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Technicolor Popeye

The Technicolor Popeye cartoons hold a special place in animation history, and the recent release of a Blu-ray collection featuring these classic shorts has sparked renewed interest in the colorful world of Popeye.

The technicolor Popeye cartoons are a delightful treat for animation fans and serve as a valuable preservation of classic animated works.

Technicolor Popeye

In May 1941, the animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer lost their studio to Paramount Pictures, marking the end of their best Popeye works.

Paramount rebranded the studio as Famous Studios in 1942, keeping most of the original Fleischer team, but their creative influence needed to be more noticed.

Technicolor Popeye
Technicolor Popeye

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During the transition from Fleischer to Famous Studios, it became apparent that the quality of the Popeye cartoons could have improved due to the lack of the Fleischer brothers’ creative spark.

The shift from black-and-white to Technicolor brought about an improvement in the series’ quality. Despite this, the Popeye series faced a period of mediocrity during the early 1940s.

Following the sale of the color Popeye library to Associated Artists Productions in 1957, the Famous Studios’ Popeye cartoons, particularly those from 1943-45, have been meticulously restored and are now available in the comprehensive collection “Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s, Volume 1.”

These restored cartoons showcase vibrant colors and pristine quality, a far cry from the faded TV prints of the past.

The transition to Technicolor was not entirely new for Popeye, as the Fleischer studio had previously produced Technicolor specials in the late 1930s.

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We’re on Our Way to Rio

However, Famous Studios emulated the grandeur of these earlier works with their own Technicolor release, “We’re on Our Way to Rio” (1944).

“We’re on Our Way to Rio” is a remarkable eight-minute musical extravaganza featuring Popeye, Bluto, and an Olive Oyl-inspired dancer in a Brazilian nightclub.

The vibrant animation and catchy music in this short film, along with the skillful direction of the animators, make it a standout piece compared to the earlier Fleischer works.

Despite the quality of their productions, Famous Studios never received an Academy Award nomination during their 25-year history, with Paramount’s focus primarily on financial success rather than critical accolades.

This lack of recognition did not diminish the significance of Famous Studios’ contributions to the animation industry.

Technicolor Popeye
She-Sick Sailors

Despite Paramount’s lack of significant attention, Famous Studios created some of its most exceptional work during this timeframe.

Among the 13 remaining short films in this Blu-ray collection, “She-Sick Sailors” (1944), “Shape Ahoy” (1945), and “Mess Production” (1945) come close to matching the high standard set by “We’re on Our Way to Rio.”

“She-Sick Sailors” is a timeless parody of Superman, featuring a clean-shaven Bluto pretending to be the Man of Steel to impress Olive and shockingly attacking Popeye with a machine gun.

This classic cartoon, co-written by legendary animator Otto Messmer, remains thoroughly entertaining and features the beloved Superman theme by Sammy Timberg.

Directed with vigor by Tyer, “Shape Ahoy” presents a rare dynamic of Popeye and Bluto as close friends until they discover Olive stranded on their “men’s only” island.

The short stands out with its vibrant Technicolor visuals, comedic moments, and an unexpected ending.

Technicolor Popeye
Shape Ahoy

“Mess Production” showcases remarkable artistry, resembling a genuine Fleischer cartoon. Set in a wartime steel factory, the short depicts Popeye and Bluto competing for Olive’s attention, leading to unforeseen and dangerous outcomes.

The detailed animation and industrial backgrounds, complemented by Sharples’ memorable score, make this short truly impressive.

“The Anvil Chorus Girl” holds significance as the first Famous remake of an earlier Fleischer short (“Shoein’ Hosses”) and marked Jackson Beck’s debut as the voice of Bluto, with Mae Questel returning as Olive Oyl after a six-year hiatus.

Jack Mercer, Mae Questel, and Jackson Beck’s contributions to this release were invaluable, as they were to the King Features TV cartoons in the early 1960s.

While “The Anvil Chorus Girl” was a commendable effort and a solid cartoon, most Famous Popeye remakes, like “For Better or Nurse” (1945), were energetic but less amusing recreations of Fleischer originals.

The Famous version of “For Better or Nurse” also introduced a disappointing twist ending that detracted from the overall short.

Technicolor Popeye
Puppet Love

“Puppet Love” (1944) is a creative departure from the typical Popeye storyline.

In this unconventional tale, written by Joe Stultz and directed by Tyer, Bluto crafts a life-sized Popeye marionette to tarnish his rival’s image during a meeting with Olive.

Despite its unconventional nature, the cartoon remains a favorite among animation historians, although it may only be somewhat suitable for children due to some non-kid-friendly elements.

“Pitchin’ Woo at the Zoo” (1944) and “Tops in the Big Top” (1945) introduce new dynamics to the Popeye-Olive-Bluto relationship.

While both shorts offer intermittent entertainment, the Famous artists’ portrayal of Bluto as a more ruthless villain detracts from the enjoyment.

This unfortunate shift reflects the studio’s increasing reliance on gratuitous cruelty and violence.

The 4K restorations breathe new life into less impressive cartoons.

“Her Honor the Mare” (1943) marks Popeye’s first Technicolor one-reeler, featuring the return of his Disney-inspired nephews in one of their more tolerable appearances.

However, “The Marry-Go-Round” (1943) and “Moving Aweigh” (1944) signal the final appearances of Popeye’s bespectacled sidekick, Shorty, whose grating presence comes to an end.

Technicolor Popeye
Tops in the Big Top

Popeye’s role as an atypical comic foil in these shorts diminishes his heroic character.

“Pop-Pie A La Mode” (1945) is the most infamous short due to its overtly racist content, depicting Popeye at the mercy of cannibals until the arrival of spinach.

This politically incorrect and cringe-worthy production remained circulated until the early 1990s despite its offensive nature.

The revitalized Popeye series maintained a high standard until Famous Studios entered a formulaic phase in 1949.

While occasional successes like “How Green Is My Spinach” (1950) and “Tots of Fun” (1952) emerged, lower budgets led to inferior remakes of classic Fleischer shorts.

Despite this decline, Popeye remained a profitable franchise until 1957, when Paramount sold the Fleischer/Famous cartoons to a.a.p., concluding the iconic sailor’s 24-year movie career and paving the way for its transition into a TV phenomenon.

Unlike the 2008 Popeye DVD set, the Warner Blu-ray lacks special features or commentary tracks.

However, the impressive restorations compensate for this omission, hoping that Warner Archive will remaster the 1946-47 Famous Popeye cartoons more promptly.

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Ashish Maharjan
Ashish Maharjan
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