Friday, May 24, 2013

DVD Review: POPEYE THE SAILOR: The 1960s Classics Volume One.

POPEYE THE SAILOR: The 1960s Classics Volume One
(Released May 07, 2013 by The Warner Archive Collection)  
Another (Partial – but still Looong) DVD Review by Joe Torcivia
When last we saw Popeye the Sailor on officially licensed Warner Bros. DVD, it was 2008 and the final theatrical shorts of the Max Fleischer / Black-and-White Paramount Famous Studios period had just completed.  Next up were the Paramount Famous Studios COLOR Popeye theatricals of the 1940s.  Then, the unexpected occurred…
The last Popeye DVD, released in 2008!
Now, Popeye once met “Rip Van Winkle who, so the story goes, slept for 20 years to awaken in a new world.  So it would seem for Popeye’s fans, when it comes to DVD releases, as in 2013 (having metaphorically “slept” through the ‘40s and ‘50s) we’ve awakened to POPEYE THE SAILOR: The 1960s Classics Volume One, from the Warner Archive Collection.

Wha' Hoppened ta the' Forties an' Fif-kies?
We don’t often do “Partial DVD Reviews” but, as if to make up for lost (mari)time, the Warner Archive Collection has released 72 (…of the approximate 220?!) made-for-TV Popeye cartoons in this single set – and, until I’m retired from work, and am otherwise freed from all of my earthly obligations, there’s no way that I’ll have the time and ability to view, critically assess, and formulate a Blog post on 72 cartoons in the span of about two weeks.  (Consider that, at my usual pace, I still haven’t come near to completing THIS ONE, so who knows WHEN I’ll have “battened the final hatch” on Popeye!) Since I’ve long anticipated the occasion of Popeye’s return to “legitimate” DVD release, perhaps you’ll understand my desire to share my initial thoughts as quickly as possible. 

Some background:  1957 saw the release of “Spooky Swabs”, a nicely-done and innovatively formula-breaking cartoon where the Sailor Man and Olive Oyl, adrift on a raft, find their way onto a “Ghost Ship” – concluding Popeye’s long and successful theatrical animation run that began in 1933.   Considering the vast number of shorts that did not depict Popeye as a SAILOR (in anything beyond costume), made this ending entry all the more satisfying. 

At about the same time, the run of Fleischer and Paramount Popeye cartoons were released to the medium of television, where they were a tremendous hit!  From here, I’ll let the text on the back of the DVD packaging take over:

“With TV reruns of the Fleischer / Famous Studios theatrical shorts proving that Popeye still packed a spinach-powered punch that delivered smash ratings, King Features commissioned a new series of Sailor Man shorts under the aegis of executive producer Al Brodax.

“The TV incarnation of Popeye made up for its scaled-back animation with a broadened narrative scope and scale while staying true to the source, thanks to the continued use of voice actors Jack Mercer (Popeye), Mae Questel (Olive Oyl), and Jackson Beck (formerly Bluto, now called Brutus), as well as the use of veteran Popeye-animation talents then working at Paramount Cartoon Studios.

“Adding to the ‘I yam what I yam’ authenticity is the addition of a number of Thimble Theatre comic strip characters making their cartoon debuts – including King Blozo, Toar, and [the] Sea Hag!  Among the cartoons contained in the stupendous 2-Disc, 72 episode volume, are all of the Paramount TV Popeye cartoons”.     
At last!  I'm out of the comic pages, and FREE TO MOVE!  Oh, wait... It's LIMITED ANIMATION!  DRAT!

Hey… Thanks, Warner Archives! Since you include NO Extra Features with this set, the very least you could do for this poor-but-honest Blogger (who SO OFTEN plugs your product line) is to save him from composing some critical background text! 

I should add to this that the “authenticity” described in the Warner text is additionally bolstered by the presence of musical underscores by the great (and underrated) Winston Sharples, who served as the main composer for the Paramount theatrical cartoons. 

In the interests of full-disclosure, I am writing this review after viewing only the FIRST FIVE cartoons of the set, plus a few others that I purposely “jumped around” to see.  My impressions will be based upon that sampling – and any noteworthy additions or changes to these views, should they occur, will be posted in future “updates”.  …Besides, I’m reviewing the DVD set, not putting forth a comprehensive overview of the King Features / Paramount Popeye TV shorts.  (I pity the sucker who tries to do THAT!)

