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Popeye 75th Anniversary Celebration Collector's Edition

Popeye 75th Anniversary Celebration Collector's Edition
Koch Vision
1960-61 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 8 hours 85 x 5 min 45 seconds / Street Date April 27, 2004 / 29.98
Original Music Ken Lowman, Winston Sharples, Gordon Zahler
Written by Raymond Jacobs, Carl Meyer, Jack Mercer, Jack Miller, Eddie Rehburg, Harvey Toombs, Howard A. Schneider, Noel Tucker, Ed Nofziger, Cal Howard and surely more
Produced by Al Brodax, Jack Kinney, Larry Harmon, William L. Snyder
Directed by Seymour Kneitel, Jack Kinney, Paul Fennell, Gene Deitch, Bob Bemiller and others.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This 75th anniversary edition cleverly marks Popeye's Sunday funnies premiere in 1929, and not one of his later theatrical or television reincarnations. Of course everyone loves the Paramount Max Fleischer classic cartoons of the 1930s that had their own style and approach separate from Disney and Warner Brothers. The imagination in some of those shorts was of the highest order. They made Popeye an indelible part of the culture, with his "toot-toot" pipe, love of spinach and mangled English malapropisms.

The collection here is two Popeye dynasties removed from Fleischer, from the 1960-1961 seasons of syndicated cartoons. These are nowhere near the quality of the old classics (which I believe were redrawn and colored into cheapness in the 1960s) but they certainly did show on television, and probably haven't stopped playing since their first release.

Koch Vision gathers 85 of them onto three discs, insuring plenty of Popeye mania for those interested in this end of his career.

Television was the curse of animation. Television killed animation by the simple fact that the tube needed so much and needed it made more cheaply. Some of the first programming I can remember seeing on TV in 1955 were silent Farmer Alfalfa and Krazy Kat cartoons that suddenly had a new market, and enterprising animators were quick to cobble together minimalist cartoon-like quasi-animated series such as Clutch Cargo, Crusader Rabbit and a fairy tale show I barely remember (c'mon, I was 4 or 5) that was mostly just static panels that looked like storybook pages. The availability of noisy, cheap animation on TV locked the art form into a Kiddie Kartoon World and pulled the rug out from under the often adult-pitched powerhouses that were the MGM and Warners cartoon studios. As the top animation talent was put out of action by economics even the big studio cartoons got cheaper and more simplified. UPA pioneered a style that looked like the free-form hip graphics in new children's books; most of the industry followed suit to some degree. The art of backgrounds was reduced to a few squiggly lines, and complex characters with developed personalities became flat caricatures.

When Hanna & Barbera moved into TV, they knew what had to be done. The creators of the often gloriously rich Tom & Jerry series stripped their technique down to radio shows with predictable voices and repeated schtick for personalities, and cute sound effects to avoid showing any action. Backgrounds were minimalist line drawings and all action went from left to right, preferably in unending cycles so characters could run indefinitely to pad out the cartoon's running time. When characters weren't running, "stasis was the waysis." The animation was just a couple of in-between frames with long holds where nothing happened. Fluid movement was out.

Popeye had already moved into the main Paramount animation shop in the forties and undergone a radical style change from the Fleischer heyday, but the 60s cartoons we see here don't resemble them very much. The design is hasty and character detail is insignificant. The pace is too slow to be a radio show with pictures, and the gags are pitched to appeal to very young children. If a sign shows up, chances are someone will read it out loud for the small fry.

The 85 cartoons here appear to have been ordered by the yard. There are so many different producers and writers that it's a free-for-all. Producer Al Brodax must have been four or five teams working simultaneously. Personnel changes so much that even though Jack Kinney and Larry Harmon (a name associated with Bozo the Clown as well, I think) have their name on many of the cartoons, there's little creative throughline or consistency to characters, story or overall look. As can be seen on the disc menu, the the main title cards jump between several styles, including one plainwrap "playground" typeface.

The original Popeye cartoons often followed a set pattern. Popeye gets in a predicament with Olive Oyl, Swee-'pea or both. the villain can be Bluto (later Brutus) or various other enemies, even inanimate things like bad plumbing. Often, Popeye and Bluto/Brutus will compete for Olive's fickle attention. At some point Popeye loses his patience with his opponent's incessant cheating and dirty fighting. He eats spinach, becomes as strong as a dynamo or a battleship (often picturized) and straightens out the problem in no time flat with a violent response.

