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Popeye the Sailor: 1938-1940, Vol. 2
The first collection of "Popeye the Sailor" cartoons was one of my favorite DVD releases of 2007, and so I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Popeye the Sailor, 1938-1940: Volume Two for some time now. To say it's slightly disappointing now that it's here feels a little off the mark, because the quality of the Fleischer Popeyes will never fail to meet expectations. Rather, the disappointment is in there being less for animation fans to dig into on this second set. For folks expecting the brick of cartoons that came with the 1933-1938, Volume One box, prepare yourself for a shorter seafaring adventure this time. Covering half the time of the first go-round, 1938-1940: Volume Two is also half the length, crossing only two DVDs instead of four. It's kind of like this year's tax rebate being half of last year's rebate: you're glad you got the money, you just wish it was more.
I don't know the exact reason for splitting up the Popeye series in this way. The already announced vol. 3 is also a two-disc, three-year-spanning set, so it could be a case of drawing the franchise out, or it could be a natural division between eras of the series. Until it's in my hands, I can't tell.
On the subject of what I do have, Popeye the Sailor, 1938-1940: Volume Two does come off as a somewhat transitional period for the cartoon series, at least initially. The first handful of shorts on DVD 1 may inspire a little déjà vu. Plots involving Spring cleaning, bullfighting, and Popeye chasing Swee' Pea across the city have a smack of a certain familiarity. Also strange is that Popeye's rival Bluto is absent from most of the cartoons on this disc, not showing up until the 9th entry, "Customers Wanted," which turns out to be a clip show. (Though, an ingeniously designed one. Popeye and Bluto run competing penny arcades, and while vying for Wimpy's business, they each show him samples from their old cartoons, though Popeye or Bluto looks like top dog depending on which side Wimpy's watching it on.) Without his feuding with Bluto over the affections of Olive Oyl, Popeye is missing some of his essential drive.
Part of the reason for Bluto's sabbatical could be the urging from William Randolph Hearst, whose company owned the rights to the Popeye comic strip, to dial down the violence since the cartoons were now attracting a younger audience than before. Thus, instead of the pugilistic symphonies of the earlier shorts, a lot of these cartoons rely more on slapstick of the Buster Keaton/Harold Lloyd variety. "Plumbing is a 'Pipe,'" for instance, has Popeye rushing to stop the multiplying leaks in Olive's house, or "A Date to Skate" is all about Ms. Oyl losing control on roller skates. These cartoons are all very funny and wonderfully animated, they are just of a different flavor.
Of course, this new, toned-down image gives the Fleischers an opportunity for more of their trademark fourth-wall-shattering comedy, and thus we get the cleverly rebellious "It's the Natural Thing to Do," in which a timely telegram arrives to interrupt a Popeye and Bluto brawl. The fan club has sent a message that asks the boys to act more like gentleman, and what follows is a string of great gags where they try to do just that.
The animators also compensate by introducing some new elements from the comic strip into this run of 'toons. Thus, DVD 1 of Popeye the Sailor, 1938-1940: Volume Two has "The Jeep," the first cartoon introducing Popeye's magical dog-like creature, and "Goonland," giving us both the Goons and Popeye's scrap-happy father, Poopdeck Pappy. These would all be enduring concepts in the Popeye series, and they also mark two of the best shorts in this collection.
Also notable on DVD 1 is Popeye's third Technicolor two-reeler. Twice the length of the black-and-white shorts, "Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp" follows the example of the 1936 and 1937 color meetings between Popeye, Sinbad, and Ali Baba. Comparatively, these breaks from the norm, while a treat for their marvelous color animation, are weaker than their brethren. Popeye in the exotic locales and shoehorned into traditional tales--here he pretends to be a prince and battle over a magic lamp to win the affection of Princess Olive Oyl--takes him too far from his "everyman" premise. Also, the increased length comes largely from padding out a thin story.