Each of these “first five” was directed by Seymour Kneitel, with such familiar animators as I. Klein, Morey Reden, and Wm. B. Pattengill.  Much has been made over the years of the inferior TV animation – and, quite true, there’s no way one might confuse this series with the more lushly animated Paramount theatricals.  The character design and movement here is significantly below that of the theatricals – but the gulf is not as wide as you might expect, if you compare it to later efforts like the aforementioned “Spooky Swabs”, as opposed to the best of the Fleischer films.   

Wot's HE got ta be embarasked about, up there?!

Not that it doesn’t have its own shamefully damning faults, mind you.  FOUR of those “first five” end with Popeye turning to the audience and bobbing up and down as he sings an original and “plot-appropriate” final verse to his signature theme, and winking to close things out! This is the SAME re-used animation every time, only marginally disguised by a varied BACKGROUND – often of a single solid color.  I’ve rarely seen such blatant re-use of animation stock character footage, outside of the Filmation productions to come later in the decade.  Certain character walk and run cycles are also re-used – but never in as painfully obvious a way as this.  
Simon the Pieman - from Filmation's BATMAN (1968)  He's probably struck this pose before - and will do it again!

 Additionally, the FINAL NINE shorts of this collection were not done by the Paramount crew – and are clearly the product of another studio entirely!  So, when Warner says in its text: Among the cartoons contained in the stupendous 2-Disc, 72 episode volume, are all of the Paramount TV Popeye cartoons”, they aren’t just blowing smoke out of their pipe!  That would also indicate that, if the collected order is to be believed, Paramount produced 63 of these cartoons. 
The remaining nine have 1960 copyright dates, are credited to directors Bob Bemiller and Tom McDonald (can’t say I know anything about them), and exhibit no writing credits – nor any identification of the studio from which they originated!  A Google search identifies these cartoons as having been produced by “The Gerald Ray Studios” – and that FIVE different studios got in on this “new Popeye thing”, presumably, with varied results. 
What I CAN say about these is that the design sense of the animation is not up to the Paramounts – and, if anything, has the look of early products of Gamma Productions, such as King Leonardo.  Or, maybe Roger Ramjet… or, at best, the 1960 UPA Mister Magoo series.   Stock music (not by Winston Sharples), some of which I can identify from early episodes of KING LEONARDO AND HIS SHORT SUBJECTS, also backs these cartoons. 


While the animation may be “cheesy”, that doesn’t mean the cartoons are bad – perhaps, quite the contrary!  That is, if you can accept plots like The Sea Hag and Toar counterfeiting three dollar bills (with a picture of a HANGED Benedict Arnold on them), and Popeye, Olive, and Wimpy as vacationers stumbling onto their operation, in an outing called “The Last Resort”. 

I daresay, the “cheesy” animation actually ADDS to the sense of fun in cartoons like this.  For example, Toar slides back a wall-framed picture of a “General leading a charge” to fire a gun at our heroes.  The gun, naturally, fails to go off – but, of course, does so decisively in Toar’s face when he examines it.  He slides the picture back into place, to reveal that it now shows the “General lying dead on the battlefield, holding a flower on his chest”!  A more literal (as Bob McKimson) or ornately stylized (as Chuck Jones) version of this gag might not have been as funny.  See “The Last Resort” for yourself, and decide. 

Remember when CHEESY was FUN, Bullwinkle?
To digress, this illustrates the great difference between the “cheesy” animation of the sixties and the “cheesy” animation of the seventies.  In the sixties, producers actually worked their limitations to some humorous advantage (as Jay Ward certainly did) – while, in the seventies, it just dragged the already-inferior product further down. 
Quite WHAT, ya swab!

POPEYE THE SAILOR: The 1960s Classics Volume One is a release of “The Warner Archive Collection”.  Please GO HERE to read more about the standard Pros and Cons of this enterprise from Warner Home Entertainment.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.  


No Content Listings:  Or… I just bought 72 cartoons from the Warner Archive Collection, and all I got was a lousy t-shirt and NO Content Listings – less the t-shirt!”  You’d THINK that, with 72 cartoons in a set, the least the WAC could do was include a paper insert listing each one of those 72 cartoons, and where (on which disc) they can be found… but NOOOOO! 

