Judge Victor Valdivia frequently explains himself by saying "I Yam What I Yam." Strangely, very few people, especially law enforcement officials, find it enlightening.
Our reviews of Popeye The Sailor Man Classic Cartoons: 75th Anniversary Collector's Edition (published August 30th, 2004), Popeye The Sailor: Volume One (1933-1938) (published August 22nd, 2007), and Popeye The Sailor: Volume Three (1941-1943) (published November 10th, 2008) are also available.
"Well, blow me down!"
There simply is no better way to sum up the thrill of watching Popeye the Sailor: Volume Two (1938-1940). Here are two talented animators, Max and Dave Fleischer, paired with an enormously beloved character; both the animators and the character are at the peak of their powers and popularity.
Facts of the Case
Here are the 31 cartoons collected on this set:
By 1938, Popeye was the most massively popular cartoon character in the United States, more beloved than Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse or the Fleischers' own Betty Boop (Warner Brothers' Bugs Bunny hadn't yet been created). From his original appearance in the comic strip Thimble Theater (created by E.C. Segar) he had been a hit, but it wasn't until after the Fleischers started making Popeye cartoons in 1931 that he became a star. The Fleischers carefully fleshed out the character and his world in a string of successful cartoons (some of which are compiled on Vol. 1 of this series). Through their enormous talents as both animators and writers they turned him from a sometimes one-dimensional character into the pop culture icon he is today. If the Fleischers are not nearly the household names that their animation contemporaries are, it's only because they lacked both the skills as businessmen and self-promoters of other artists and producers. Judging by just how rowdy and hilarious many of the cartoons collected here are, they deserve to recognized as talents as worthy as any of their era.
By this point, the Fleischers had perfected their technique of making the cartoons. Unique amongst animators of the era (and even now), they disdained scripts, storyboards, and pencil tests. The cartoons were essentially pieced together gag by gag, and the dialogue was ad-libbed by the voice actors to the animation. That jazzy improvisational style, so antithetical to the more-controlled methods used by studios such as Disney, gave these cartoons a fresh and exhilarating energy. While some of the later versions of Popeye (particularly those done in the '70s and '80s) have dated badly, these older cartoons are, with a few exceptions, timeless. Considered quirky and anarchic in their day, they in fact laid the groundwork for much modern humor, especially in animation. The mumbled ad-libs and asides by Popeye are some of the funniest part of the cartoons. The gags and brawls are fast-paced, without letup or dead spots. If they do on occasion show heart, they are never treacly or sentimental, unlike even some of the Warner Brothers cartoons of this era. This style also allowed the Fleischers to introduce interesting new characters, such as Eugene the Jeep (the little dog with a weird bark who can teleport anywhere), the Goons (the giant bald-headed cretins with long limbs and huge noses), and Popeye's irascible father, Poopdeck Pappy. In any other cartoon universe, such bizarre characters would have stood out badly, but given the gritty, loose feel of these cartoons, they fit in naturally.
The Fleischers had also finally hit upon a characterization of Popeye that worked. In the comic strip and in earlier Popeye cartoons, Popeye was considered a one-dimensional hothead, and some were put off by the strip's bizarre characters and cheerful violence. William Randolph Hearst, who owned the rights to Thimble Theater, was reportedly concerned that young children would emulate his raucous behavior, so by 1938 Popeye was gradually changed from a short-tempered brawler into a hard-charging roughneck with a heart of gold who could be counted upon to do the right thing. Some fans grouse that the character was "softened" for mass consumption, but in reality he was really more well-defined. Popeye's bull-in-a-china-shop aggressiveness was channeled to fight bad guys as opposed to random people, and he became more endearing, not to mention funnier, as a result. Plus, the more complex he was, the more characters around him became interesting as well. Bluto, for instance, who barely figured in the original strip, evolved from a violent lummox into a sort of yin to Popeye's yang. In "Fightin' Pals," Popeye realizes that he may not like Bluto, but needs him around to balance himself out, a realization that Bluto arrives at as well.
In fact, the cartoons seen here also prove that Olive Oyl may actually be the most fully defined female character in classic animation shorts. Characters like Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck were never really that appealing, constrained as they were to being either scolding nags or eyelash-batting objects of desire. The male characters would get into adventures because of (or in spite of) them, but they never seemed to say or do anything. Olive Oyl, on the other hand, is hardly, if ever, a squealing victim. She's given several scenes of quirky humor in "Plumbing Is a 'Pipe'." In "Stealin' Ain't Right" and "Ghosks Is the Bunk," she joins Popeye to get revenge on Bluto, and becomes more than just Popeye's girlfriend; she's also his partner in crime. In several shorts (especially "It's the Natural Thing to Do," a sly self-referential parody of Hearst's hand-wringing), Olive Oyl brawls, punches, and jokes just as hard the boys, no small achievement when the boys are hard cases like Popeye and Bluto. As a pre-feminist icon, she's far more interesting than many of the bland Disney princesses.
