The Fleischer Superman cartoons are a series of animated short films released in Technicolor by Paramount Pictures and based upon the comic book character Superman, and making it his first animated appearance.
A total of seventeen shorts were produced. They were originally produced by Fleischer Studios, releasing the pilot and eight cartoons in 1941 and 1942 before being taken over in May by Famous Studios, a successor company, who produced eight more in 1942 and 1943. Superman was the final animated series by Fleischer Studios, before Famous Studios officially took over production.
Although all entries are in the public domain, ancillary rights such as merchandising contract rights, as well as the original 35mm master elements, are owned today by Warner Bros. Entertainment. Warner has owned Superman publisher DC Comics since 1969.
Only the first nine cartoons were produced by Fleischer Studios; nonetheless, all 17 episodes are collectively known as "the Fleischer Superman cartoons". In 1942, Fleischer Studios was dissolved and reorganized as Famous Studios, which produced the final eight shorts. These cartoons are seen as some of the finest quality (and certainly, the most lavishly budgeted) animated cartoons produced during The Golden Age of American animation. In 1994, the first entry in the series was voted #33 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.
By mid-1941, brothers Max and Dave Fleischer were running their own animation studio, and had recently finished their first animated feature film, Gulliver's Travels; they were also well into production on their second, Mister Bug Goes to Town. Not wanting to risk becoming overworked (which could compromise the quality of each project), the Fleischers were strongly (but quietly) opposed to the idea of committing themselves to another major project, when approached by their studio's distributor and majority owner since May 1941, Paramount Pictures. Paramount was interested in financially exploiting the phenomenal popularity of the then-new Superman comic books, by producing a series of theatrical cartoons based upon the character. The Fleischers, looking for a way to reject the project without appearing uncooperative, agreed to do the series—but only at a (intentionally inflated) per-episode-budget number so exorbitantly high that Paramount would have to reject them, instead. They told Paramount that producing such a conceptually and technically complex series of cartoons would cost about $100,000 (in 1940s dollars) per short; this was about four times the typical budget of a six-minute episode of the Fleischers' popular Popeye the Sailor cartoons of that period. To the Fleischers' shock, instead of withdrawing its request, Paramount entered into negotiations with them, and got the per-episode budget lowered to $50,000. Now the Fleischers were committed to a project they never wanted to do—with more financial and marketing support than they had ever received for the projects they had done.
The first cartoon in the series, simply titled Superman, a.k.a. The Mad Scientist, was released on September 26, 1941, and was nominated for the 1941 Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. It lost to Lend a Paw, a Pluto cartoon from Walt Disney Productions and RKO Pictures.
The voice of Superman for the series was initially provided by Bud Collyer, who also performed the lead character's voice during the Superman radio series. Joan Alexander was the voice of Lois Lane, a role she also portrayed on radio alongside Collyer. Music for the series was composed by Sammy Timberg, the Fleischers' long-time musical collaborator.
Rotoscoping, the process of tracing animation drawings from live-action footage, was used minimally to lend realism to the character's bodily movements. Many of Superman's actions, however, could not be rotoscoped (such as flying, lifting very large objects, etc.). In these cases, the Fleischers' lead animators—many of whom lacked training in figure drawing—animated "roughly" and depended upon their assistants (many of whom were inexperienced animators, but trained figure-drawers) to keep Superman "on model" during his action sequences.
The Fleischer cartoons were also responsible for giving Superman perhaps his most singular superpower: flight. When the Fleischers started work on the series, in the comic books, Superman could only leap from place to place (hence the classic phrase, "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound"). After seeing the leaping fully animated, however, the Fleischers deemed it "silly looking", and asked Action Comics' (which would later become DC Comics) permission to have him fly instead; the publisher agreed, and wrote the flight ability into the comics from then on.
The Fleischers produced nine classic cartoons in the Superman series before Paramount took over the Fleischer Studios facility in Miami and ousted Max and Dave Fleischer. By the end of 1941, the brothers were no longer able to cooperate with each other, and the studio's co-owner Dave Fleischer had left Florida for California, where he would eventually become the new head of Columbia Pictures' Screen Gems studio. After the Fleischers were removed from the company, Paramount renamed the organization Famous Studios, placing Seymour Kneitel, Isadore Sparber, Sam Buchwald, and Dan Gordon in charge of production. The sleek look of the series continued, but there was a noticeable change in the storylines of the later shorts of the series. The first nine cartoons had more of a science fiction aspect to them, as they involved the Man of Steel fighting robots, giant dinosaurs, meteors from outer space, and other perils. The later eight cartoons in the series, which were all Famous Studios productions, dealt more with World War II propaganda stories, such as in Eleventh Hour, which finds Superman going to Japan to commit acts of sabotage in order to reduce the morale of the enemy; meanwhile, an angered Adolf Hitler had a cameo role at the end of Jungle Drums after Superman foiled another Nazi plot.
