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Popeye the Sailor, Volume One (1933-1938) DVD Review

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60 Shorts (Click title to jump to that portion of review)
1933: Popeye the Sailor, I Yam What I Yam, Blow Me Down!, I Eats My Spinach, Seasin's Greetinks!, Wild Elephinks;
1934: Sock-A-Bye, Baby, Let's You and Him Fight, The Man on the Flying Trapeze, Can You Take It, Shoein' Hosses, Strong to the Finich, Shiver Me Timbers!, Axe Me Another, A Dream Walking; The Two-Alarm Fire, The Dance Contest, We Aim to Please;
1935: Beware of Barnacle Bill, Be Kind to 'Aminals', Pleased to Meet Cha!, The "Hyp-Nut-Ist", Choose Yer 'Weppins', For Better or Worser, Dizzy Divers, You Gotta Be a Football Hero, King of the Mardi Gras, Adventures of Popeye, The Spinach Overture;
1936: Vim, Vigor and Vitaliky, A Clean Shaven Man, Brotherly Love, I-Ski Love-Ski You-Ski, Bridge Ahoy!, What -- No Spinach?, I Wanna Be a Life Guard, Let's Get Movin', Never Kick a Woman, Little Swee'Pea, Hold the Wire, The Spinach Roadster, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor, I'm in the Army Now;
1937: The Paneless Window Washer, Organ Grinder's Swing, My Artistical Temperature, Hospitaliky, The Twisker Pitcher, Morning, Noon and Nightclub, Lost and Foundry, I Never Changes My Altitude, I Like Babies and Infinks, The Football Toucher Downer, Protek the Weakerist, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves, Fowl Play;
1938: Let's Celebrake, Learn Polikeness, The House Builder-Upper, Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh

Video & Audio; Bonus Features: Retrospective Documentaries, Popumentaries, Audio Commentaries, From the Vault; Menus and Packaging; Closing Thoughts

Running Time: 422 Minutes (7 hours, 2 minutes) / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Theatrical Aspect Ratio) / Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned; Six-sided Digipak in Cardboard Slipcover
Originally Released between 1933 and 1938; DVD Release Date: July 31, 2007
Four single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9); Suggested Retail Price: $64.98

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Page 1: Series Overview, Disc 1 and Disc 2 Shorts
Page 2: Disc 3 and Disc 4 Shorts, Video & Audio, Bonus Features, Menus & Packaging, Closing Thoughts

Like a number of animation's earliest stars, Popeye existed in newspaper comics before he ever graced a single celluloid. American cartoonist E.C. (Elzie Crisler) Segar introduced the character in a January 1929 installment of his 9-year-old Thimble Theater strip. Instantly defined by large, tattooed forearms and a pipe, the squinty sailor uttered just two brief lines in his first appearance. Still, he made an impression and would be developed over the next several years, becoming a central attraction of the Thimble strip. By November of 1932, Thimble owner King Features signed a deal with Fleischer Studios, an animation company run by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer that had transitioned from silent to sound cartoons and had a blossoming hit persona in the voluptuous Betty Boop.

Boop's self-titled series of shorts was chosen as the stage on which Popeye would make his animated debut in Popeye the Sailor, released on July 14, 1933. If the Popeye of print was already well-known enough to be proclaimed "a star" in his cinematic debut, the Fleischer Brothers did their part to elevate the salty hero to "superstar" status.
Within two months, they gave Popeye his own line of cartoons and added to it at the rate of about one new 6-7-minute short per month. The Fleischers were not merely adapting Thimble panels with motion and sound. They honed the character and his universe, turning imposing single-strip foe Bluto into a regular adversary, retaining the lanky Olive Oyl as a constant love interest but losing her family, and declaring spinach the magical source of Popeye's considerable power.

The Fleischers' black and white Popeye cartoons were a big hit with American audiences, rivaling Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse shorts in terms of popularity. They were still going strong when creator Segar passed away in 1938. The line even continued when distributor Paramount Pictures -- who acquired ownership of Fleischer Studios in 1941 -- fired Max and Dave, dissolved their company, and formed Famous Studios to continue production. Popeye and friends got upgraded to Technicolor full-time in the mid-'40s and in both color remakes and original cartoons, they remained a staple in movie theaters until the shorts format largely bowed out of theaters in the late 1950s. Even then, the sailor kept in the public eye thanks to frequent television airings of the theatrically-released fare and a streamlined original TV series in the early 1960s.

The title card for most of Popeye the Sailor's earliest cartoon shorts credits Max Fleischer. The central love triangle of the Popeye shorts pits bearded Bluto against pipe-clenching Popeye, with the lanky Olive Oyl somewhat obliviously in the middle.