Such a forward-looking sensibility (especially for the late 1930s) is surprisingly evident in some of these cartoons. In "Bulldozing the Bull," Popeye stubbornly refuses to participate in a bullfight, arguing vehemently that it's "inskhuman to animules!" In "Never Sock a Baby," Popeye learns that spanking a child can lead to resentments and traumas when Swee'pea runs away rather than accept punishment. There are several gags that play on the formulas and conventions of animation, such as characters leaving the frame or asking the audience for help, the sort of gags that only a handful of other directors would have even considered at the time. This kind of bold risk-taking is what makes the cartoons collected here just as hilarious and thrilling as they were some seventy years ago. Though the Popeye series never again reached such peaks (especially after 1942, when the Fleischers were stripped of their studio and the character passed on to less capable hands), at least Popeye's golden age is fully preserved on this set, so that fans can see just how great Popeye at his best could be.
For this set Warner Brothers has remastered the original cartoons. They're all in black-and-white (except for "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp," which is in full color) and they look sharper and crisper than ever, even as old as they are. The Dolby Digital mono mix sounds great as well.
As with their Looney Tunes box sets, Warner Brothers has packaged this set with a large assortment of extras. Fourteen of the cartoons here have accompanying audio commentaries, from animation historians like Michael Barrier, Glenn Mitchell, and Jerry Beck, to animation directors and writers like Greg Ford and Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series). These are all generally top-notch, with each participant giving some interesting behind-the-scenes information and also frequently putting the cartoons in their proper historical context. Disc One has a documentary, "Out of the Inkwell: The Fleischer Story" (47:20). It's a thorough telling of the sometimes tragic Fleischer story, which isn't nearly as well known as it should be. Also included are three shorter featurettes (dubbed "Popumentaries"): "Eugene the Jeep: A Breed of His Own" (3:17), "Poopdeck Pappy: The Nasty Old Man and the Sea" (5:09), and "O-Re-Mi: Mae Questel and the Voices of Olive Oyl" (8:39). In each, animation historians like Leonard Maltin and voice actors like June Foray and Maurice LaMarche (both of whom did voices in later incarnations of Popeye) discuss the characters and voice actors like Jack Mercer (the voice of Popeye) and Questel (who did most of Olive's lines) in detail. These are lighter in tone but still very enjoyable.
Disc Two has another "Popumentary," "Men of Spinach and Steel" (6:20), which compares Popeye with another popular character the Fleischers animated, Superman. It's not entirely convincing in arguing that Popeye should be considered a precursor to superheroes, but it's engaging nonetheless. There's also one of the Fleischers' Superman shorts, "Mechanical Monsters" (11:02). The animation is stunningly beautiful, but the dialogue and story are rather corny, so this is really for hardcore Superman buffs. "Paramount Presents Popular Science" (6:32), a promotional film from 1939 that details the making of "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp," is a vintage look at a time in animation that doesn't really exist anymore. "Females Is Fickle Pencil Test" (0:31) is a brief snippet of rough animation (also known as an animatic) from one of the shorts on the set. "Stealin' Ain't Honest Storyboard Reel" (6:12) is a split-screen display that runs the cartoon on one side and the original storyboards on the other. Both of these are really more geared for animation students, but are notable for their rarity, as the Fleischers almost never did such preplanning. "Early Max Fleischer Art Gallery" (3:05) consists of various sketches taken from Fleischer's notebooks back when he was 14 years old in 1897. His remarkable draftsmanship is evident even then. Finally, the disc is rounded out by a pair of audio extras, "Michael Sporn Interviews Jack Mercer" (6:11) and "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man Vintage Recording" (2:25). Both appear to have been taken from old phonograph records, judging by the pops and hiss, but have some nuggets worth hearing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only misstep that Warner Brothers has made with this set is in the sequencing. "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp" is one of three experimental Popeye cartoons that the Fleischers made in the '30s. It's in full color and lasts 21 minutes, unlike the other shorts, which are all in black-and-white and last about six. The full color and animation in "Aladdin" is beautiful, but the pacing is much slower and the humor is noticeably tamer. For all its beauty, it lacks the fireball energy of the other shorts, and placing it in the middle of the set causes a lull that hurts the overall flow. Though it was placed in its exact chronological order, it would have been a better idea to place it in a separate section on the disc, so that it doesn't interrupt the tempo of the faster, punchier shorts.
Ignore all those cheap and shoddy Popeye DVDs you see in drugstores and supermarkets. This set is the real deal, containing the only incarnation of Popeye that really matters. Where else are you going to see 70-year-old cartoons that are just as laugh-out-loud funny as the day they were made? And where else are you going to see 70-year-old cartoons that frequently display a sensibility that, far from being dated, is actually just now being reflected in pop culture? Popeye the Sailor: Volume Two is absolutely essential, even if you don't have Volume One, and will illustrate why the Fleischers were animation titans who deserves to be considered in the same league as Walt Disney, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones. Warner Brothers deserves special praise for putting together an exemplary package.
100% Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary on Selected Cartoons
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