Friday, July 14, 2023

The 90th Anniversary of Popeye Cartoons

Scene from "Popeye the Sailor" (1933)
It was 90 years ago on this date, on June 14 1933, that the animated theatrical short "Popeye the Sailor" was released. Having first appeared in the comic strip Thimble Theatre, "Popeye the Sailor" marked the film debut of Popeye, as well as his love interest Olive Oyl and his rival Bluto. "Popeye the Sailor" would launch an entire series of Popeye theatrical cartoons that lasted until 1957.

Popeye first appeared in the comic strip Thimble Theatre by E.C. Segar on January 17 1929. At the time Thimble Theatre was almost ten years old, having debuted on December 19 1919. In the beginning the comic strip centred on a character named Ham Gravy and his girlfriend Olive Oyl. Thimble Theatre was known for its sometimes lengthy storylines, in which some characters would appear never to be used again. Popeye was one of these characters who was meant to appear for only one storyline. As it turned out, Popeye became so popular that the character was brought back only five weeks after his first appearance. Popeye was given a larger role in Thimble Theatre until eventually he was the comic strip's central character. He replaced Ham Gravy as Olive Oyl's love interest, and Ham Gravy left the comic strip, last appearing on May 12 1930.

With Popeye as its new lead character, Thimble Theatre became not only one of King Features' most popular comic strips, but one of the most popular comic strips in the United States. With the success of Thimble Theatre and the popularity of Popeye, it was then natural that in November 1932 that King Features entered into an agreement with Fleischer Studios, to produce a series of cartoons starring Popeye and the other characters from Thimble Theatre. Fleischer Studios, run by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, had already seen a good deal of success in animation. During the Silent Era they had produced the popular Out of the Inkwell series of cartoons. It was in 1930 that they introduced their most successful original character, Betty Boop. Starting in 1926, the Fleischer cartoons were distributed by Paramount Pictures.

While the very first Popeye cartoon, "Popeye the Sailor" starred Popeye and Betty Boop only had a brief cameo, it was officially counted as part of the Betty Boop series. The first official cartoon in the series was "I Yam What I Yam," released on September 29 1933. As to "Popeye the Sailor," its plot was fairly simple, with Popeye and Bluto fighting over Olive Oyl, this time in a carnival setting. The theatrical short not only marked the film debuts of Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto, but also introduced the song "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man," written by Sammy Lerner. The opening theme of the first few cartoons was a variation of the song "Strike Up the Band (Here Comes a Sailor)," written in 1900 by Andrew B. Sterling and Charles B. Ward. It had earlier been used in the 1930 Fleischer Studios Screen Songs animated short "Strike Up the Band." After the first few theatrical shorts, an instrumental version of "The Sailor's Hornpipe" served as the first part of the opening theme, which would segue into "I'm Popeye The Sailor Man."

In "Popeye the Sailor," Billy Costello voiced Popeye, Bonnie Poe voiced Olive Oyl, and William Pennell voiced Bluto. Mae Questrel, the actor now most associated with Olive Oyl, first voiced the character in the third cartoon, "I Eats My Spinach," although Betty Poe would still voice Olive Oyl in some cartoons until 1935. Mae Questrel continued to provide voices for Fleischer Studios cartoons until 1938, when the Fleischer Brothers moved their studio from New York City to Miami. She returned to voicing Olive Oyl in 1944 after Paramount had taken over Fleischer Studios, renamed it Famous Studios, and moved everything back to New York City. As to Billy Costello, after 25 cartoons he was fired by Fleischer Studios. As the popularity of the Popeye cartoons grew, Billy Costello began to demand more money and even time off during recording sessions. He was replaced by Jack Mercer, an animator with a gift for imitating voices. Jack Mercer continued to voice Popeye until 1957 when production on the cartoons ended. Both Jack Mercer and Mae Questrel would provide voices for the series of made-for-television Popeye cartoons produced between 1960 and 1962. Jack Mercer would also voice Popeye for the 1978 Saturday morning cartoon The All-New Popeye Hour.

Eventually other characters from Thimble Theatre beyond Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto would appear in the Popeye theatrical cartoons. Hamburger loving J. Wellington Wimpy first appeared in the second cartoon, "I Yam What I Yam." Swee' Pea first appeared in the 1936 cartoon "Little Swee' Pea." Eugene the Jeep first appeared in the 1938 cartoon "Popeye With the Jeep." The Goons would only appear once in the series of animated theatrical shorts, in the 1938 cartoon "Goonland."

The Popeye cartoons proved to be phenomenally popular. Popeye was the undisputed star of the Fleischer Studios cartoons by 1936. As the 1930s progressed, Popeye became the most popular animated cartoon character in the country, surpassing Disney's Mickey Mouse. Fleischer Studios even created a "Popeye Club," in which for 10 cents members would receive a Popeye kazoo, a membership card, and other items. Popeye would continue to be the most popular animated character even as the Thirties came to a close.