The first seven cartoons originated the classic opening line which was later adopted by the Superman radio series and in the live-action television series a decade later: "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" (The radio series also eventually used the cartoon series' theme music.) However, for the final two Fleischer-produced cartoons and the first of the eight Famous Studios-produced cartoons, the opening was changed to "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to soar higher than any plane!". For the remaining Famous Studios-produced cartoons, the opening line was changed again to "Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane!" For international prints of Superman cartoons starting with "Eleventh Hour" the opening line is "Faster than a flash of lightning! More potent than a beating surf! Faster than an active hurricane!" This series also featured a slight variation of the now-classic exclamation (also from the radio series): "Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!".
Famous Studios ended the series after a total of seventeen shorts had been produced, replacing it with a series of shorts based upon Marge's Little Lulu. The high cost of the series kept it from continuing in the face of budgetary restrictions that were imposed after removing the Fleischers from the studio. The first cartoon had a budget of $50,000 (equivalent to $850,365.62 in 2016), and the other sixteen each had a budget of $30,000 (equivalent to $510,219.37 for each of the eight other Fleischer cartoons and $485,414.68 for each of the eight Famous Studios cartoons), bringing the total cost of the series to $530,000 (equivalent to $8,815,438.02 in 2016). In addition, Paramount cited waning interest in the Superman shorts among theater exhibitors as another justification for the series' cancellation.
The rights to all seventeen cartoons eventually reverted to National Comics, who licensed TV syndication rights to Flamingo Films (distributors of the TV series Adventures of Superman). All eventually fell into the public domain, due to National failing to renew their copyrights; thus, they have been widely distributed on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. Nonetheless, Warner Bros., via parent Time Warner's ownership of DC Comics, now owns the original film elements to the cartoons.
A 1944 Famous Studios Popeye the Sailor cartoon entitled She-Sick Sailors parodied the Superman cartoons, two years after production on the cartoons had ceased. In this cartoon, Popeye's enemy Bluto dresses up as Superman to fool Olive Oyl, and he challenges Popeye to feats of super-strength that "only Superman" can do. The musical score for She-Sick Sailors includes echoes of Sammy Timberg's Fleischer/Famous Superman score.
In a rare move for a competing studio, Leon Schlesinger Productions, producers of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (which were distributed by WB), featured Timberg's Superman theme in Snafuperman, a 1944 Private Snafu cartoon Schlesinger produced for the U.S. Army.
Paramount's involvement in the Superman franchise did not end with the sale of the cartoons. In 1995, after being sold to Viacom, Paramount's television syndication unit absorbed Viacom Enterprises, and as a result, Paramount now held the TV rights to the third and fourth Superman films, along with the Supergirl film (which up to that point had been held by Viacom). Full rights to Superman III and Supergirl are now with WB, but Paramount still has some partial rights to Superman IV (as part of the Cannon Films library), and TV distribution is now held (on Paramount's behalf) by Trifecta Entertainment & Media.
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In 1985, DC Comics named Fleischer Studios as one of the honorees in the company's 50th anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great for its work on the Superman cartoons. Writer/artist Frank Miller cited the influence of Max and Dave Fleischer, including them among a list of prominent Golden Age comics creators whose work he acknowledged at the end of his 1986 comics series, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The series strongly influenced the creation of the acclaimed animated television series Batman: The Animated Series, as well as the similar-looking Superman: The Animated Series. Comic book artist Alex Ross has also listed the shorts among the inspiration for his take on Superman's look.
The robot robbery scene from "The Mechanical Monsters" short has been echoed by several later works. In 1980, Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki created an identical robbery with a similarly functioning robot in the last episode of the second Lupin III TV series, a robot design he used again in his feature film, Castle in the Sky. The elements of the scene were borrowed again in 1994 for "The Tick vs. Brainchild" (Season 1, Episode 9 of The Tick), with the robbery committed by Skippy, a cyborg dog. The 2004 feature-length movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which Paramount released in several territories, WB also distributed in a few countries) kept the setting in the 1940s, but scaled up the scene from a single robot robbing a jewelry exhibition to an army of gigantic robots stealing city infrastructure. The movie gave a nod to its source following the robbery with the newspaper headline, "Mechanical Monsters Unearth Generators."
The first "official" home video releases of the series were by Warner Home Video in 1987 and 1988, in a series of VHS and LaserDisc packages called TV's Best Adventures of Superman. Four volumes were released, where each volume contained 2 selected episodes of the classic 1950s TV series Adventures of Superman (one black & white episode and one color episode), plus a selected Max Fleischer Superman short (marking the first "official" release of such as Warner holds the original film elements).