Instead, we have three menus deep of 12 selections, over 2 discs, to wade through.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it each and every time Warner “cheaps-out” in this way, I should not have to engage a DVD and go through several menus to find what I’m looking for, when all it takes is a paper insert to be included with the package.  For a list price of 29.99, this should not be an issue! 

I ain't very "CONTENT" wit th' way things is "LISTING", me-self!

The very same 72 cartoons for an MSRP of 29.99: Consider that a Warner set like THIS offers a mere 15 short cartoons for 19.99, and you’ll probably appreciate this all the more.  Especially, if you happen to catch it on one of Warner Archive’s discount promotions.   …Still would like some Content Notes, though! 
…And the reason we’re all here:

THE SHORTS:  (Limited to the “First Five” – all of which are directed by Seymour Kneitel – and some random skipping.) 

Hits and Missiles (Runs 05:46)  For various reasons, not the least of which is that it leads off the collection, I suspect “Hits and Missiles” may have functioned as the “pilot” for this new series of Popeye cartoons.  

The THEME was different from the rest, and was actually the previously-used version for the theatrical shorts (the Made-for-TV shorts would have a slightly different theme).  There was a director’s credit for Seymour Kneitel, but the only other credit would read: “Produced by Paramount Pictures Cartoon Studios”.  No subsequent short would display this credit, but they would credit the writer and various animators.  Finally, the copyright year in the balance of these shorts (1960 or 1961) would display in Roman Numerals, but here it reads: “1960”. 

It is a terrible shame that no writing credit is attached to “Hits and Missiles”, as it is an imaginative effort, balancing cartoon fantasy adventure with some good humor… and with an unusually high number of puns.  (You KNOW, that’s gonna appeal to me!)  

To the story (with puns specially highlighted):  Popeye, Olive, and Wimpy are on hand for “Cape Canaveral Testing Grounds – Visitor’s Day”, where a bearded rocket-scientist (with the Jack Mercer-furnished voice of Famous / Paramount’s “Modern Madcap” series player “Professor Schmaltz”, gives them a tour of rocket ship “Luna No 1”. 

If this first effort was intended to “modernize” Popeye for the early sixties audience, I’d say tapping into the astronaut mania we all had back then was a good move. 

I KNOWS a good thing, when I SEES one!
POPEYE:  "Wot would ja call the inhabitinks on Luna?  Luna-tics?" 

OLIVE:  "Oh, Popeye… Stop trying to be so punny!"  (See!  Even Olive notices the shift in writing!) 

A mishap between Wimpy and Olive results in Luna No 1 accidently blasting-off to the Moon, with our three principals trapped on board.  In typical, pre-1969-moon-landing cartoon fashion, both the Big Dipper and the Milky Way are depicted as being BETWEEN Earth and the Moon for the sake of some gags.  

For the record, the 1961 UPA DICK TRACY cartoon “Rocket Racket”, featuring Hemlock Holmes and The Retouchables in a rocket chase with Sketch Paree and The Mole, offered the same astronomic inaccuracies in the name of some gags. 

And, speaking of outdated concepts, the Moon is revealed to be made of CHEESE!  (…Not “Green Cheese”, however!  Remember when we used to be told that story?  Does anyone perpetuate that today?)     

Seeing a mountain (of angularly stacked slices of Swiss cheese, compete with holes), Popeye declares:  This must be th’ SWISS CHEESE ALPS!”  This is followed by a nicely done sequence where Olive falls down and through the many Swiss holes, and Popeye is just a moment too late to grab on to her each time. 

At the bottom of the mount, they run afoul of a detail of militaristic cheese wedges (presumably Limburger) – protected by glass-topped cheese platter armor!  (They later lift their glass-top helmets to “gas” Popeye with their strong scent.) 

Their commander introduces himself as “Krantz, Captain of the Guard”.  To which Popeye replies Take me to your leader, Krantz!”  (Gotta love THAT!)   

The leader turns out to be (what else?) a BIG CHEESE (wheel)… would that also make him a “Big Wheel Around Here”?  He lives in “Roquefort Castle on the Rinds” and imprisons his visitors, after a false promise of assistance. 
Don't expect a SQUARE DEAL from a ROUND CHEESE!
From his prison cell, Popeye and company see downtrodden little peasant cheeses forced to pay exorbitant TAXES of “crackers” dumped into a large cracker barrel.  One unfortunate taxpayer, who drops his contribution breaking it into CRUMBS, is tortured by being repeatedly dipped into a vat of hot mustard! 
See?  He's GONE BAD already!