Production values fluctuated over the course of various TV shows made by CBS in the late 1970s through the late 1980s. Robert Altman directed a major musical live-action feature for Paramount and Disney in 1980 that many remember as faring worse than it did. Popeye found new life as: a video game hero; a spokesman for fried chicken, orange juice, oatmeal, coastal awareness, and (naturally) spinach; a commemorative stamp. Meanwhile, rights to Popeye's cartoons changed hands a number of times. Several of the sailor's animated shorts fell into public domain, which enabled a variety of small independent studios to distribute low-budget videocassettes and later DVDs. However, an official, definitive home video release of classic Popeye films remained in limbo, as the parties with a claim to ownership -- Associated Artists Productions, MGM/United Artists, Turner Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, King Features and its parent Hearst Syndicate -- were either unwilling or unable to overcome a standstill.

Last summer, Warner Home Video announced that the essential parties (Warner, via its merger with Turner, plus King and Hearst) had come together, reached an agreement, and decided that the time had arrived for Popeye's entire cartoon library to be treated to DVD. And so, on July 31, 2007, Warner released the subject of this review -- Popeye the Sailor: Volume One, 1933-1938 -- a 4-disc, 60-cartoon set presenting the hero's canon in complete, chronological fashion with lots of bonus features to boot. As the DVD's title indicates, this is merely the beginning. The slugging sailor's enduring career in cartoons amassed a great amount of content. Warner's official count claims the studio has 231 theatrically-released Paramount shorts and 407 television shorts to make available in the years ahead.

Volume One delivers the first five years of Popeye's career on film, consisting of 58 one-reel black and white shorts and 2 two-reel Technicolor shorts, all produced by the Fleischer Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures. Many consider Popeye's earliest shorts his most triumphant, and their historic and cultural importance as animation and plain Americana is impossible to dispute.

Popeye puts up his dukes to protect his gal Olive Oyl from wild elephinks and other jungle creatures. Something's fishy about Popeye's company in the Mexican bar seen in "Blow Me Down!"

It doesn't take long to figure out and warm to the universal order of Fleischers' Popeye cartoons. The titular protagonist makes his marks both verbally and physically. As far as his speech is concerned, he has an unusual way of pronouncing words (which carries into such phonetically-titled shorts as Be Kind to 'Aminals', Hospitaliky, and Protek the Weakerist). He also has a froggy voice and a flair for muttering under his breath (many of his funniest comments come with his mouth still and asides flowing). Appearance-wise, there are the unnaturally robust forearms, the ever-squinted right eye for which he presumably gathers his name, and the fact that slurping down spinach gives the sailor an unstoppable extra boost of strength.

The vegetable-sparked power comes in handy for the hand-to-hand battles that are often born out of the rivalry between Popeye and the much larger Bluto. In the cartoon tradition, their fighting can be deemed fairly harmless, though there's a lot of it and much of it implies great amounts of pain. The source behind Popeye and Bluto's rivalry is often their common love interest, Olive Oyl. Even when they're not vying for her, their competitive natures manage to bring out interminable one-upmanship.

Olive Oyl, of course, is the temperamental beanpole who is curiously desired by both Popeye and Bluto. No damsel in distress, Olive can defend herself well and she's definitely not excluded from the tame violence and broad physical gags. Her womanly status distinguishes her from the central cast and her maternal instincts figure into a few shorts. Olive is somewhat of a surrogate mother to Swee'Pea, a foundling who appears in three Volume One cartoons as an innocent, danger-causing foil to Popeye. Rounding out the regulars is the hamburger-addicted loafer Wimpy, who feels like a great, unique character even in the limited exposure he receives compared to Segar's comic strip.

He walks prepared... To add more ketchup to his hamburger, the whiskered freeloader Wimpy need only remove his hat and scoop. Holding two of the Fleischers' three 2-reel Technicolor Popeye shorts, this set gives Bluto a chance to play a fierce Arabian foe twice.

As in any long-lived cartoon series, some amount of formula emerges in the Fleischers' Popeye shorts, most noticeably in Popeye and Bluto's back-and-forth rivalry that plays out in a variety of different settings until spinach serves as the all-purpose solution. This format actually takes a while to show up, as the earliest shorts managed to provide some diversity. When it does arrive in the later episodes of 1934, it does a little to lessen the series' appeal and any of the individual shorts' value. Gladly, though this scenario is the one most commonly employed, the series manages to go beyond it.

In the middle of Volume 1, the series becomes more musical in nature, occasionally adopting a lightly operatic tone or otherwise just prominently featuring a song besides Popeye's familiar "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man" anthem. Then the series soon changes again, opting for more comedy and action as the Fleischers approached the later parts of the '30s. The pair of feature-foreshadowing two-reel Technicolor shorts further depart from convention by casting Bluto in roles from One Thousand and One (Arabian) Nights across from Popeye himself.

