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Thunderbean's Popeye: A Labor of Love

Discussion in 'The Animated Word' started by Dave Koch, Jan 24, 2014.

  1. Dave Koch

    Dave Koch Cartoon Admin

    Oct 27, 2013
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    Reviewer's note: April 20, 2011

    When I first wrote this review, I was reporting the trouble that I and a number of other customers had experienced with regard to the discs that had been pressed and distributed by Mackinac Media. The problems that I had personally experienced are outlined below in the text of the original review.

    It is now my understanding that any problems inherent in the disc mastering have long since been resolved. Thunderbean Animation, the company responsible for this fine compilation, was understandably distressed at the situation and had taken great pains to rectify it.

    This compilation is still available from Thunderbean and I personally can recommend it without reservation. It is a bargain in the best sense of the word and contains many favorite Popeye titles.

    (originally reviewed March 9, 2006)

    B000AP31VA.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg I finally received my copy, last week, of the recent Thunderbean Animation compilation DVD, Popeye: Original Classics from the Fleischer Studio Era (Mackinac Media MM0027D) which I had ordered through Amazon. As I awaited my shipment I heard through the grapevine that a number of people who had already purchased this DVD had experienced difficulties in either accessing the special features contained on the disc, or playing the cartoons themselves, or both.

    According to Steven Stanchfield from Thunderbean Animation, one of Mackinac's master pressings used to manufacture DVD copies was faulty. This had resulted in a small number of copies that were defective, to one degree or another. The good news, however, is that playable copies apparently outnumber those that are unplayable.

    When I finally got my copy I was naturally concerned that it might not play; in which case I would have to delay this review until I could obtain a suitable replacement. I first tried playing the disc on an 8-year-old Samsung brand DVD player that had been given to me recently by a friend who was moving. I was able to play three of the cartoons contained on the disc, as well as some of the features, but none of the others. Those I could play without difficulty looked and sounded fine. I then tried playing the disc on my Dell PC, which runs Windows XP Media Edition. On my PC I could play all the cartoons, individually by title and by using the "play all" option; as well as access each of the bonus features. Because I don't have the remote which is sold separately for Windows Media Center I was unable to view individual images contained in the production artwork galleries that are included as bonus features. The remote is necessary in order to use the chapter selector (<< and >>) buttons that advance the selections one frame at a time. In one respect, however, the lack of a working chapter selector button was advantageous. In order to see any of the artwork examples I had to use the fast-forward button instead; and while this made seeing specific details in each of the images difficult (because they flew by too quickly), it did allow me to view a series of individual pencil-animation drawings of Popeye, reaching for his can of spinach, in full-motion!

    The Thunderbean DVD contains a program of ten vintage Popeye cartoons produced between 1936 and 1942. Nine of them were produced by the Fleischer Studio and include six black-and-white one-reel shorts, plus all three of the Technicolor, two-reel "specials":

    Little Swee’ Pea (B&W, 1936)
    Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (Color, 1936)
    I’m In The Army Now (B&W, 1936)
    The Paneless Window Washer (B&W, 1937)
    I Never Changes My Altitude (B&W, 1937)
    Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (Color, 1937)
    A Date to Skate (B&W, 1938)
    Customers Wanted (B&W, 1939)
    Aladdin And His Wonderful Lamp (Color, 1939)
    The Fleischer Studio-produced shorts featured here showcase the Popeye series when it was at its peak. There's not a dud in the lot; not even the two "cheater" titles, I'm In The Army Now and Customers Wanted, which utilize clever flashback devices to frame animated sequences from earlier cartoons. The Paneless Window Washer, which can also be seen in Thunderbean's earlier DVD, Attack of the 30's Characters, and A Date To Skate feature superb animation and hilarious, break-neck action sequences.

    For good measure the DVD producers have also included a black-and-white short, Me Musical Nephews (1942); that was produced not long after Paramount Pictures had forclosed on the Fleischer Studio and started their own animation department, Famous Studios. The Famous Studios Popeye cartoons produced between 1942 and 1952 are comparable to the Fleischer cartoons of the 1930's, in terms of the quality of their animation and in their overall energy. Me Musical Nephews (featuring Popeye's four nephews, "Peep-Eye", "Pip-Eye", "Poop-Eye" and "Pup-Eye"), is extremely fast-paced and broad-humored; in keeping with the type of brashness in cartoons produced during the 1940's at rival studios like MGM and Warner Bros. By 1942, Popeye had undergone a marked transformation; his eyes were now consistantly drawn with pupils and he sported Navy whites instead of his more traditional sea captain's garb. Olive Oyl, too, received a "make-over" during this period. As time went on she became increasingly feminine in her appearance and, as a consequence, somewhat more alluring.

