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    Sorry for the hassle.

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WHV's Punch-Packin' Popeye

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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    POPEYE THE SAILOR, VOLUME 1: 1933-1938


    The first volume of Warner Home Video’s Popeye series is here at last and fans have good cause for celebration. This 4-DVD set and the remaining three volumes will make available to collectors, for the first time ever, every theatrical Popeye animated short produced and released between 1933 and 1957. It has taken a long time for King Features Syndicate (which owns the rights to the characters) and Time-Warner (which currently owns the Fleischer and Famous Studios Popeye cartoons) to come to an agreement; but judging from this first volume, the wait has been well worth it.

    Preliminary reviews (containing such superlatives as “eye-popping”) of the restored cartoons in this set were not, as it happens, exaggerated. Despite some very fine film scratches in a number of the earlier black-and-white shorts (made more noticeable by the high-resolution of the digital format), the overall visual-quality is outstanding. Obviously, the restorations do not make the shorts look as if they were produced yesterday (and it would be unrealistic to expect this); but the bottom line is that they have never looked or sounded better than they do here. Moreover, all of the original "Paramount Pictures" opening and closing titles and music cues have been faithfully and lovingly restored. Anyone who grew up watching these cartoons in the faded and scratched television prints from Associated Artists Productions (AAP) will surely appreciate the effort that went into this.

    Anyone who owns the earlier VCI and Thunderbean compilations will immediately notice the differences in clarity between the shorts presented in those sets (the color shorts in particular) and the ones contained in the present compilation. Each of the previous DVD sets featured the same 7 black-and-white, public-domain Popeye shorts, plus all 3 of the 2-reel, Technicolor “Specials”, that had been produced and released by the Fleischer Studio between 1936 and 1939. Both sets also featured the 1942 black and white Famous Studios short Me Musical Nephews (1942) as a bonus. The VCI set included an additional 24 color shorts produced and released by Famous Studios between 1953 and 1957.

    While the producers of the previous DVD sets had endeavored to present these shorts complete and uncut, with the original “Paramount Pictures” logos and “shipwreck” main-title cards intact, the results varied; with the print-quality ranging from very good (Thunderbean) to fair (VCI). The Thunderbean compilation was, at the time, clearly the better of the two sets; with very generous bonus-features (no audio commentaries, though) and superior transfers. The black-and-white shorts definitely looked better in the Thunderbean compilation than on VCI; although now not quite as good as they do here. In addition, the colors in the first two Popeye "Specials", when compared to the present volume, now look darker in contrast. If you already own either or both of these earlier DVD sets, don't throw them out just yet. The VCI set remains valuable for Film Historian Jerry Beck’s audio commentary (with a surprise commentary by Voice-Actor Mae Questal) on each of the 3 color shorts. The Thunderbean DVD remains equally valuable for its bonus audio and on-camera interviews, documentaries and impressive stills-galleries. In terms of the theatrical shorts themselves, however, WHV’s Popeye the Sailor is the DVD set to own and enjoy.

    The present DVD set includes the first two color “Specials”, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. This is “eye-candy” at its sweetest! In these fully-restored prints one can see subtle gradations of color that have, until now, been somewhat obscured. In the former title, for example, one will note that Sindbad’s tunic is actually dark blue, not black; and one can see much greater detail in Max Fleischer’s innovative 3-D “table-top” backgrounds that were used in some tracking shots. The present restorations also enable one to hear all of Sammy Timberg’s original main-title music cues for the color “Specials” (including the wonderful opening fanfare in “Popeye Meets Sindbad”) which for years have been truncated on all AAP prints and, consequently, in the previous DVD sets. If the restoration of the third Popeye “Special”, Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp (which will be included on the forthcoming second volume) looks and sounds as good as the first two; that alone would indeed be worth the price of the entire set.