Whether it's merely a timeless setup that can be translated into most superhero tales or the Fleischers were inspired by the success of Walt Disney's studio, the characters of the Popeye cartoons clearly align with Mickey Mouse's universe, with Popeye and Bluto serving as Mickey and Pete's mismatched foes, and Olive supplying the lone targeted female. Despite this parallel structure, the respective cartoon series are quite different in execution despite the inevitable 1930s sensibilities they shared in their busy heydays.

In "King of the Mardi Gras", Popeye shows off just how magical his relationship with Olive Oyl is. Unable to get run over by a car and therefore get the attention of nurse Olive, Popeye sulks in the middle of the street.

Some traits that have kept the Fleischers' Popeye cartoons entertaining some seventy-odd years later are their fine sense of humor, be in it funny expressions spoken (many butchered) or in the punny verbal gags of text signs. On a stylistic level, the animation retains charm for its impressive, cutting-edge techniques, such as the three-dimensionality that is found in certain shots.

Disney's features were what emerged as the most viewed, discussed, and celebrated of early-to-mid 20th century animation and the non-graphically-inclined maestro behind them as the field's unparalleled revolutionary. But to recognize the Fleischers merely as Walt's contemporaries and competitors underestimates their contributions to animation. For instance, years before the oft-cited Steamboat Willie, synchronized sound was achieved in the Fleischers' Sound Car-Tunes that introduced the still-popular sing-along-enabling "bouncing ball." Had the Fleischers' features Gulliver's Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town not floundered in comparison to Disney's triumphs,
had the Brothers Fleischer possessed the keen business/merchandising sense of Uncle Walt, had Paramount had faith and money to keep the brothers running the studio, had the siblings not had a falling out... things could have been drastically different in animation history books. As it is, a few of Max and Dave's creations combine to grant them a powerful legacy and Popeye continues to rank, along with Betty Boop and Superman, among their most treasured characters.

In watching these cartoons over the past month, one thing was evident: the shorts seemed better and less repetitive once viewing was spread out. That's certainly true of most episodic fare, especially that with some age to it (and Popeye has plenty of that). So, while the chronological compilation method makes sense for the customer, the collector, and the wallets of each, the shorts are so much easier to appreciate when consumed in moderation rather than, say, blazing through an entire disc in a single sitting.

Succinct synopses of the 60 featured shorts follow, with release year and runtime appearing in the parentheses after the titles.

Betty Boop shares her series and a dancing stage with Popeye the Sailor in his introductory cartoon. Fourteen Native Americans are no match for Popeye's brute force in "I Yam What I Yam." Popeye doles out unusual punishment to a bull in "I Eats My Spinach."

Disc 1

Popeye the Sailor (1933) (7:33)
Branded an instant movie star, Popeye attends a carnival with Olive Oyl, dances with Betty Boop, and must rescue his gal from Bluto.

I Yam What I Yam (1933) (6:03)
After a rainy boat ride, Popeye builds a house, rustles up some ducks, and, most substantially, fights Native Americans with his bare hands.

Blow Me Down! (1933) (6:17)
Bluto fights with Popeye inside and out of a bar in Mexico.

I Eats My Spinach (1933) (6:52)
At the rodeo with Olive Oyl, Popeye tries to one-up Bluto at horse riding and bull fighting.

Seasin's Greetinks! (1933) (5:55)
Popeye gives Olive Oyl a pair of ice skates for Christmas, but Bluto interrupts the lovers' skate and creates icy mayhem.

Before Swee'Pea showed up in the cartoons, Popeye tended to this infant, for whom the sailor goes to great lengths to provide silence. It's fight night at Yank'em Stadium and all eyes are on boxers Popeye and Bluto. Popeye prepares to knock out The Man on the Flying Trapeze in the short of the same name.

Wild Elephinks (1933) (6:05)
On an island with Olive Oyl, Popeye stands up to an elephant and an assortment of other jungle animals.

Sock-A-Bye, Baby (1934) (6:20)
Popeye finds a baby and tries to keep everyone and everything quiet so the kid can sleep.

Let's You and Him Fight (1934) (6:05)
Against Olive Oyl's wishes, Popeye steps into the ring to fight Bluto in a highly-attended boxing match at Yank'em Stadium.

The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934) (6:44)
After learning that Olive Oyl has run off with The Man on the Flying Trapeze, Popeye heads to the circus to win her back in this musical short.

Can You Take It? (1934) (6:18)
To get close to Olive Oyl, Popeye attempts to join the Bruiser Boys Club where she works.