    From 1952 onward, however, the Popeye cartoons began to suffer from an ever-increasing dullness and lack of originality. Indeed, some of the earlier Fleischer Studio Popeye cartoons were re-made by Famous Studios during this period; but these unfortunately are only pale imitations of the originals and lack the frenetic pacing and droll wit that made the earlier cartoons so enjoyable and popular.

    All of the cartoon shorts contained on this DVD are currently in the public domain and have been previously released on video--most recently on a two-disc compilation from VCI Entertainment: Popeye the Sailor Man Classic Cartoons: 75th Anniversary Collector’s Edition. The present transfer restores them--as much as is possible within the limitations of the available source material--to a close approximation of their original splendor. They have been digitally-transferred from the best available 35mm and 16mm prints, and the visual quality, overall, is very good, with only a few scratches noticable during the opening title sequences.

    Most of the cartoons on the Thunderbean DVD have retained the original Paramount Studio logos in the beginning and end title sequences. Usually these have been excised from prints that appear on television. Paramount had ceased production of the Famous Studios Popeye cartoons in 1957 and subsequently sold them, along with all of the Fleischer Studio Popeye cartoons, to Associated Artists Productions (AAP, who also owned all of the pre-1948 Warner Bros. "Merrie Melodies" cartoons). AAP removed the Paramount logos from all the cartoons produced between 1933 and 1955 and replaced them with their own beginning and end logos for television distribution--and these are the versions of the Popeye cartoons that most of us grew up watching. In recent years a number of the black-and-white titles have turned up on television in colorized versions.

    For some reason the Popeye cartoons produced between 1956 and 1957 continued, for the most part, to circulate on TV and in rental prints with the Paramount logos intact. The opening title sequences for the Popeye cartoons from the late 1950's differed visually from those of the late 1940's and early 1950's and also had a slightly-different arrangement of Winston Sharples' opening music cue. I mention this because the producers of the earlier VCI compilation (which included 24 of the 1950's Famous Studios Popeye cartoons) appear to have simply "grafted" the opening title sequence from the late 1950's cartoons onto AAP prints of the cartoons that were produced 4-5 years earlier.

    In the case of the three Technicolor Popeye "specials": to the best of my knowledge these have never been available in prints other than the ones distributed by AAP. When these titles aired on TV what one usually saw first was the AAP logo, accompanied by the Sharples' music cue from the late 1940's. Then one would notice an abrupt cut to the opening title cards for the original Fleischer Studio productions of Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves, and Aladdin And His Wonderful Lamp. In both the VCI and Thunderbean compilations it appears, at first, that the prints of these three color titles have retained their original Paramount logos and title sequences. Upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that the opening sequences have been slightly modified. Take the opening of Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, for instance:

    When one plays either the VCI or Thunderbean DVD, the color Paramount logo can be seen, accompanied on the soundtrack by Sammy Timberg's arrangement of the "Popeye the Sailor Man" theme song. The Paramount logo dissolves into the main title card, but one can easily see that there is no film-frame "movement" at this point. The film seems to have been freeze-framed here while the music-cue continues to play. Suddenly, the film begins to advance once more--only this time there is a noticable change in the soundtrack. The Popeye theme-song is now playing in a different key. This suggests that an AAP print of the cartoon may have been used for the digital transfer, and that the Paramount logo may have been taken from another Fleischer color cartoon--perhaps from one of the other color Popeye specials or even from one of the public domain "Superman" cartoons--and substituted for AAP's logo.

    To corroborate this further; at the beginning of his audio commentary for this cartoon in the VCI edition, animation historian Jerry Beck mentions that there is a title card missing from the original beginning sequence--one that immediately follows the Paramount logo and which reads: "Paramount Presents a Popeye Special..." In addition, in both the VCI and Thunderbean presentations of this cartoon there is a small amount of film-frame "jitter" that can be seen in the establishing shots of Sinbad's Island--as the camera pans up past the menagerie of assorted beasts that inhabit the island. This also suggests that the same print was used for both DVD's.

