Wednesday, October 22, 2008

DVD Review: POPEYE THE SAILOR: Volume Two 1938-1940 -- "The First Great Eight"

This is Part One of my two-part POPEYE DVD Review. As an experiment in Blog Posting Order, it will be posted AFTER Part Two – but will, forever more, COME BEFORE Part Two in its proper reading order as you scroll down through this Blog.

See the original post on “Blog Posting Order
, for an only marginally better understanding of what I’m going on about!
(In other words: Read Part One here and now… then scroll down to read Part Two! Enjoy)

POPEYE THE SAILOR: Volume Two 1938-1940: Released: June 17, 2008. Part One of a Typically Long DVD Review by Joe Torcivia.
Can you review such a set after just viewing the first eight cartoons? Let’s find out.

What a great series of Popeye cartoons we have to open Disc One of this new set! By 1938, Max and Dave Fleischer have clearly broken with the formula they established early on… and the one that the Famous Paramount studio would do to death in their later Popeye cartoons. You know… Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, triangle, spinach, Sock-o, etc.
In the first EIGHT cartoons on the disc, Bluto – and the formulaic conflict he brings with him – is nowhere in sight, save for a cameo appearance AS A PHOTOGRAPH (!) in the first one. In these eight alone, we have a diversity of cast that would be unimaginable in later years.
Popeye, Olive, Wimpy, Swee’Pea, Eugene the Jeep, Poopdeck Pappy, the Goons… and, of course, the photograph of Bluto that (not unexpectedly) steals the only scene that it’s in!

Before continuing, I should say that, despite my comments above, Bluto is one of the great villains in the history of theatrical animation, and most (if not all) of his appearances on the first POPEYE set (1933-1938) were very enjoyable. But, in times to come, he will wear out his welcome (at least to me) and it is with this knowledge of what lies ahead that I take this position. But, if we go much longer than these first eight without him, I’m going to really start missing the big lug!

Here’s a (relatively, but not completely) Spoiler-Free recap of those first eight cartoons…

01: “I Yam Love Sick”. Enraptured in romance novels, and aided by a huge box of chocolates from Bluto – and that scene-stealing photograph – Olive totally ignores Popeye, to the point where he has to play sick-and-dying to get any attention. “I must be losin’ me sex repeal, or sumpthin’!” mutters the sailor man, in one of those famous Jack Mercer ad-libs where Popeye’s mouth doesn’t move! She takes him to the hospital, where he continues to play almost-dead… until it’s time to operate!
02: “Plumbing is a Pipe”. I’m guessing that, in ye olde-tyme slang, if something was “a pipe”, it was easy or “a cinch”. Olive springs a leak in her kitchen, which she compounds – and Popeye compounds much further. Wimpy is great as the plumber, who keeps forgetting things or has other excuses like Lunch to keep from getting on the job. He gets his later!

03: “The Jeep”. Swee’Pea keeps trying to escape Olive’s very high apartment, by crawling out the window. She thwarts him (Saying that he’s giving her “Populations of the heart!” – on first play it sounds as if she says: “Copulations of the heart!”), until he finally gets out! Popeye shows up with Eugene the Jeep (a “magical dog”!) who can accurately answer any question, disappear and reappear, and track anything with his uncanny abilities to walk through walls, on air, or anywhere else. He tracks the missing Swee’Pea, leading Popeye on a merry – and painful – chase and to a great ending!

This is one of the two best cartoons on the disc so far! Though it is not an origin for “The Jeep”… he’s just there with Popeye, visiting Olive. Oddly, his animated origin occurs in “Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep”, which is the LAST cartoon on Disc Two – and was apparently produced by the Fleischers about TWO YEARS after this one.

The latter Jeep cartoon contradicts the former, in dealing with Eugene’s origins, but that’s to be expected from Golden Age animation. The presence of the second cartoon, a good explanatory commentary on this cartoon, and an extra feature mini-documentary, “Eugene the Jeep: A Breed of His Own”, detailing the Jeep’s comic strip origins, help ease (…or maybe they ADD TO) the confusion over this odd and wonderful character.

Oh, and try to watch this one and not be reminded of PFLIP, Eega Beeva’s version of a “magical dog”, from Floyd Gottfredson and Bill Walsh’s MICKEY MOUSE comic strip of the late ‘40s – early ‘50s! Especially the story “Pflip’s Strange Power” that was reprinted in WDC&S # 667 (2006). Something tells me that Pflip owes Eugene the Jeep a small debt, at the very least!

