Judge Russell Engebretson was delighted to spot the only cartoon in which Olive Oyl displays a nice pair.
Our reviews of Popeye The Sailor Man Classic Cartoons: 75th Anniversary Collector's Edition (published August 30th, 2004), Popeye The Sailor: Volume Three (1941-1943) (published November 10th, 2008), and Popeye The Sailor: Volume Two (1938-1940) (published June 17th, 2008) are also available.
Remastered, uncut—and fortified with spinach!
This four-DVD set is the much-anticipated first volume of Fleischer Studio's Popeye the Sailor theatrical cartoons from the 1930s. Thanks to a cooperative effort between studios and copyright owners, these 60 cartoons can now be seen—for the first time ever—unedited, restored, and in chronological order in a single collection.
Facts of the Case
The set kicks off with the 1933 "Popeye the Sailor," (ostensibly a Betty Boop cartoon, although her part is only a cameo as a sideshow hula dancer) and ends with 1938s "Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh." All but two of the animated shorts are black and white single reel cartoons that run approximately six minutes each. A pair of two-reelers, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor" and "Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves" are in Technicolor and weigh in at about 16 minutes each.
The collection is rounded out with a hefty set of extras that includes 22 audio commentaries, two documentaries, eight featurettes (entitled "popumentaries"), and 16 bonus cartoons, most of them silent, from 1915 through 1933.
A complete content list follows:
Popeye was only one of many cartoon characters created by Elzie Crisler Segar for his Thimble Theatre comic strip (1919-1938). The one-eyed sailor made his first appearance in 1929 as a supporting character and became an unexpected hit with Depression era readers of the strip. Max and Dave Fleischer acquired the rights to animate the already popular character, and the first Popeye animated cartoon appeared in 1933.
Much of the charm of these early animated cartoons comes from the voice acting. Popeye was first voiced by William "Red Pepper Sam" Costello. The studio gave him the boot after the 26th cartoon—by most accounts due to his expanding ego and rudeness. During the search for a replacement, one of the Fleischer brothers overheard Jack Mercer, an employee in the animation department, doing an excellent impersonation of Costello's Popeye voice. He was convinced to become the new voice of Popeye and continued in the role for 45 years. Except for the first two cartoons, Mae Questal—she of Betty Boop fame—provided the voice of Olive Oyl until 1938. She styled the voice after actor ZaSu Pitts. For those not familiar with Pitts' voice, there is a chance to hear her when she makes a brief appearance in one of the DVD extras. The similarity is striking. Bluto's gruff grumbles were provided by Gus Wickie and William Pennell.
The majority of the dialogue was ad-libbed after the cartoons were finished (an almost unique practice in animated cartoons). In most scenes the characters' mouths do not move as they mumble their lines. Mercer, Wickie, and Questal proved particularly adept at improvising witty rejoinders and jokes during post-synch.
Another wonderful facet of the old Popeye cartoons is the music. Does anyone under the age of 90 think of anything but Popeye when they hear "The Sailor's Hornpipe"? The Fleisher brothers had royalty free access to Paramount's entire music library, and they made extensive use of popular tunes and jazzy numbers that would have been prohibitively expensive to the average cartoon studio. Watching these cartoons again after a forty-plus years hiatus, I was struck by how musically oriented they are. Even the cartoons sans singing and dancing have a toe-tapping rhythm that the main and incidental characters keep time with in nearly every movement. Popeye's piston-pumping gait in the first cartoon, or Olive Oyl's sleepwalk balancing act in "A Dream Walking" are amazingly synchronized to match the musical tempo. It's delightful to watch.
Naturally, the animation itself is of utmost importance. The Fleischer's had a directorial style of cartooning that contrasted sharply with that of Walt Disney. The animators did not attempt to draw realistic figures constrained by the laws of physics, and they were less interested in storylines than in gags (Max Fleischer insisted there be at least one gag in every scene). But that is not to imply that the animators were slouches when it came to intricately inked scenes and backgrounds. With the exception of the radically different Disney style of animation, there is no hand-drawn cel animation today or since the forties that can match the detail and complexity of the Fleischer cartoons. Listen to animator Mark Kausler's commentary on "The Paneless Window Washer" as he describes the difficulty of drawing Popeye in forced perspective, and it will give you a deeper appreciation of the artistry behind animated cartoons.
In addition to the foreground animation, many of the backgrounds are startling for their 3-D perspective. Realistic 3-D backgrounds were a specialty of the Fleischer Studio. For a few of the cartoons, elaborate stereoptic tabletop models were created that could rotate behind the characters. The most distant appearing objects, such as clouds, do not move, while objects in the middle (perhaps trees and buildings) move more slowly than the closest background objects. "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor" is a stunning example of how effective the three dimensional effect could be. There is nothing like it today. Computer animators can pull off some amazing tricks, but the look of handmade drawings is a whole other animal. The gorgeously restored Technicolor print only enhances the depth of field.
