Judge Bill Treadway declares that spinach is superior to both anabolic steroids and creatine.
Well, blow me down! 85 color cartoons!
2004 marked the 75th anniversary of the creation of an American icon. Who is this icon, you might ask? Well, he wears a white sailor suit. One of his eyes is always shut. He enjoys munching on a leafy green vegetable nobody on Earth likes. The love of his life is the homeliest girl in town. Did I forget to mention that he mangles English like there's no tomorrow?
Give up? It's Popeye the Sailor Man, who in spite of his eccentricities has become beloved throughout the world. To commemorate his anniversary, Koch Vision has released the first season of his 1960-63 television series on a triple-disc set.
Facts of the Case
Everybody on this planet has heard of Popeye the Sailor. Few know his origin, though. He made his debut on January 17, 1929 as a supporting player in E.G. Segar's comic strip Thimble Theatre. That strip had already been in existence for ten years, revolving around the Oyl family of Sweethaven. Popeye was introduced as a hired hand for a voyage planned by Olive's brother Castor and her boyfriend Ham Gravy. In the year that followed, Popeye became so popular that the strip's focus changed from the Oyls to the spinach-munching sailor. Olive also got a new boyfriend (no prizes for guessing who).
In 1933, Max Fleischer and his brother Dave decided to introduce Popeye to the movies. The debut short, Popeye the Sailor Meets Betty Boop, became enough of a hit to justify a series of shorts. From 1934 to 1942, the Fleischers made many Popeye shorts, all in black-and-white with the classic opening-and-closing cabinet revealing the credits. The Fleischers made a few changes from Segar's strip. The dark tone of the strip was replaced by a sunnier one. Bluto (later Brutus) was elevated from minor character to major player status. Popeye went from disliking spinach to adoring it. If you want to see a truly faithful adaptation of Segar's strip, see Robert Altman's 1980 musical.
After the Fleischers were ousted from Paramount Pictures in 1942, son-in-law Seymour Kneitel and Famous Studios continued the series. These cartoons updated Popeye to a more contemporary setting (notice that Olive's clothing is more modern) and were in full color (the first batch of shorts was made in Technicolor; later batches used the cheaper Polacolor and Cinecolor processes).
In 1959, Paramount decided to shut down their animation unit for good. King Features Syndicate noticed that the Paramount-made Popeye shorts drew great ratings on television since their initial airings in 1956. With this in mind, they decided to resurrect the sailor for television. Eighty-five cartoons were commissioned for the first season. To meet the demand, King Features Syndicate commissioned four animation units to produce the shorts. One unit was led by Seymour Kneitel and Famous Studios, now an independent studio. The second unit was headed by Gene Deitch, working out of England and Poland with John Halas and Joy Bachelor (who made the 1955 animated feature Animal Farm). The third unit was under the watchful eye of Larry Harmon (Bozo the Clown). The last unit was headed by former UPA animator Jack Finney (Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoing Boing). For three seasons, over 240 of these shorts were produced, with Kneitel and Kinney producing the majority of them.
Aside from the Looney Tunes, there was no other cartoon I would watch religiously except for Popeye. With a comfortable 2:00 P.M. time slot on WNYW here in New York, it was pretty much essential viewing. Media Home Entertainment issued a series of videocassette compliations of the King Features Syndicate series in 1982 that became popular in the rental circuit. I have always collected Popeye-themed material, and I still have my book-and-record (remember them?) set as well as my old ColecoVision video game. When several Famous Studios/Fleischer Studios shorts reached the public domain, of course I had to have them. Even after all these years, I still have fond memories of being drawn into the colorful world of this down-to-earth sailor.
What exactly is the appeal of this ugly, spinach-munching sailor? Perhaps it's the idea that an ordinary guy can overcome adversity and win the honest way. Well, some might consider eating spinach to be cheating, but at least it convinced millions of kids to eat that disgusting green vegetable. Popeye is simply a lovable character who gives hope to those who often find themselves the underdog.
For some strange reason, the 1960-63 series is looked down upon by rabid fans of the original Fleischer series. I cannot see any reason why a person cannot admire this series as well. The animation is quite good for its time, especially that of the Kneitel and Kinney units. It doesn't compare to the enormous detail of the Fleischer cartoons, but it serves its purpose. The stories are entertaining and often very funny to watch. The vocal performances are as strong as, sometimes even better than, those in the original series. Jack Mercer returns as the voice of Popeye (he also scripted several of the shorts) and shows us why he will always be the definitive Sailor Man. The musical score is outstanding. The Kneitel unit had access to the original Winston Sharples scores from the previous series, so those shorts tend to be superior to the rest. The other scores still work, often underscoring the action without giving it away.
Eighty-five cartoon shorts from the first season are spread out over three discs. For the sake of space and your eyes (not to mention my hands), I have not included individual synopses and ratings for the individual cartoons.
Koch Vision presents the cartoons in their original full-frame format. Believe me when I tell you that this is the best I have ever seen these cartoons look. When they used to air on WNYW, the prints were in horrible shape. Looking back at a few that I managed to tape over seventeen years ago, they were loaded with grime, blemishes, and faded colors. Koch Vision has done a remarkable restoration on these cartoons. The colors are once again vivid and blindingly beautiful. Grime is eliminated completely. Yes, there are still some scratches and specks present. Those will never go away, especially with the "dry-printing" technique that was used to make hundreds of dupe prints for individual stations back in the '70s and '80s having left its mark.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. I think that is appropriate: Stereo sound would be too much for a deceptively simple cartoon such as Popeye. What matters is that the sound come across well, and it does. Koch Vision has done fine work here. The music and dialogue balance in perfect harmony, neither one overwhelming the other. There are some crackling sounds present as well as some pops on the soundtrack, but they do not detract from the aural experience.
There are no extras, but I really do not mind. Just having 85 of these classic cartoons in one package made me happy. It had been too long since I had seen them last.
While some may consider $39.98 too steep a price, I think it is a bargain. These cartoons have not aired in any form on television in over fifteen years (at least in New York, that is). The old Media Home Entertainment VHS releases are long out of print. Where else can these rare shorts be found? Besides, forty bucks for three discs is a great bargain
Koch Vision is found not guilty of finally presenting these lost cartoons in a definitive manner. Their restoration effort earns them a special citation. As for that spinach-eating sailor and his friends, it is good to have them back again. Yes, even Brutus and the Sea Hag!
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