The new cartoons are all over the place in subject matter. Fighting requires a lot of animation to be interesting, so there's really very little of it. The stories vary in plot particulars. Overall they tend to be on the weak side.

The once lively and sometimes weird Segar-Fleischer characters are here flattened into Hanna-Barbera mode. Eugene the Jeep, Wimpy, the Sea Hag, and a Goon here or there are used in obvious ways that don't build from cartoon to cartoon. Some episodes are stories read to Swee'pea by Popeye, enabling the repurposing of the same storytime shots as padding. No attempt is made to create any particular world as Fleischer had done in the 30s with his fanciful urban jungle. For more variety, characters take roles in fairy tale or adventure stories, in ancient Rome, etc. Popeye is basically still Popeye, but other characters change completely to suit the individual tale and have no real consistency.

Being made at the beginning of the Kennedy years, we see some topical issues - the space race, beatniks, quiz shows, yet there aren't any really compelling stories or anything clever going on.

The famous names Halas and Batchelor crop up on at least one cartoon done perhaps as a business feeler. Their Matinee Idol Popeye has a slight up-market shift but is nothing that different from the others. But occasionally an episode will appear to be a little sharper and lively than the others, as if some creatives had dashed off a dozen episodes and saved their time to make one with a little more special care. Or maybe those good episodes were loss leaders to snag the contract for a string of moneymakers.

Koch Vision's DVD set of Popeye 75th Anniversary Celebration Collector's Edition is a 3 disc set in an attractive folding card box with large renderings of the key characters. Even though there is so much content on each disc, the cartoons don't look bad at all - the "stasis is the waysis" philosophy makes for happy encoding when a lot of the image stays identical frame after frame. The color is all uniformly good, or let's instead say accurate - there's nothing much particularly pretty or artful about any of these shows.

Here's the rundown - 85 titles that won't stick in the mind. I tried looking them up on the IMDB but that organization knows better. The title Oil's Well that Ends Well has been used several times before, once by the Three Stooges.

Disc One: Hits and Missiles, Plumber's Pipe Dream, Jeep Tale, Popeye's Pep-Up Emporium, Love Birds, Golden-Type Fleece, Coffee House, Mueller's Mad Monster, Popeye and the Spinach Stalk, After the Ball Went Over, Popeye's Car Wash, Muskels Shmuskels, Ski-Jump Chump, Popeye and the Dragon, Hamburger Fishing, Childhood Daze, Jingle Jangle Jungle, Incident at Missile City, Fashion Photography, Sea No Evil, Popeye's Junior Headache, What's News, Voo-Doo to You Too, Matinee Idol Popeye, Popeye and the Giant, Mississippi Sissy, Sea Serpent, Little Olive Riding Hood, Invisible Popeye.

Disc Two: Track Meet Cheat, Scairdy Cat, Popeye's Trojan Horse, Aladdin's Lamp, Crystal Ball Brawl, Out of this World, Swee-pea Soup, Two-Faced Paleface, Spare Dat Tree, Frozen Feuds, Weight for Me, Tiger Burger, Old Salt Tale, Seer-ring is Believing, Popeye Revere, The Glad Gladiator, Jeep is Jeep, Strange Things are Happening, Popeye's Testimonial Dinner, Popeye the Ugly Ducklin', Giddy Gold, My Fair Olive, Kiddie Kapers, Popeye Thumb, Barbecue for Two, Popeye's Used Car, Popeye's Tea Party, The Wiffle Bird's Revenge, Bullfighter Bully, Fleas a Crowd, County Fair, Popeye and Buddy Brutus, Lighthouse keeping, Butler Up, Popeye's Cool Pool, Oil's Well that Ends Well.

Disc Three: Motor Knocks, Popeye the Lifeguard, College of Hard Knocks, Duel to the Finish, The Medicine Man, Egypt Us, The Big Sneeze, Wimpy's Lunch Wagon, Operation Ice-Tickle, The Mark of Zero, The Super Duper Market, Insultin' the Sultan, Wimpy the Moocher, Popeye's Double Trouble, Rags to Riches to Rags, Me Quest for Poopdeck Pappy, The Golden Touch, Gem Jam, Popeye's Hypnotic Glance, Olive Drab and the Seven Sweapeas.

Hearing-impaired kids, forget it. There are no subtitles.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Popeye 75th Anniversary Celebration Collector's Edition rates:
Cartoons: Fair
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Folding 3-disc card and plastic holder in card sleeve
Reviewed: May 12, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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