    Some viewers have complained that the original main-title cards (which superimpose the titles over a still-image of the deck of a ship) for a few of the black-and-white shorts are actually reproductions of the the originals. If any reproductions were used, they appear to have been seamlessly integrated into the original footage. I personally have not been able to detect any significant difference; save for a few of the 1934 shorts which have slightly-different lettering in the words, “Adolph Zukor Presents” and in the “Paramount Pictures” copyright date at the bottom of the screen. But, honestly, what does any of that matter? One should simply relish seeing these shorts the way they would have looked in theatres, some 60 years ago. In my previous review of the Thunderbean set I had taken exception to the fact that the opening titles for the three color shorts did not appear to be genuine; but rather seemed to be composites that had been edited from two or more different sources. Since then I've come to realize that I was making too much of this; and that in the interest of authenticity such measures, however undesirable they might be to some, are necessary.*

    The black-and-white and color Fleischer Popeye cartoons produced between 1933 and 1939 are some of the funniest and imaginative ever committed to celluloid. One is hard-pressed to find any in the series that are outright duds; even the so-called “cheater” cartoons like Adventures of Popeye and I’m in the Army Now. The black-and-white shorts, in particular, have a gritty, urban feel to them; reflecting the Lower-East-Side, New York backgrounds of many of the Fleischer Studio staff. The Fleischer shorts also perpetuated, well into the late 1930's, the "rubber-hose" style of animation (so far as Olive Oyl is concerned) that other studios had begun to abandon. This was in direct contrast to the increasingly realistic-looking animated shorts that were being produced on the West Coast by Disney and those who were trying to compete with him. The humor in these cartoons (like those produced at the neighboring Van Beuren Studio) has a raw, New Yorker sensibility to it, with the occasional ethnic joke thrown in now and again. In I Eats Me Spinach, which pits Popeye against an angry bull during a rodeo, it is revealed that "Kosher" ham actually comes from cattle (who knew?) The uncredited story men and gag writers working at the Fleischer Studio during this period included Jack Mercer (who will forever be associated with Popeye by virtue of his unique voice characterization), along with future Warner Bros. stalwarts Tedd Pierce and Warren Foster.

    Although Dave Fleischer (Max Fleischer’s brother) received sole Director Credit on every short in the Fleischer Popeye series, his actual role during production was limited to directing the voice-actors and assisting with the timing of sequences. The real creative talents behind these cartoons were Head-Animators Willard Bowsky and Seymour Kneitel; along with Assistant-Animators Roland Crandall, Dave Tendlar, James Culhane, George Germanatti, Orestes Calpini, Myron Waldman, William Henning and William Sturm. Bowsky, in particular, was highly-adept in animating scenes involving the use of deep perspective and/or any type of mechanical objects. He also had razor-sharp timing. His animation in such entries as A Dream Walking and The Paneless Window Washer is positively jaw-dropping. There is one very impressive sequence of Bluto’s diving ship, as it pulls away from the pier (with Popeye, Olive, their ship and the waterfront receding in the distance), at the beginning of Dizzy Divers.

    All of the shorts in this 4-volume series are presented in chronological-order by the original release dates (which, unfortunately, are not listed). This affords the viewer a rare opportunity to witness the gradual evolution of the main characters (based on those created by Elzie Segar for his “Thimble Theatre” newspaper comic strips) as they appeared on the silver screen. Popeye made his film debut in a 1933 Fleischer “Betty Boop” cartoon, Popeye the Sailor; although Popeye is clearly the star here (Betty actually makes only a very brief appearance). It is interesting to note that in this short and in the two which followed, I Yam What I Yam and Blow Me Down, nearly all of the incidental characters are anthropomorphized animals. This and the convention of having characters consistently bounce up and down (often in time with the music), even while standing in one spot, were elements of the Fleischers’ style that were gradually eliminated in the Popeye shorts as the series progressed.

    The first handful of shorts adhere, more or less, to Segar's original conception of the character: gruff, wise-cracking and quick to settle matters or remove obstacles with his fists, no-questions-asked. In Sock-A-Bye Baby, for example, he punches out anyone (a street-corner Harpo Marx caricature) or anything (the faculty, students and building of a nearby music conservatory) in order to avoid waking the baby left in his charge. In later cartoons like Be Kind To Aminals, Brotherly Love and Let's Celebrake, his kinder nature came to the fore and made him a more sympathetic and three-dimensional character (this side of Popeye had already been demonstrated earlier in the comic strip, when he made short work of a hot dog vendor who refused to feed a starving child).