Bluto finally gets his due in a handful of cartoons on disc 2, competing with Popeye on a variety of levels, often for Olive Oyl's affections. In one instance, they are battling for the right to play Romeo to her Juliet on the Shakespearian stage, in another they are racing trains. In yetanother, "Fightin Pals," they are even portrayed as best buds who just happen to like knocking each other around. When Bluto disappears on an expedition to Africa, Popeye cures his separation anxiety by rescuing the big lug himself.
Poopdeck Pappy makes a return appearance in a couple of the shorts. The cantankerous codger makes for a good foil to Popeye, with the roles of parent and child being reversed and Popeye having to chase after the impulsive geezer. Pappy even takes center stage in the aptly titled "With Poopdeck Pappy." Jeep also gets close to top billing on the last cartoon in the set, "Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep," the pup's first return since "The Jeep" two years prior--though he comes back under new circumstances and as if he has never been seen before.
DVD 2 has the obligatory clip show, as well, this time in "Doing Impossikible Stunts." It has Popeye showing some of his best feats to a blow-hard movie director in order to land a stuntman's job, only to be shown up by Swee' Pea. We also get the song-and-dance routines of "Puttin on the Act" and the strangely incongruous "Popeye Meets William Tell," wherein the sailor is somehow transplanted to a medieval kingdom to meet the infamous archer.
The full list of cartoons on DVD 1:
* I Yam Love Sick * Plumbing Is A "Pipe" * The Jeep (Commentary by Historian Glen Mitchell) * Bulldozing The Bull (Commentary by writer Paul Dini) * Mutiny Ain't Nice (Commentary by filmmaker Greg Ford) * Goonland (Commentary by Historian Glen Mitchell) * A Date To Skate (Commentary with historian Michael Barrier with audio from animator Gordon Sheehan) * Cops Is Always Right (Commentary with historian Michael Barrier with audio from animator Dave Tendlar) * Customers Wanted (Commentary by director Eric Goldberg) * Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp - Technicolor Two-Reeler * Leave Well Enough Alone * Wotta Nightmare (Commentary by Historian Jerry Beck) * Ghosks Is The Bunk * Hello How Am I (Commentary by animator Mark Kausler) * It's The Natural Thing To Do (Commentary with historian Michael Barrier with audio from animator Arnold Gillespie)
The full list of cartoons on DVD 2:
* Never Sock A Baby * Shakespearian Spinach * Females Is Fickle * Stealin Ain't Honest (Commentary by director Bob Jacques) * Me Feelins Is Hurt * Onion Pacific * Wimmin Is A Myskery * Nurse-Mates * Fightin Pals * Doin Impossikible Stunts * Wimmin Hadn't Oughta Drive * Puttin On The Act (Commentary by historian Daniel Goldmark) * Popeye Meets William Tell (Commentary by filmmaker Greg Ford with audio of animator Shamus Culhane) * My Pop, My Pop * With Poopdeck Pappy * Popeye Presents Eugene, The Jeep
There are 31 cartoons in total.
These cartoons are all full frame, with pretty good if not perfect DVD transfers. Some wear and tear is still visible on the cartoons, the occasional flicker or spot on the screen, but in general have a very consistent quality. In fact, I didn't notice any one episode to single out as being any worse than another. Some may gripe that these aren't totally pristine, but given the age of the material and the degradation they've received over the years in television syndication, I'm actually counting my blessings.
The color cartoon looks fairly good, with nice work done capturing the original look of the picture. I do think the image may be a little faded, but I can't be entirely sure. It doesn't seem as bright as the Superman bonus on DVD 2, but that might just be the nature of the color palettes of the two.
The soundtracks for the toons are of similar quality. Mixed in mono, the levels are clean and consistent, and there is no hiss or mismatched tones.
There are optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired.
As with most of the Warner Bros. cartoon sets, you can pick and choose your cartoons or play them all straight through in order. There are also plenty of extra features on both discs, which tend to be disc-specific but also of similar ilk.