    With regard to the black-and-white cartoons on the Thunderbean DVD, the opening and closing Paramount logos appear to be genuine (by "genuine" I mean that they don't appear to have been "grafted on"). The Fleischer Studio black-and-white cartoons of the 1930's at first utilized the standard Paramount Pictures logo that appeared at the beginning of their live-action feature films (to see reproductions of the Paramount logos and Fleischer and Famous Studios title sequences, please log on to Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research website. When the Fleischers moved their studio to Miami in the late 1930's they experimented briefly with a modified opening-title sequence. The opening Paramount logo also by this time was slightly different from that which introduced that studio's live-action feature films.

    The generous assortment of bonus features on the Thunderbean DVD leave the VCI edition in the dust: There is a rare 1933 Popeye "sing-a-long" cartoon which incorporates the "bouncing-ball" feature from the Fleischers' "Screen Song" series and which reuses scenes from Popeye's debut cartoon, Popeye the Sailor; an even rarer 1960's TV commercial for "Soaky Toys" featuring the King Features Syndicate versions of Popeye, Olive Oyl and Brutus (nee' "Bluto"); and a behind-the-scenes look at the Fleischer Studio circa 1939, as featured in a documentary short produced by Paramount Pictures and Popular Science Magazine. As if this were not enough for the Popeye enthusiast, the producers have also included rare audio interviews with the principle voice artists Jack Mercer (Popeye, from 1935 onward), Mae Questal (Olive Oyl), Jackson Beck (Bluto, in the Famous Studio and King Features Syndicate cartoons) and with animators Gordon Sheehan and Jimmy "Shamus" Culhane; as well as a vintage recording of William Costello (a.k.a. "Red Pepper Sam", the original voice of Popeye) singing a popular song that utilizes his Popeye characterization.

    There are also documentary videos on the "birthplace" of Popeye, or rather that of his creator, Elzie Segar, in Chester, Illinois; and information on becoming a member of the official Popeye Fan Club. The accompanying liner notes by Leonard J. Kohl are informative and revealing. For instance, we learn that during the brief period of 1939-42 the voice of Olive Oyl was provided by an actress named Margie Hines--because Mae Questal reportedly did not want to move to Florida during the temporary relocation of the Fleischer Studio. Galleries of rare animation art and publicity materials, including original pencil-animation drawings and a pencil-test clip, round out the bonus features on this DVD.

    All in all, this is a splendid compilation--in spite of the proliferation of unplayable copies recently sold by retailers; it's just a shame that additional Fleischer/Popeye black-and-white titles could not have been included, presumably due to copyright restrictions. A two-disc set would have been preferable to the single DVD offered here. Leonard Kohl reports, however, that negotiations between Time-Warner (which currently owns the rights to the Fleischer and Famous Studio Popeye cartoons) and King Features Syndicate (which owns the rights to the characters of Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, et al.) are underway; and that an official DVD compilation of many of these classic cartoons may be forthcoming one day soon. In the meantime, the Thunderbean DVD will more than suffice for many viewers. Hopefully the bugs in the initial DVD pressings will be worked out soon.

    My rating for this DVD compilation, using the following rating system of one to four stars, is:

    **** Excellent

    *** Good

    ** Fair

    * Poor

    Parentheses around one or more stars ( ) indicates that there are reservations regarding the overall rating

    Visual Quality: ***(*) (with reservations about the authenticity of the opening titles for the three color cartoons)

    Aural Quality: **** (excellent for the period)

    Package Design/Liner Notes: ****

    Extra Features: **** (provided that the disc copy is playable; older DVD machines may have difficulty accessing these)

    Value for the Money: **** (a steal at $9.99 USD; currently available at the BCDB store at 30% off)

    Post-Script 08/28/07: Since I first posted this review, I have learned from Steven Stanchfield that Mackinac Media will no longer distribute DVD's from Thunderbean Animation or from any other source. Thunderbean Animation currently distributes their own DVD titles through Amazon.com; and hopes to begin reissuing its older, out-of-print titles in the near future.
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