04: “Bulldozing the Bull”. Popeye’s in Spain, Mexico, or somewhere that bullfighting is popular. In this unexpectedly superior cartoon he demonstrates the more modern attitude (…and certainly not the prevailing attitude when this cartoon was made!) that the sport of bullfighting – and especially the killing of the bull – is cruelty to animals! Olive is the obligatory seniorita (presaging the sort of role-playing she’d often do in later outings), and a seating mix-up leads to Popeye being a reluctant toreador. Lots of good gags, and a great surprise ending that I will not spoil! Popeye’s steadfast values here left me clapping!

That’s the Popeye I love from the comics, unflagging ethics and all!

05: “Mutiny Ain’t Nice”. One of my general complaints about the POPEYE series is that he isn’t shown often enough to be a SAILOR! Well, here he captains his own cargo sailing ship, with a rough and dangerous crew to boot. Olive falls into a trunk and is brought aboard as they shove off. The crew believes that females are bad luck on a ship and, when they find Olive, they mutiny against Captain Popeye and try to kill Olive. The great thing about this one (…and it’s only a small spoiler in the greater scheme of things) is that Olive finds that she ACTUALLY ENJOYS leading the murderous crew on a wild chase! Popeye, once regaining control, enacts a solution that satisfies everyone – just not the way any of them would like!
06: “Goonland”. The best cartoon on the disc so far – and more of an adventure in the E.C. Segar comic strip tradition than the usual animated comedy. Popeye sails (Yes, he’s a sailor again!) to the mysterious "Goon Island”, to find his lost “Poopdeck Pappy” who left 40 years ago, when Popeye was a baby! Was Pappy animation’s first “deadbeat dad”? The Goons AND Pappy, from the Segar strip, are introduced in this one!

Pappy is a prisoner of the Goons, and wants no part of his son, until the Goons capture Popeye and try to kill him by staking him at the foot of a cliff and dropping a boulder on him. Pappy downs the spinach, which the Goons removed from Popeye, and saves the day. The Goons are dealt with by a remarkable fourth-wall-breaking device that is both extremely clever and looks somewhat out of place at the same time. You judge for yourself. Its unexpected surprise value goes a long way toward selling it, though!

This is a magnificently designed cartoon! Everything on Goon Island is eerie looking… especially for a cartoon of this period! As with the introduction of Eugene the Jeep, a good explanatory commentary on this cartoon, and an extra feature mini-documentary, “Poopdeck Pappy: The Nasty Old Man and the Sea” detail Pappy’s comic strip origins.

07: “A Date to Skate”. With Bluto still among the missing, Popeye convinces a VERY reluctant Olive to roller skate in one of those old roller skating palaces. As expected, Olive soon careens out of control, onto the street, wreaking havoc on the outside world! The Fleischers continue to marvelously play with “The Formula” by having Popeye FORGET TO BRING HIS SPINACH on the skating date! “I must be gettin’ OLD! Don’t tell me I left it HOME!” Don’t worry; he gets some though a device we’ve seen in some other cartoons. And, as when she was pursued by the crew of murderous mutineers, Olive ends up enjoying her near-death-ride for the sheer thrill of it all! This is a take on the usually timid Olive that we seldom saw! I guess THAT’S what Popeye sees in the old scarecrow!
08: “Cops is Always Right”. A funnier than expected cartoon, where Popeye and his little crank-start, puttering car continuously run afoul of a gruff police officer. And he helps Olive with spring cleaning to boot. Popeye comes across a little more ignorant of the law than you’d expect even a one-eyed sailor to be, but it works anyway because the officer is such a good one-shot antagonist.

Alas, as was the Fleischer practice of the time, there are no writing credits on any of these first eight cartoons. Though, story credits begin during the period covered by this DVD set, as the second Jeep cartoon lists a story credit. The lack of credits early-on is a particular shame, as the cartoons discussed in this review comprised a very innovative portion of the series, story-wise. I’d sure love to know who wrote these!

The Fleischer animation is always tops, and Jack Mercer and Mae Questel (though Questel is replaced in some of these) are magnificent as Popeye and Olive – especially with their frequent and outright funny ad-libs! Indeed, at this particular point in the history of animation, they would have been the most entertaining animation voice actors of their time. But, look out for Mel Blanc lurking in the shadows…

So, on the basis of the first eight shorts (…and I have little expectation that this will change over the balance of the set), POPEYE THE SAILOR: Volume Two 1938-1940 is highly recommended by this reviewer!

And… Hey, Bluto? We’ll see ya soon, ol’ pal! ...In fact, just scroll down and read on!

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