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Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels(1939)

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teaser Gulliver's Travels (1939)

Max Fleischer was the only real challenger to Walt Disney's supremacy in the field of animation in the 1930s. As the head of Fleischer Studios, Max had (with his brother Dave, the director) created Ko-Ko the Clown and Betty Boop, incorporated the music and personalities of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong into their cartoons, and brought Popeye to life in some of the most popular animated shorts of the era (vying with Mickey as the most popular animated character of the day). With an exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures, one of the powerhouse studios in Hollywood, to distribute their shorts, they were seen everywhere.

Max Fleischer had long wanted to make an animated feature -- he was already making extended animated shorts with Popeye and Betty Boop and saw great potential in a Popeye feature -- but Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, didn't see any future in feature-length cartoons. The remarkable success of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 changed his mind and he gave the green light to Fleischer to begin developing a feature for Paramount. He also gave him a deadline: Christmas 1939. A mere year and a half to develop, write, animate, and finish his first ever feature (Disney worked for over three years on Snow White).

Fleischer turned to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and the Lilliputian section in particular, for his story. "I knew it was my father's favorite book since he used to read it to me as a bedtime story when I was a child," remembers Richard Fleischer, Max's son, in his 2005 book Out of the Inkwell. He even briefly considered using Popeye as his Gulliver before rejecting the idea in pre-production.

Though he was finally getting his shot at an animated feature, the timing couldn't have been worse for Fleischer, who was moving his studio from New York to Miami while still keeping up with his contractual deadlines for their Betty Boop and Popeye shorts. By the time it was fully operational in 1938, Fleischer boasted the most advanced animation studio in the world. Gulliver's Travels (1939) didn't necessarily benefit from the upgrade, however, as much of the film was produced during the transition. While Dave Fleischer took charge of directing the feature, production shuttled between the two locations and new animators, mostly from the West Coast, were brought in for the new Miami studio, with extra hands drafted from the Miami Arts School during the transition.

One of the many innovations that Max Fleischer brought to animation was the rotoscope technique, which involved tracing over frames of live-action film. It sped up the animation process and was especially helpful in animating human figures. In Gulliver's Travels, it was specifically used for Gulliver, a "realistic" figure in a cartoonish world. Where Gulliver is a dignified, handsomely sculpted figure of calm and reason, the Lilliputians are exaggerated caricatures right out of the Fleischers' comedy shorts, scurrying, impulsive little people driven by petty concerns.

The film opens with the dramatic shipwreck that strands Gulliver on the island of Lilliput, a land populated by diminutive (at least by human standards) people. Fleischer goes for a realistic look here, with a rotoscoped model ship, a dark, stormy atmosphere, and a dramatic sense of depth. With the introduction of the Lilliputians, the style slips into a more comically exaggerated style, filled with slapstick and sight gags, while the story turns on a romance between the prince and princess of rival kingdoms that is threatened when the kings go to war. Sam Parker, a Florida radio broadcaster, provided both the voice and the physical reference for Gulliver. Jack Mercer, the voice of Popeye, was brought on for King Little, and Pinto Colvig voiced Gabby, a comic sidekick that Fleischer later spun off into his own series of cartoons.

Gulliver's Travels was the second cel-animated feature ever released.Budgeted at a modest $500,000, it ended up costing twice that (which was still significantly less than the Snow White price tag), but the film was still a financial and critical success. It opened at number one spot and was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Score (by Victor Young) and Best Original Song ("Forever Faithful," music by Ralph Rainger and lyrics by Leo Robin), losing both categories to The Wizard of Oz (1939). Animation historians believe that in its day, Gulliver's Travels was seen by more people than Snow White because it was constantly in release in theaters and later shown on television. However you measure it, Gulliver's Travels is an animation landmark and an alternative to the Disney style of animated feature filmmaking.

