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With: (voices) Jack Mercer, Mae Questel, Gus Wickie, Margie Hines, Carl Meyer, Jackson Beck
Written by: Jack Ward, Jack Mercer, Irv Spector, Isadore Klein, etc.
Directed by: Dave Fleischer, Seymour Kneitel
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 200
Date: 03/18/2013
IMDB

Popeye The Sailor Man: 75th Anniversary Collector's Edition (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

I Yam What I Yam

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A few months ago, Koch Lorber Home Video released a 3-disc box set of Popeye cartoons that was touted as the 75th Anniversary Celebration Collector's Edition, indicating that it would span Popeye's entire cinematic career. Instead, it collected 85 made-for-TV short films from the 1960s that lacked all of the character and depth of the cinematic cartoons of the 1930s through the 1950s.

Now VCI Entertainment has released the real thing, Popeye The Sailor Man: 75th Anniversary Collector's Edition, a 2-disc set that features nine of the original Fleischer Brothers shorts from the 1930s, plus 25 from the Famous Studio era of the 1940s and 1950s. It's also a marked improvement over Winstar's 70 Years of Popeye (2000) DVD which featured only twelve cartoons -- only two from the Fleischers -- mastered in fuzzy video and terrible "enhanced" stereo.

This is the set we were waiting for. I can't recommend it highly enough to either animation buffs or plain old Popeye fans.

Popeye the sailor first appeared in newspaper strips in 1929. He was unusual for a comic character. Instead of a talking animal, he was a squat, bald, funny-looking guy who smoked a pipe, fought and mumbled under his breath. In 1933, he made his cartoon debut in a Betty Boop short, Popeye the Sailor. He clicked with depression-era audiences and graduated to his own features soon after. By the late 1930s, the Popeye cartoons reportedly outsold the Mickey Mouse cartoons from Disney.

His arch-enemy, Bluto, was a standard bully and his pal Wimpy was Popeye's antithesis: selfish, gluttonish and cheap. Olive was the most fickle of cartoon heroines, turning on Popeye at the simplest of whims, such as in I Never Changes My Altitude (1939), suddenly leaving Popeye because she's attracted to aviators.

Popeye's shtick was reduced to a simple formula in the later Famous Studios films, but in the Fleischer films, he had more room to stretch out. He believed in standing up for himself and tried to win the girl if he could; he ate his spinach when he really needed it, but didn't depend on it.

Unlike most cartoons, the Popeye shorts were filmed first and then the actors contributed voices afterward. This allowed them to ad-lib in little mumbles, even when the characters' mouths weren't moving. To this day, these mumbles are the funniest and most beloved parts of the cartoons.

Disc one is the clear winner with its 9 remarkable Fleischer cartoons. Six of them are the regular black-and-white shorts running about 6-7 minutes each, but the other three are longer (16-20 minute) Technicolor specials, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1937) and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939). All three were made and marketed as if they were feature films -- complete with press books, lobby stills and the works -- and all three rank among the greatest cartoons ever made.

Yet Aladdin is the weakest of the three. It was completed after the crew moved from New York to Florida, and it lacks some of the spectacular depth of the first two, but it does have some of the funniest lines. Instead of his usual "your wish is my command," the genie says: "you said it!" and Olive Oyl mistakenly calls out to Popeye in one scene, then corrects herself: "I mean, Aladdin!"

All of the Fleischer cartoons have their own specific feel and movement. The brothers paid special attention to fluidity, depth and surface, as well as light and shadow. They often used their patented Stereo-Optical Machine that gave the films unprecedented depth while moving horizontally across the frame.

Historian Jerry Back (www.cartoonresearch.com) provides commentary tracks for the three color films, and the voice of Olive Oyl, Mae Questel, turns up for a surprise cameo on one.

The black-and-white cartoons come with their own beauties and jokes. Little Swee' Pea (1936) has Popeye losing the little baby at the zoo, and the animation of the animals is spectacular. And in Date to Skate (1938) Popeye has forgotten his spinach and must borrow some from an audience member.

The Fleischers also resorted to "clip shows" from time to time, like I'm in the Army Now (1936) and Customers Wanted (1939). They would invent some kind of wraparound story and would fill it out with clips from previous shorts. Usually Popeye and Bluto would compete by showing a third party films of their past exploits, and the Fleischers would then only have to come up with three or four minutes of new footage.

Unfortunately, the first disc has a major glitch on it. After the end of Paneless Window Washer (1937), we get about a minute of the non-Fleischer Me Musical Nephews (1942), which is featured in its entirely on the second disc. After a minute or so, the film suddenly ends and goes on to the next Fleischer short.

The second disc starts off with one black-and-white cartoon before it goes to color, and the quality seriously goes downhill from the Fleischer films. These cartoons are comparatively flat and rough, with less effort spent on mood or pacing. One example is Big Bad Sinbad (1952), in which Popeye takes his nephews to a nautical museum. Upon seeing a statue of Sinbad (Bluto), they ask Popeye about him, and we flash back to the Fleischer cartoon, severely edited. The difference between the two is enormous.

Nevertheless, these later shorts may get by on nostalgia value alone. I remember loving some of the jokes as a kid and repeating them whenever I could.

Beck provides liner notes, which need some serious editing. One paragraph runs out on one page and does not continue onto the next, and there are several grammatical errors. But despite these flaws, the Popeye DVD set is one of the year's must-haves.

Note: As of 2007, Warner Home Video has finally released the official, remastered collection of Max and Dave Fleischer Popeye cartoons. As a result, I've docked this review half a star to avoid confusion.

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