BluRay/DVD Reviews

POPEYE THE SAILOR: 1933-1938, VOL. 1

By • Jul 31st, 2007 •

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A bizarre muttering Navy man with one shut eye and misshaped arms beats up a gigantic grunting bearded sadist while a very skinny, hyperactive woman watches and screams hysterically. Nearby, a slow-witted man is only concerned about his pile of hamburgers. Know who I‘m talking about? Popeye the Sailor and his friends, of course. Warner Brothers has released an amazing four-disc set of the classic early cartoons featuring the fist-swingin’ swabbie made between 1933 and 1938.

Popeye, along with his “goil” Olive, and his chief rival, Bluto, have stayed a hugely popular staple of American cartoon culture since he first appeared in the funny pages in 1929. Four years later, Max Fleischer, the film animation genius behind the then widely popular Betty Boop cartoon series licensed Popeye for a series of shorts. Fleischer’s Popeye films, made between 1933 and 1938, combine outrageous comedy with unforgettable, edgy sight gags, many of them completely weird, as if out of a fever dream. Popeye’s adventures were taken out of Fleisher’s hands, and created completely in color during the 50’s, becoming more kid-friendly, and losing that lunatic edginess that Fleisher was best at. Popeye cartoons would continue to be produced by bargain basement producers, cutting corners, stifling imagination, as seen in some shabbily animated shorts in the 70’s, and modernized in the last twenty years. The latest installment in the Popeye film legacy includes some rather drab three-dimensional cartoons. Yawn! However, Warner’s newly released DVD box set focuses only on the 60 Popeye cartoons from his golden Max Fleischer era, 1933 to 1938.

Like today’s SOUTH PARK and FAMILY GUY, cartoons work best mirroring humanity at it’s worst, and at its most insane. In the Fleisher Popeye cartoons, everybody in Popeye’s world is egotistical and self-serving beyond belief. Popeye, and his “friends” always brag about themselves, often singing bizarre ballads about their own questionable virtues. As they fight, egg on fights, or look for fights, they are each their own psychopathic cheerleading squads, and they all love violence. When we first see Popeye in his debut cartoon, POPEYE THE SAILOR (1933), he walks on a ship’s deck, happily singing a song about how strong and dangerous he is, while he punches harmless objects belonging to other people into little tiny bits.

Fleischer was Walt Disney’s only real rival during the 1930’s. While Disney’s cartoons were all set in rural farm settings, or in wide-open spaces (usually California, Uncle Walt’s home base), Fleischer’s Popeye is a New York City boy. Fleischer animated Popeye in his Manhattan studio, and this strong to the finish sailor lives in a crowded, noisy, often crumbling warped urban setting. Popeye is always at odds with New York, and it’s constantly funny, and often incredibly surreal.

In CAN YOU TAKE IT? (’34), Popeye comes across a private club where the members simply beat each other up all day. In SOCK-A-BYE BABY (’34) (child- friendly title, by the way!) Popeye baby-sits an infant who needs silence. In one scene, Popeye punches a radio blaring an opera soloist. We watch Popeye’s fist become an electronic signal that flies to the radio station and delivers a deadly left hook on the jaw of the broadcasting opera singer. In A DREAM WALKING (’35, which by the way features some of the best camera movement in early animation) a Manhattan construction site becomes a living cavern of amazing peril and danger for a sleepwalking Olive .

I watched some of these cartoons with my friend Shawna who exclaimed “They’re constantly fighting! I would never show these cartoons to little kids! I don’t care if Popeye always sings about being on the up-and-up!” That may be true, but I would be more concerned over Fleischer’s totally demented view of women, especially when Olive is in the picture. She’s fickle! She has both Popeye’s and Bluto’s pictures on the wall. She will constantly dump whomever she is dating if the rival proves stronger, or richer. (In the non-stop funny musical THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (’34), she dumps Popeye for a pompous, strange looking trapeze artist.) With her caterpillar like beanpole body, shrill voice, and self-centered outlook, Olive constantly feels she’s the greatest gift to lovesick men.

Each of the Popeye shorts last seven minutes, and they are each mostly over-packed with cinematic silliness at its crazy best. The set also features two beautifully restored Technicolor Popeye 20-minute shorts – POPEYE MEETS ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1938) and the incredibly loopy POPEYE MEETS SINBAD THE SAILOR (1936). These are some of the best examples of early Three-Strip Technicolor. Documentaries tracing the history of Popeye, the Fleischer brothers and very early film animation round out this must-have box set.

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