Name the first talking animated film. The answer most people usually offer is Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willy (1928). In actuality, however, the first talking cartoons were produced by Fleischer Studios.

Fleischer Studios was the business name for the collaboration of two Jewish brothers, Max and Dave Fleischer, who were both extremely talented and ambitious. (Their brother Lou was also part of the business.) It all began with Max’s invention of the Rotoscope, which allowed animators  to draw over live action footage and thus create more natural movements. With this technology, the Fleischers created their Out of the Inkwell series (begun in 1914), which featured Koko the Clown (drawn over footage of Dave) and Fritz the Dog. Incredibly, these short films were able to combine live action and animation

As technology advanced, the Fleischers used the new phonafilm process to bring sound to their pictures. Song Car-Tunes (begun in 1924) are also famous for the first use of “follow the bouncing ball” sing along format.

The Fleischers’ famous flapper, Betty Boop, made her debut in 1930, and shortly thereafter, they introduced the “Popeye the Sailor” animated shorts. In his heyday, Popeye was the number one competition to Mickey Mouse. Success, however, came at a great price. To continue production, they took a large loan from Paramount with their studio as collateral.

Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full length animated film, put Disney in a league of its own. Nevertheless, the Fleischers continued to produce successful animated shorts, and their Superman serial was received with great acclaim. In producing their two feature length films – Gullivers Travels (1939) and Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), they defaulted on their loan, were absorbed by Paramount, and had personal disagreements that split them apart.

Each went on to successful solo careers in the film industry. Max died in 1972, Dave in 1979. Both animation “superheros” deserve to be saluted on International Animation Day.

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