I’ve been spending much of this weekend reacquainting myself with an old Navy friend, as it were: Popeye the Sailor, the squinty, pugnacious seaman created by E. C. Segar for his Thimble Theatre comic strip and transformed by Max and Dave Fleischer into one of the greatest of all the theatrical-cartoon series.
Getting old Popeye cartoons was usually a pain in the neck, since neither the Fleischers nor Paramount Pictures, which distributed the series until 1941 and then took over ownership of the Fleischer animation studio, bothered to keep track of copyright matters; it was left to King Features Syndicate, for whom Segar had worked, to sort all this mess out. (Apparently the original contract called for the films to be destroyed after ten years. Didn’t happen.) Eventually things were sorted out, and Time Warner, owner of Turner Entertainment, owned the theatrical shorts, and Hearst, owner of King Features, owned the made-for-TV cartoons that went into production in 1960. After negotiations that bordered on byzantine, Warner Home Video announced that they would be releasing all the cartoons, theirs and Hearst’s, on DVD in chronological order.
The first set was issued last summer: four discs containing the first sixty shorts done by the Fleischers, all in B&W, plus two of the three Technicolor two-reelers. For the most part, the restoration is very good, though there are fairly obvious edits in some of the early credit sequences, presumably due to the difficulty in finding really good negatives. Still, even the worst of the lot look pretty darn good, especially considering the miserable quality of the PD collections floating around, which tend to have ratty old TV prints and bad framing. About a quarter of the shorts have commentary tracks by film historians, one of which finally explained to me how it was that King of the Mardi Gras (1935) looked so much like Coney Island.
Still, what struck me most about these cartoons is how much Popeye reminds me of, well, me: he has no particular aspirations beyond doing his duty, he has no qualms about administering a thrashing to the Bad Guy, and even in his proudest moments there’s something he missed. (Case in point: You Gotta Be a Football Hero, from 1935, in which he gets past the entirety of Bluto’s team and heads for the goal line, but stops at the 5, thinking he’s finished.) Obviously I absorbed a lot of this stuff when I was a kid. And having done so, I felt somewhat saddened by the obligatory disclaimers at the beginning of each disc, warning of the possibility hell, it’s an absolute certainty of various nowadays-deemed-offensive stereotypes, inasmuch as I didn’t grow up believing any of them and I know damned few people who did. (If anyone’s stereotyped in these cartoons, clearly it’s the White Guy with a Short Temper, which describes me better than it does any of the Chronically Offended.)
The other cartoon series of this era which I took to heart was the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies output of Warner Bros. But to me, they were worlds apart: Bugs and Daffy gave me punchlines, but it was Popeye who actually packed the punch. Oddly, I never did care much for either carrot cake or spinach salad.
The next set is due out later this year: two DVDs wrapping up the 1930s.