Cartoon clubhouse: The hamburger-loving J. Wellington Wimpy (above) and the eternal love triangle between Bluto, Popeye and Olive Oyl (below) are part of the pleasures of the new Popeye DVD box set.
By 1938 the plots for the Popeye
’toons—created by fraternal animators Max and Dave Fleischer, who at
the time maintained a fierce rivalry with cartoon kingpin Walt
Disney—were getting a bit standardized by this point, with less of the
gritty urban flavors of the early Depression classics and more
refinements in animation technique. This DVD set chronologically
showcases more of the series’ second bananas, notably a pair of
cartoons devoted to the mysterious Eugene the Jeep, plus more anarchy
from Poopdeck Pappy. Yet the Popeye persona was so firmly entrenched
that the animators could place him in any bizarre adventure, from the
surrealistic slices of heaven-as-hell in Wotta Nightmare, to the daffy incongruities of Popeye Meets William Tell, which includes a Groucho Marx cameo, to the immortal adventure in Goonland.
The Paramount logos have also been
restored for this edition’s batch, although two cartoons weirdly
maintain title cards from the syndicated TV prints issued by Associated
Artists Productions in the 1950s. Alas, the Fleischers’ attempt to
outdo Disney’s success on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with their own feature-length Gulliver’s Travels
(1939), announced earlier this year as a tasty extra, has been yanked
from the final product. Perhaps Warner realized that a restored version
of the film, a public-domain staple, would quickly become sourced as a
bootleg for dollar-store consumption. Yet the third and final Popeye
Technicolor two-reeler, the 21-minute Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp, has been happily remastered with its knockout hues intact.
Thirteen commentary tracks are featured,
with filmmaker Greg Ford again coming across as the most ingratiating,
with other contributions from historians Michael Barrier and Glenn
Mitchell and cartoon director Eric Goldberg. This volume’s many extras
include early artwork from Max Fleischer; pencil tests of certain
scenes from Females Is Fickle; a storyboard reel for Stealin’ Ain’t Honest; and an audio-only interview with Popeye voice Jack Mercer. A brief snippet from Paramount’s Popular Science short-subject series showcases the Fleischers’ Miami-based animation studio circa 1938, while the 11-minute Superman cartoon The Mechanical Monsters (1941) is still one of the high points of 20th-century animation.
Most impressive of the extras is the 47-minute profile Out of the Inkwell: The Fleischer Story,
narrated by Carl Reiner. The documentary examines the career highs and
lows of the fractious Fleischers and the familial rift that ended their
once-lucrative relationship with Paramount, with insights from a host
of talking heads such as Leonard Maltin and Richard Fleischer, the
latter being Max’s son and a noted Hollywood director in his own right.
In the doc’s most poignant moment, it’s revealed that Richard
Fleischer’s own success with directing the Disney production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
(1954) helped broker a reunion of Max Fleischer with his former
cartoonists during a party hosted by Walt, as the two former rivals
soon became friends.