VCI Home Video // 2003 // 270 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // March 23rd, 2004
The definitive collection!
Highly acclaimed upon their original release, the 36 shorts that make up Max Fleischer's unique Color Classics series have, in recent times, not received the proper respect from historians. Through TV and public domain video exposure, the shorts have remained in the public eye. Now VCI Entertainment, in association with Kit Parker Films, has issued 35 of these classic shorts in a two-disc set.
A Brief History of the Fleischer Studios
After a successful career as a newspaper cartoonist, Max Fleischer joined Popular Science Weekly, which satisfied his love of gadgetry and scientific novelties. It was during this tenure that Fleischer got the idea to create animated cartoons. He invented the rotoscope, an invention that filmed live action footage from which animation could be traced. With his brother Dave, Fleischer made Out of an Inkwell (1918). It was the screen debut of Koko the Clown, the first animated film star (who would become a sidekick for Betty Boop). Paramount Pictures liked what they saw and signed the Fleischer brothers to a long-term contract. Their Koko film series lasted until 1929.
It was during that period, 1924 to be exact, that Max Fleischer began to experiment with sound in his cartoons. Utilizing his rotoscope, he created the Screen Song film series. These cartoons often blended live action and animation. A popular song of the day would be performed as the centerpiece, with a large bouncing ball encouraging the audience to sing along. Critics dismissed the sound cartoons as a novelty. Thus, it was Walt Disney who received credit for the first sound cartoon in 1928 with Steamboat Willie.
In 1930, the Fleischer Studios made their first serious reputation with the creation of Betty Boop. The first Boop cartoon, Dizzy Dishes, became a smash. Betty remained popular until the mid-1930s, when the Production Code forced the shorts to be radically toned down. By then, however, the Fleischers had a new ace up their sleeves -- the celluloid debut of Popeye the Sailor.
Things changed in 1934 when Walt Disney won the Oscar for the first color cartoon, Flowers and Trees. Max, sensing a movement, created his own series of color cartoons, titled Color Classics. Through 1941, the Fleischers made 36 unique visions.
After two ambitious and brilliant feature-length animated films that proved financial disappointments at the box office, the Fleischers were ousted from Paramount. Max would produce and direct one final short, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, before retiring in 1944. Dave would continue directing until 1948's Famous Studios production, Base Brawl. He then became a songwriter and composer.
Before I begin, I'd like to talk a little bit about how I discovered the Fleischer shorts. Seventeen years ago, my mother gave me -- for Valentine's Day -- a video tape. It was one of those public domain tapes that were then starting to become popular. I remember it like it was yesterday. I popped that Little Lulu tape into the VCR and was hooked. It was from the Famous Studios period (1943-59) and it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Over the next eight years or so, my collection grew and grew.
So where am I going with this? Well, on these tapes, while famous characters like Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, and Heckle & Jeckle were prominently featured, a Max Fleischer Color Classic or a Noveltoon (another series from the Famous Studios era) would usually be thrown in as an afterthought. These unique cartoons were always something special. And that's how I learned about Max Fleischer.
Max Fleischer was an animator who has never received the credit he deserves. His inventions, the rotoscope and the stereo-optical printer, were ahead of their time. They became cornerstones for various animators many decades later, most notably the Bronx-born animator Ralph Bakshi. Fleischer created sound cartoons long before Disney did. He experimented with black humor in cartoons long before it became fashionable to do so. His cartoons reflect an optimism and sophistication that have gone over too many people's heads. Fleischer included an incredible amount of detail and textures that many of his contemporaries did not bother with. His quick exit from Paramount and the subsequent sale of his cartoons to television have done damage to Fleischer's once-formidable reputation.
Here are a few things to look for when watching a Fleischer cartoon:
* A sense of optimism. Disney shorts usually ended with the villain getting his comeuppance via death or destruction. Max Fleischer always opted for redemption (Little Dutch Mill), dislocation (The Cobweb Hotel, The Great Vegetable Mystery), or some other non-lethal resolution.
* Black humor. The Fleischers loved to sprinkle their cartoons with bizarre comic touches. An example is Poor Cinderella, when the pumpkin expresses his gratitude for not being made into pie.
* Dark tones. There is some very dark material to be found in some of these shorts, an antidote to the innocence of Disney's shorts of the period.
* Consistent color shades. The early Color Classics were made in CineColor, a two-tone color system based in shades of red and green. Even with the switch to Technicolor in 1936, pay close attention and you will notice that all the colors are variant shades of each other.