I'd like to clarify that any similarity between these theatrical cartoons and the made-for-TV glop that was extruded from King Features and Hanna-Barbera Productions from 1960 to 1988 is entirely coincidental. If those are the only Popeye cartoons you have seen, you have only experienced degenerate simulacrums of the real thing. No one makes cartoons like these any more. Where else, for instance, can you find the animated precursor to Fight Club? In "Can You Take It?" you can enjoy the spectacle of Popeye pounding a passel of fight club street toughs into mint jelly and bringing the whole brick building down around his ears in a fit of spinach-induced berserker fury. Or how about "For Better or Worser" in which the bachelor Popeye, sick of burning his dinner and bungling domestic chores, decides to take a bride by picking one up at the local "matrimonial agency" that suspiciously resembles a brothel. Olive Oyl is picked by both Brutus and Popeye, then fought over and unceremoniously dragged from the agency to the nearest wedding chapel. As filmmaker Greg Ford says in the audio commentary, the text of this cartoon is a grotesque commentary on male-female relationships, and Popeye's grungy bachelor's pad is the complete antithesis of the Disney Studio's prettified cartoons of the same era. Animators in the commentaries, one after another, profess amazement at the backgrounds and level of detail in the cartoons. As Popeye and Swee'pea glide sinuously between gears and sprockets in a scene from "Lost and Foundry," a director in the audio commentary says that he doesn't even know how they animated such complex moving machinery. To reiterate, they don't make them like this anymore.
The quality of the DVD presentation, for all but the nit-pickiest, is beyond reproach. I don't know what generation of prints was used for the transfers, but they are all clear and clean. If any digital video noise reduction is present, I don't see it. The elements are not perfect, as there are some specks and minor imperfections here and there. Keep in mind that the first of these cartoons was projected onto a theatre screen 74 years ago, although it's hard to believe they are that old when viewing these cleaned up prints. Despite its age, the audio is top-notch. The soundtrack—naturally enough for its age—is monophonic, but so clear I could actually understand all of Popeye's mumbled-under-the-breath jokes. I was surprised by how undistorted the restored music and dialogue came across on my accurate bookshelf speakers, which can be merciless at revealing flaws in the audio. Almost none of the hiss or clipping one usually hears on ancient optical tracks is present.
Finally, a DVD cartoon collection I've watched recently got it right on the extras. Tex Avery's Droopy—The Theatrical Collection contained one measly, 15 minute featurette, and The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection had some nice extras drawn from the old television show, but no new material. By contrast, Popeye the Sailor: (1933-1938), Volume One is packed from beginning to end with audio commentaries and features from a wide-ranging group of animators, directors, and historians. The first disc includes a 43 minute documentary on Popeye the Sailor that covers his career from comic strip hero through his various studio incarnations up to the present. The second disc contains an excellent 31 minute documentary that is a mini-history of animation between 1900 and 1920. It begins with the flip book and zoetrope and progresses to a discussion of Max Fleischer's rotoscoping technique with Koko the Clown. The silent cartoons are a great inclusion, although they will be of only historical interest to most viewers. A few of them, however, are quite entertaining. One that impressed me was "Bobby Bumps Puts a Beanery on the Bum" (1918). There is no dialogue, but it sports an original music soundtrack. The cartoon's mordant wit is conveyed with a surrealistic flourish as we watch the artist's hand create the characters of a boy and dog and drop them into a difficult situation with a temperamental chef. The denouement is an inspired bit of existential whimsy. The extras taken all together are a fine introduction to the history of animation and the Fleischer Studio in particular.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A couple of the cartoons portray ethnic groups in a less than stellar light. The worst one, "Blow Me Down," is set in Mexico with Mexican hombres drawn as sneaky pistoleros sporting scraggly mustachios, slicked-back hair, and evil toothy smiles. In my view this is weak stuff when compared to the portrayal of the Japanese in the WWII propaganda cartoons that were soon to come. Besides, take a gander at Popeye's permanent squint and bulging forearms connected to pipe-stem biceps, along with Olive Oyl who has the figure of a rubber snake and sex appeal to match. Neither one is exactly super model material. Cartoons, whatever their race or gender, are all about caricature.
Jules Feiffer, a well-know cartoonist who wrote the script for Altman's film version of Popeye, sums up the character best. He calls Popeye a working class sailor who had no mission or agenda, other than just to get along. Admittedly, Popeye's method of getting along included innumerable punch-fests with Bluto, beating the snot out of sundry bad guys, and the occasional smack-down of a rogue cartoon animal—usually in the name of protecting his fickle girlfriend Olive Oyl. But it's all in good clean fun, and a Popeye cartoon is the one place where marathon fisticuffs and ingestion of copious quantities of spinach are socially acceptable behavior. There was good reason why Popeye was more popular than Mickey the Mouse by the mid 1930s. Purchase this sterling DVD cartoon collection and find out why.
Popeye protecks the weakerist. Not guilky.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• I Yam What I Yam: The Story of Popeye the Sailor
• IMDb: Popeye the Sailor (1933)
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