That’s enough for Popeye, who pipe-flame-cuts his way out of his cell and confronts the Big Cheese:  That’s a PRETTY CHEESY trick ta play on those little fellers!”  The expected altercation ensues, climaxed by a spinach-powered Popeye smashing the Big Cheese into tiny little slices.  He orders the pieces to CHEESE-IT!”, and they each grow little feet and hotfoot it out of there. 

The trio get a heroes’ send-off as they return to Earth, with Wimpy (who, like so many cartoon characters, apparently doesn’t need to breathe AIR – much less worry about issues of space-vacuum decompression) barbecuing “grilled hamburger and Swiss cheese kabobs” off the rocket’s tailpipe flame.   Not unlike the cover of this Dell Comic! 

Yeah, I spent a lot of time on one cartoon – but I feel it was worth it to give you a feel for what they were trying to do, and how it differed from Popeye cartoons past.  This was an imaginative romp, having more in common with the COMICS than most of the theatrical cartoons that preceded it.  You either like this sort of thing for Popeye, or you don’t… and I DO! 

As noted, I particularly liked the unusual proliferation of puns.  Other nice touches included Wimpy having a little, ever-present “flame grill” hidden under his hat (You never know when a stray hamburger might toddle by!), and Olive’s ring, with a pop-up full make-up kit including a large mirror.  If nothing else, it was certainly out of the ordinary for Popeye – and suitably heralded this new era.  …Sure wish I knew definitively who the writer was. 
Yeah, who WAS that writer, anyways!

The Ghost Host (Runs 05:38) Writer: Seymour Kneitel.  With this (presumably second) entry, the newly-modified theme, credits for Director, Writer, and various Animators – as well has the Copyright Year in Roman Numerals – begin for what is likely the balance of the Paramount series. 

Popeye and Olive pick up almost where they left off in the last theatrical, “Spooky Swabs”, when they flee from a storm into a haunted house.  They are harassed by three ghosts, who appear to be “beatnik-inspired” versions of Casper’s Ghostly Trio. 
We're OUTTA SIGHT, man... When we're invisible!

Strikes, Spares, an’ Spinach (Runs 05:36) Writer: Seymour Kneitel.  “Brutus”, having now assumed the former role of “Bluto” sabotages Popeye’s bowling date with Olive.  You’ve gotta wonder how they managed to overlook “bowling”, when they did countless versions of this plot in the theatricals.  Oh, and I’ve always differentiated “Brutus” from “Bluto” due to “Brutus” having a much larger paunch, while “Bluto” was more muscular overall. 

Pardon me, Sir... But didn't you used to be in BETTER SHAPE?

Jeep is Jeep (Runs 05:40) Writer: I. Klein.  A modern version of the 1938 Fleischer cartoon “The Jeep”, which is discussed in THIS POST.  The new series already makes a statement with the inclusion of the odd little E.C.Segar character “Eugene the Jeep” (not to mention Swee-Pea) – and this is the only one of the “First Five” not to end with the stock “Popeye singing, bobbing, and winking” footage. 

We end our look at the “First Five” with a real goodie! 

Spinach Scholar (Runs 05:39) Writer: Seymour Kneitel.

OLIVE (angry):  Popeye. I thought I told you I wasn’t going to see you again until you got an EDUCATION!” 

POPEYE:  "But-but, Olive… I been TO SEA, since I was a KID – an’ I ain’t never had a chance ta get ed-ja-ma-cated!” 

And so, we find the Sailor Man enrolling at the local schoolhouse, and being assigned to the Eighth Grade.  There, the teacher asks:  Who knows what Caesar said, when Brutus stabbed him?” 

Popeye raises his hand excitedly and replies:  He said OUCH!”  

For that, he is immediately demoted to the Seventh Grade!  I liked that gag, but wondered why they failed to do one based on his traditional foe now being called “Brutus”!  (…even if it was just a “muttering joke” after Popeye’s been humbled) I know *I* would have done it!  Perhaps, it was too early in the run, and the new name hadn’t yet fully caught-on. 

Subsequent gags find our not-so-scholarly-sailor backtracking to Fifth Grade, Third Grade, and finally Kindergarten! 

