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By the time animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer lost their studio to Paramount Pictures in May 1941, the best Popeye entries were behind them. Paramount renamed the operation Famous Studios in 1942 (retaining most of the key Fleischer personnel) and forged ahead with its breadwinning cartoon star. However, Max and Dave’s creative spark was sorely missed.

Though the wartime adventures brought Popeye a welcome relief from Disney-style conformity, what became evident during the Fleischer/Famous transition was the domestic blandness that surrounded Elzie Segar’s spinach-eating hero — resulting in mediocre fare such as Happy Birthdaze (1943). Fortunately, the long-running series would enjoy an upswing in quality when Famous switched from black-and-white to Technicolor.

After decades of faded TV prints (Paramount sold its color Popeye library to Associated Artists Productions — better known as a.a.p. — for syndication in 1957), the Famous one-reelers have been gloriously resurrected in Warner Archive’s long-overdue Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s, Volume 1. Remastered from the original 35mm Technicolor negatives, the uncut 1943-45 cartoons on this Blu-ray look absolutely stunning. The colors leap off the screen and there are no a.a.p. logos in sight.

Of course, these Famous shorts did not represent Popeye’s first foray into Technicolor. That distinction belonged to Fleischer’s elaborate two-reel specials:  the Oscar-nominated Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937) and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939).

We're on Our Way to Rio

We’re on Our Way to Rio

Famous evoked the lavishness of the Fleischer two-reelers with its third color Popeye release, We’re on Our Way to Rio (1944). A full-fledged musical extravaganza, this eight-minute gem finds Popeye and Bluto at a Brazilian nightclub, where they encounter an Olive Oyl-inspired dancer singing the infectious “Samba Lele.” Determined to win over the Latin dancer by eliminating the romantic competition, Bluto falsely promotes Popeye as a samba champion. Thanks to a spinach-fueled transformation, Popeye becomes a skillful dancer and gives Bluto a nicely choreographed thrashing.

Everything clicks in We’re on Our Way to Rio — highlighted by the vibrant animation of Jim Tyer, Ben Solomon and William Henning, with a strong assist from composer Winston Sharples. It should be noted that Isadore Sparber and Seymour Kneitel, the credited directors of the 1943-45 Popeye entries, were supervising producers while head animators such as Tyer, Dave Tendlar and Graham Place served as de facto directors.

One of the few Famous Popeyes to hold its own with Fleischer’s vintage 1933-38 output, We’re on Our Way to Rio would have been a stellar achievement for any animation studio. However, Paramount was more supportive of George Pal’s acclaimed “Puppetoon” series, which earned the stop-motion pioneer a special Oscar in 1944. Though many Famous cartoons were submitted for consideration, the studio never received a single Academy Award nomination in its 25-year history. None of this mattered to Paramount, whose only concern was the bottom line — making certain Famous avoided the financial woes that were a contributing factor to the demise of Fleischer Studios.

She-Sick Sailors

She-Sick Sailors

Despite Paramount’s “business as usual” indifference, Famous produced some of its best work during this period. Among the remaining 13 shorts in this Blu-ray collection, She-Sick Sailors (1944), Shape Ahoy (1945) and Mess Production (1945) come the closest to matching the excellence of We’re on Our Way to Rio.

She-Sick Sailors is the classic Superman parody in which a clean-shaven Bluto impersonates the Man of Steel to impress Olive . . . and viciously mows down Popeye with a machine gun! (Naturally, the bullets are lodged in his spinach can.)  Co-written by Felix the Cat creator and legendary animator Otto Messmer, the cartoon remains great fun. Sammy Timberg’s rousing Superman theme from the 1941-43 Fleischer/Famous series makes a welcome return.

Vigorously directed by Tyer, Shape Ahoy offers a rare opportunity to see Popeye and Bluto as bosom buddies until they discover castaway Olive on their “men’s only” island. The short boasts a vivid Technicolor palette, several funny moments and a “blow me down” surprise ending. Unfortunately, this rambunctious energy would later vanish from the Famous Popeye series.

