OK, so maybe at 50 I am supposed to be too old for some things. After all, cartoons have long been identified as being for children, and since I am past the throes of middle age, I should move on to Lawrence Welk and Meet the Press.
In fact I am perhaps more excited about the new Popeye cartoon collection than I have been about more prestigious "grownup" DVD releases. Quite frankly, these films represent cinematic art every bit as much as any pretentious Hollywood epic. Maybe even moreso.
Warner Home Video has been doing a wonderful job restoring and releasing the many great older films in its library, from the Warner classics to the MGM and RKO productions of the 1930s and 1940s within its holdings. They have not simply stopped at the feature pictures, but have also released vintage cartoons and short subjects as special features, allowing film buffs like myself to actually recreate a night at the movies in an era that has long since passed us by. Artistic cinematic content with the warmth of nostalgia, inspiring one’s brain and one’s heart, seemed to be the method of operation for Warner Home Video.
Now they have struck a deal to restore and release all of the original Fleischer Brothers Popeye cartoons, complete with restored theatrical openings, enhanced picture and sound, and, most importantly, the original black and white. The films were hastily and foolishly colorized some years ago, and the black and whites have since only been seen in the wee hours on cable stations that believe the limited animation of Snorks or Scooby Doo deserved prime time placement.
This first volume includes a whopping 60 Popeye cartoons, the first batch from 1933-1938. The initial ones features William Costello as Popeye, William Pinnell as Bluto, and Bonnie Poe as Olive. In 1935, all were replaced, with Jack Mercer taking over as Popeye, Gus Wickie doing Bluto, and Mae Questel settling into the Olive Oyl role. The cartoons in this package extend until Wickie’s death in 1938, after which production moved to Miami where the Bluto voice was done by Pinto Colvig (who would later do Goofy and Pluto for the Disney studios), and an occasionally returning Wiliam Pennell, while Mercer’s wife Margie Hines voiced Olive Oyl. By 1944, Jackson Beck took over the Bluto role and stayed with it to the very end, along with Mercer and a returning Mae Questel (after Mercer and Hines divorced).
These black and white classics are the best animated, cleverest, and most amusing cartoons of the entire Popeye series. There would be some fleeting touches of brilliance afterward, especially in the pre-1944 period before the Fleischers were ousted by Paramount, but not so consistently as during this early period.
Popeye’s very first appearance, in a Betty Boop cartoon, is here. So are the first two technicolor two-reel epics, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor" and "Popeye Meets Ali Baba and His Forty Thieves" both of which feature Bluto stretching his acting chops by playing different roles (!) The two-color technicolor restoration returns these two classic cartoons to their original theatrical glory after years of washed out prints from various public domain distributors.
It should also be noted that along with the wonderful cartoons on this 4 disc set, there are many wonderful special features on the making of the films, the chronological history, and commentary by animation historians and other noted experts. The package is as informative as it is entertaining.
This volume is the first of a chronological series where Warner Home Video will be releasing all of the Fleischer-produced Popeye cartoons. And it is, indeed, most highly recommended.