Monday, August 13, 2007

Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938

The following is the review I wrote for the newspapers I edit of the new four-disc set of the first five years of Popeye cartoons. I’ve additional comments aimed for animation fans that follow:

The advent of home video and the development of the DVD format have allowed movie fans to become movie collectors and have encouraged the release of material that has long languished in films vaults.

In the past, the release of restored prints of all of Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedies was a hit among collectors. Seeing director Fritz Lang’s science fiction opus “Metropolis” close to the form he had intended was a revelation on DVD.

The release last week of the Popeye cartoons produced by Max and Dave
Fleischer will be welcomed by older animation fans and should prove to be an eye-opener to young fans who have only read about these cartoons or seen only a handful of the shorts that have fallen into the public domain.

“Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938” features 60 shorts, two of the Technicolor Popeye 20-minute Christmas specials, and some excellent documentaries about the making of the cartoons.

Most importantly it makes available for the first time on any home video format some of the most popular and enduring animation ever created.

Now I will, in the interest of full disclosure, admit I’m prejudiced. As a kid I loved the Popeye shorts, which were a staple of local television programming until all black and white material was shunted aside by television programmers. In college I was reacquainted with the cartoons made by Max and Dave Fleischer and fell in love all over again.

I started researching the studio and interviewing a number of the people who worked on cartoons, including the Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman series. It has been a thrill and privilege to sit down with the people responsible in creating films that have meant so much to me and many, many others.

It has been one of the greatest mysteries to animation fans why King Features Syndicate, which controls the rights to the cartoons, has never allowed a home video release of the black and white shorts. The company has authorized collections of other, frankly, inferior Popeye cartoons, but not the ones that people craved to see once again. Thanks goodness that finally these productions are once again available to see.

The Popeye shorts, based on the tremendous comic strip “Thimble Theater” by E.C. Segar, were highly popular in the 1930s and into the 1940s. While contemporary film critics lavished praise on Walt Disney, exhibitors soon learned that many audiences preferred the one-eyed sailor to Mickey Mouse.

This collection begins with the first Popeye cartoon, actually an entry in the Betty Boop series and the evolution of the character is fascinating to watch. Taking their cue from the comic strip, the Fleischer animators and writers saw Popeye as a rough and tumble type who eventually showed his tender side and a strict moral code.

Depression-era audiences may have identified more with urban look and themes the Popeye cartoons featured.

These black and white cartoons also show that while a format for the seven-minute shorts were established, the Fleischer staff sought ways to bring freshness to the shorts, something later cartoons failed to do.

The Popeye shorts have long been criticized by some for their violent slapstick and for the treatment of Olive Oyl, Popeye’s often-fickle girlfriend. There are also some racial humor and references that are inappropriate today. Warner Video obviously was concerned enough about the contents to put a disclaimer the collection was intended for the adult collector and may not be suitable for children.

While I understand these issues, the Popeye shorts are fairly free of racial humor; unlike other cartoon series produced at the same time and, with the proper introduction, could be shown to children.

Highlights in this collection are shorts such as “A Dream Walking,” a spectacular example of timing and perspective in animation; “A Clean Shaven Man” and “Brotherly Love,” which both feature wonderful tunes by composer
Sammy Timburg; “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” another great marriage of music and animation; and two of the three Christmas specials featuring Popeye, “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor” and “Popeye the Sailor
Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves.”

These latter two films had fallen into the public domain and have been on hundreds of home video compilations over the years. They are presented here in the form audiences saw them during their original release and they are fabulous.

Several of the commentaries, specifically those of Disney animator Eric Goldberg and “Ren & Stimpy” creator John Krifalusi, point out just how accomplished the animation is in these shorts. Krifalusi comments he wouldn’t be able to animate some of the scenes seen in the cartoons.

After years of limited animation the basic vocabulary of the art form has been stunted. These classic “full animation” productions reveal the art of an earlier time.

The documentaries and commentaries are largely informative and accurate with “Forging the Frame: The Roots of Animation 1900-1920” essential viewing. What is missing is a separate documentary that explains who Max and Dave Fleischer were and the place they hold in motion picture history.

I’m a little too close to the subject, so don’t let that quibble stop you from picking up this landmark DVD release.

Several additional comments:
First, if the producer of the next round of Popeye cartoons would like a script and materials for a documentary on the Fleischers, I’d be happy to help. Not having something that actually put their careers properly within the context of American films history was an over-sight. I was surprised the great little story that was included in a “Popular Science” short from 1939 was used as an extra.

  • To see a clip of that short go here.

  • I was very happy to see the producers of the set pay homage to Jack Mercer and help set the story straight about who did Popeye’s voice when.

    I remember asking Jack Mercer who did the voice when he was in the military in World War II and he said no one would tell him. Mercer never received on-screen credit in a theatrical production as the voice of Popeye until his vocal cameo in Robert Altman’s “Popeye” in 1980.

    The lack of screen credit allowed other people to make claims that were not true and these claims were painful to Mercer.

    Until no less than a person than Jackson Beck confirmed to me that Mae Questel performed the voice while Mercer was gone, I would have thought it was more of the ego that Questel was known to exhibit.

    It was satisfying to me that the documentary nailed down the number of times Harry Welch performed the voice. Welch made claims over the years as being “the” actor to provide Popeye’s voice following William Costello.

    In the March 1941 edition of Popular Science piece by Milton Braeker quotes Welch as being Popeye, six of the Seven Dwarves, the Big Bad Wolf and Olive Oyl. This is, of course, complete manure. Welch didn’t do his Popeye work until Famous Studios moved back to New York in 1942. And he was just a fill-in for Mercer.

    One of the problems anyone has researching animation is the lack of the credits on cartoons. I was glad that through several of the commentaries, the fact was explained the two first of the two animators credited in the Fleischer shorts acted as the director in the way we think of an animation director.

    Dave Fleischer did two primary tasks as far as I’ve been able to determine: he added gags and he supervised recording sessions. He did sign off on model sheets, but his was not the only signature on many I’ve seen.

    This isn’t to knock Dave, but to emphasize the cartoons beloved by some many were really the product of great collaborators, rather than just one person.

    If we are looking for an auteur for the Fleischer cartoons, that person is going to be difficult to find. Willard Bowsky contributed a lot of the spooky themes seen in the Betty Boop and some Popeye cartoons. Myron Waldman liked sentiment. Lou Fleischer and Sammy Timburg obviously helped shaped the cartoons with their musical tastes – very New York, very urban. Waldman once told me that Roland “Doc” Crandall should receive the credit for the success of many of the early Boops. Look at the cinematic influence of Dan Gordon in a film such as “Terror on the Midway.

    Mercer and Questel should be lauded for their voice work. Mercer is right up there with Mel Blanc in my book.

    I’m tempted to credit Max’s influence with the reoccurring theme of machines in many of the shorts.

    I think you understand my point.

    What did you think of the series?

    © 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs