The Clown and the Inkwell: Character Perception and the First Fleischer Cartoon


“There was no characterization in that series. On that fella. Disney’s the guy who brought that into animation. In a situation, Koko did what anybody else would do.”



So says Dick Huemer. [pause] Animator for Mickey Mouse. [pause] Story director on Fantasia (1940). [pause] And the very man who gave the clown his name. Indeed, there is a reason that Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny would remain famous in the lexicon of cartoon heroes leaving Koko to fade into obscurity. Yet, few postulate that the creators of Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and the first Superman serials, started with a pen, an inkwell, and a clown.

In a medium framed by the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny and the abstract films of Norman McLaren, Koko lingers in the middle. His cartoons revolutionized the animated film through their fluidity and technical innovations. These characteristics make Koko the most significant, yet overlooked character in animation history. Most literature surrounding Koko, indeed speaks of him as a popular character. They acknowledge the importance of the techniques he is associated with, but only in the context of the history of animation or his creators. The clown’s own history remains marginal. Koko would be present during the most substantial moments in film and animation, and yet it is his very ability to do so that sends him into two early retirements and forces him to play back-up for other characters. Advertisements and reviews, along with the cartoons themselves, reflect his purpose for the animators and influence the way he would be perceived. To his audience, Koko was presented as an index of the brothers’ Fleischer and their animation techniques. 

Koko was created in 1915 by the Fleischer brothers: Max, Joe, and Dave. The clown existed before, though not as Koko. In fact, he remained “the clown” until Dick Huemer would name him in 1923. Dave worked as a clown at Coney Island. He “made a clown [suit] with three big wide buttons and a pointed hat…”

 Max, a science enthusiast and one time editor of Popular Science Magazine, had put together a device called Rotoscope (S.2): A revolutionary machine that would later be used to animate films like Snow White (1937) and Fantasia (1940). Dave, with his suit, was filmed and the Rotoscope would project each frame to be drawn over. Says Huemer, it was “A simple process, but it gave astonishingly life-like action.”

 It took a year for the Fleischers to complete their experiment, but when they were done, they knew they had something to sell.

(S.3) Koko’s birth is an appropriate first step in his lifetime. The Rotoscope was meant to be innovative. He is a clown simply because Dave’s black and white suit was easy to trace. Nobody knew if he would actually be entertaining. Max said he wanted to sell because he “thought it was something, that’s all.”

 After being rejected, Max worked out a faster mode of rotoscoping 100ft of film in four weeks. Soon the brothers were hired to Pathé, but the clown’s career was already in jeopardy. Max and Dave fought over their next cartoon. Max wanted to do a political piece on Teddy Roosevelt. Dave disagreed: “And I told him, well, why should we do that? We’ve got the clown that they like; let’s continue the clown. Well, he and I argued. We were always partners, but he was my older brother, so we went his way. Well, it was bad. They didn’t like it, so they fired us.”


Soon, Dave convinced Max to use the clown again.

 They kept trying to sell, when fate struck, at Paramount’s New York Office. Before getting to President Zukor [literally, outside of his office], Max ran into John Bray, a friend from his days as a cartoonist for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Bray had an exclusive contract with Paramount producing film shorts. “Serendipitous,” Max’s son, Richard says, “is a poor and meager word to describe this meeting. Earth-stopping comes a little closer.”


[Slowly] By 1919 they had begun producing Out of the Inkwell [for lack of a better title

] through “Bray Pictographs.” Bray did much to popularize this new series. An advertisement lists Inkwell as “the classic of animated cartoons,” containing “humor” and “surprises.” 

 Indeed, they wanted to make the clown seem entertaining and popular. But this is only one part of the ad.  It also calls Inkwell a “super-animated cartoon…inspired by the genius of his creator…” with “accuracy of action, nothing has ever approached this feature.” With a picture of the clown popping out of his inkwell (as he does at the beginning of each cartoon), he was being associated with both of these sets of qualities. He may have entertained, but that was not enough.

In the clown’s few years at Bray and through the Fleischer’s formation of their own production company, Out of the Inkwell, Inc. (1921), the main attraction of the shorts were the clown’s interactions with Max. (S.4) The brothers had developed a method of putting the clown into real life settings. Max Fleischer became the producer of the series, as well as the star, with Dave directing. Koko’s role in these remains unclear. It is hard to call him the protagonist. It is his face in the advertisements, yet he always causes trouble for Max. Huemer puts it: “Here is Max, a live person that they got to like after a while. …if you saw a few of them, you got to know him, and you were sympathetic to his troubles.”