* Three-dimensional backgrounds. Contrary to popular belief that 3D animation arrived with the Pixar films, Max Fleischer and his brother Dave were the first to experiment with the format. They built real backgrounds, filmed them on rotating table and then did their animation right on top of the image. It was quite revolutionary for the time, and in a way it still is.
A brief note before we discuss the shorts featured in our program. Thirty-six shorts were made between August 1934 and January 1941. Production was halted when the Fleischers made a stab at the animated full-length feature market with Mr. Bug Goes to Town (later retitled Hoppity Goes to Town). The film failed miserably at the box office. After eight expensive ($100,000 per short) Superman shorts, Paramount decided to let the Fleischers go. Max left things in the capable hands of his son-in-law Seymour Kneitel, who renamed the unit Famous Studios and continued to make high-quality shorts until Paramount shut down the animation department for good in 1959.
Meanwhile, in 1955, Paramount sold most of its animation catalog to the UM&M TV Corporation. The original Paramount logos were cut from the negatives, as were the opening title cards, replaced with a new credits sequence featuring bland yellow lettering on a red background. This practice ended in 1957, only to be replaced by an even worse system. A bland NTA logo was substituted for the Paramount logo, but the original credits were retained. Those original title cards underwent some changes. All references to Paramount were eliminated from the prints, either by blacking out the words or physically burning them from the frame. The end result looks like crude letterboxing.
What VCI and Kit Parker have done is give these shorts back their dignity. The original Paramount logo has been restored to the beginning and end of each of these shorts. They have also restored the original title cards where possible. Sadly, some of these no longer exist, so new opening credits in the same style and format have been created and added to these prints. They don't look perfect, but at least they have been restored as close to their original state as technology allows.
Thirty-six shorts were produced in the Color Classics series. All but one of these are featured in this collection. The missing cartoon, 1938's Tears of an Onion, is one of the few Fleischer shorts whose rights are still held by Paramount. Four shorts are presented in the accompanying documentary on Disc Two. (Those shorts were the last to be located and were considered too poor to restore. Can I get a collective huh?) The remaining 31 shorts are spread over two discs. Like my review of the Looney Tunes set, I will be using a scale of zero to four stars, since these were first shown theatrically.
* Poor Cinderella, released August 3, 1934
Betty Boop makes her debut in two-tone CineColor. The result is a stylish adaptation of the classic fairy tale laced with offbeat black humor. For years, this short was only available in black and white, due to the 16mm kinescopes used for public domain distribution. Rating: ****
* Little Dutch Mill, released October 26, 1934
A cantankerous miser lives in the title mill, as two Dutch kids are about to discover first hand. Rating: ****
* An Elephant Never Forgets, released December 28, 1934
In the deep jungle, a sweet elephant is tormented by his classmate, a surly gorilla. Rating: ****
* Song of the Birds, released March 1, 1935
A young bird is learning how to fly on his own, unaware of the boy pointing a BB gun at him. Rating: ****
* Dancing on the Moon, released July 12, 1935
For one dollar per couple, newlyweds can celebrate their honeymoon on the actual crater-pocked surface of our silvery friend. Rating: ****
* Somewhere in Dreamland, released January 17, 1936
Two poor kids dream of a magic land loaded with new clothes, never-ending sweets, and loads of fun for all. This is the very first Fleischer short made in three-strip Technicolor, opening up a wide palette of colors not present in previous shorts. Rating: ****
* The Little Stranger, released March 13, 1936
A mother duck hatches four eggs, resulting in three ducklings and one baby chick. Rating: ****
* The Cobweb Hotel, released May 15, 1936
Flyweight champion I. Fly and his wife check into the Cobweb Hotel, unaware of the bloodthirsty proprietor. Rating: ****
* Greedy Humpty Dumpty, released July 10, 1936
Convinced the sun is pure gold, Humpty Dumpty forces the citizens of Mother Goose Land to build a giant tower to the sun. Several frames have been restored to the ending, placing the soundtrack and visuals in perfect synch. Rating: ****
* Hawaiian Birds, released August 28, 1936
Dumped by his girlfriend for a Big City Oriole, a young Hawaiian bird goes to the city in search of her. Rating: ****
* Play Safe, released October 16, 1936
Infatuated with trains, a young boy ends up getting too close to the real thing. Rating: ****
* Christmas Comes But Once A Year, released December 4, 1936
Grampy decides to cheer up a group of crying orphans by playing Santa Claus. This short has become a Christmas perennial during the last 20 years. Rating: ****
* Bunny Mooning, released February 12, 1937
Jack Rabbit has proposed to Jill Rabbit and their neighbors throw a lavish wedding. Beware of a bastardized version floating around in the public domain, retitled The Easter Bunny's Getting Married! -- a horrible new soundtrack has been laid onto the original short. Rating: ****
* Chicken A La King, released April 16, 1937
Dissatisfied with his harem of plucky hens, a swami rooster desires Ducky Lucky, a Mae Westesque duck. This short is disappointing compared to the brilliance and detail of the previous shorts. Rating: **
* A Car-Tune Portrait, released June 26, 1937
The animal orchestra's annual concert quickly turns to chaos, thanks to some mischief.
