What Drove Popeye to the Picket Line: The Story of “Fleischer’s Animated News”
By Paul MortonSeptember 19, 2023
In late 1934, Glass, one of 165 employees at Fleischer Studios—the home of Betty Boop and Popeye—was stricken with tuberculosis. The disease was common during the Great Depression, but that fact was irrelevant. His co-workers blamed his poor health on the long hours he spent in the studio’s claustrophobic, poorly ventilated offices. In the cartoons, Betty Boop called Max Fleischer, who co-owned the studio with his brother Dave, “Uncle Max,” a persona he cultivated in real life, playing the role of the genial, judicious boss who handed out bonuses in flush times. By the mid-1930s, however, the lower echelons of his animation factory, located just north of Times Square, had wearied of his paternalism.
Max Fleischer was not indifferent to Glass’s or his employees’ struggles. In December of that year, the studio published its first company newsletter, Fleischer’s Animated News. It cost 10 cents, and all $15 it raised went to pay for Glass’s treatment, with the studio itself matching another 15. Max Fleischer personally paid for Glass’s travel to his hometown in Arkansas.
But the newsletter may have done more harm than good in raising morale. In the annals of asinine jokes made by the powerful, few match the one that appears at the bottom of page six of that first issue: “There has been only one death during the history of the Fleischer Studios. There have been over 15 marriages in the organization of members who met here for the first time.” Glass passed away one month later.
Fleischer’s Animated News continued publication on a monthly basis, all proceeds going to a relief fund to aid employees in need. The newsletter has never been republished in full, although you can see bits and pieces of it online and in history books. From beginning to end, it reads as a chronicle of conflict between a naive management class and laborers in a dehumanizing system of media production ultimately similar to the one writers and actors are rebelling against today.
The writers’ and actors’ strikes have taken the general public by surprise, but it’s hard to read Fleischer’s Animated News and imagine the story ending in anything other than a major labor action. Then as now, money was at stake—the starting salary at Fleischer Studios was $12 for a 44-hour week—but the artists had long been frustrated with an industry that alienated them from their artistry.
The final issue came out in April 1937. In May, the workers went on strike, organized by the Commercial Artists and Designers Union (CADU). In October, Fleischer Studios became the first major studio in the history of American animation to unionize.
Like many company newsletters, Fleischer’s Animated News was a celebration of both individual and communal purpose. It ran profiles of department heads, inside jokes about office romances and rivalries, lists of items available in the studio’s library (The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini was one of the most popular titles), notices for Max Fleischer’s Tuesday-night classes, bad jokes, bad poems, and scores from annual baseball games between the studio’s single and married men. Just two months after Glass’s death, the News reported on Max and Dave Fleischer’s vacation in Florida, where both had homes.
The News ran essays by higher-ups who argued in support of the studio’s hierarchy and in opposition to labor organization. “At one time fourteen of us competed for ONE opening in the inbetween department,” one “satisfied” worker wrote. “The best one got it. These opportunities are still present. We went ahead that way instead of ganging up and putting the ‘squeeze’ on Max.”
This was nothing compared to the condescending editorial that was published nine months later. “There is the type of worker who is a drudge, plows ahead and to all outward appearance is working hard, but not thinking,” it said. “The success story of those who have climbed ahead of the crowd, usually tells of hard work, sacrifices and intelligent determination.”
But the most interesting material in the News can be found in the comics, which describe the monotony of cartoon production in the 1930s and examine it as a form of physical labor that weakens the eyes and strains the upper back. The comics artists in the studio analyze the psychology of the animation worker himself, a wage laborer on an assembly line, but also an aspiring craftsman, eager to imprint his identity, to announce his presence somehow, on a commodity that is also a work of art. (I use the male pronoun, as almost every worker depicted in the comics is male, even though the Fleischer Studios also employed women.) The editors apparently thought it was useful to publish this material, with the belief that propaganda is most effective when it absorbs criticism of its ideology.
Several comics include caricatures of figures in the studio, among them Edith Vernick, the manager of the inbetween department. Vernick, one of the few women to enjoy such a high position, not just at Fleischer Studios but at any animation studio in the United States, relished her role despite the fact that she was paid half the salary of any other department head.
Many years later, veterans of the strike remembered her as a bully. She stood at the middle of the floor, surveilling her subordinates; she was quick to report anyone for perceived laziness. Like schoolchildren, they raised their hands to go to the bathroom. Dave Tendlar, a higher-up, contributed a two-panel comic in which Vernick stands above an inbetweener asleep at his desk, ready to pound him with a chair. She is held back by an assistant who tells her, “Please desist—Edith, he only craves to be in the story dept.” In the second panel, the inbetweener studies a memo from a story man, describing impossible equations that he must follow in order to maintain proper timing.
