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Popeye the Sailor: 1938-1940   A+

King Features Syndicate / Warner Home Video

Year Released: 1938-1940 (Collection: 2008)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Dave Fleischer
Cast: Jack Mercer, Mae Questel.

Review by Rob Vaux

Warner Bros. gave us one of the best DVD collections in recent years with their Fleischer Studios Popeye collection in 2007. Gathering together the first 60 cartoons during the spinach-eating sailor's heyday of the 1930s, that collection featured not only gorgeous transfers of hard-to-find Popeye originals but a bevy of illuminating and entertaining extras charting the development of the series' beloved characters. Now Warners has repeated the feat with a second, smaller collection covering 31 Popeye shorts from 1938 to 1940. The standards from the first compilation haven't fallen off one bit, and while diehard fans don't need a reason to rush out and grab it, this second collection proves especially inviting for more casual viewers.

Like other Fleischer creations, Popeye always exhibited a rough-and-tumble exterior, standing in sharp contrast to the sunnier Disney films of the era. From the overt sexuality of Betty Boop to the surreal adventures of Koko the Clown, Fleischer cartoons were far more adult-oriented than many might expect. With Popeye, they struck an almost perfect balance between childlike simplicity and adult sophistication that feature-length cartoons are still emulating today. The one-eyed sailor lived in a very streetwise world of tenement apartments and working-class Joes (along with a few appalling examples of cultural bigotry on display in both collections). Grown-up references abounded and voice talent Jack Mercer had a knack for ad-libbing some marvelous jokes that may go above younger viewers' heads. And yet kids could still immediately grasp where Popeye was coming from and why he was so cool. The problems he faced grew increasingly creative during this period, but they still had an easily identifiable bad guy behind it all who Popeye would always dispatch with the well-timed consumption of a certain leafy vegetable. The pattern was comfortably predictable and yet the wondrous imagination of the Fleischer Studios constantly found new ways to stretch and expand it.

While the first collection charted Popeye's origins and slow growth, both the formula and character really hit their stride with the cartoons here. Mercer had become the go-to guy for Popeye's voice, while Mae Questel delivered the lines for his ostrich-like paramour Olive Oyl. Earlier shorts featuring other actors never sounded quite right, a testament to how important these two were to the series. With the basic storylines now established -- bully causes problems, Popeye eats spinach, bully gets holy crow beaten out of him -- the Fleischers began searching for ways to spice things up. New characters like Eugene the Jeep and the bizarre Goons (the latter of which are holding Popeye's father, Poopdeck Pappy, prisoner in the "Goonland" short) appear for the first time here, as well as engaging returns from series standbys like Bluto and Wimpy. The collection also includes the third of Popeye's two-reel Technicolor adventures, this one a variation on Aladdin and the magic lamp. (The first two are available in the earlier set.)

Popeye's heroic credentials are more firmly established as well. William Randolph Hearst -- whose King Features owned the rights to the character -- felt that Popeye needed to serve as a role model for young children, which becomes the centerpiece for a number of cartoons in this collection. For example, in "Bulldozing the Bull," Popeye is shoved into the bullfighter's ring as a matador, but refuses to kill the bull because it's "incruelty to aminals." Similarly, "Cops Is Always Right" sees him tossing himself in jail after accidentally assaulting a policeman... while carrying the cop's unconscious body back to the station house to boot. Though some are a trifle naive by today's standards, they also reflect a strong sense of Popeye's morality, making him more than just a might-makes-right bruiser. Mercer and the writers made sure that the shorts stayed funny and imaginative even at their most lecturing, while the animation remains as rich and detailed as it was in the first collection.

The extras are a uniform joy as well. In addition to the expected commentaries and standard-issue art galleries, the two disks contain a bevy of entertaining documentaries about the Jeep, Poopdeck Pappy, and Questel's impressive contributions to animation voice-overs. There's also a longer documentary covering the rise and fall of the Fleischers, largely focusing on their rivalry (and eventual reconciliation) with Walt Disney. An audio-only interview with Mercer is also included, along with a period short that covers the process of putting the Popeye cartoons together. The best of the lot is a piece called "Men of Spinach and Steel," which compares Popeye to the era's other preeminent tough guy: Superman. (The Fleischers themselves created a number of outstanding Superman cartoons in the 1940s, one of which -- "The Mechanical Monsters" -- is on the disk too.)

Like the earlier collection, these cartoons hold up exceptionally well, despite their obvious grounding in the period they were made. The characters are so strongly defined and their antics so creatively inspired that they feel like they sprung from the animators' pens just yesterday. Indeed, few filmmakers of any period could deliver the goods with such skill and polish as the Fleischers do here. Cartoon buffs likely marked their calendars long ago, but for those who remember Popeye only from their childhood days or who don't feel a completist's urge to snap up every one of his adventures, this second collection is the perfect way to get reacquainted with one of pop culture's most beloved icons.

Review published 06.19.2008.

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