Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s, Volume 1
Review by KC Carlson
It’s been a while since I’ve watched (and reviewed) any vintage Popeye cartoons. But Warner just sent me the first new Popeye set in a long while. Plus, it’s the first restored Popeye on Blu-ray, which is a big deal! Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s, Volume 1 contains 14 recently restored color theatrical shorts — and as far as I can tell these are the original, unedited, versions of the cartoons.
I distinctly remember watching these original Popeye cartoons on TV whenever I had the chance growing up, and as the years went by the cartoons kept getting shorter and shorter from edits — not to mention mangled soundtracks. Censors did not like Popeye’s constant muttering under his breath! Now you can clearly hear everything what’s perturbing him (besides Bluto or Olive Oyl).
Anyway, as soon as I popped the Blu-ray into the player, I was 8 or 10 years old again and mesmerized at what was happening on my TV screen. (The Blu-ray is actually light years away from what I was originally watching, since at that age all I had for better picture quality were rabbit ears antenna. When I was really young, my dad started talking about rabbit ears for the TV, and I thought he was going to bring home Bugs Bunny to sit on top of the TV. It sometimes amazes me how I survived childhood. Something else I have give Popeye credit for.)
All of the cartoons on this new collection were originally shown in movie theaters from November 1943 to August 1945. At this point in time, most of the cartoons revolved around the Popeye/Olive Oyl/Bluto love triangle, and most of the gags were about the ridiculous lengths that Popeye and Bluto went to pummel each other into the pavement. A pretty-much-forgotten character from this era was Shorty, another sailor who occasionally palled around with Popeye. Shorty wasn’t very bright — or as charismatic as the main players — but he was useful when it was important to ignore the Popeye/Bluto/Olive conflicts for a bit. The first cartoon he appeared in was called “Happy Birthdaze” (July 1943), where (weirdly for a cartoon of this era) he attempts suicide. The cartoon made it a mystery whether he succeeded or not… but he did show up for two subsequent cartoons. That cartoon appears on the Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943 DVD set (2008).
One of the main themes for the series included helping broken-down animals (like horses) and other people. Popeye helps Shorty propose to Olive in “The Marry-Go-Round”, but Popeye is spectacularly bad at it. This one cartoon may explain the next 50-some years of Popeye cartoons… Interesting trivia about Shorty: He appeared in only three Popeye cartoons, and two of them are on this set.
In “The Anvil Chorus Girl”, we see a different side of Olive Oyl, who is for some reason the village blacksmith, and for some other reason, both Popeye and Bluto find this amazingly sexy. She starts flirting with them, and the animators also help out by making her actually appear sexy for a moment or two. I’m betting that this may be one of the cartoons that wasn’t shown much (or fully intact) on children’s TV. I don’t remember it.
“Spinach-Packin’ Popeye” is another weird one. Bluto and Popeye are boxers, and Olive is listening to them fight on the radio (no TV yet, remember?), and Popeye loses, and later at Olive’s he talks about his adventure in Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad (from 1936). This kind of repeated footage happened occasionally in Popeye-land, and so what — Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad is one of the best cartoons of its era, if not all-time!
Who’s Hoo at the Zoo
If you like nutty slapstick, “Pitching Woo at the Zoo” is for you! Popeye and Olive are at the zoo, and in one of those moments that only happens in cartoons, her neck and head starts doing gymnastics while trying to eat peanuts. Bluto is the nasty zookeeper and starts flirting with Olive. “What a feminine female!” And she likes it! I remember this cartoon well from my youth because of the ridiculous scene with Popeye and an alligator putting each other to sleep by rubbing their bellies. Plus, one of the best lines ever in the series is when Bluto comments on Popeye: “You’d only see an ugly face like his in an animated cartoon!” It’s always great to see the animators and writers having fun!
In “Sea-Sick Sailors”, Olive is reading Superman comic books. She crushes on Superman big-time, so Bluto disguises himself as Supes. (He shaves his beard. He still has 5 o’clock shadow, so it really shouldn’t work, but, you know… cartoons.) Popeye can’t compete on this level, but Super-Bluto is clumsy with his secret identity, so Olive gets tied to railroad tracks, and (somehow) Super-Popeye saves her.
It’s great that the people that conceive of these sets want them to be complete. In order to do so, they have to include some cartoons that they probably don’t really want to include. Like “Pop-Pie a la Mode”, which from start to finish portrays every blackface racial stereotype in the books. Popeye is a castaway on a raft who finds an island with a hotel on it. There is another castaway — a person of color drawn in all the wrong ways. (Basically, he’s a very stereotyped cannibal. His main goal of the rest of the cartoon is to eat Popeye.) And pretty much all of the rest of the characters on the island (and in the hotel) are similarly stereotyped. And most of them also want to eat Popeye. The other problem with this short is what’s so funny about that?
Three Rings Is Not Enough
In “Tops in the Big Top”, Bluto is the ringmaster of the circus, who loves torturing everybody else, especially Popeye (a guy who does the old “put your head in the lion’s mouth” routine) and Olive (who mostly stands around looking almost pretty in a weird pink tutu — and Bluto also looks up her very short skirt). At one point, she plays piano on the high wire. (Bet you’re already thinking, the piano will fly through the air! Good instincts!) Olive starts to fall off the high wire, but her nose (yes, I said nose) saves her. Bluto then makes sure that Popeye smells like booze — and then Bluto becomes the new trapeze artist! Popeye opens a can of spinach and saves both the day and gangly Olive, as Bluto lands in a water bottle and can’t get out.
“Shape Away” is probably best known for a famous cartoon cameo. Bluto and Popeye live together on a deserted island, where women aren’t allowed. Good, you already know where this is going… A shipwrecked Olive lands on the island, and and both doofuses are smitten and proceed to shave (well, not Bluto) and clean up to court her, as well as bring her fruit and flowers. Later, she’s swimming in the lagoon (naked?), and the boys are so concentrating on staring, that they almost accidentally kiss. The competition gets tougher until a Frank Sinatra-type crooner is washed up on the island, and Olive runs off with him. Bluto and Popeye’s comments are CENSORED. Cut to black.
“Mess Production” is the final cartoon on the set, which is somewhat appropriate as it sort of acts as a summing-up of much of the craziness we’ve already seen. Everybody is working in a factory, and Popeye and Bluto see Olive (a new welder) reporting for work so they start ogling her. Then they start fighting over her. Hijinks ensue. Bluto and she flirt, but then she ends up accidentally (?) injuring him. Later, gangly Olive ends up accidentally welding herself into a couple of connected pipes. There are three side pipes for her feet and head, so she can still walk around looking ridiculous. Until Bluto conks her on the head and she starts sleepwalking through the plant’s giant gears and conveyer belts. Popeye ultimately rescues her and she rewards him with a kiss — which of course makes him so dizzy that he stumbles back into the plant, while sleepwalking.
There are plenty of other great Popeye cartoons on this set. I’m so glad this series is back to hopefully regular releases again. I miss classic Popeye, and Blu-ray is the best way to see them for today’s viewers. What a great Christmas present from Warner Archive and the cast and creators of Popeye!