Friday, June 20, 2008

I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!

“He’s the lovable all-American sailor, an odd mix of rough and tumble mariner, caring gentleman and universal protector. Born of a depression, tempered by war, he’s one of the most enduring and endearing fictional characters ever created.” -- “I Yam What I Yam: The Story of Popeye the Sailor.”

We love Popeye! It’s an inescapable phenomenon of every generation -- what we enjoy as kids, we remember fondly as adults and rediscover with great joy. Those who attended Saturday matinees in the 1940s and early 50s saw Popeye in theaters, and loved him. Who wouldn’t? Those fans are now in their seventies. The same television that killed the matinee broadcast 1930s and 40s films to kids of the 1950s-60s. That generation discovered B-westerns, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, serials, cartoons and so much more. Those kids are now in their fifties and sixties. Ergo, anyone younger than fifty may have had little exposure to vintage Popeye. If kids don't see them when they are young, how can they be expected to become rabid fans now? Of course a few will, who can see greatness in black and white, but Popeye mania is unlikely to return. An exemplary DVD release cannot replace blanket television broadcasts in an era when every kid watched the same show and loved it for the anarchic, surrealist humor. Popeye kicked butt, and we can't show that anymore!

In 1933 Max Fleischer introduced Popeye to movie audiences in a Betty Boop cartoon called Popeye the Sailor. Popeye’s newspaper comic strip creator, Elzie Segar, is credited right under the main title, as is “By arrangement with King Features Syndicate.” Betty appears in the short and even does a hula dance with our sailor. Olive Oyl and Bluto appear in the familiar design and voices we know today. Bonnie Poe was the voice of Olive Oyl for this and the first few Popeye cartoons, but Mae Questel quickly assumed the Olive role while continuing as the voice of Betty Boop. The spinach device was rarely used in the comic strip, but it empowered Popeye with super strength in the first cartoon and proved such a boffo gimmick that it became a continuing plot device, and invadvertently gave many moms of past generations an opportunity to get their finicky kids to "eat your spinach!"

After 109 Popeyes, Max Fleischer lost his studio to Paramount in 1942 and the animation unit was renamed Famous Studios. Starting with You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap Famous Studios went on to make 122 more Popeye cartoons. After the war the cartoons were all made in color, the animation was smooth created by many of the same animators, but the Fleischer flair was gone. In 1957, the last Popeye theatrical cartoon was released – Spooky Swabs -- for a total of 231 Popeyes. The end? Hardly, it was a new beginning. Paramount sold the package to TV distributor Associated Artists Productions or AAP and they hit the tube in 1958-59. Every major city had a daily hosted kid show that highlighted the Popeye cartoons. The popularity went into orbit. King Features rushed out new Popeye toys and commissioned new five minute cartoons. The limited animation technique of 1960-62 looks pretty dreadful today, but Jack Mercer, Mae Questel and Jackson Beck still voiced the bizarre, stylized characters - and kids still watched, though likely with less enthusiasm than older fans held for Fleischer’s original surreal classics.

Perhaps you recall the 1980 feature film Popeye starring Robin Williams in his first film. It’s an interesting fiasco directed by Robert Altman, but it just doesn’t feel like Popeye and was poorly received by audiences. Far from reviving interest, it began Popeye’s decline into near obscurity. In the 1980s Hanna Barbera took a crack at the character with mixed results. The old fans didn’t watch it and the young kids probably wondered who the heck the funny sailor was.

During the 1970s, black and white anything became forbidden, and the Fleischer classics disappeared from the airwaves. Matinee at the Bijou spurred a revival of black and white film on PBS during the 1980s, but otherwise the Popeye cartoons have not been widely seen in thirty years until now. They were never even released on VHS, like the Betty Boop cartoons. Warner Bros. owned the films, but King Features still owned the character, and the two could never work it out until 2007.

Warner Bros. discovered there was cartoon gold in their vaults when they began releasing their “Looney Tunes - Golden Collection” DVD box sets in 2003. The sets proved to be a runaway hit and Warner Home Video has lavished the same care and respect on Popeye Vol. 1, which came out in July 2007, and Popeye Vol. 2, just released. This is a superb opportunity to discover the quirky humor, the fisticuffs, the strength-giving powers of spinach, the lively retro music, and the surrealism of the world of Popeye and friends. Just run out and buy or rent these today!

1 comment:

Spider63 said...

I had friends who firmly believed that Popeye was constantly swearing in the first early cartoons and that if you listened closely when he was muttering, you could hear him cursing. It was hard to tell. Unfortunately, those early Popeye cartoons are rarely on. Some of them dealt with taboo issues (racism), and probably will never be seen again.