These shorts all begin with Koko emerging from the inkwell, whether voluntarily, or drawn by Max, before coming to life [Each cartoon does this differently. Examples]. Their interactions typically include Koko, unsatisfied with life on the drawing board, finding a way to leave his animated realm, enter the real world, and disrupt Max’s activities. (S.5) In Fishing, Max draws Koko a fishing pole to occupy the clown while he is out doing the same. (S.6) The lonesome clown goes on an undersea adventure before going off to find Max and make mischief. (S.7) Koko lassoes a fish to drag away Max’s boat and fish basket, compelling Max to swim to mainland. (S.8) After being caught by Max, Koko is poured back into the Inkwell.

Every cartoon short is a series of gags strung by a basic plot. This plot always takes place in the paradigm of: clown is drawn; clown leaves easel; clown causes trouble; clown goes back to the inkwell. The New York Times published an article on the clown in February 1920, titled “The Inkwell Man” [Max or Koko?] claiming that, “many persons have been delighted by the little black and white clown.”

 The compliments, however, are two sided: 

This little Inkwell clown has attracted favorable attention because of a number of distinguishing characteristics. His motions, for one thing, are smooth and graceful. He does not jerk himself from one position to another, nor does he move an arm or leg while the remainder of his body remains unnaturally still as if it were fixed in the inklines of the paper.


In other words, the article is not about the clown at all! It goes on to describe the Fleischers and their unique animation methods. The article ends saying, “…the Bray studios feel that he is worthwhile in more ways than one, and they promise that he or some credible successor will continue to appear from time to time.”

 The clown was disposable. The method was not.

This association, however, was enough for the clown to continue his role. In 1923, Dick Huemer, already a well established cartoonist, was hired by the Fleischers. (S.9) Huemer redesigned the clown, giving him a more detailed, finished look. He also named the clown Koko, and gave him a tiny companion: the dog Fitz, introduced in Big Chief Koko. (S.10) This also marks the end of the Rotoscope’s wide usage. Typically, it would be used during one short scene, with the rest being drawn by Huemer and the other animators.

 Now with a partner, Koko’s cartoons focused on the gags, spending less time in the real world [Though this would remain in every cartoon]. Soon, Koko and Fitz would become known as the Inkwell Imps

But Koko’s new form would not change his purpose. In 1925, Motion Picture News would call the short Ko-Ko Packs ‘Em In “one of the funniest and cleverest yet seen by this reviewer.”

 Yet, the same magazine says of Ko-Ko Nuts, “…the devices by which the artist combines cartoons with actual photography continue to amaze and astonish the spectator because of the mechanical ingenuity involved in the process.”

 The public loved Koko, but for more than just his gags. He was entertaining because he was innovative. This shows him to be the perfect vehicle for the Fleischer’s new sing-a-long series, Ko-Ko’s Song Car-Tunes (S.11) in 1924, and their newest innovation: “The Famous Bouncing Ball.”

(S.12) This is the ball that bounces over the words of sing-a-long songs, projected in theaters between pictures. The Fleischers invented this. In these, Koko appears, acting as the conductor of his “Ko-Ko Kwartet” to introduce the song. Huemer and the Fleischers went to an early screening of Oh Mabel, the first of these, at New York’s Columbus Theatre and the reaction was massive. The projectionist had to play it again.

 Koko would now be attached to these improved sing-a-longs. While this is what Ko-Ko’s Song Car-Tunes are most famous for, they would soon accomplish something far more revolutionary.

The Song Car-Tunes, produced in silent and sound versions, are the first to use synchronized music. Conductor Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld had backed the Fleischers since they first formed Out of the Inkwell Inc. He was friends with Dr. Lee DeForest, who had developed the soon to be widely used method of syncing sound and film. Max and Deforest met and began putting synchronized music on Ko-Ko’s Song Car-Tunes. The first of these, My Old Kentucky Home is not only the first cartoon to use synchronized music, but, in 1926, it predates both The Jazz Singer (1927) and Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928) [Often known to be the first sound cartoon]. My Old Kentucky Home was the first cartoon talkie. (S.13) The dog with the muffled voice introducing the bouncing ball speaks the first animated words on film.

Leslie Cabarga, in, The Fleischer Story, says of the Car-Tunes: “We know that the Fleischers were the first to make sound cartoons. But if timing is everything, Disney had it.”