Both discs have what are called "Popeye Popumentaries," short programs ranging from four to even nine minutes about specific aspects of the Popeye franchise. There are three on DVD 1, including two that match with cartoons in that run: "Eugene the Jeep: A Breed of his Own" and "Poopdeck Pappy: The Nasty Old Man and the Sea" both spotlight characters introduced in 1938, and "O-Re-Mi: Mae Questel and the Voices of Olive Oyl," about the woman who provided Olive's vocals more than anyone and the few who tried to sub in for her. DVD 2 only has one Popumentary, "Men of Spinach and Steel," comparing and contrasting Popeye and Superman as candidates for the first superhero and how both were animated by the Fleischers. Commentators on these shorts, which are liberally seasoned with clips, are often culled from the same round of interviews as the first set, and include Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell; Sam Viviano, an art director at MAD Magazine; voice actress June Foray; television and comics writer Mark Evanier; Paul Dooley, Wimpy in the live action Popeye; animation historians Jerry Beck, Harvey Deneroff, Leslie Cabarga, Steven Stanchfield, Kim Newman, and Stephen Worth; Mark Johnson and Frank Caruso of King Features Syndicate; television and comics writer Paul Dini; animator Eric Goldberg; comics historian Michael Uslan; and many more.
A much longer documentary appears on DVD 1. The 48-minute Out of the Inkwell: The Fleischer Story tracks the full breadth of the Fleischers' career. It's a fascinating story, narrated by Carl Reiner and told by many of the same commentators as in the shorter pieces, as well as with interviews with Max Fleischer's son, Richard (director of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and his grandchildren, Mark and Ginny. Leonard Maltin also joins the mix, and we learn that part of the reason that the Popeye series transitioned into tamer territory was due to transplanting the studio from rough and tumble New York to sunny Miami.
DVD 2 features two extra Fleischer related shorts, both in color. "Paramount Presents Popular Science" is part of a series of short subjects made with the long-running magazine, and this 1938 entry shows the Fleischer studios at work on "Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp." The second cartoon is "The Mechanical Monsters", the second of the Fleischer Superman cartoons. I'd love to see a souped-up set of these!
The Early Max Fleischer Art Gallery is a short video showing nineteen drawings from Max's childhood sketchbook. Created when he was 14, they are largely of household objects and toys.
More behind-the-scenes elements and rarities highlight the rest of the disc:
* a pencil test for "Females is Fickle"
* storyboard reel for "Stealin' Ain't Honest"
* an audio-only commercial recording of "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man,", featuring one of the worst Olive Oyl impersonations you're likely to hear
* Animator Michael Sporn interviewing famous Popeye voice actor Jack Mercer.
Finally, there are trailers for Journey to the Center of the Earth, King of Kong, and a joint trailer for Tiny Toons and Freakazoid DVD sets.
Also, look for commentaries by current animators and cartoon experts discussing individual shorts. You can find a list of these annotated in the rundown of what cartoons are on each disc above. You'll also note various commentaries include audio portions of vintage interviews with some of the original animators.
The packaging of Popeye the Sailor, 1938-1940: Volume Two equals Volume One in terms of design. A basic cardboard book with a double-up plastic tray fits snugly in an outer slipcase. Both pieces feature info about what is in the set, as well as marvelous artwork by cartoonist Stephen DeStefano. DeStefano also did all of the drawings for the disc menus.
Though the rougher edges of the series humor may have been polished down, Popeye the Sailor, 1938-1940: Volume Two is still a hilarious collection of thirty-one classic cartoons. Featuring amazing, innovative animation and a group of characters that remain as lovable today as they were back then, "Popeye" truly stands the test of time. This two-disc set even introduces us to the Goons, the Jeep, and Poopdeck Pappy! Packed with extras, this is an unquestionably necessary DVD collection, and though not as good as the first massive volume, quite fabulous in its own right. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.