Today marks the 131st anniversary of legendary animator Max Fleischer’s birth. Last week over at True Classics, we looked at Fleischer’s gorgeous Superman series from the early 1940s, a series that marked his final work for Paramount. Before being forced out in 1942, Fleischer spent more than a decade working with Paramount, and the cartoons he produced for them–namely, the Betty Boop and Popeye series–allowed that studio to rival Walt Disney’s studio in popularity throughout the 1930s.
In the wake of his ouster from the studio that bore his name, Fleischer went to work for the Jam Handy Organization. Based in Detroit, the company was founded by an old colleague and friend of Fleischer’s, Henry Jamison Handy, from the Bray Studios. Jam’s business was in educational and promotional films–and with a war going on, the focus had turned largely to military training pictures. The animator certainly had experience enough: in the early years of his career, Max had produced a number of training films for the military during World War I. And Fleischer was the perfect guy for the job, because he brought a sense of cinema to educational films. He intrinsically understood the need for educational pictures to also be watchable, and to have a sense of fun, and he strove to produce films that were not merely instructive, but enjoyable, too.
But what Fleischer found truly appealing about Handy’s offer were the side benefits. Not only could Fleischer continue creating animated shorts in addition to his training films, but he would also have the freedom to tinker with technology–something that was immensely appealing to the clever inventor of the Rotoscope. As Max’s son, film director Richard Fleischer, explains in his biography of his father, Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution (2011): “It was the kind of work Max loved, a combination of science, mechanics, and illustrative art.” And so Max Fleischer began the next phase of his already remarkable career.
Two years into his stint at Jam Handy, in 1944, Fleischer was given a new assignment: to create an animated version of a popular children’s Christmas poem, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It would be the first screen adaptation of a character that would soon become a holiday icon.
Rudolph was the creation of a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department stores, Robert L. May. The deer first appeared in a holiday coloring book designed by May in 1939, and it was an instant hit. The character became so popular that, a decade after May originally wrote the poem, his brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, composed a song to the story.When the cartoon was re-released in theaters in 1948, the song was played during the opening credits, and was reprised at the end (as you can see in the version embedded above). A year later, Gene Autry recorded the definitive version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and the song became an absolute sensation.
Though its significance would be eclipsed twenty years later with the release of the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion television special, Fleischer’s Rudolph would remain the more faithful adaptation of May’s poem. And it definitely has its charms, from the old-fashioned narration of Paul Wing to the rounded, almost simplistic figures of the deer, all rendered in glorious Technicolor. All told, while it definitely lacks some of the polish of Fleischer’s earlier work for Paramount, there’s an appealing innocence about his Rudolph that sets it apart from the more popular, slightly more cynical Rankin/Bass version of the tale (let’s just say Fleischer’s Santa is much less of a jerk than his later counterpart).