Fleischer Challenges Disney
A lot of viewers regard Max Fleischer Color Classics as the poor man’s Silly Symphonies. Paramount tried to sell their cartoon man as a possible successor to Disney’s throne, but one look at a few of these shorts, and you knew it wasn’t gonna happen. Max was great with Popeye and Betty Boop, and I’d challenge Walt to have done them better, but these Color Classics are all too clearly poaching on Disney’s Technicolor-ed preserves, and they generally come up wanting. To start with, Paramount couldn’t even use the three-color process. Disney had that locked up with an exclusive pact he’d made with Technicolor's people in 1932 when he launched his first color Symphony, Flowers and Trees. The deal was, nobody makes full-blooded Technicolor cartoons except Disney, and because of that edict, Fleischer had to go begging with whatever ragtag processes he could harness --- first Cinecolor (red and green only --- try topping Disney with that) and later Technicolor’s own, and very limited, two-color process, which by its name implied a limited palette. This might not be so bad given the original elements for proper DVD restoration. As it is, virtually all Fleischer's Color Classics long ago fell into the Public Domain, and now it's catch-and-catch-can for anyone wanting to gather them up for a re-viewing. As it happens, a team of dedicated animation archeologists, led by eminent cartoon historian Jerry Beck, have done just that --- unearthing the best available elements on these shorts and releasing same in a two-pack DVD that finally allows us to screen these rarities end to end. Having stumbled upon Paramount exhibitor manual ads this weekend for a visual aid, I decided to give the cartoons a look.
First of all, does anyone remember seeing these on TV back in syndication years? I actually do not. None crossed my path until I began collecting 16mm, and then were often as not black and white prints of indifferent quality and condition. I know N.T.A. (National Telefilm Association) distributed these for television, but none of our stations used them, and if they had, I dare say we'd have seen B/W prints (all our syndicated WB cartoons were that way until the late 60’s). When I finally scored a color Fleischer around 1980 (Christmas Comes But Once A Year), I thought it was interesting, but a little long, and not a patch on what Disney was doing around the same time (mid-thirties). All the Color Classics tend toward long, and in direct comparison with Silly Symphonies (I went back-and-forth between them a few times), they don’t really stand a chance. To be fair, we have to consider prints used for both (check out DVD frames shown here --- one from Fleischer’s Somewhere In Dreamland, the other from Disney’s Music Land). Disney has original elements, with their presentation impeccable. VCI (the Color Classic distributor) had, for the most part, 16mm prints gathered from collectors, rental houses, and archives around the world, a salvage operation necessitated by fact of the cartoon’s present owners' unwillingness to restore and release their property. VCI has done remarkably well all the same, and I'd certainly recommend their set. These Color Classics are said to have come back into the possession of Paramount after some fifty years of wandering between (ownership) winds. That’s good and bad, of course. Good for their having returned to the home lot, bad because Paramount has so far shown no interest in cartoons on DVD. Speaking of DVD cartoon collections, I’d cast a "yes" ballot for more audio commentaries like ones on the Color Classics set. Having listened to several, as well as ones on the Looney Tune collections, I’m struck by joyful and unabashed enthusiasm these experts bring to their narrations. They love cartoons, and their flights of rapture over Daffy, Porky, and the rest have done much to enhance my enjoyment of these shorts. It goes without saying I’m overwhelmed by the depths of their knowledge in that field, but best of all is fact they have such fun with cartoons, and it’s infectious.
These colorful ads for the Fleischer group were included in some of those lavish Paramount sales manuals designed to induce exhibitors to sign on with the studio’s season package. Much was at stake here, as individual contracts meant a showman’s commitment to run most of the studio’s output over the course of that year, so Paramount always put its best foot forward in these promotionals. I was lucky enough to come into possession of several account books which once belonged to a Paramount customer during 1937-38. This was a rural North Carolina exhibitor with a small house and no doubt smaller audiences, but he booked heavily with that company, as well as United Artists and RKO. These last two handled Disney product, and in fact, Walt’s transition from UA to RKO for distribution of his cartoons took place around this time. These ledgers are a treasure trove for me, as they show just how much this exhibitor spent in rentals at that time, as well as offering a comparison between cartoon prices for Paramount and Disney. For instance, a Silly Symphony through UA, Woodland Café, was $5.00 flat, while a later Donald Duck (Self-Control) through RKO got $5.25. Paramount took only $2.00 for a December 1937 booking of Christmas Comes But Once A Year, but that Fleischer Color Classic was by then an oldie, having come out the previous December, so terms were a little more favorable for this run. Otherwise, this theatre doesn't appear to have used the Color Classics, although they did book heavily on the Popeyes (I Like Babies and Infinks cost $4.86). The best money for cartoons from this venue seems to have been collected by MGM, whose Bosko and The Pirates got $6.65, while Bosko’s subsequent encounter with the Cannibals netted $6.95 for the Metro exchange. Just a lot of numbers for long-ago, and long forgotten, bookings --- but they give us some insight into the selling end of the cartoon business, at a time when such nickels-and-dimes as these kept small showmen, and big studios, afloat.