    One element that remained constant (even as late as 1937) throughout each of the Fleischer shorts, however, was the insertion of little gags (or, “business”) whereby inanimate objects suddenly and inexplicably take on a life of their own. In Choose Yer ‘Weppins’ there is a scene where Popeye and an adversary continuously pound their fists on a countertop; causing a collection of knives to bounce from the countertop, back into their case, then back onto the countertop. At one point the knives morph human faces and lips and cry out, “Aw, make up your mind!” According to animator James Culhane, Dave Fleischer insisted upon his animators including such gags in nearly every scene in any given short. Another interesting detail is that all of the human characters in the Fleischer cartoons have five fingers (in most shots) on each hand. Other cartoon studios of the period, even Disney, usually drew characters with only four (unless the character was playing the piano); since an extra digit on each hand uses more “pencil-mileage” and is difficult to animate. This cartoon convention was parodied in Episode #3F07 of The Simpsons, during which Bart Simpson notices Nelson, Jimbo, Kearney and Dolph shoplifting at the “Try-N-Save”: their explanation to Bart is that they are merely using their “four-fingered discount”.

    This DVD set is packed with a generous selection of bonus-materials; but viewers should be warned that some of these have been erroneously-listed in the descriptions available on Amazon.com. For example, there are no music-only audio tracks in this first volume; and no other bonus shorts other than the ones listed below. The erroneous bonus-features listed on Amazon.com will most likely be included in Volume 2. A retrospective video documentary, I Yam What I Yam: The Story of Popeye the Sailor, and a “Popeye Popumentary” (the first of eight included on this set): Mining the Strip: Elzie Segar and Thimble Theatre, elaborate in great detail on the similarities and differences between the screen and printed versions of Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, Swee’ Pea and Wimpy. Popeye’s consumption of spinach, for example, was initially never an important part of Segar’s comic strip; but it became a kind of deux ex machina (and a part of American folklore) in the hands of the Fleischers. Also, whereas Bluto only made a brief appearance in the comic strip; he became an all-purpose villain in the screen cartoons (replacing “Ham Gravy” who, in the comic strip, was a serious rival for Olive Oyl’s affections). The remaining “Popumentaries” on the set provide an in-depth analysis of each of Popeye’s supporting characters; as well as background information on the series’ voice actors, music composers and the 2-reel Technicolor “Specials”.

    In addition to 60 theatrical Popeye shorts, the first volume in this series includes no fewer than 10 rare, silent “Out of the Inkwell” shorts produced by Max Fleischer between 1919 and 1927 (including a short produced at the John R. Bray Studio, The Tantalizing Fly). These early, black-and-white shorts featured "Ko-Ko" (or "Koko") the Clown, who initially was billed simply as “The Clown”, and incorporated a myriad of technical innovations (such as the use of rotoscoped action and the combination of animation with live-action footage) that remain impressive to this day. Two of the “Inkwell” shorts, Koko Trains ‘Em and Koko Back Tracks have modern, replacement title-cards inserted into the original footage. The same 10 "Inkwell" shorts featured here are also available on an excellent 2-DVD set (with comprehensive documentation by Ray Pointer and audio commentary) from Inkwell Images. Other archival materials on the WHV set include 5 rare, silent animated shorts (featuring "Mutt and Jeff", "Bobby Bumps", "Colonel Heeza Liar" and an early prototype of "Felix the Cat") produced between 1915 and 1919; plus a retrospective documentary, Forging the Frame: The Roots of Animation 1900-1920. Together these comprise a highly-fascinating, basic primer on the early history of the industry, for film buffs and budding animators alike. It is unfortunate that none of the silent films themselves (save for Bobby Bumps Puts a Beanery on the Bum) have any added musical accompaniment to enhance the on-screen action; but it would be churlish to harp on such a point. The visual quality of all the silent cartoons is, overall, surprisingly good given their vintage. Rounding out the archived materials is a rare short from 1934, Let’s Sing with Popeye (also included on the Thunderbean set). Popeye is featured here, singing his theme-song in previous footage from Popeye the Sailor. The short also incorporates the “bouncing ball” device used in the Fleischers’ “Screen-Song” series from the same period.