 He is referring to Steamboat Willie. (S.14) Released after the success of The Jazz Singer, it was believed for many years to be the first sound cartoon. He claims, “…Disney took over the lead in popular recognition and his domination of the animated cartoon began.”

 By the 1930s everyone was using sound, including the Fleischers. Koko, however, did not make this transition easily. Despite being the source of the first talking cartoon, Koko and Fitz never spoke a word. It only makes sense that Koko would be retired: his name was associated with the Fleischer’s silent animation techniques. Koko, himself, was popular because he was an index of better, more lifelike animation. His entertainment value came from his ability to traverse into the real world, which he had been doing for a decade while other characters were following different paths. Characters had been staying in their own realm and rotoscoping became a novelty, as cartoons continued gaining fluidity.

Huemer says on the Inkwell series, “…the novelty carried it. The business got into trouble when the novelty wore off, and the people expected to see gags, and better animation and better ideas. Which, of course, Disney eventually succeeded in doing.”

 The Fleischer’s Talkartoon series was their solution. Koko was “…put out to pasture,”

  leaving the Fleischer’s in need of a new character, free of the clown’s connotations. Even the revised Song Car-Tunes, now known as Screen Songs ditched the clown. The answer to Mickey comes as early as the fifth Talkartoon, Hot Dog (1930). Leaving Koko out, they instead chose to revive Fitz, redesigning and renaming him. Thus, Bimbo was born. (S.15)

From the onset, Bimbo had the one thing Huemer claims Koko lacks: characterization. Bimbo is the Fleischer’s attempt at producing a cartoon with a personality of its own, without relying on the medium itself to deliver. The source of many of his gags are derived from Bimbo’s lecherous behavior. Later described by Richard Fleischer, “This was a much tougher, cigar-chewing, somewhat lecherous, piano-playing jazz hound…meant to be Mickey’s competition and complete opposite.”

 From the start, Bimbo was a womanizer through and through. His attempts to hit on women in Hot Dog land him in court. Later, in Accordion Joe (1930), Motion Picture News would report that Bimbo makes “violent and reciprocated love to an Indian maid” while turning the tribe into “jazz steppers.”


Bimbo’s popularity grew quickly, both surpassing and replacing Koko. In December of 1930, The New York Times put out an article entitled “Complicated Work of Making Film Cartoons,” following up their 1920 Koko article. Back at the Fleischer’s New York studio the article discusses the creation of these cartoons. This time Koko’s name is left unmentioned. Instead the article prefaces itself with a story of a small child, visiting the studio, hoping to find Bimbo, refusing to believe his fictional nature–a story that would never have been told of the clown who was famous for being animated. Yet, with the article’s main focus on their techniques, clearly Koko’s influence had been left on the studio. Even after retirement, Koko’s cross between revolutionary techniques and simple gags would remain a staple in the Fleischer’s name. Their history is tied to Koko, even in this attempt to leave him. 

Bimbo had his own problems. His design was inconsistent, changing color, shape, and size until 1932, finally in no way resembling the original [much less Fitz]. This inconsistency proved problematic, as a Film Daily review of the eighth talkartoon, Dizzy Dishes (1930) refers to Bimbo as a mouse. Despite also having “ a generous quota of laughs,”

  and being said by Variety to be “sufficiently amusing,”

 confusion that comes with this character [the dog was called a mouse] would in no way be enough to stand up to the Mickeys of the cartoon world. He couldn’t if he was barely even recognizable as a single character.

About the only consistent parts of Bimbo are his raging hormones. Fortunately for the Fleischers, who were adept at creating heavier, darker cartoons

, this was reason enough for a love interest. In Dizzy Dishes Bimbo plays the waiter of a restaurant/nightclub who becomes entranced by the performance of the voluptuous, half dog/half human singer who, in the course of her performance first unleashes that most famous of cartoon lines: “Boop-oop-a-doop.” (S.16)

Richard Fleischer asks, “Who would have thought that the sassy, ugly mutt from Dizzy Dishes would metamorphose into America’s sweetheart…?”

 Betty Boop’s take-off was not a sudden event, but she was a suitable love interest for Bimbo. Betty appears again with Bimbo in the next Talkartoon, Barnacle Bill (1930), taking on a larger role as the skipper’s wife, whom Bill, played by Bimbo, again “…makes violent love to.”

 [Notice the pattern?] Still, it was not until August 1931, with Bimbo’s Express, that Betty and Bimbo would be known to star together.