Among the best reviewed of these various releases was a 1991 VHS set produced by Bosko Video, the somewhat incorrectly titled The Complete Superman Collection: Golden Anniversary Edition - The Paramount Cartoon Classics of Max & Dave Fleischer released as two VHS volumes which featured high-quality transfers from 35mm prints. The Bosko Video set was later issued on DVD by Image Entertainment as The Complete Superman Collection: Diamond Anniversary Edition in 2000. The Bosko Video release was not associated with DC Comics or their parent company Warner Bros.
Another DVD was Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection from VCI Entertainment released on May 30, 2006, a month prior to the release of the film Superman Returns. DVD features included: all 17 animated shorts digitally restored in Dolby Digital 2.0 audio; a bonus cartoon: Snafuperman (a 1944 Warner Bros. wartime parody of the Fleischer cartoons, featuring Private Snafu and produced for the U.S. Army); "Behind the Cape" synopses and fun facts with each cartoon; a DVD fold-out booklet with notes on the series; bios of the voice actors, producer Max Fleischer, and Superman; a bonus trailer for the 1948 Superman serial with Kirk Alyn; and a recorded audio phone interview with Joan Alexander (the voice of Lois Lane). This release, like the Bosko Video release, was not associated with DC Comics or their parent company Warner Bros.
A more "official" release from restored and remastered superior vault elements was released on DVD on November 28, 2006 as part of Warner Home Video's Superman film re-releases. The first nine cartoons were released as part of the four-disc special edition Superman: The Movie set, and the eight remaining cartoons were included on the two-disc special edition Superman II set. The entire collected Fleischer / Famous cartoons were included in the box sets The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection and Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition, where both sets also included a 13-minute short documentary on the history of these cartoons, entitled First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series. This documentary (which was included on the Superman II two-disc special edition DVD) features interviews with surviving members, relatives and biographers of the animation and production team, also contemporary animators such as Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series), Paul Dini and Dan Riba (Superman: The Animated Series) who detail the influence these cartoons have had on their own works. Upon this release though, there was controversy by some consumers over why Warner's chose to release these animated shorts amongst the Superman films DVD releases instead of packaging them as their own complete individual DVD release.
In December 2004, Toonami Digital Arsenal made the shorts available for free download in mp4 format on its website. They posted one episode per day with the final episode, "Secret Agent", going live on New Year's Day 2005.
Another came on July 1, 2008, when Warner Bros. released the shorts on iTunes, via their DC Comics sections. Fourteen of the shorts are available for $1.99 for every two, while the other three are all in one video for the same price.
On April 7, 2009, yet another release was made, this time a collection of all the cartoons released by Warner Home Video as the first authorized collection from the original masters, titled Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942 with a suggested price at $26.99; the set included one new special feature in the form of "The Man, The Myth, Superman" featurette, along with an old special feature seen in the Superman II 2006 DVD release entitled "First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series".
The 8-disc Blu-ray boxset The Superman Motion Picture Anthology, released in June 2011, includes all the Max Fleischer cartoons in SD as bonuses on the discs for the two versions of Superman II. The nine Fleischer Studios cartoons plus the 13-minutes feature First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series are on the Superman II - Original 1980/81 Theatrical Release disc and the eight Famous Studios cartoons are on the Superman II - The 2006 Richard Donner Cut disc.
|Title||Original release date||Notes|
|Superman (a.k.a. The Mad Scientist)||September 26, 1941||The short film Superman is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|The Mechanical Monsters||November 28, 1941||The short film The Mechanical Monsters is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Billion Dollar Limited||January 18, 1942||The short film Billion Dollar Limited is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|The Arctic Giant||February 15, 1942||The short film The Arctic Giant is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|The Bulleteers||March 22, 1942||The short film The Bulleteers is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|The Magnetic Telescope||April 19, 1942||The short film The Magnetic Telescope is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Electric Earthquake||May 17, 1942||The short film Electric Earthquake is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Volcano||July 12, 1942||The short film Volcano is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Terror on the Midway||August 23, 1942||The short film Terror on the Midway is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Title||Original release date||Notes|
|Japoteurs||September 18, 1942||The short film Japoteurs is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Showdown||October 16, 1942||The short film Showdown is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Eleventh Hour||November 20, 1942||The short film Eleventh Hour is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Destruction, Inc.||December 25, 1942||The short film Destruction, Inc. is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|The Mummy Strikes||February 19, 1943||The short film The Mummy Strikes is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Jungle Drums||March 26, 1943||The short film Jungle Drums is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|The Underground World||June 18, 1943||The short film The Underground World is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
|Secret Agent||July 30, 1943||The short film Secret Agent is available for free download at the Internet Archive|
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