Shape Ahoy

Shape Ahoy

In terms of overall artistry, Mess Production could be mistaken for a genuine Fleischer cartoon. Set in a wartime steel factory, Popeye and Bluto vie for the attention of co-worker Olive with unexpected (and dangerous) consequences. The detailed animation and industrial backgrounds are truly impressive — further enhanced by Sharples’ memorable score.

The Anvil Chorus Girl is a significant Popeye release. Apart from being the first Famous remake of an earlier Fleischer short (Shoein‘ Hosses), this 1944 outing marked Jackson Beck’s debut as the voice of Bluto, with Mae Questel returning as Olive Oyl after a six-year absence.  The inimitable Jack Mercer continued to voice Popeye — a job he began in 1935 with King of the Mardi Gras. A talented and indispensable trio, Mercer, Beck and Questel also worked on the King Features TV cartoons in the early 1960s.

As retreads go, The Anvil Chorus Girl was one of the better efforts and a solid cartoon in its own right. However, most Famous Popeye remakes were comparable to 1945′s For Better or Nurse — an energetic but less amusing rehash of the Fleischers’ Hospitaliky (1937). Even worse, the Famous version adds a dreadful “twist” ending that negates the entire short.

Puppet Love

Puppet Love

Far superior is Puppet Love (1944), an inventive change of pace from the usual Popeye formula. Written by Joe Stultz and directed by Tyer, the results are truly bizarre as Bluto creates a life-size Popeye marionette to make his rival look bad during a rendezvous with Olive. Not exactly kid-friendly (Popeye gets ready for the big date by painting his toenails!), the cartoon remains a particular favorite among animation historians.

Pitchin’ Woo at the Zoo (1944) and Tops in the Big Top (1945) add some new wrinkles to the Popeye-Olive-Bluto dynamic. Though both shorts are fitfully entertaining, the Famous artists take away some of the fun by making Bluto a more sadistic villain. This regrettable character development became part of the studio’s increasing reliance on mindless cruelty and violence.

The 4K restorations add new luster to inferior cartoons. Popeye’s first Technicolor one-reeler was the pleasant but unremarkable Her Honor the Mare (1943), which featured the return of his Disney-inspired nephews in one of their more tolerable outings. Two misguided entries — The Marry-Go-Round (1943) and Moving Aweigh (1944) — represent the final appearances of Popeye’s bespectacled sidekick Shorty, whose obnoxious presence was brought to a merciful end. In all three shorts, Popeye functions as an atypical comic foil, thereby weakening his heroic character.

Tops in the Big Top

Tops in the Big Top

Spinach Packin‘ Popeye (1944) boasts a great title card but emerges as a cost-saving “cheater” with a cop-out dream framework. For the first time, Famous used clips from the Sindbad and Ali Baba two-reelers without giving the Fleischers (and their artists) screen credit. A few years later, the studio began to recycle footage from its own cartoons — delivering an uninspired Popeye “cheater” on a near-annual basis.

By far the most notorious short is the blatantly racist Pop-Pie A La Mode (1945), which places the shipwrecked sailor at the mercy of hungry cannibals until the spinach arrives. Politically incorrect to the extreme, this cringeworthy effort wasn’t totally banned from television until the early 1990s. A beautiful transfer of a truly ugly cartoon.

The revitalized Popeye series maintained a high level of quality until Famous Studios fell into a formulaic rut in 1949. Apart from a rare winner such as How Green Is My Spinach (1950) and Tots of Fun (1952), the Famous product was no longer strong to the finish. Lower budgets resulted in more inferior remakes of classic Fleischer shorts. Nevertheless, Popeye remained a reliable moneymaker until 1957, when Paramount sold the Fleischer/Famous cartoons to a.a.p. — thus ending the immortal sailor’s 24-year movie career while becoming a TV phenomenon in the process.

Unlike the 1941-43 Popeye DVD set released in 2008, the Warner Blu-ray offers zero special features or commentary tracks. Though a bare-bones disc, the eye-popping restorations more than compensate for the lack of extras. Hopefully, Warner Archive will not wait 10 years to remaster the 1946-47 Famous Popeye cartoons.

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