Strike Up the Band for Popeye the Sailor

I grew up watching Popeye cartoons after school, and while I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to creation dates when I was a kid, it appears that most of them were the Famous Studios Technicolor shorts from the forties and fifties. There were several series of Popeye cartoons, though, and I’m pretty sure I occasionally saw some from other eras. And fairly recently, I received Volume 1 of the Popeye the Sailor DVD releases, including the first sixty shorts in the series.

These were all made when Fleischer Studios was in charge, and many of their typical touches could be seen.

The character of Popeye was invented by Elzie Segar for the Thimble Theatre comic strip in 1929, and eventually became so popular he took over the strip. The cartoons started in 1933, and while I understand the strips featured complex stories (I’ll have to read them someday), the plot of a Popeye cartoon was always basically the same: Popeye and Bluto got into a fight over Olive Oyl, which Bluto came close to winning, only for Popeye to eat spinach and pound his rival to a pulp. Bluto and spinach had both appeared in the strip, but not very often; it was the cartoons that made them integral parts of the sailor’s world. Popeye was a good character for animation,and especially the Fleischers’ style of animation, due to his eccentric appearance. As such, he and his world could be manipulated in very cartoonish, gag-filled ways. The very early cartoons show other signs of Fleischer animation from the period, like the characters being in motion even while standing still and anthropomorphic animals for background characters. These stopped appearing in Popeye shorts pretty quickly, but the focus on gags remained, as did the well-rendered backgrounds.

One notable thing about the earliest Popeye cartoons is how little dialogue there was. A lot of it was just Popeye and Bluto saying “oh, yeah?” to each other. Later, while written dialogue remained sparse, Popeye began muttering additional lines under his breath, without his mouth being animated. This became even more prominent when Jack Mercer took over the voice of the sailor from William Costello, and Mercer ad-libbed a lot of additional jokes for Popeye to mutter. Also, while settings could vary quite a bit from one short to another (the second one took place in Mexico, with Bluto as a bandito), when the main characters were at home, it was pretty much always in an urban setting. Indeed, the buildings featured were often rather slummish and dilapidated. The Fleischers were based in New York City, so they put what they knew into the cartoons. After they lost control of the series, the city was used considerably less often.

That’s it for this post, but I have a few other Popeye-related entries planned for the near future. For now, I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.

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2 Responses to Strike Up the Band for Popeye the Sailor

  1. Xammi says:

    Fleischer Popeye had a unique 3D style of animation for the backgrounds that really stood out to me in my early cartoon-watching days. I recently purchased (on sale) 2 of the reprints of the Popeye weekly strip. As i understand, there are 6 volumes in total. It’s kind of a case of apples and oranges….i do enjoy comic strip Popeye for himself, but I saw the Fleischer animations first…over 30 years ago (!), so they will always be the “real” Popeye to me. (Sorry, Robin Williams!)

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