Popeye the Sailor first appeared in the Thimble Theater comic strip, created by E. C. Segar on January 17, 1929. Although the strip remained popular for several years, the one-eyed sailor is best remembered as an animated cartoon character. Fleischer Studios, which had great success with Betty Boop, adapted Popeye to animation in 1933.
Paramount’s Famous Studios assumed production of the series in 1942. Eventually, Popeye and his crew would be featured in 234 theatrical cartoons. The series began in black and white but by the end of 1943 switched to color. When these same cartoons debuted on television in September 1956, they were a tremendous hit. Popeye and his cohorts, including Olive Oyl, Bluto, Wimpy, and Swee’pea, appeared on all types of merchandise.
Although King Features Syndicate owned the rights to the newspaper strip, they received no income from the distribution of the theatrical films. Associated Artist Productions syndicated Popeye’s adventures to television stations. King Features decided to cash in on the Popeye hysteria by cranking out 220 color cartoons in 1960 and 1961 (though a few have a copyright date of 1962).
Popeye retained his white sailor’s uniform, which he wore in the majority of cartoons produced by Famous Studios. Olive Oyl’s face was drawn in a more attractive fashion than readers of the newspaper strip were accustomed to seeing.
Al Brodax, the executive producer of the color films, explained how the series came about in the publication Beatletoons: “At the time Popeye was running very high in the ratings. These were the old Max Fleischer Popeyes that were distributed by Paramount. I thought it would be a good business move to announce that we’re making 220 new Popeyes in color and that they were up for grabs. The investment was a mere $25,000 for two five and a half minute pieces. The entire series grossed $3 million in our first year simply by going to the stations who already had a big success with the old Popeyes. What I did was I recorded all of the soundtracks in New York to create a uniform sound, and I had a kid waiting downstairs to send the tracks to places like Czechoslovakia, Los Angeles, and some went to Australia. But I had six studios going at once to get them all done.”
These cartoons were a huge financial success for King Features Syndicate. According to an article in the October 25, 1961 edition of Variety, “King Features Syndicate sales of the new made for TV Popeye cartoons has just passed the $4,500,000 mark. King has so far delivered 150 of the new Popeyes. Production of the remaining 70 is due to be completed early next spring.”
The June 10, 1964 edition of Variety carried the headline, “Popeye’s $20,000,000 Gross,” which detailed the success both the theatrical and made for TV cartoons were having on television. The success of the new Popeye series increased the amount of licensed merchandise. King Features Syndicate even published a Popeye merchandise catalog in 1962.
Because different animation studios were involved in the production of Popeye, this gave the entire series a schizophrenic look. Producers and directors included Gene Deitch, William L. Snyder, Larry Harmon, Jack Kinney, Gerald Ray, and Seymour Kneitel. Most agree the cartoons handled by Seymour Kneitel from Paramount Cartoon Studios are the best in the series. Paramount was behind the theatrical Popeyes and many of the same people involved with the earlier films had a hand in these television entries. This is not to say the other studios did not turn out enjoyable cartoons. Several characters from the Popeye comic strip appeared in the films, including the Sea Hag, Alice the Goon, Eugene the Jeep, Rough House, King Blozo, the Whiffle Bird, Toar and Geezil. However, many featured animation that was downright sloppy.
Cartoons produced with Hugh Fraser credited as animation director, under Jack Kinney’s unit, are difficult to watch. Mistakes that are visibility noticeable include: Popeye’s pipe suddenly disappearing, Olive growing an extra eye under her nose, Brutus in a living room and suddenly (via stock footage) seen laughing at a window, Popeye drinking from a mug topped with foam only to have the topping vanish! The Larry Harmon cartoons featured Popeye or Brutus wearing short-sleeved shirts only to have each become long sleeved in the next scene; then becoming short-sleeved once more. Gene Detich’s cartoons featured animation so simplified Olive Oyl would be carrying an armless Swee’pea. Truthfully, as a five-year-old watching these cartoons, I did not notice the mistakes. It was merely more Popeye, which thrilled millions of children.
Oh! Did I say “Brutus”? What happened to Popeye’s bearded nemesis in the theatrical films, Bluto? The bearded muscleman first appeared in the comic strip in 1932, syndicated by King Features. Although Bluto appeared in only one story by Segar, he was a regular in Paramount Pictures’ theatrical cartoons. Paramount claimed they owned the rights to the name “Bluto,” thinking he was a creation of the Fleischer Studios. King Features Syndicate agreed without realizing Bluto debuted in Segar’s comic strip. Al Brodax renamed the bully Brutus after Cesar’s assassin.
Jack Mercer, Mae Questel, and Jackson Beck provided all of the voices for the films. Mercer was Popeye, Poodpeck Pappy, and J. Wellington Wimpy; Questel handled Olive Oyl, Swee’pea, and the Sea Hag. Beck was the hulking Brutus. Each performer took turns voicing minor characters. In addition, the talented trio’s voices were heard in the earlier theatrical cartoons.
Ratings remained high for these Popeye cartoons for several years after their televised debut. The June 30, 1975 issue of Broadcasting magazine listed the 10 non-network top-rated children’s syndicated programs. Popeye made for television cartoons ranked in sixth place.
The series continued to air on U.S. television stations until the mid-1990s, when many independent television stations ceased airing non-network syndicated programs for children.
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Many have been released on home video, and Warner Brothers released all of the films produced by Paramount Cartoon Studios and several by Gerald Ray on DVD. You can also view the cartoons dubbed into different languages on YouTube, and they continue to air outside of the United States on television.
With the success of this series of color cartoons, Popeye proved once again he was “strong to the finish!”
Fred M Grandinetti has been writing about Popeye since 1983.He has over fifty articles and four books published on the spinach-eating sailor. Grandinetti has written articles on numerous figures from popular culture including Bozo The Clown, The Avengers, I Dream of Jeanie, The Mighty Hercules, and Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch.
The Big Reel, Comics Buyers’Guide, Filmfax, Antiques and Collecting Magazines, The New England Entertainment Digest and Animato are some of the publications featuring Grandinetti’s work.