 (S.17) From this talkartoon, through the end of the year, Betty’s name gets bigger as she becomes more human. “Boop” was added to her name in Minding the Baby (1931) and the Talkartoons became the Betty Boop series.


Something significant happened on January 2, 1932, when the year’s first Talkartoon, Any Rags came out. Motion Picture Herald previewed it in December, calling it “Amusing” and “Good for light spot anywhere.”

 What this review does not mention, however, is the film’s title card, listing Betty as the star, supported by Bimbo and, none other than Koko the Clown. (S.18) Though only appearing in a small scene, Koko is featured in the short: his first appearance since 1929 with Inkwell’s “Chemical Ko-Ko.” Later in January, Film Daily reviewed the short mentioning Koko, but only in passing. The clown had come back, and it garnered little attention. It is hard to say why he was brought back [Perhaps they needed another character], but this was the beginning of a series of cartoons starring Betty Boop, assisted by Bimbo and Koko. Many of these, like Boop-Oop-A-Doop (1932), Betty Boop M.D. (1932) and Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933), feature Koko and Bimbo pining after Betty [Bimbo usually got the girl], or acting as Betty’s entourage. The clown had returned, only to play back-up to Betty and Bimbo.

Likewise, Koko was no longer in the same realm as before. He was in cartoons of a totally different style. He was no longer jumping in or out of the inkwell. He no longer caused problems for Max, and his own dog had surpassed him. But Koko’s roots were not lost. His biggest moment in these shorts puts him in the exact type of role he had previously enacted. Once again, he would be an index of the the talent and innovation of the Fleischers. Three of Betty Boop’s Talkartoons feature jazz great Cab Calloway (S.19) performing his famous song and dance moves. The Fleischers again used the Rotoscope [which they would still use occasionally] to record Calloway’s unique dance movements. The most famous of these

, Betty Boop’s Snow White, features Koko, himself, performing Calloway’s “St. James Infirmary Blues.” [Introduce clip] (S.20/Clip) (S.21) Calloway is the perfect vehicle for Koko to perform in shorts where he does not interact with the real world. At his best, Koko shows off the fluid movements and talents of real world figures.

Koko’s role in the Talkartoons lasted two years. His final appearance [an appropriate one] is in 1934’s Ha! Ha! Ha!. (S.22) This film brings Koko and Betty back to the drawing board with Max. He draws Betty on the easel, and goes to bed. Suddenly, Koko emerges from the Inkwell to devour Max’s leftover candy bar. Developing a tooth-ache, Koko is assisted by Betty. She administers laughing gas, sending him into a fit. Soon the gas loses control sending the objects in Max’s room, then the whole world into a laughing apocalypse. The final moments show Koko and Betty, still hysterical, jumping into the inkwell, which turns to life, laughing itself to death.

A fitting end. The black and white clown who had once jumped out of Max’s Inkwell laughs the world to death, before descending into the well for good. By now, Betty was the star and Popeye the Sailor was on the rise [made debut in BB cartoon]. The clown was old. He had served his purpose: The Fleischers were on the map, and were the frontrunners of New York animation. Koko had mainstreamed lifelike animation with his association with the Rotoscope, and his Song Car-Tunes provided the vehicle for animation’s first entrance into sound. This final cartoon [and the subsequent Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame (1934) featuring Max and Betty interacting] proves that neither the clown, nor the company could escape the original Inkwell format.

Many years later, Hal Seeger [President of Hal Seeger Prod.] asked Max to bring back the Inkwell series. Fleischer was old, but agreed, and the two began producing Out of the Inkwell (S.23) for syndication. One hundred episodes were made, featuring a new, color clown, and his friends and family, including a girlfriend, Kokette. Yet, Koko’s original purpose had been fulfilled. With new characters starring along side the clown, this shows an attempt at giving Koko the characterization he lacked. An advertisement in Variety described the cartoons: “…all delightful creations, animated with real photographic backgrounds for the delight of the audience.”

 With advertisements like this, the series was bound to end. Animation with real life backgrounds had been possible for forty years, now. The innovative nature of this novelty had worn off. The series premiered in 1963. In 1964, Out of the Inkwell, Inc. was gone.

From his first Rotoscoped appearance, through his revival in the 60s, Koko served a specific purpose beyond entertainment. His presence, though seemingly replaceable, consistently emphasized the innovation and techniques that made the Fleischers known. The clown would never escape these connotations and neither would the Fleischers. But this was not enough to give the clown fame. Koko was presented to the audience as an index of the novelty. As soon as the novelty became the mainstream, Koko was sent back into the Inkwell, to sit and wait for the pen to draw him again. (S.24)



(Cited & Uncited Sources)


“Alfred Weiss New Head of Red Seal and Inkwell.” Motion Picture News 27 Nov. 1926: 2035. Print.