* Peeping Penguins, released August 26, 1937
The birds who cannot fly instead frolic and play the only way they know how in the subzero Antarctic. Several frames are still missing, even in this reconstructed version.
* Educated Fish, released October 29, 1937
A schoolteacher tries to teach her class how not to get hooked. Rating: ***
* Little Lamby, released December 31, 1937
By staging a fake beauty pageant, a wily fox hopes to snag the baby lamb he desires for his supper. An entire sequence, showing the animal mothers preparing their kids for the pageant, has been restored for this presentation. Most other public domain prints omit this sequence. Rating: ****
* Hold It! released April 29, 1938
The neighborhood cats invent a great new game, much to the chagrin of a local dog and several irate neighbors. Rating: ****
* Hunky and Spunky, released June 24, 1938
A mother donkey attempts to teach her son how to bray, unaware of the peasant lurking about. Rating: ***
* All's Fair at the Fair, released August 26, 1938
A farmer and his wife visit the World's Fair, drinking in the futuristic sights and innovations -- and rediscovering their love at the same time. Rating: ****
* The Playful Polar Bears, released October 28, 1938
A young polar bear runs into hunters while chasing a fish down the freezing waters. Rating: ****
* Always Kickin', released January 26, 1939
Hunky attempts to teach Spunky kicking for self-defense, which will come in handy against that evil buzzard. Rating: ****
* Small Fry, released April 21, 1939
This is a follow-up to Educated Fish. Small Fry, a young schoolfish, skips class in favor of hanging out in a local pool hall, in hopes of becoming a Big Fry. Rating: ****
* Barnyard Brat, released June 30, 1939
All the barnyard animals beg Hunky to punish Spunky, whose behavior has been awful.
* The Fresh Vegetable Mystery, released September 29, 1939
The mysterious Claw Creature kidnaps mama Carrot and her babies. The local law, comprised of potatoes, attempts to rescue them. Rating: ****
* Little Lambkins, released February 2, 1940
Torn from his home in the country, Little Lambkins is determined to convince his parents to leave their new city home. It may take a few special "repairs" to do it! Rating: ****
* Ants in the Plants, released March 15, 1940
A colony of ants must protect themselves against a persistent anteater. This short was remade by Famous Studios as We're In the Honey, substituting bees and a bear for the main characters. Rating: ****
* A Kick in Time, released May 17, 1940
Spunky is taken from his mother and sold to a cruel junk leader. Rating: ***1/2
* Snubbed by a Snob, released July 19, 1940
Spunky befriends a young filly, much to the chagrin of her father, who insists that horses should not associate with donkeys. Rating: ***
* You Can't Shoe A Horsefly, released August 23, 1940
Spunky is pestered by an annoying horsefly, which will not leave his potential meal ticket.
The full frame transfers are uneven in quality. As Beck explains in his liner notes, the source material varies from short to short. Some cartoons were transferred from original 35mm copies, and those shorts look terrific. There are scratches and specks, but that is due to the fact that these are copies and not original negatives -- copies sometimes tend to have these defects permanently burned into the image, due to the primitive duplication process called "dry printing." Others were culled from 16mm dubs that are, needless to say, subpar in quality. VCI and Kit Parker have done the best they could to undo the damage and clean them up, but the transfers still look mediocre at best. The Great Vegetable Mystery looks particularly awful as does The Cobweb Hotel. (I've seen better public domain copies of that short, but then again that was over fifteen years ago and on VHS to boot.)