Producer: Max Fleischer
Director: Dave Fleischer
Screenplay: Dan Gordon, Cal Howard, Ted Pierce, I. Sparber, Edmond Seward (screenplay); Edmond Seward (story adaptation); Jonathan Swift (based on immortal tale)
Cinematography: Charles Schettler
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Jessica Dragonette (Princess Glory, singing voice), Lanny Ross (Prince David, singing voice), Pinto Colvig (Gabby, voice, uncredited), Jack Mercer (King Little, voice, uncredited), Sam Parker (Gulliver, voice, uncredited).

by Sean Axmaker

"Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution," Richard Fleischer. University Press of Kentucky, 2005
"Fleischer in Florida, Part 1 - Gulliver's Travels," Steve Fritz., 2009.
"The Making of a Cartoon," Paramount Pictures newsreel.

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teaser Gulliver's Travels (1939)

In December 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first feature-length animated film to open in theaters. Almost exactly two years later came the second, Gulliver's Travels (1939). But in contrast to the Walt Disney classic, this new film was the work of pioneering animators Max and Dave Fleischer, whose innovative company had been responsible for Betty Boop and Popeye, among other iconic cartoon characters of the 1920s and '30s. In fact, this movie was originally planned as a vehicle for Popeye to "play" Gulliver.

Gulliver's Travels is based on just the first part of Jonathan Swift's classic novel, a section entitled "A Voyage to Lilliput," in which Gulliver washes ashore in a kingdom whose inhabitants are so small that Gulliver appears as a giant. Swift's tale was written as a sociological satire, and the Fleischer brothers disagreed at first over how much of that flavor would inhabit their screen version. Max Fleischer envisioned retaining the strong satirical themes, while Dave Fleischer wanted something lighter, simpler and more musical. In the end they compromised on a colorful spectacle that nonetheless does preserve some satire. In any event, the look and feel of the animation was distinctly theirs. As the Motion Picture Herald's review said, "The Fleischer style, well known for many years to a great public, is readily identifiable. The usual grotesqueness is present in all of the characters, with the exception of the Giant and the Prince and Princess. One might expect Popeye to peek around the corner at any moment."

The film's production schedule was very challenging. Paramount (the Fleischers' parent company and distributor) was so eager to challenge Disney with an animated feature that it poured money and resources into the movie in order to meet a Christmas 1939 release date. (The film opened a day after Gone with the Wind.) Fleischer Studios had been based in New York, but union strife in that city compelled Paramount to pay for a new Fleischer studio in Miami, Fla. The studio also paid for hundreds of extra animation artists to work on the project, in both Miami and Hollywood. The schedule was so rushed (18 months from conception to release) that 400 Miami art students were even hired to help out -- following a crash course in animation. The final negative cost was about $1.5 million.

The critical reception was overall positive. Variety deemed the film "an excellent job of animation, audience interest and all around showmanship... enjoyable as much for the elders as the youngsters." But The New York Times disagreed, calling it "a fairy tale for children almost exclusively," and criticizing it for lacking the depth, subtlety, and freshness of the Disney films.

Nonetheless, Gulliver's Travels was a big enough commercial hit that Paramount ordered a second animated feature from the Fleischers, Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941). As for awards, it was the film's music that drew attention from the Motion Picture Academy. Victor Young received an Oscar® nomination for Best Original Score, and songwriters Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin collected a nomination for Best Original Song, for "Faithful Forever." This was one of 22 Oscar® nominations that Victor Young would receive over the course of his career. He won the award just once -- posthumously -- for Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).

Robin and Rainger had recently won their first Oscars®, for the classic song "Thanks for the Memories," in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). The talented composer Rainger would die in a plane crash in 1942, while lyricist Robin would carry on a successful career over a life that lasted until his death in 1984. Robin accrued a total of ten Oscar® nominations but never won the award again.

Singer Lanny Ross provides the singing voice of Prince David in Gulliver's Travels. It's the only animated voice Ross ever did.

Producer: Max Fleischer
Director: Dave Fleischer
Screenplay: Dan Gordon, Cal Howard, Ted Pierce, I. Sparber, Edmond Seward (screenplay); Edmond Seward (story adaptation); Jonathan Swift (based on immortal tale)
Cinematography: Charles Schettler
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Jessica Dragonette (Princess Glory, singing voice), Lanny Ross (Prince David, singing voice), Pinto Colvig (Gabby, voice, uncredited), Jack Mercer (King Little, voice, uncredited), Sam Parker (Gulliver, voice, uncredited).

by Jeremy Arnold

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