DRAWN & QUARTERED
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Reliving my (spinach) salad days
"I'm Pop-eye the Sailor Man (toot!), I'm Pop-eye the SAY-lor man (toot!), I'm strong to the finish, 'Cause I eats me spinach, I'm Pop-eye the Sailor Man (toot! toot!)"
With that famous Sammy Lerner theme song buzzing through my head, it was childhood bliss all over again to see those black-and-white Popeye cartoons of the 1930s.
"Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938: Volume 1"
(Warner Home Video)
Like many in the Baby Boom generation, I first saw these cartoons on television on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Re-viewing these minor masterworks from the Fleischer Studios on the just-released, authorized collection of "Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938: Volume 1," I realized that my love for the craft of animation originated with these cartoons.
When these cartoons were made, the eccentric sailor was already a pop culture icon. Originating from Segar's "Thimble Theatre" newspaper comic strip, Popeye and his colorful supporting cast of characters (i.e., the lanky and rubber band-like Olive Oyl and the brutish Bluto) successfully made the transition to the movies, thanks to the fervent imaginations of supervising director and gag man Dave Fleischer and such head studio animators as Seymour Kneitel and Willard Bowsky.
Working in tandem with the music and story departments, the animation teams consistently produced quality theatrical shorts, including three two-reelers in glorious Technicolor. Two of the three are in this volume, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor" and "... Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves," and the remastered color is absolutely vibrant.
Combine that with the studios' patented stereoptical process -- cel-animated characters moved in front of sets built on a rotating platform -- and the added detail of depth of field really helps Popeye and company come to life.
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But don't discount the 58 other black-and-white shorts. Considering that these cartoons were coming out of the New York studios every couple of months, the quality is unbelievable.
This particular five-year period in the '30s was definitely the golden age for Fleischer studios, whose urban grit contrasted with the more whimsical work that the Disney studios were doing in Los Angeles.
An opening disclaimer on each Popeye disc states that some of the cartoons reflect the popular ethnic and sexual stereotypes of the day. Yet "Blow Me Down!" -- featuring Popeye dealing with a band of Mexican banditos -- is beloved by Nickelodeon "El Tigre" animators Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua. On their audio commentary, they remember as kids seeing these broad caricatures on TV. Far from being insulted, they were absolutely giddy that their native culture was even represented in a cartoon.
These theatrical shorts define the word "cartoony." Driven by ingenious action and comic fight setups, there's never a lull. The love triangle of Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto is at its most hilarious in the shorts "A Dream Walking" and "King of the Mardi Gras." Set on a building site and a carnival roller coaster, respectively, the two cartoons are clever in their comic timing.
My memories of these Popeye cartoons are so indelible that I still remember specific scenes and songs from them. The catchy tunes of "We Aim to Please" and "A Clean Shaven Man." Olive Oyl's grotesque makeup as a potential bride in "For Better or Worser." The loopy tango sequences by "Popito and Olivito" from "Morning, Noon and Night Club." And, in "Learn Polikeness," those great ad-libs by Jack Mercer, who provided Popeye's unique voice for 40-plus years.
But regardless of the nostalgia, this volume of Popeye cartoons is a must-buy for any animation fan.