Max Fleischer Universe: Brother Dave Fleischer

Dave Fleischer, the Creative Soul of the Fleischer Studios…  

In addressing the phenomenon of legendary Max Fleischer and his pioneering animation empire, it is hard not to give the biggest of props to Max’s younger brother Dave — the listed director (although more often the actual producer, as the lead animators were often the main directors) of hundreds of Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell, Inkwell Imps, Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons.

He was known as an outrageous cut-up and wit, a shpritzer and a tummler as they say in Yiddish, in contrast to Max Fleischer’s dapper, upright and avuncular persona — and is credited as the chief gag-writer and basically show-runner of the studio’s influential and massive creative animation output during the Golden Age of Fleischer Studios.

Dave Fleischer  in the Chaplin-authored film "Trocadero" (1944)Dave Fleischer  in the Chaplin-authored film “Trocadero” (1944)

There were four  Fleischer brothers in all, originally hailing from Krakow Poland, sons of a Jewish tailor, who evinced notable creative sparks in their youth before emigrating to America in 1887 and growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. All were keen students of American popular culture, no more so than the two most famous Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave Fleischer.

In 1914, Max perfected the Rotoscoping process, tracing over live footage to produce a smoothly articulated animation, using his brother Dave as his model. Dressed in a clown’s suit and cavorting on camera in the Fleischer garage,  Dave “was” Koko the Clown, and became the living persona of this beloved character, after Max had created 2500 drawings and put in a year’s work on the cartoon. Max’s test reel was the most impressive innovation in animation history for the time, and duly received a US government patent in 1915.

Dave Fleischer in Koko the Clown get-up for the first rotoscoped cartoon 1914

Dave Fleischer in Koko the Clown get-up for the first rotoscoped cartoon 1914

These Koko the Clown cartoons became very popular during the silent film era as part of the Fleischer’s early Out of the Inkwell series, transitioning into the early sound cinema. Here’s one of the best, 1919’s “The Tantalizing Fly” featuring Max Fleischer himself on camera and his brother Dave rendered as the Koko the Clown cartoon character:

And here is “Koko’s Earth Control,” the most avant-garde of the Out of the Inkwell series (re-titled Inkwell Imps eventually):

FYI, I have performed a live National steel guitar soundtrack live to this most psychedelic and apocalyptic of all the early Fleischer cartoons:

Gary Lucas performing with his 1926 National steel guitar a live soundtrack to "Koko's Earth Control" at the AFI Silver Theater Feb. 2016

Gary Lucas performing with his 1926 National steel guitar a live soundtrack to “Koko’s Earth Control” at the AFI Silver Theater Feb. 2016

Segueing into the sound-driven era of racy, quasi-adult-themed early Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons,  madman Dave inexorably became the creative soul of the Fleischer Studios cartoon enterprise, tirelessly driving his animating team to achieve new heights of innovation in design and story lines, spontaneously inventing new gags and bits of business on the spot that make these cartoons the ne plus ultra of hip, gritty, and sophisticated animated fare while maintaining a kind of wily NYC-based Jewish street-smarts (the Fleischer Brothers did hail from Brownsville Brooklyn after all, home of infamous Jewish tough guys Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Abe “Kid Twist” Reles). If Dave was the creative soul of the organization, Max was definitely the heart as the composed gentlemanly public face of the company.

Dave Fleischer, composer Sammy Timberg, and Lou Fleischer, head of Fleischer Studios Music. Dept., at the piano

Dave Fleischer, composer Sammy Timberg, and Lou Fleischer, head of Fleischer Studios Music. Dept., at the piano

Max Fleischer’s ongoing feuds with his brother Dave are the stuff of legend, the result of two temperamentally mis-matched siblings trying to run a creative enterprise together. When Fleischer moved their operation outside Miami in the late 30’s to begin work on their first feature-length animation “Gulliver’s Travels” (a success d’estime and a critical hit, including a rave review in the NY Times — but bombs-ville with the paying audience — although stories of under and non-reported overseas and domestic box-office receipts on this and other Fleischer meisterwerks continue to haunt the Fleischer narrative), they took out a hefty 2 million dollar loan from their distributor Paramount to finance the move south and set up shop in a spiffy new animation complex the size of a full city block:

Fleischer new animation complex

From all accounts, Dave was a complete handful and a thorn-in-the-side to his straight-laced brother Max during this southern sojourn, and legends of Dave’s personal stock ticker-tape machine in his office, adulterous affair with his secretary, and frequent trips to the track further compounded their communication breakdown, resulting in the brothers not speaking to each other in Miami.

Word eventually filtered back to the Paramount front office, and, with “Gulliver’s Travels” tanking in theaters, in a bloody coup Paramount called in their 2-milliion dollar marker about 8 years earlier than had been promised to the hapless brothers.

With the Fleischers unable to make their payroll (their sizable workforce included veteran animators from NYC and Disney’s operation on the West Coast, as well as wet-behind-the-ears kids straight out of Miami art-schools), Paramount swooped down and re-organized the company as Famous Studios. Max, heart-broken, up and left straightaway in Dec. 1941, while Dave lingered on to oversee completion in Hollywood of their second animated feature, “Mr. Bug Goes to Town”:

Dave Fleischer overseeing animated rendering of one of the models deployed for "Mr. Bug Goes to Town" (1941)Dave Fleischer overseeing animated rendering of one of the models deployed for “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” (1941)

Dave stayed in LA to become president of Screen Gems for Columbia Pictures, followed by a stint at Universal, while Paramount re-organized Fleischer Studios as Famous Studios under animator Seymour Kneitel and other key production people, who oversaw completion of their excellent “Superman” cartoon series.

In 1969 Dave Fleischer retired to Woodland Hills Ca., where my former mentor Captain Beefheart’s legendary “Trout Mask Replica” album was rehearsed and partially recorded that same year in a little cabin in the woods not that far from Dave’s retirement home.

I like to think that some of Dave’s creative genius seeped into fellow creative art genius Don Van Vliet (a/k/a Captain Beefheart) by proximity.

Dave Fleischer died of a stroke on June 25th 1979 — an animation pioneer who should be a lot better known today.


–Gary Lucas for Classic Movie Hub

Dubbed “one of the best and most original guitarists in America” (Rolling Stone), Gary Lucas is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer, and an international recording artist with over 25 solo albums to date. As a fan of classic cinema, Gary tours extensively, playing live accompaniments to legendary horror films including Dracula, Frankenstein, and Vampyr among others. He has also recently released two classic-related albums: “Gary Lucas’ FLEISCHEREI: Music from Max Fleischer Cartoons” featuring 2015 Tony nominee Sarah Stiles as Betty Boop, and “Cinefantastique,” a collection of themes and incidental music from classic films, ranging from South Pacific to Psycho! You can learn more about Gary at or by following him on twitter @lucasgary.


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2 Responses to Max Fleischer Universe: Brother Dave Fleischer

  1. Thanks, it was a good read.

  2. Gary Lucas says:

    thanks and glad you enjoyed it Ismael

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