Popeye the Sailor Man
By Fred M. Grandinetti
For 85 years, generations have viewed the comedic actions of a unique figure in film history, Popeye the Sailor man. The spinach-eating swab was created for the "Thimble Theatre" comic strip in 1929 by E.C. Segar. Despite his success in the funnies, more people know of the character from his appearances in over 500 animated cartoons produced for both motion pictures and television.
The Fleischer Studios, unlike other cartoon studios during the early 1930's, illustrated the darker, meaner streets of New York City. "Betty Boop" was born from that era and Max Fleischer who was a great fan of "Thimble Theatre," plucked Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto from the funny papers putting each into one animated film. On July 14th, 1933, the comic strip trio appeared in one of the Betty Boop entries titled, "Popeye the Sailor."
Betty was used just briefly on screen as the film was designed to see if the sailor, who was a big hit with depression era audiences in newspapers, could translate that popularity to the big screen. Popeye passed the test and his own series began three months later.
The shadows, texture, the sub-vocal mutterings were staples of the Fleischer cartoons. There was more attention to detail in one Popeye cartoon than even in the best Disney animated production.
The Fleischers made full use of the black and white spectrum, using gray tones more effectively than anyone else in history. Many of the cartoons featured three-dimensional backgrounds, which made for astounding looking backdrops.
For this reason, even the earliest Popeye cartoons remain as fresh and vibrant today. The fact that the black and white "Popeye" series continues to be aired on television, with a huge following, is a testament to the work of the Fleischer Studios.
Mae Questel, one of the actresses who voiced Betty Boop, handled Olive Oyl's vocals.
Gus Wickie was famous for his hearty rendition of Fleischer's Bluto.
William ("Red Pepper Sam") Costello was the original choice for Popeye. When success went to Costello's head he was fired and replaced by the more tender sounding vocals of Jack Mercer. Mercer would go on to voice the character for the next 40 years with his under-the-breath mutterings bringing a greater personality to the character.
The Fleischer Popeyes were one of the most faithful adaptations of characters being transferred to animation from the comic strip.
Segar's other fanciful creations also made the transition to film; J. Wellington Wimpy, the hamburger eater, Eugene the Jeep, the magical creature from the 4th dimension, Swee'pea, Popeye's adopted son, found on the doorstep in 1933 and Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye's ol' goat of a father.
In 1936, Popeye would star in the first of three two-reel color animated cartoons, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor."
This cartoon, featuring dazzling three dimensional backgrounds, was often billed along with the theatre's main attraction. Popeye's other two-reel cartoons would involve battles with Ali Baba and a Wizard seeking Aladdin's lamp.
When the Fleischer Studios moved to Florida in 1938 and the Popeye films took on a brighter look, they were still Paramount Pictures (who funded the Fleischer Studios) number one short subject series.
However by 1942, the Fleischer Studios was deeply in debt to Paramount Pictures due to the studios mishandling of the Fleischer's second animated feature film, "Mr. Bug Goes To Town."
Paramount closed the studio in Florida, moved it back to New York and renamed it Famous Studios.
Though Famous continued to film the series in black and white the cartoons would switch to color by the end of 1943.
By the early 1950's, the scripts tended to focus in on the Popeye-Olive-Bluto romance angle, though the quality of the animation remained outstanding.
In 1957, Paramount Pictures needed a cash infusion, so they ceased production on the sailor's series deciding to sell the 234 "Popeye" films to Associated Artists Productions which, enjoyed tremendous financial success syndicating the series.
By 1960 Popeye cartoons were broadcast in over 150 television markets. King Features Syndicate, though owning the newspaper strip, shared no financial investment in the syndication of the movie cartoons. They decided to hire five animation studios to crank out a series of 220 Popeye TV-cartoons with limited animation during the years 1960 through 1961.
Mixed emotions still persist over these TV Popeyes, though they served to introduced more characters from Segar's comic strip (Rough House, The Sea Hag, Alice the Goon, Toar, King Blozo, Whiffle Bird) to viewers.
They were cranked out so quickly the qualities of many are downright dismal. Many feature animation so weak that people tend to believe that all 220 are horrible which simply is not the case. Jack Kinney 's unit was responsible for many of the bad cartoons, yet, his name also appears on many with excellent animation!
Gene Deitch, former head of Terrytoons, produced Popeyes, which are memorable due to their erie soundtracks. Gerald Ray cranked out Popeyes with amusing plots. Larry "Bozo" Harmon featured very simplified animation. The best of the lot were the Popeyes produced by Paramount Cartoon Studios.
Many stations aired both the Popeye cartoons and the Three Stooges shorts together, as they were the highest rated children's television properties.
By the early 1970's, Popeye's earnings in newspapers, theaters, and TV had grossed over $50,000,000. In addition to the estimated $100,000,000 in Popeye related toys, novelties and other retail merchandise.
Jack Mercer once again returned to voice the sailor. Mercer also was a story man on the new cartoons
Though the old violence could no longer be displayed the cartoons were entertaining nothingness and the sailor offered up safety tips to his young audience ("don't smoke", "stay away from drugs", "don't eat too many sweets", etc.,)
Hanna-Barbera lavished care on the cartoons in a good attempt of recapturing the virtue of the Fleischer Popeyes. This could not be said of the studios next Popeye project for the 1987-88 television season; "Popeye and Son." This CBS Saturday morning half-hour tried to update the sailor's mythos by having him married to Olive. Their union produced a spinach-hating son named "Junior."