During the Golden Age, every cartoon studio was trying to find their own star. At the time, animated characters were considered actual actors themselves: Mickey Mouse was seen as the animated equivalent of stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and every other studio was trying to surpass him in popularity. The Fleischer Studios were probably the only studio, in the 1930s, that was able to accomplish that, thanks to their new rising star: Popeye the Sailor.
Created by E.C. Segar for his own popular comic strip, Popeye became the main character for a new series of theatrical shorts and quickly surpassed Mickey Mouse in popularity, becoming a great example of a successful adaptation to the big screen.
The Fleischers understood pretty soon that the key to making an adaptation successful was not to merely replicate the material to another medium, but to use the qualities of the medium they’re adapting it to: movement, music, all stuff exclusive to the film medium. And of course, the Fleischers also added their own stylistic quirks: the result is a product that can live on its own, instead of a weak imitation, even though the Segar strip still remains the basis for most of the cartoons.
The animation style, at least in the early years, remained the classic Fleischer style: mechanical and rigid, often innatural and absolutely not realistic, the opposite of what many animators in the West Coast were doing. Popeye is probably the ultimate achievement of this style: all the characters have their own unique walks, which makes them stand out even more. None of them moves in a natural and spontaneous way, in fact they’re almost symmetrical in their movement. Probably for this very reason, the Fleischer’s work has been disregarded in the industry as “amateurish” (despite their success), at least until their work was re-discovered by a generation of artists and professionals who grew up with them thanks to several re-runs on television.
Popeye, the main character, is pretty much identical to the strip. Old, rude, violent, but ultimately on the good side; he’s probably one of the most original animated characters of the 1930s, and it’s not a surprise that he made such an impression, especially in a time when there were few human characters. He’s given several different walks during the course of the series, each one matching the situation he’s in: a “normal” walk, one while he’s running, one for when he’s sad, ecc. Probably the thing that stands out the most about him is the voice. Jack Mercer, his main voice actor throught most of his career, had a very unique voice, and he also had the habit of ad-libbing during recording, a trait that was shared among all voice actors thanks to the unique Fleischer recording rules, where the dialogue was recorder after the animation was already completed, instead of the other way around. And of course, there’s the spinach, a one-shot gag that the Fleischers have expanded upon, turning into a running gag.
Then there’s Olive Oyl: she doesn’t change much from her strip counterpart either. The most significant addition is the way she’s animated: her arms and legs are elastic and flexible, almost inhuman in the way they move; this is at the center of many gags in the cartoons.
One character that gets totally revamped is Bluto, who only had a few appearences in the strip, but the Fleischers decide to turn him into Popeye’s rival. His menacing appearence and animation make him stand out: in contrast with the other characters, he looks very solid and his animation often has a lot of weight to it. This makes up for his lack of personality.
Finally, there’s Wimpy, the most dramatic change from the comics: in the Fleischer version, he’s turned into a walking gag, more concerned with eating than anything else. The brand of humor that characterized him in the original strip, that was mostly dialogue-based, is lost in the adaptation.
Another significant change from the strip overall was the setting and tone. Popeye is a sailor only by name, since in these shorts he rarely has any real adventures. Instead, the setting is urban, very reminiscent of the New York the animators were working in, but works surprisingly well for the characters and their overall raunchy nature. The gags become gradually less surreal and instead resort more to slapstick and violence – the kind that would become famous in later theatrical shorts by Warner Bros. and MGM. This change probably meant that the animators had to become more sophisticated as a result: the Popeye shorts may not be as unique as the earlier Fleischer efforts were, but they’re probably better made overall. Some shorts, like A Dream Walking (1934), show a beautiful use of perspective, and the stories seem to improve too.
It’s hard to choose a “best Popeye short” in a series as consistent as this one. Among the most notable ones there are his debut, Popeye the Sailor (1933), and For Better or Worser (1935). Most of them are good for the same reasons, but with an exception: the two-reelers. Among them, the best one is probably the first one…
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor
The first of the three two-reelers, directed by veteran animato Willard Bowsky, and easily the best. These two-reelers are longer than the standard Popeye shorts, and as such, they have slighty more complex stories – almost like mini-movies. In fact, that’s how Sindbad the Sailor was first conceived – as a response to Walt’s Folly, the “first” animated feature. Unfortunately, the Fleischers weren’t able to convince Paramount to fund an actual feature-lenght feature, at least not until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved to be a success. The result was a compromise: not exactly a feature, but still a longer short compared to the other Hollywood productions.
We get an introduction through a song, not unusal in a Popeye short. Music has always played an important role in the American cartoons of the Golden Age, and Popeye is no exception, with entire shorts even based on pre-existing songs. What makes it different is that the shorts are integrated in the narrative. In this case, the song is mostly exposition, presenting Sindbad and all the other character that Popeye will eventually beat up. Of course, this cartoon is mostly remembered for its beautiful animation, perhaps the best out of any Popeye short: the giant eagle, for example, easily one of the most complex things ever made by the Fleischers, moves almost realistically, despite her size and her complex design. Then there’s the beautiful 3D backgrounds, filmed on a live-action set, very well integrated with the animated world, once again blurring the line between fiction and reality: they stick out, but in a good way. And then, of course, there’s the fight against Sindbad, which is just as good as every other fight in the series: you can feel the impact every single punch thanks to the perfect timing of the Fleischer animators and their dynamic poses.
The story could probably be criticized as very thin and still not comparable to the Segar stories despite the extended running time, but everything else is so good that this flaw can be easily forgiven. What’s impressive is the sheer size of what’s being presented: a giant island, several giant creatures… all stuff that’s very complicated to draw and animate, and puts the Fleischer animators among the best ones of the era although, unfortunately, not a lot is known about them.
The results of Sindbad the Sailor will be replicated next year with Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. Although not quite on the same level, this short still contains a lot of the same admirable qualities: an adventureous setting, beautiful animation, and even some funny improvised dialogue. Unfortunately, this would be the peak of the Popeye series: after this, a steady decline would begin to affect almost all of the Fleischer productions. Even though almost all of the shorts between 1937 and 1938 are pretty good, soon the Fleischer style would disappear completely, instead becoming increasingly similar to the Disney style. There are probably several reasons for this transition (the move to Miami, the success of Snow White), but the results were often less than stellar. Soon the Fleischers would start to tacke bigger, more ambitious projects – perhaps too ambitious for their own good.