Program Notes: Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

Nobody remembers who came in second.

Perhaps that explains why just about everyone but animation historians have forgotten Gulliver’s Travels. Released by the Fleischer Animation Studio in 1939, it was only the world’s second feature-length animated film.

The Fleischer brothers – Dave and Max – got their start in animation in the 1920s. From their New York studio they launched two fantastically popular series.

Betty Boop was a prototypical flapper of the era, a big-headed beauty with a svelt body who was subversively aware of her sex symbol status.

Popeye, on the other hand, was a brawling, mumbling sailor who found superhuman strength in chugging canned spinach.

Film Screening:
Gulliver's Travels (1939)
Saturday, Feb. 22 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Both series were solid moneymakers.

But the financial and artistic success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 convinced the brass at Paramount – which financed the Fleischers – that they needed their own feature animated film.

Prodded into action, the brothers announced that they would adapt Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It was Max Fleischer’s favorite book from boyhood.

What with its story of the shipwrecked Gulliver being held captive by a society of combative tiny people, the story offered all sorts of visual possibilities. (The novel’s second half finds Gulliver in a land of giants – but that part of the story was dropped.)

Gulliver’s Travels was animated at the Fleischers’ new studio in Miami, Florida. Financed by Paramount, it was the first completely air conditioned building in Florida.

The move from New York to Florida was a response to the 1937 strike by animators that had crippled the studio. (Disney would go through his own labor turmoil a few years later.) The brothers decided to abandon union-friendly New York for the warmer climate and cheap, unorganized labor of the South.

In any case, they had their work cut out for them. Disney had taken nearly four years to make Snow White. They had barely 12 months, since Paramount wanted to open Gulliver during the 1939 Christmas season.

It was a steep learning curve. The Fleischers’ traditional approach was to render their audience giddy with one joke after another. (At one point they considered casting Popeye as Gulliver – which might have made for an even more interesting movie.)

Unlike Disney, who valued the power of story and worked out every angle of a script before animation could begin, the Fleischers had employed an improvisational approach. Animators would work from a broad outline, making it up as they went along.

It wasn’t until the mid 1930s that the studio established a story department to develop plots for its films.

Another problem was that the studio had never really had to work at character development. Betty Boop and Popeye were so iconographic that there was little reason to fool around with them.

Whereas the Disney animators on Snow White had from scratch created dozens of characters – human, dwarf, and animal – and in the process discovered how to build distinctive on-screen personalities, the Fleischers were ill-prepared to explore character through animation.

In fact, lead animators on Gulliver had stock movements they applied to the majority of the characters, robbing them of distinctive personalities. (Gulliver, meanwhile, is unconscious for half the film).

Even more frustrating was the gap between the animated Gulliver and his fantastic co-stars. The Fleischers here had the same problem Disney had had with Snow White and her Prince: realistic human figures were hard to pull off.

Like Disney, the Fleischers relied on rotoscoping, a process in which footage of a human actor was painstakingly copied, frame by frame, by animators. It made for stiff, not-very-convincing movement.

The cartoonish Lilliputians are far more appealing, especially Gabby the night watchman, a comic character who reminded many viewers of Disney’s dwarfs. This was no coincidence. Gabby not only had Grumpy’s irascible personality, he was voiced by the same actor: Pinto Colvig. (Gabby proved so popular he went on to star in his own series of animated shorts.)

Gulliver also showed strong background design, with fairy tale castles and a raging sea beautifully rendered.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that the film contains none of Swift’s savage satire. It’s simply a cute love story about a prince and princess whose respective royal fathers are on the verge of war when a gigantic human intervenes.

Audiences in 1939 seem not to have minded. The film premiered in Miami Beach in December of that year. The show was completely sold out a week in advance and a second theater was rented for a simultaneous screening.

Gulliver did knockout business.

The Fleischer Studio, though, was already on its last legs – though nobody knew it at the time.

Part of the problem was internal. The two brothers were polar opposites: Max was a conservative family man, while Dave (though married) was a spendthrift, gambler, and womanizer. At various times they were so mad at each other that they communicated only by memo.

And part of the problem came from outside. Paramount wanted to capitalize on Gulliver’s success with another animated feature. Mr. Bug Goes to Town, released in 1942, was a goofy clone of Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with an all-insect cast. It didn’t work, with the result that the brothers had a huge debt and only limited income from their shorts.

After years of pouring money into the Fleischers’ operation, Paramount demanded payback. That was the end. The brothers forfeited their company, retaining only the rights to one of their earlier characters, Koko the Clown, and half ownership of Betty Boop, who was now passé.

But the studio didn’t die with a whimper. Before folding the Fleischers produced a series of animated Superman shorts which were spectacularly good. In terms of sheer excitement and artistry, they surpassed even Betty Boop and Popeye. But they weren’t enough to save the studio.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Great Adaptations”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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