During the Thirties, Fleischer Studios would produce three Popeye Colour Features. These cartoons differed from other Popeye cartoons not only in that they were in colour (at the time the Popeye series was still in black-and-white), but that they were also longer, ranging in length from 16 to 21 minutes. The first of the Popeye Colour Features, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindband the Sailor," was released on November 27 1936 and was nominated for the 1936 Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. The second, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves," was released on November 26, 1937. The third and final Colour Feature, "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp," was released on April 7 1939. It was the longest of the Colour Features at 21 minutes in length.

It was in May 1937 that conditions at Fleischer Studios resulted in a strike that lasted for five months. It was partly due to the strike and to take advantage of lower corporate tax rates that Fleischer Studios moved to Miami, Florida in September 1938. Production of Popeye theatrical shorts continued unabated, but some have detected differences between the cartoons produced in New York City and the ones later produced in Miami. The colours in the cartoons were brighter after the move to Miami, but the artwork was also less detailed.

Despite the success of the Popeye cartoons and later the Superman cartoons, Fleischer Studios were financially in trouble for much of its history. In 1937 Paramount Studio loaned Max and Dave Fleischer the money to build a bigger studio, the goal being to produce animated features with which to compete with Disney. Neither Gulliver's Travels (1939) nor Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) proved to be overwhelming successes at the box office. Short of money, the Fleischers continually looked to Paramount for more loans. Finally, on May 24 1941, Paramount took over Fleischer Studios, renaming the company Famous Studios. Eventually Paramount also moved production back to New York City. The Fleischers themselves remained in control of production until the end of 1941. The first Popeye cartoon released by Famous Studios was "You're a Sap, Jap," on August 7 1942.

One change that would be made in the character of Popeye even as Fleischer Studios was coming to an end was a change in what Popeye wore. Originally wearing the sailor suit he wore in Thimble Theatre, in "The Mighty Navy," released on October 14 1941, Popeye joined the Navy and began wearing a U.S. Naval uniform. Afterwards, Popeye would appear in his original sailor suit in only two more cartoons: "Popeye Makes a Movie" (released on August 11 1950) and "Big Bad Sindbad" (released on December 12 1952). "Big Bad Sindbad" mostly reused footage from the 1935 Colour Feature "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor."

With the exception of the three Colour Features, Popeye cartoons were produced in black and white until 1943. It was with "Her Honour the Mare," released on November 2 1943, that the series began being shot in colour. While "Her Honour the Mare" and other cartoons in the mid-Forties were produced using Technicolor, some cartoons in the series in the late Forties used such cheaper colour processes as Cinecolor and Polacolor.

Most of the animators with Fleischer Studios remained with Famous Studios, although there would be noticeable changes in the cartoons from when the Fleischers were in charge. While production values remained high for much of the Forties, many feel that the Popeye cartoons produced by Famous Studios lacked the creativity of the entries produced by Fleischer Studios. The plots of the theatrical shorts became more formulaic, as did the gags in the cartoons. Matters would grow worse in the 1950s, when Paramount downsized the staff of Famous Studios and the budgets for the Popeye cartoons and other theatrical shorts were cut. Some of the cartoons from the Fifties would even reuse footage from earlier cartoons (an example from above being "Big Bad Sindband" reusing footage from "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindband the Sailor"). It was in 1956 that Famous Studios was renamed Paramount Cartoon Studios. Production on the Popeye cartoons would continue for one more year, with the final short, "Spooky Swabs," released on August 9 1957.

It was in June 1956 that Paramount sold the Popeye theatrical shorts to television distributor Associated Artists Productions. The Popeye theatrical shorts proved to be phenomenally successful on television, so much so that in 1960 King Features commissioned a new series of animated shorts made for television. These new made-for-TV cartoons would also prove to be a hit. It was in 1958 that United Artists bought Associated Artists Productions. In turn, United Artists would merge with MGM in 1981. In 1986 Ted Turner bought MGM/UA. He then sold it back to Kirk Kerkorian, but retained ownership of the MGM/UA library, including the Popeye theatrical shorts. The Popeye cartoons would air on Ted Turner's channels, such as TBS and the Cartoon Network. Turner Entertainment was acquired by Time Warner in 1996. It was in 2019 that Turner Classic Movies began airing the Popeye theatrical shorts, and they still air on the channel to this day. MeTV also shows the Popeye theatrical shorts, both on their weekday series Toon In With Me and on their Saturday morning series Popeye and Pals.

Lasting for 24 years, the Popeye theatrical shorts proved to be among the most successful theatrical cartoons of all time.Much of this was perhaps due to the high quality of the Fleischer cartoons, which featured superior animation and a great deal of creativity when it came to stories Already a popular comic strip character, the theatrical cartoons propelled Popeye to even greater heights. He ultimately became one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world.

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