There he is asked to spell “cat” – and is finally forced to down a can of spinach just to do so!   And, in a nice break from the way they would have done it in the ‘50s theatricals, the spinach DOES NOT pump him up to college graduate, or doctorate level (complete with an abruptly-appearing cap and gown), but is just enough to get him through the intimidating challenge at hand! 

At cartoon’s end, he brags: There was nuthin’ to it, Olive!  I *went through* th’ WHOLE SCHOOL in one day!”  (He just fails to say, in WHICH DIRECTION!) 

Hmmm... Was it North, South, Eask, or Wesk?
 And, in another nice touch, once assigned to Third Grade, he finds it harder to fit into the little desk and chair sets. 

Where, oh where, was writing like THIS, when Paramount was churning out their endlessly formulaic theatricals?!  Seymour Kneitel was a part of it, back then.  Why didn’t he contribute an occasional story like this? 
This comic would ALSO have made a good Sixties cartoon!

Skipping ahead we find more diversity of subject matter, and even some comics-inspired adventure: 

Myskery Melody”: Can you believe a 5-6 minute condensed retelling of the 1936-1937 Segar comic strip continuity “Mystery Melody”?!  Yes, really! 

 It’s almost all here!  Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy and his ill-fated, long ago romance with “Rose of the Sea”, the Sea Hag with her eerie, mystery-melody emanating, evil magic flute and her vulture, and the powerful force of Eugene the Jeep!  I saw this as a kid, completely unaware of its origins as one of the most celebrated Popeye strip adventures of all time!   

Anyone who complains about it being a “digest version” is missing the greater point that kids’ television animation of the period would ever attempt to DO THIS in the first place! 

For the record, you can read E.C. Segar's original "Mystery Melody" in this magnificent collection, published by Fantagraphics...

...And, merely to digress further, you can read an "alternate world sort of sequel" to the tale in this 1957 Dell Comic, where Pappy is unaware of the Magic Flute's powers -- and The Sea Hag brings in "The Big Guy Who Hates Popeye" (who's been known to go by the name "Bluto") for a cameo -- along with a lion, a box of poison snakes, a bear, a gorilla, and a giant bomb -- to bust-up our Sailor Man!  ...Would I spoil things if I said the plan failed?


The Whiffle Bird’s Revenge”:  Bernice the Whiffle Hen was the subject of the first Thimble Theatre comic strip continuity that introduced a roughneck sailor named “Popeye”, on January 17, 1929.  While not an adaptation of that story (alas, “Myskery Melody” may have given me false hopes), it is a pretty good tale of the magical bird casting a werewolf spell on the hungry and predatory Wimpy. 

Hungry, like the...Wolf?
Seer-ring is Beliver-ring”:  One of those “bearded foreigners” that often appeared in Segar's comic strips, and Bud Sagendorf’s comic book stories, loses his mystic ring, which allows him to see into the future.  Olive accidently comes into possession of the ring, and trouble begins. 

A *very nice touch* in this one is, when Olive “sees her visions of the future”, everyone’s VOICE (Popeye, Wimpy, and even “Evil Eye” the bearded foreigner) is approximated by Mae Questel doing her best to duplicate / impersonate them, as opposed to Jack Mercer and Jackson Beck doing the voices as they normally would.  That’s really going all out, without the necessity to do so, to make the cartoon THAT MUCH MORE entertaining!  Kudos to Paramount on that!   

We end with the nine cartoons from the Gerald Ray Studio, which are decidedly different – but also good, in their own way! 

OVERALL:  By now, I’ve said enough, so I’ll keep the closing short. 

You know the PROS and CONS of Warner Archive Collection DVDs.  And, I’m sure I’ve supplied enough PROS and CONS on the King Features Popeye television cartoons of 1960-1961. 

What we might lose in animation quality, we more than make up for in diversity of subject matter, and a stronger animated adherence to the Popeye comic strip and comic books than has EVER occurred before or (alas, again) since.  

POPEYE THE SAILOR: The 1960s Classics Volume One is highly recommended for fans of Popeye, those interested in the overall period of television animation of the late ‘50s thru early ‘60s, fans of the Popeye comics, and anyone with an interest in the later activities of the Paramount / Famous cartoon studio… not to mention the heretofore-unknown-to-me Gerald Ray Studio. 

Or, you could just buy it, so we can get more Popeye on DVD – including the AWOL color Paramount / Famous cartoons!    
I ain't AWOL... I'm just MISS-KIN!