Bluto shows off his blacksmith work in "Shoein' Hosses." Popeye and Wimpy find a ghost (that looks suspiciously like Olive Oyl) in between them in "Shiver Me Timbers!" Olive, Popeye, and Bluto all feel their way around the high steel in the standout "A Dream Walking."

Shoein' Hosses (1934) (6:24)
Both Bluto and Popeye seek to fill the opening in Olive Oyl's blacksmith shop, prompting competitive tryouts.

Strong to the Finich (1934) (6:57)
Popeye visits Olive Oyl's health farm for children
and must protect the kiddies from spinach-fed bulls.

Shiver Me Timbers! (1934) (6:40)
Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy board a ghost ship, where they of course encounter a number of strange sights.

Axe Me Another (1934) (7:00)
After building a boat and narrowly rescuing Olive, Popeye sets out to prove that he can do anything that Bluto can, in a challenge of tree-cutting.

A Dream Walking (1934) (7:33)
When Olive Oyl goes sleepwalking atop buildings and high steel, both Popeye and Bluto try to rescue her. When released, this short must have stood out as Popeye's longest and most sophisticated, visually and narratively, to date.

Popeye seeks to one-up Bluto on the dance floor. Bluto's plan is to eat an armful of sandwiches and not pay in "We Aim to Please." Olive is reluctant to give up her love of Barnacle Bill for Popeye.

Disc 2

The Two-Alarm Fire (1934) (6:41)
Popeye and Bluto again engage in one-upmanship, this time as firefighters both trying to rescue Olive Oyl from a house fire.

The Dance Contest (1934) (6:51)
Popeye relies on his trusty spinach to give him the right moves on the dance floor and do better with Olive than Bluto.

We Aim to Please (1934) (6:41)
Popeye and Olive Oyl run a diner together, where they serve Wimpy on a promise and a hungry but reluctant-to-pay Bluto.

Beware of Barnacle Bill (1935) (6:31)
Popeye pays Olive a visit, during which operatic singing and more affection-vying ensues, as Olive has trouble dropping her interest in Barnacle Bill the sailor (Bluto, of course).

Be Kind to 'Aminals' (1935) (5:35)
While feeding birds in the park, Popeye and Olive stand up to Bluto for the abuse he inflicts on his carriage horse.

The "Hyp-Nut-Ist" makes Olive Oyl walk and cluck like a chicken. Bluto and Popeye both pull on the same bride (Olive Oyl) in "For Better or Worser." Teamwork isn't in the cards for Bluto and Popeye in "Dizzy Divers."

Pleased to Meet Cha! (1935) (6:38)
Popeye and Bluto duke it out at Olive's place.

The "Hyp-Nut-Ist" (1935) (6:41)
Popeye and Olive attend a hypnotist show, which incorporates the two into the act.

Choose Yer 'Weppins' (1935) (6:09)
At his namesake Pawn Shoppe, Popeye must outlast an impudent customer.

For Better or Worser (1935) (7:45)
Cooking trouble leads Popeye to the matrimonial agency to pick out a wife, but he faces some competition from Bluto.

Dizzy Divers (1935) (7:40)
Popeye and Bluto vie against one another in deep sea diving for treasure, against squids and other obstacles.

Popeye shows off some stellar straight-arming in "You Gotta Be a Football Hero." It's a real life boy who turns to spinach for a big finale in "Adventures of Popeye." Pluto and a bouffant-topped Bluto are competing orchestra conductors in "The Spinach Overture."

You Gotta Be a Football Hero (1935) (6:05)
To turn cheerleader Olive's attentions away from Bluto, Popeye registers for football as part of an overmatched squad.

King of the Mardi Gras (1935) (8:15)
With an assortment of interesting acts, Popeye and Bluto compete for the public's attentions at a Mardi Gras festival, leading to a roller coaster climax.

Adventures of Popeye (1935) (7:53)
Popeye leaps out of a newly-purchased comic book and shows some highlights from a few of his first 27 shorts to inspire a young bully's target.
The bully, target, and comic book all exist in live-action form, easily distinguishing this multimedia short among the Popeye canon.

The Spinach Overture (1935) (8:02)
Popeye and an unusually-coiffed Bluto compete with each other musically -- conducting orchestras, playing piano and violin -- back and forth.

Vim, Vigor and Vitaliky (1936) (6:36)
Instructing a women's gymnastic class, Popeye takes quite a beating from a large woman who's really Bluto, shaved and in disguise.

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Reviewed August 31, 2007.

Text copyright 2007 DVDizzy.com.
Images copyright 1933-2007 King Features Syndicate, Hearst Holdings, Turner Entertainment Co., and Warner Home Video. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.