Sunday, January 13, 2008

DVD Review: POPEYE 1933­–1938

Don’t be fooled by any overnight cable versions, ‘80s VHS public domain slap-togethers, or YouTube streams. This collection of POPEYE is the one for which fans have salivated for a long time. Full disclosure: I love Popeye and would excuse any minor flaws but this nearly seven-hour package is perfect and what the DVD player was made for: pristine prints of classic toons.

The four-disc set contains:

  • sixty Popeye cartoons, many with commentary
  • eight Popumentaries
  • 16 silent cartoons starring Krazy Kat, Mutt and Jeff, and others from the dawn of animation

Disc 1 opens with Popeye the Sailor’s 1933 film debut, a cartoon eponymously titled but presented under the banner of another Fleisher Bros. cartoon star, Betty Boop. Popeye was already a popular King Features comic strip character, created by E. C. Segar, and the one-eyed* sailor’s first appearance in the movies is heralded in the first scene. Newspapers (remember them?) come rushing off the presses and a close-up of one paper reveals the headline:

The Sailor with a “Sock” accepts Movie Contract

A “photograph” of Popeye on board a ship magically comes to life and instantly we get the first of several trademarks and recurring themes in the series: the “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” song, the “toot-toot” of his pipe, and the fluidly circular motion of his arms and hips as he swaggers along. Gags 1 and 2: he smashes an anchor and turns it into hooks, then pulverizes a ship’s clock and the pieces reassemble into over a dozen little clocks. “So keep good behavior that’s your one lifesaver,” he sings. About two minutes in we meet girl friend Olive Oyl at the dock and learn that she can take care of herself against a masher, one of Popeye’s shipmates heading for shore leave. Interestingly they include barnyard animals in sailor suits. These non-human characters in human jobs disappear in later cartoons. Then Bluto, Popeye’s rival for Miss Oyl, makes a play for Olive. She fights him to a draw to the tune of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” (the tune is used again in another Popeye cartoon in this set, “Beware of Barnacle Bill”). When Popeye shows up he just pushes Bluto aside and takes Olive to the carnival. Bluto is angry and you can tell from the raging battleship on his bare chest that he’s plotting revenge. For all the action described so far, and I left out some, we haven’t even hit the three minute mark.

We have a long shot of the carnival to the tune of “The Band Played On.” There’s an unbelievable amount of movement in this scene: a tunnel of love that pours people out and up into a spinning Ferris wheel, which drops patrons in two directions: onto a floating-in-air/ rotating merry-go-round and into the cars of a moving roller coaster. Here come the laughs: Bluto brutalizing the peacock ticket taker followed by Popeye eschewing the hammer to test his strength and using his fist to hit the block, which rings the bell so hard that it flies 93 million miles to give the sun a black eye.

A near-topless pre–Hayes Code Betty Boop does the Yaaka Hula and Popeye jumps on stage with her and busts a move as he dances (looks like rotoscope), grabbing the Bearded Lady’s beard and making a hula skirt out of it. A kidnapping and attempted murder-by-locomotive of Olive by Bluto is thwarted by our hero, aided by a can of spinach.

I’m in Disc 2 now and every night I watch one or two cartoons with one of my sons. He’s an aspiring voice artist and theater major. He’s learning a lot from Popeye, Olive, Bluto and the genius of the Fleisher’s Bros. and Segar’s greatest and long-missed creation. The Popumentaries are great too, especially the one on the men (and 1 woman!) who voiced Popeye.


*One-eyed or just permanently squinty? I’m not sure.

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