Honoring a Pioneer’s Memory: The Max Fleischer Cartoons Restoration Project

Jane Fleischer had always been told her grandfather was a genius, but was “completely unaware” of the role he played in animation history.

“I grew up thinking, ‘This man was my grandfather,’ and that’s all,” remembers Jane. “I remember my dad kept saying about my grandfather, ‘The guy was a genius.’ And I figured, everybody thinks their dad’s really smart. So I never really paid it any attention and never really understood it. I was really young when he was alive and competent. And then I got to know him when we brought him up to California. But by that time, he had Alzheimer’s, so I never got to know him as a person.”

American animator, inventor, film director, producer, and famous studio founder Max Fleischer is known for bringing iconic comic characters Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman to the movie screen. Max was also responsible for several technological innovations in animation, including the rotoscope – used in today’s TV series like Undone and well-known classics like The Little Mermaid – and “follow the bouncing ball,” used in sing-along musical specials.

Now, 50 years after the famous animator’s death, Jane is getting another chance to learn about and understand her grandfather with the Max Fleischer Cartoons Restoration Project, aimed at not only restoring the studio’s vintage cartoons, but getting them up on the big screen at theaters across the country.

With the support of her brother Mark Fleischer, current owner of Fleischer Studios, Jane is spearheading the project with Mauricio Alvarado, CEO of the vintage merchandise company Rockin Pins. The two will be presenting the project during a panel at San Diego ComicCon on Saturday, July 23.

“I do official merch for David Bowie and Black Sabbath and then I started doing pins for cartoons,” says Alvarado. “I was looking at a company like Funko, that’s selling all this vintage of Huckleberry Hound, but I didn’t see that they were investing in their context. So there’s a lot of kids saying, ‘Oh, that’s a cute character, but I don’t know who Huckleberry Hound is,’ or ‘I don’t know who Fred Flintstone is.’ So I was like, ‘Why doesn’t a company use their money to invest in screening this stuff? Why don’t we teach kids who Mighty Mouse is, who Felix the Cat is, who Grampy is, who Betty Boop is? Because, quite frankly, kids know Betty Boop as a fashion icon or fashion brand. They don’t know her as a cartoon character.”

He continues, “So, I thought, why don’t I hook up with someone from the Fleischers and say, ‘Hey, let’s see who owns this stuff. Let’s scan them. Let’s restore them. And let’s get them out there.”

Almost two years ago, Alvarado reached out to Jane, inquiring on the whereabouts of her grandfather’s cartoons and was shocked to hear that not only did Jane and her family not have possession of Max’s works, they also weren’t in the know about where they were located or how to find them.

“Back in 1942, when his company, Fleischer Studios, was closed, nobody thought these cartoons were particularly important,” says Jane. “And everything got scattered all over the world. And it was really hard back then to collect cartoons. You had to actually collect the film and store it somewhere. And it was just something not done.”

She continues, “Then, over time, with the internet, it’s a lot more accessible. So when Mauricio reached out to me and asked, ‘Do you have the cartoons?’ I thought to myself, ‘What a good idea.’”

In an effort to recreate Max’s cartoon library, Alvarado and Jane have been reaching out to the Library of Congress, archives in Europe and Canada, and private collectors, looking for the original copies of Max’s earliest series, Out of the Inkwell cartoons (1918-1929), like Ko-Ko the Clown. The duo is also working with the archive team at Paramount who have ownership of Max’s Talkartoons (1929-1932) – the first of Fleischer’s cartoons to feature sound – with Bimbo the dog and Betty Boop leading many of the stories.

Alvarado and Jane also aim to restore Max’s more widely known Color Classics (1934-1941). Also owned by Paramount, the Color Classics were a competitor to Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony musical short films and made prominent use of the Stereoptical Process, a device invented by Max that allowed animation cels to be photographed against 3D background sets. Some of what the team has restored can be viewed on their YouTube channel, Fabulous Fleischer Cartoons Restored.

Their biggest accomplishment is one of the Color Classics, Somewhere in DreamlandFleischer Studios’ first film in three-strip Technicolor which follows two impoverished children during The Great Depression who dream that they are in Dreamland, a place full of candy and ice cream.

Somewhere in Dreamland:

“Some have been just left in the vault, and some are deteriorating,” says Alvarado of the original Fleischer film. “We saw one of Max’s stop-motion films, sadly, all burned up. But we’re trying to save whatever we can. I’m a kid from the 90s, so I saw this stuff in VHS cassette, but none of it has been transferred to HD. And because it’s public domain, nobody’s there at Paramount saying, ‘Hey, let’s save all these cartoons,’ because they only have so much money in their budget. But, with Jane, we’re reaching out to Paramount and saying, ‘Give us the scans. We’ll scan them, we’ll restore them.”

