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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: July 14, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Popeye the Sailor © Max Fleischer1933/1934 marked a watershed for American animated cartoons: not only had the sex and horror rich cartoons of 1933 have to make way for the much more prudish content  of the Hays code era – during the same period many studios traded their old stars in for new ones.

In this period Iwerks dropped Flip the Frog in favor of Willy Whopper, Warner Bros. saw the departure of Bosko, and introduced Buddy, Van Beuren said farewell to Tom & Jerry and welcomed Cubby the Bear and The Little King. Even at the Walt Disney studio Mickey Mouse, the biggest star of all, would steadily lose popularity to the 1934 newcomer Donald Duck. The relay race was most visible at the Fleischer studio. In their 1933 cartoon ‘Popeye the Sailor’ Betty Boop literally gave way to Popeye.

True, like Mickey, Betty would keep on starring cartoons after 1933, but due to the Hays code, her sexuality, her biggest feat, was toned down, and by 1934 her heydays were clearly over. Popeye, on the other hand, would grow into arguably the most successful cartoon star of all, starring more than 200 cartoons, and lasting well into the 1950s, before embarking on a career in television.

Of course, Popeye already had been a star before he was introduced to the animated screen, having quickly grown into the leading character of Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theater comics since his introduction in 1929. But when the Fleischers started their films, he quickly became one of the most familiar cartoon stars of all time, still recognizable to present day audiences, where Buddy, Willy Whopper and Cubby Bear rapidly fell into oblivion.

In their pilot Popeye cartoon, officially part of the Betty Boop series, the Fleischers appear very well aware of the potentials of their new hero. It opens with a newspaper announcing that Popeye now is a movie star. The accompanying illustration immediately comes to life, and then we watch an iconic scene: Popeye singing his own new theme song, while socking things into tiny little things, in a string of metamorphosis gags. Popeye’s theme song is irresistably catchy, but who would have thought at the time that it would be still a familiar tune in the 21st century?

During the main section of the film it’s shore leave, and Popeye, Bluto and Olive visit a carnival. Because it’s de facto a Betty Boop cartoon, the human trio is oddly staged in Betty’s animal world, which she, too, would abandon within a few months. Betty’s role is minimized to that of a sexy hula dancer, in reused footage from ‘Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle‘ (1932). Popeye joins in, sharing Betty’s rotoscoped movements.

The cartoon introduces the basic story arc that would be varied upon in many years to come: Popeye and Olive are sweethearts, but Bluto craves for Olive, too, creating friction between the two strong men. There’s a lot of clobbering, and at one point Popeye grabs for a can of spinach to give him extra strength. This premise is very different from Segar’s Comic Strip, with its melodramatic stories which could easily last for month.

Both Bluto and spinach were taken from Segar’s strip, but there they had played minor roles. Bluto, in fact, only appeared a couple of weeks in September/October 1932, never to return to Segar’s comic strip. In the Fleischer cartoons, however, he was promoted to one of the three starring roles, easily eclipsing Wimpy. During his first cartoon, Bluto’s theme music is ‘Barnacle Bill’, extensively used in the cartoon of the same name from 1930. Unlike Popeye’s tune, this theme music would not return in later Popeye cartoons. The love triangle, of course, was far from new, and had been employed in e.g. several Oswald and Mickey Mouse cartoons. But the Fleischers managed to keep this premise surprisingly fresh, delivering several of the funniest cartoons of the 1930s.

The importance of Popeye’s move to the movie screen for cartoon history cannot be overestimated: for the first time in the sound era a comic strip star was successfully put to the screen, for the first time a strong idiosyncratic character appeared on the animated screen, for the first time cartoon violence was not incidental, but a vital part of the series. Strong characters and cartoon violence would recur more often and often when the 1930s progressed, and would become essential to cartooning during the 1940s. Indeed, other characters, most notably Donald Duck and Daffy Duck, contributed to the evolution of a brassier style, but it was Popeye who had shown the way.

Watch ‘Popeye the Sailor’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 18
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Mother Goose Land
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: The Old Man of the Mountain

‘Popeye the Sailor’ is available on the DVD Box Set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938’

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