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POPEYE THE SAILOR: VOLUME ONE
1933-1938

Review by Michael Jacobson

Creators:  Max & Dave Fleischer
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  416 Minutes
Release Date:  July 31, 2007

“I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam,

I’m Popeye the sailor man!”

Films ****

In the pioneering days of animation, there was Walt Disney, there was Tex Avery, and there were Max and Dave Fleischer.  The Fleischers, who got an early start in the silent days with their “Out of the Inkwell” shorts and their beloved Koko the Clown, were consummate gag men, artists, and envelope pushers, frequently mixing live action and animation for surprising and crowd-pleasing results.  And Betty Boop became a star as recognizable to audiences as Charlie Chaplin.

In the pioneering days of newspaper comic strips, Elzie Segar was an equal innovator.  Encouraged by William Randolph Hearst, Segar’s “Thimble Theater” strip was an instant reader favorite, filled with memorable characters, storylines and humor.  But the addition of a one-eyed sailor with bulging forearms in a supporting role would change the face of the comics and big-screen animation for all time.

That character was embraced by the fans, who clamored for more.  Segar would name him Popeye, and he grew from a bit player to the star of the strip.  And when Max and Dave Fleischer were looking for something new to bring to their cartoons, they found Popeye just as endearing as the readers did.  The rest, as Popeye might say, is “hiskory”.

Popeye the Sailor Volume 1 takes us back to the very first screen appearance of the rough and tough spinach eating sailor.  Although “Popeye the Sailor” was billed as a Betty Boop cartoon, Betty has only a small role.  From the start, the Fleischers focused on just the right aspects of Segar’s character to make him a bona fide screen icon:  mostly, the spinach, the wooing of the ever-fickle Olive Oyl, and the rivalry with the brutish Bluto.

The formula struck gold out of the gate, and would be duplicated for decades to come.  The Fleischers had no limits to their imaginations, coming up with scenario after scenario for Popeye and crew.  Whether it was deep sea diving, a day at the Mardi Gras, a football game, a dance contest, or building a bridge, the gags were fast and furious.  Audiences rarely had time to catch their breath.

Anything was possible, and the Fleischers mixed the best of both worlds:  they had Disney’s eye for animation’s artistic promise, and Avery’s eye for zaniness.  The shorts are endlessly funny, but also strikingly beautiful, with as much attention paid to backgrounds as the characters in the foregrounds.  Max and Dave cut no corners; their animation was fluid and used all axes…Popeye was as animated going from back to front as from left to right.  Their use of delightful music rivaled Disney, as many of the shorts were filled with silly but singable ditties that stuck with you after the final frame.  The famous "Popeye the Sailor Man" song, in fact, was prevalent right from the first cartoon!

As the years progressed, Popeye and crew grew even more ambitious, and included in this set is two of his early Technicolor two-reelers:  “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor” is an all time classic, and “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves” is an equal gem.  They point the way toward the future, and fans can only hope “Volume One” means many more collections are forthcoming.

If you remember Popeye cartoons from your youth, as I do, you might raise an eyebrow at the disclaimers.  The box warns that the cartoons may not be suitable for children, and each disc begins with an on-screen notice about racial stereotypes.  Yes, Popeye was not exactly politically correct in his heyday, and modern audiences might be a little taken aback by the crude depictions of Indians, Mexicans, and African Americans.  As our favorite sailor progressed into the World War II years, the representations of the Japanese were also less than kind, but that’s a story for a future date. 

But Warner got it right…these insensitivities did exist in the culture of the day, and excising these classic cartoons of their offenses would be to pretend they never happened.  The shorts are also more rough and tumble than, say, the Hanna Barbera Saturday morning version of the late 70s.  You might be surprised that Popeye laments that he has no sex appeal, or seeing Olive Oyl and a sultry female boxer going at it full catfight style over Popeye.  It’s important to remember when viewing classic shorts that even though kids loved them, they were actually aimed at the adult theatre goers.

Still, there’s not much of late that can compare to the unbridled fun, lunacy, and fisticuffs of these early Fleischer offerings.  Popeye the Sailor is a generous offering of comic confectionary, and will keep you delighted and rolling in stitches for hours!

Video ***

Impressive effort…I’ve seen many of these shorts over the years, but remastered for DVD, they look better than ever.  The black and white images (and the gorgeous color ones) come across with crispness and clarity, with a little understandable aging artifacts here and there.  Fans should be most pleased!

Audio **

For films so old, the mono soundtracks have held up well.  A touch scratchy here and there, but probably better than you’d expect.  The music is bright and engaging throughout, and though dynamic range is minimal, there’s plenty of action in each of these shorts to keep the sound lively.

Features ****

Blow me down…I’ve never seen an animated shorts collection so packed! 

Each of the four discs is well loaded.  For starters, each is smattered with commentaries for select shorts by animators, historians, and filmmakers.  You’ll even hear from the likes of John K of Ren & Stimpy fame, and a little touch of history with a clip of an interview with the voice of Popeye, Jack Mercer!

The first disc has one of two terrific documentaries, “I Yam What I Yam: The Story of Popeye the Sailor”.  There are featurettes on creator Elzie Segar and Olive Oyl, plus three early Bray Productions shorts going back to 1915 and 1916.

The second disc has the other documentary, “Forging the Frame: The Roots of Animation 1900-1920”.  You may be surprised to see how old the art of animation really is, and how imaginative it was even in its formative years!  There are also featurettes on Wimpy and Popeye’s voices, plus three more Bray Production shorts.

The third disc has featurettes on the music of Popeye and a look at the color two-reelers, plus SIX “Out of the Inkwell” shorts from the Brothers Fleischer.  And the fourth disc has featurettes on Swee’Pea (whose kid is he anyway?) and our favorite heavy Bluto, plus four more Inkwell shorts featuring Koko the Clown.  Outstanding package!

Summary:

This Popeye the Sailor collection is as rollicking a good time as you’ll ever have with your DVD player.  Fast, funny, imaginative and endearing, Warner’s four disc set is an absolute treasure trove of comic pleasure that starts off strong and stays strong.  Yes…to the finich.

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