"Out of the Inkwell" Comes Koko the Klown

When looking into the history of animation, “Out of the Inkwell” studios will most certainly come into play. In the 1920s, Max Fleischer, considered Walt Disney’s only real rival in the world of cartoon animation, created “Out of the Inkwell” films, which eventually led to a deal with Paramount Pictures.

With the creation of this company came the creation of many favored animated stars, such as Betty Boop and Popeye, but without “Out of the Inkwell” studios first star, those beloved favorites may have have never appeared. Max Fleischer introduced the world to a new kind of animation technique called rotoscoping, which involved drawing animation on top of frames from live action film. From this technique came the first star of the “Out of the Inkwell” series, Koko the Klown.

Many believe that the animated clown was always known as Koko, but in the beginning the character was only known as “The Fleischer Clown” or just simply, “The Clown.” As this clown evolved, it began to have slimmer features with a larger head. The third and final clown was revised by Dick Huemer, who had previous experience animating the cartoon hit, Mutt and Jeff. It was Huemer who also coined the name Koko. Huemer was able to convince Fleischer to move away from the rotoscope animation and instead work with the “in-between” animation process, allowing Fleischer to increase production output.

Fleischer’s first successful venture occurred in 1919 with the premiere of the part live-action/part animation “Out of the Inkwell” series of shorts, featuring none other than Koko the Klown. He maintained his own animated short for a while but was soon only seen with Betty Boop and though Koko the Klown never fully made it into the “talkies,” he did co-star in a Snow White/Betty Boop production, where Betty stars as Snow White and Koko, voiced by Cab Calloway, sings “St. James Infirmary.” This cartoon short along with other memorable Koko the Klown moments is available for public viewing at youtube.com.

Geppi’s Entertainment Auctions' Hake’s Americana and Collectibles has a 1922 Inkwell Koko the Klown theatrical poster from the short titled, Birthday, offered for bidding in its January auction. This could be the only Inkwell poster to have survived as well as being the only poster with Koko the Klown appearing as a solo star, as in later years he is paired with Betty Boop. This poster is also the only color Koko image seen early in his career with a yellow face and rosy, pink cheeks. As Koko evolved, his face became pale and white. This poster also has the rare Inkwell studio logo at the bottom of the page and contains multiple Koko elements many fans will recognize.

Also for auction is an original pen and ink Koko the Klown drawing by creator Max Fleischer. Dated 1922, it depicts Koko boxing a giant mosquito. There is an original inscription to Raoul Walsh; Hollywood actor, director and founder of the Motion Picture Academy and signed by Max Fleischer. This is also the earliest known original piece from Fleischer.

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