    Audio commentaries are provided for 22 of the 60 Popeye shorts contained in this set; and each of them (even those provided by John Kricfalusi and his giggling cohorts, Eddie Fitzgerald and Kali Fontecchio) offers some insightful background on the making of these cartoons. Just as in previous volumes of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, George Feltenstein and his associates at WHV of this set have included very user-friendly menu options. One has a choice of either playing all of the shorts (here referred to as “episodes”) on each disc in succession, or simply playing one individual short at a time. By the same token, those shorts which have an audio commentary track (indicated by an anchor icon) and/or a “Popeye Popumentary” (indicated by a life preserver) may be played all at once or individually. Finally, as a rather cloying marketing gesture, WHV have included a coupon, good for $0.25 off the next purchase of Allen’s Canned Spinach; as well as a couple of “kitchen-tested” recipes.

    My only reservation about this DVD set concerns the packaging. Once again, WHV has chosen to utilize a streamlined version of their folding “road-map” cardboard and plastic DVD case. This version was introduced with the release of LTGC4 last fall, and it elicited a flurry of complaints from customers (including myself) who had purchased the set. The main difficulty with this version lies with the two clear-plastic trays which house the four discs in the set. These are located, respectively, in the middle and third sections of the tri-fold cardboard case. The two spindles for each plastic tray overlap, with the top spindle being slightly more recessed than the one beneath it. The four DVD’s are initially packaged in sequential order; with Disc 1 overlaid on top of Disc 2, and Disc 3 on top of Disc 4. Unless one has a carousel-type, multi-DVD player in which one can load all 4 discs at once, however; extracting each of the discs individually can be problematic.

    Extracting any disc that is anchored on top of another disc is not difficult, in and of itself; but if one wishes to extract a disc housed in one of the recessed spindles, one must first extract the other disc resting on top of it. Usually, removing any DVD from its case is a two-handed operation (especially if you’re a klutz like me); which becomes somewhat daunting when one of those hands is grasping an extra disc. The disc in the top spindle must therefore be laid down elsewhere (preferably with the label-side up on a clean, soft, lint-free cloth or mat) before one can extract the disc housed underneath. My own solution to this is simply to keep on hand two empty, plastic CD jewel-cases, in which to store the extra disc(s) until they can be safely returned to the DVD case. Care must be exercised when returning any disc to this streamlined DVD case, however. The disc normally housed in the recessed spindle must be returned first before anchoring the second disc on top of it. If this is done in reverse-order, one or both discs can become damaged; necessitating either the purchase of a DVD scratch-removal kit or a new DVD set.

    In the final analysis, however, any minor shortcomings in this set are far outweighed by the excellence of the transfers and the sheer abundance of bonus-features. With the 1st Volume of Popeye the Sailor, then, it would appear that WHV has temporarily redeemed themselves; particularly after all the editorial and DVNR headaches which have plagued their previous DVD releases like The Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection and Tex Avery's Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection. One hopes, therefore, that the remaining 3 volumes in this series will maintain the same, overall standard of excellence; albeit with better packaging.

    *Post-Script 09/03/07: Since first posting this review, I have learned that at least one of the B&W Popeye shorts presented on the WHV DVD set has erroneous animator credits in the main titles; suggesting that those titles were not original but rather digital reproductions:

    The animator credits for Organ Grinder's Swing, as presented on the DVD, list only Willard Bowsky and Orestes Calpini. Here in the Big Cartoon DataBase the animator credits for this short (which reportedly had been submitted by Fred Grandinetti, founder of the Popeye International Fan Club), list Dave Tendlar and William Sturm instead. On the Internet Movie Database, however, all four of the aforementioned animators are listed.
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