Max and Dave Fleischer are contradictory figures within the history of American animation. On the one hand, they introduced an entirely unique visual language in the animated shorts they produced from the 1920s into the early 1940s. A great Fleischer cartoon will transform itself in surprising ways, juxtaposing surrealistic metamorphoses with extreme comic violence. But however singularly weird or bizarre their cartoons could be neither Max or Dave had a clear strategy with the cartoons they produced, and as a result some of their efforts with memorable characters like Betty Boop, Popeye, and Bluto, tended to look a little haphazard and slapped together as they often chose expediency over consistency or subtle characterization.
In Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation In Its Golden Age, animation historian Michael Barrier writes, reflecting on Dave Fleischer (who directed every short the studio produced), and on the legacy of Fleischer Studios’ cartoons generally:
[His] casual contributions to the cartoons left untouched their essentially mechanical, unimaginative core. Interpolating bizarre gags and rhythmic twitching into cartoons otherwise dominated by smooth, unaccented animation meant that those cartoons took on a hallucinatory quality: they were, in their zombielike pacing, their aimlessness, and their arbitrary transformations, literally dreamlike.”
Despite Barrier’s heavy note of critique many of the features he mentions above are what made the Fleischer cartoons from the 30s so unique. Dave’s comic anarchy and Max’s cool detachment came together to create an odd, violent universe, populated by some of the most eccentric characters and situations to ever be devised for a seven minute cartoon. Now the anarchical, accidental, arbitrary universe of the Fleischers is being resurrected in a curious way: a video game about two characters named Cuphead and Mugman attempting to settle a debt with the devil.
Developed by Studio MDHR, Cuphead is a run and gun platformer inspired by games like Megaman and Contra, designed to look like a cartoon short from the 1930s. The studio is animating the characters using pencil, ink, and drawing board as well as hand-painting all the backgrounds, giving the game a lush Technicolor finish. It’s all a part of their effort to make Cuphead look as authentic as possible. While some have compared Cuphead to early Walt Disney shorts or even Terrytoons and the Van Beuren Studio, it’s clear that Fleischer Studios’ shorts of the 1930s are the game’s most decisive influence.
In an interview with the website SlashGear last year, the studio’s founders and lead developers for Cuphead —interestingly also a pair of brothers, Jared and Chad Moldenhauer — cited five cartoons as being a specific point of reference for the game “Swing You Sinners” (1930), “Bimbo’s Initiation” (1931), “Minnie the Moocher” (1932), and “Cobweb Hotel” (1936) . All five were made by Fleischer Studios. In the same article, Jared Moldenhauer confirmed that Fleischer Studios was the game’s biggest influence and in an interview with Kill Screen, Chad Moldenhauer, the game’s art director, described Fleischer Studios as the “magnetic north” for Cuphead’s artstyle.
I’d like to take some time to showcase a few other Fleischer shorts to show just how much Cuphead is drawing on a similar art style, direction, and even making a few subtle references with certain boss encounters in the game.
First is the 1934 Betty Boop short “Red Hot Mama” in which Betty turns up the heat in her cabin during a snow storm and dreams of being transported to Hell.
Of course, this is the Fleischer brothers’ version of Hell so delightful absurdities abound, like a devilish fire brigade burning down a house with other devils trapped inside (and celebrating), or Betty literally giving Satan and his minions the cold shoulder.
It’s clear from watching this short that the funny- looking, grotesque devils and that the Fleischers’ vision of a swingin’ hell has influenced the Moldenhauers’ own version of the Devil in Cuphead. This short is a personal favourite of mine and one of the last really good Betty cartoons before the Production Code made the Fleischers clean up Betty Boop.
You might also notice a strange twitchy quality to the characters in the short above and others I’ve linked to in this post. Much of this had to do with Dave Fleischer’s insistence that characters had to constantly be moving, often in time with the music, as he believed this increased the humour of the cartoon and kept up the audience’s level of interest.
1933’s “Snow-White” is another interesting Fleischer short most of which was impressively drawn and animated by Roland “Doc” Crandall over a six-month period. This cartoon successfully burlesques the story of Snow White, with Betty Boop starring as the fairy-tale heroine. It features some of the studio’s best use of transformation for comic effect, like the evil queen’s face turns for a moment into a frying pan with bacon and eggs as she glowers at Betty. This cartoon is also one of three collaborations the Fleischers did with 30s jazz crooner and bandleader Cab Calloway, with Cab having his movements rotoscoped (essentially he was filmed and then had his movements traced over and animated on a cel with a special camera invented by Max Fleischer), while singing “Saint James Infirmary Blues.” The other two cartoons are “Minnie the Moocher” and the “Old Man of the Mountain“, where Cab also dances and sings the titular songs. It should be noted that Cuphead is utilizing a jazz soundtrack.
“Popeye Meets Sindbad The Sailor” is one of the Fleischer’s best cartoons, with great music, wonderful art direction, and starring regular Popeye heavy Bluto as a very unusual but fun version of Sinbad. The cartoon is also 17 minutes—one of three Popeye “two-reelers” made combining Popeye with tales from the Arabian nights. If you notice a strange 3D effect in the cartoon this is because of the Stereoptical Process — invented by Max Fleischer — that combined two-dimensional animated characters with three-dimensional dioramas. Cuphead definitely draws its color palette from the Technicolor cartoon shorts of the 1930s and they even have boss encounter based on Popeye’s version Sinbad.
Why have the Fleischers had such a decisive influence on the Moldenhauers’ game, even more so than other cartoon studios from the 1930s? This is because the qualities mentioned earlier: the unusual transformations, the bouncy, mechanistic quality of each character’s movement and the pervasive sense of a world on the brink of collapsing into total mania is fitting for a run n’ gun video game with a focus on big boss battles. The kind of metamorphoses employed by the Fleischers can be used to challenge the player by adding a level of unpredictability to each encounter. Cuphead and Mugman are also great Fleischer protagonists — scrappy individuals fighting for survival in an absurd universe.
In 1942, Fleischer Studios was shut down by Paramount, the movie studio responsible for funding and distributing the studio’s animated shorts. Max and Dave Fleischer, the founders of the studio, and the two men most responsible for the considerable success it enjoyed from the 1920s until the 1940s were forced out. Max was devastated while Dave remained mostly indifferent, having left months earlier to head up Columbia’s Screen Gems. The brothers had not been speaking to each other for some time due to creative and professional disagreements over the day-to-day operation of the studio. The studio was later reopened at much cheaper cost to Paramount as Famous Studios, with Max Fleischer’s son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel, put in charge. Max and Dave would never do anything of note in cartoons again. Many of the Fleischers’ achievements belonged to them alone; their hermetic world of cartoon mayhem has inspired a few animators along the way, but has never dominated the rules and aesthetics of animation the way Disney has for the last 90 years.
Although we only have a couple of trailers and a few gameplay videos to go on, I hope Cuphead is significant enough to open up a tiny crack in our more austere, buttoned down world on the other side of the screen, to introduce some of that jazzy mayhem to those of us suffering in this climate of economic depression. I hope the Moldenhauer brothers are able to do something great, something that adds to the legacy of the two brothers from Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, who carved out their own strange hub within the American imagination. I want them to do it—even if it takes a few cans of spinach for them to get there.