Despite these negatives, I still praise VCI for making the effort to preserve these shorts. First, Lord knows Republic/Artisan aren't doing squat in terms of restoration. Second, even the 16mm prints used here have truer, bolder colors than many of the public domain prints I have seen over the years. For example, the public domain VHS copy of Kids in a Shoe I own has an amber tone that never leaves. VCI's presentation is clean and shows accurate color.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. I praise VCI for resisting the temptation to alter the soundtracks through added music and sound effects to create "stereo" sound, as Winstar did with their Max Fleischer discs. VCI has given the tracks a digital scrub, some with spectacular results (Poor Cinderella and Christmas Comes But Once A Year both sound near perfect) and others sounding quite poor (Peeping Penguins, Hold On, and The Cobweb Hotel all retain crackling sounds, and some shorts, such as A Car-tune Portrait, are missing musical cues). Still, you will be able to understand the music and dialogue, and you won't have any serious problems with your sound system. (In short, you'll be able to keep it set at one volume throughout the two discs.) I offer high marks for just making the effort to get the sound as clean and professional sounding as possible under the circumstances.
And as the icing on a very satisfying cake, VCI has included some terrific, invaluable extras. We start with Max Fleischer's Color Classics: The Lost Episodes. This 40-minute documentary presents four Color Classics shorts that were thought to be goners. Very poor prints were miraculously located and new 35mm copies were struck. There is not much in the way of restoration, but through their efforts, accessible copies are now available to us. The four shorts, on a scale of zero to four stars, are:
* The Kids in a Shoe, released May 19, 1935
The classic nursery rhyme is turned upside down with the Fleischer trademark black humor. The kids form a rockabilly band while their mama is asleep, since -- as one of them puts it -- "my mama won't allow no music played around here!" Rating: ****
* Time for Love, released September 6, 1935
Only located in a 16mm black and white kinescope, this lovely masterpiece still holds up as a beautiful heartwarming classic. A young swan is jilted by his love for a hunky black feathered swan, but he will not give up on true love winning out in the end. Rating: ****
* Musical Memories, released November 8, 1935
Another lovely masterpiece, as an elderly couple reminisce about their courtship, and the music that marked their lives. Rating: ****
* Vitamin Hay, released August 22. 1941
The final Color Classic, as well as the swan song for Hunky and Spunky; Hunky tries to force Spunky to eat his Vitamin Hay, a healthy but yucky-tasting meal.
Next up are ten commentary tracks, located on Poor Cinderella, Little Dutch Mill, An Elephant Never Forgets, Dancing on the Moon, Somewhere in Dreamland, Christmas Comes But Once A Year, Hold It!, All's Fair at the Fair, The Great Vegetable Mystery and Ants in the Plants. Historian Jerry Beck appears on these tracks. You might remember him from The Looney Tunes Golden Collection. This set was a pet project of Beck's for several years -- the tracks are a labor of love, always interesting and insightful. Except for Poor Cinderella, he is joined by animator Mike Kazaleh, who is quick to point out details most will overlook. I recommend listening to all of these tracks, although you might want to skip through the segments in which Betty Boop's voice pops up.
Last, but certainly not least, is an extensive stills gallery. Fleischer storyboards and artwork appear. This gallery is invaluable if you want to learn more about how these classic shorts were built from paper to celluloid.
With a suggested retail price of $29.99, this is one set you simply cannot pass up. Granted, the restorations are not in the same league as the Looney Tunes sets. Considering that the original negatives were declared off limits, VCI and Kit Parker have done a remarkable job packaging these shorts in much more presentable fashion than one has been accustomed to over the last three decades.
Those still unsure...just buy the damn set! I guarantee satisfaction will be yours.
VCI Entertainment and Kit Parker Films are both acquitted of the charges brought against them. They are to be commended for doing the hard work to preserve these works of art.
I would like to put a pox on Republic Pictures/Artisan Entertainment for being content to allow these shorts to gather dust in a vault somewhere. The Scheme is worthy of a DVD presentation, but not your Max Fleischer/Famous Studios shorts? With the recent acquisition of Artisan by Lions Gate Entertainment, perhaps some action will be taken to rectify this pattern of poor selection.
Jerry Beck is given a citation for his involvement with the project. His enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed.
Finally, Max and Dave Fleischer, along with their team of animators, are sentenced to live on in our memories. Their work has been ignored for far too long, and if this critic has anything to do with it, their reputation will rise again.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 270 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Documentary: Max Fleischer's Color Classics: The Lost Episodes
* Audio Commentary on 10 Color Classics Shorts by Film Historian Jerry Beck
* Stills Gallery Featuring Original Fleischer Artwork