While there are a couple Blu-rays out there of Betty Boop, one of Max’s most famous cartoons, Alvarado says they “weren’t done correctly.”

“Some of them are cropped, some of them are stretched out,” he says. “Honestly, we want to restore all of Max’s cartoons, even get the ones that they did put out on Blu-ray years ago. We’re used to these red, muddy, just awful prints. But our team at Paramount has done beautiful restoration on the Color Classics like The Cobweb Hotel and on Somewhere in Dreamland.”

The Cobweb Hotel:

The project’s lead restoration artist, Thad Komorowski, has been a “lifelong fan” of the Fleischer cartoons and jumped at the chance to be part of their restoration when Alvarado approached him.

“Mauricio reached out to me last year about his efforts to give the Fleischer cartoons more exposure in high-quality,” says Komorowski, who has previously worked on animation releases for labels like Kino Lorber (The Pink Panther) and Cartoons on Film (Felix the Cat). “Being a lifelong fan, author, historian, and collector of classic cartoons, I of course took a serious interest in his initiative to work with Paramount to do the work that should’ve been done decades ago.”

According to Komorowski, Max and his brother Dave Fleischer were responsible for bringing to life the “most real-to-life, richest, and of course funniest cartoons.” So when it came to approaching these very fragile pieces of film for restoration, Komorowski took immense care.

“It is also important to have someone who knows these films inside and out, which simply doesn’t happen on enough projects,” says Komorowski. “For example, I found that, at some point, someone cut out a whopping six seconds of a seminal Fleischer cartoon in the original camera negative. Fortunately, we’re working to correct that, but if it weren’t for a critical eye and historical knowledge, that might have gone out as is and done the film and fans a disservice.”

He adds, “Animation is unique in that a lot more can go wrong in the restoration process, specifically errant clean-up that mistakes the animation, linework, and backgrounds for damage and erases them. When we talk about how this needs to be looked at frame-by-frame, we aren’t kidding. Seeing screwed-up restorations that erase the linework and subsequent dismissals of even addressing the issue dismays me. How are future animators and cartoonists going to learn if all of the characters aren’t even there?”

Komorowski notes that – when it’s done by the right people that care deeply enough to do it right – restoration is a skill all film fans benefit from, whether or not they realize or care enough to notice.

“When restoration is performed by the right people, it helps these vintage titles be all they can be,” he says. “Looking after clean-up – the removal of dirt, lines, scratches, splice, etc. – image stability, color grading, sound quality and synchronization, using the correct elements and, most importantly, making sure you don’t do further damage in the digital realm, a lot of people will tell you it’s not important. But it is important, and vital, to film history.”

Alvarado has already hosted screenings of some of the fully restored cartoons at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood and The Yard Theater on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and is hoping to do more soon near Jane in the Bay Area. But, for future screenings, Alvarado and Jane are hoping to also have Blu-rays of the restored cartoons available for purchase exclusively at the screenings.

“If we put it on Amazon or at Best Buy, that magic is not going to be there. We want people to come out to the theaters and check this stuff out.”

As Alvarado and Jane continue to track down more Max Fleischer cartoons, Jane says that each film reel is like a treasure trove, leading her to more pearls of knowledge about her grandfather, his talent, and the humor that has been passed down in her family .

“It’s been amazing,” says Jane. “And, as I’m watching this stuff now, it is such a joy. There’s a huge sense of humor in his work. There’s a lot of snarkyness, with people always teasing each other and poking fun at each other. And it’s a real family trait. It’s how I grew up with my dad, and my brothers and my mother. It’s the same sense of humor there in the cartoons. It’s just amazing to me to be able to look at this and be a part of preserving all of that work and that effort.”

Some of the Ko-Ko cartoons actually feature Max himself interacting with the clown, such as accidentally giving his character a kink in the neck because the animator fell out of his chair.

“I see these pieces of footage from 100 years ago and it’s like, ‘That’s my grandfather,’” says Jane. “It’s really amazing.”

Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune:

Ko-Ko’s Kink:

For Alvarado, the project has also allowed him to pay homage to memories of watching Fleischer cartoons with his own father and hopes that reviving these works of art will remind viewers of their own loved ones.

“I lost my dad a couple years ago and he turned me on to this stuff,” says Alvarado. “I remember watching the really muddy versions of The Cobweb Hotel and of Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. Watching this stuff with my parents and my brother, it just means so much to me. And what I’ve realized through all this is how much it means to a lot of people in the world. It’s bigger than me. It’s not just silly cartoons. It helps people remember the people they love.”

He adds, “There’s a need to save this stuff. It’s nostalgic, it’s historic, it’s something that should be done. It should have already been done. But I’m glad that we’re finally doing it.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She’s reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at victoriadavisdepiction.com.

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