Bige. “Short Subjects.” Rev. of Dizzy Dishes, by Max Fleischer. Variety 30 July 1930. Print.


Bradley, Edwin. The First Hollywood Sound Shorts, 1926-1931. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005. Print.


Bray Pictographs. Advertisement. Motion Picture News 30 Aug. 1919: 179. Print.


Cabarga, Leslie. The Fleischer Story. 2nd ed. New York City: DaCapo Press, 1988. Print.


Film Daily Yearbook., 1927. 63. Print.


 Flavin, Harold. “Opinions on Current Short Subjects.” Rev. of Ko-Ko Packs ‘Em In, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 14 Nov. 1925: 2364. Print.


Fleischer, Dave, “Recollections of Dave fleischer,” interview by Joe Adamson, Oral History of the Motion Picture in America. 25 July 1968.


Fleischer, Richard. Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2005. Print.


Huemer, Richard, “Recollections of Richard Huemer,” interview by Joe Adamson, Oral History of the Motion Picture in America. 8 Oct 1968.


Inkwell Imps Cartoons. Advertisement. Motion Picture News 5 May 1928. Print.


Inkwell Imps Cartoons. Advertisement. Motion Picture News 20 Oct. 1928. Print.


Kennedy, T.C. “Opinions on Current Short Subjects.” Rev. of Ko-Ko Nuts, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News Sept. 1925: 1660. Print.


“Latest Reviews of New Short Subjects.” Rev. of Dizzy Dishes, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 27 July 1930: 12. Print.


Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Print.


Max Fleischer’s Famous Out of the Inkwel. 2000. Inkwell Images Ink. DVD.


Max Fleischer’s Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes. 2003. Inkwell Images Ink. DVD.


Out of the Inkwell. Advertisement. Exhibitor’s Herald 25 Nov. 1922: 63. Print.


“Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc., in Receivership.” Motion Picture News 16 Oct. 1925: 1481. Print.


Pilling, Jayne. A Reader in Animation Studies. London: J. Libbey, 1997. Print.


“Read’Em and Reap, Here’s the Lowdown on the Dessert for your Feature Menu.” Rev. of Firebugs, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 19 Apr. 1930: 61. Print.


“Red Seal Pictures Show Big Increase.” Motion Picture News 26 Dec. 1925: 3200. Print. Seven Arts. Advertisement. Variety 23 Oct. 1963: 23. Print.


Richard Fleischer Papers. Margaret Herrick Library.


Shan. “Short Subjects.” Rev. of Bimbo’s Express, by Max Fleischer. Variety 1 Sept. 1931. Print.


“Shorts.” Rev. of Any Rags, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture Herald 26 Dec. 1931: 31. Print.


“Short Subjects.” Rev. of Accordion Joe, by David Fleischer. Motion Picture News 13 Dec. 1925: 34. Print.


“Short Subjects.” Rev. of Barnacle BIll, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 2 Aug. 1930: 89. Print.


“Sound Shorts.” Rev. of Betty Co-ed, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 19 April. 1931: 11. Print.


“Shorts.” Rev. of Bimbo’s Express, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture Herald 12 Sep. 1931: 27. Print.


“Sound Shorts.” Rev. of Boop-Oop-A-Doop, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 27 Dec. 1931: 11. Print.


“Sound Shorts.” Rev. of The Bum Bandit, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 10 May. 1931: 11. Print.


“Short Subjects.” Rev. of Swing You Sinners, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 11 Oct. 1930. Print.


“Short Subject Reviews-Sound and Silent.” Rev. of Sidewalks of New York, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 21 Oct. 1928. Print.


Smith, Chester J. “Sound Picture Reviews.” Rev. of Sidewalks of New York, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 20 Oct. 1928: 1212. Print.


“Sound Shorts.” Rev. of Barnacle Bill, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 3 Aug. 1930: 9. Print.


“The Inkwell Man.” Rev. of Out of the Inkwell, by Max Fleischer. New York Times 22 Feb. 1920. Print.


*The Reviews here represent only those scanned and copied for possible use in the paper’s citations. This bibliography does not represent every article and review of content relating to the Fleischers I viewed, as many were immediately recognized as being irrelevant to my research.