion picture image frame by frame, creating an unprecedented flow and rhythm to the movement of characters. While many scoffed at rotoscoping as a short cut, the technique stole great gobs of time from the artist. If the tracer deviated from the line in any way or misinterpreted a movement even in the slightest, the image would wiggle out of synch, destroying the uncanny realism.
When it came to animating Superman, however, many of his incredible feats could not be rotoscoped. There were no subjects who could leap tall buildings or lift cars above their heads. So, if Fleischer Studios was going to bend beyond their tried-and-true method, they might as well break the established rules of the characters. Leaping tall buildings is cool, but flying is even cooler.
The Adventures of Superman radio show, which premiered in 1940 (a year before the Fleishers began their shorts), did not worry itself with the comic book. It took the ideas established by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and ran with them, creating their own characters (Jimmy Olsen, Perry White) and MacGuffins (Kryptonite). Their liberty gave the Fleischers permission to run wild.
The Superman cartoons needed a big bang to kick off each episode. The Paramount logo fades from the foreground, leaving a bright, blue starry night sky. From the upper right, a streak of red and blue buzzes across the screen and out again. It returns and leaves and returns.
We hear one spectator from the ground below bellow, “Up in the sky, look!’ Another responds in glee, “It’s a bird!” Another citizen disagrees, “It’s a plane!” Then, the smartest of the bunch lands on the correct answer with a confident shout, “It’s Superman!” These four sentences may have belonged to the radio show, but the Fleischers brought thunderous punctuation to them when they climaxed the phrase with an electric red title card that seared into the popular imagination.
A brief introduction to the character opened every short, explaining Superman’s abilities and origins. “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” As with the flying, the cartoons gifted another piece to the canon. Both the radio show and the future television series picked up this mighty declaration of strength as their own.
The Superman shorts ran theatrically from 1941 to 1943. Before the series ever launched, tensions were already bubbling between the brothers (mostly spawned by an adulterous love affair that Dave had with his secretary). Dave left the company for Screen Gems, and Paramount eventually snatched control, booting Max to the curb and renaming the animation division Famous Studios — the banner of which flies before the last eight Superman cartoons.
The first batch of Superman shorts managed by the Fleischers are superb. They’re pulpy adventures in which the man of tomorrow battles evil scientists, jewelry-crazed flying robots, and dinosaurs run amuck. The Famous Studios Superman falls into predictable propaganda: Superman vs. Nazi pilots, etc. Adolf Hitler even manages to make a cameo.
Famous Studios merely towed the patriotic line. As did the comics. All comics.
With America’s entrance into World War II, the country rallied its troops, both real and fictional, to smash the Axis plague. As such, Superman appeared like any other superhero of the day, and attention wained. When Famous Studios finally pulled the plug, in 1943, they replaced the series with a much more comical Sunday Funnies hero, Little Lulu.
After Superman, Max Fleischer bounced around. He spent nearly a decade at The Jam Handy Organization, where he directed the seasonal favorite Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. When Paramount removed his credit from several of his films, he won a lawsuit against them. The victory led to a crusade against the studio, and he spent the last days of his life trying to reclaim the rights to his other cartoon creation, Betty Boop.
The money and the detail thrown at Superman by Paramount and the Fleischers elevate the shorts above all others of its day. Simply, nothing else looked like Superman. As a result, these seventeen animated films burned into the brain of those watching, and its influence is seen well beyond its comic book origins, shaping all manner of science fiction entertainment, from Hayao Miyazaki’s Castles in the Sky to Batman: The Animated Series to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
The Fleischers were wary of Superman. They had their passions and sought different avenues for their studio, but when they took a gig, they took a gig. Max and Dave threw everything into Superman, and their outsider, non-fan perspective pumped insight into an enterprise with decades still to grow. (
Remember the Fleischers when someone quotes a rulebook at you. When told, “Superman doesn’t fly,” they responded with a question, “Why not?” Then, they answered it with a legendary, redefining series of cartoons.