Tendlar was no radical. He enjoyed his time at Fleischer Studios, but he was sympathetic to the workers, and he later tried to convince Max Fleischer to accept arbitration. He understood the hierarchy as well as anyone. The story department was relatively small, and it was the site for the most creative work in the production line, where structure, character, and gags were developed. The more mechanical labor was given to the inbetweeners, who spent their days carefully figuring out movement between key drawings.
The inbetweeners had already climbed up the ladder from the even more miserable opaquers, who spent long days repeatedly inking the reverse sides of cels, and inkers who did the same on the front side. Yes, this is all very difficult to follow, but the workers in the Fleischer Studios knew where they stood, especially as the differences between these jobs defined whether or not they obtained their necessary caloric intake. In one cartoon, an opaquer is reduced to cooking a stray pigeon on heat drawn from the light bulb of his desk.
Contributors also described the cartoons they wanted to make but never could. Michael Maltese, who later became a legendary story man at Warner Bros., had a macabre sense of humor and a thick, weighty style that captured the complex ids of otherwise two-dimensional characters. In a Christmas-themed piece, Swee’Pea, an infant who appears in the Popeye cartoons, sits atop a chimney, prepared for murder, armed with a time bomb, rifle, sword, and mini cannon. (It’s not the darkest work the News published. That honor belongs to the poem “The Tragedy of Olive Oyl,” in which the title character gets fat, takes her own life, and is then denied entrance into heaven because of her weight.)
There were comics-celebrities-to-be at Fleischer Studios. The News ran subpar work from Harry Lampert, who would later co-create the Flash in 1940. But unless they were contributing under a pseudonym, I couldn’t find anything from the most famous comics artists to work at the studio: Jacob Kurtzberg (the future Jack Kirby), Bob Kane, and Charles Addams. I am most interested, however, in work from artists I never heard of, among them George Withers.
His contribution appears in the December 1935 issue. A man sits in a movie theater watching a Popeye cartoon, where he notices a mark from his labor on-screen. “Holy gee! My thumb print …” The moment speaks to the viewing experiences that have become more common in recent decades thanks to LaserDisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. Watch any classical Hollywood cartoon, frame by frame, and you will almost certainly see something that shouldn’t be there, a line out of place, a hair from whoever it was that laid down the cel below the camera, or the thumbprint of an inker, who mishandled his finished work when he placed it on a shelf.
The late animation theorist Hannah Frank noted that each of these moments are records, photographs revealing the labor in a system that did not always keep precise records of its production methods. Withers, of whom I could find no information, knew what it meant to announce himself on-screen. He would understand well the horror of the actor who fears his reduction to a mere AI image, where not a single piece of his flesh is captured, in which he is subsumed, fully erased by the apparatus.
In 1938, Fleischer Studios moved from New York to a new $300,000 complex in Miami. It had air conditioning, not so much for the comfort of a now doubled workforce as for preserving film stock, and it provided the resources necessary for the ambitious work of the studio’s final years: two feature films, and a high-budget series centering on Superman.
There were other reasons for the move. Max and Dave Fleischer wanted to be closer to their Florida homes. Miami, grateful for both the glamor and money that came with a connection to the film industry, accommodated the studio by constructing roads to make it more accessible. The Fleischers had been thinking about the move before the strike, but the fact that Florida state law was hostile to labor organization, and thus effectively killed the victories won by CADU in New York, made the change that much more appealing.
The final years were chaos. Dave Fleischer had run off with his secretary, leading to a scandalous divorce, and he was no longer on speaking terms with his brother. Workers who came from New York rallied around Max Fleischer, though there were still ill feelings from the strike. Newcomers from California rallied around Dave Fleischer. Miamians who passed minimal training at a local art school occupied the bottom of the studio’s new hierarchy. Southern Florida was an underdeveloped backwater, and necessary supplies had to be shipped in from New York; the added production costs exceeded the pay raises that had been won by the union.
Amid this mess, the local press was more kind than not. The studio’s productions enjoyed studious and admiring coverage in the Miami Herald. Dave Fleischer, regardless of how much he contributed to any given film, provided most of the quotes.
Fleischer’s Animated News was not revived, which is unfortunate. It would be nice to know whether the strike changed how the workers saw themselves, how they thought about their workdays, and how they reacted to the thumbprints that sometimes appeared on cel sheets—the marks of themselves that only they would notice, flickering for just a few frames on-screen, evidence of their labor and their existence.
Paul Morton is a writer based in Seattle.
Featured image from Cartoon Research, cover scan by Jerry Beck.
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