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Fleischer Popeye Cartoons to be released on DVD

This is something Popeye fans could have only dreamed about. The most amazing news comes from Warner Home Video in agreement with King Features Syndicate: The first 60 Fleischer Popeye cartoons (from 1933 to 1938), restored from the original negatives, uncut, all Paramount titles restored, will be released as a 4 disc collector’s edition DVD set this summer. It all happens on July 31st, 2007. Make sure to mark your calendar! The films will be presented in chronological order of their theatrical release and, beside the original black and white cartoons, will include the first two Three-Color-Technicolor two-reel specials: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. The DVD set will also contain over five hours worth of bonus materials, including retrospectives on Popeye and Max Fleischer, behind the toons featurettes, bonus shorts and audio commentaries by the likes of Jerry Beck, Mark Kausler, John Kricfalusi, Eric Goldberg, Leslie Cabarga, and Mark Evanier. There are no words to describe this fantastic news. Perhaps it is best to quote animation historian Jerry Beck who says on his Cartoon Brew website: “If you love these cartoons your eyes will POP at the restorations. If you’ve never seen them you are in for a revelation.”

Fleischer “Popeye” Cartoons
Unavailable Classic Animation Gems

Despite his 75th birthday this year, Popeye, one of the most popular cartoon and comic book characters of all time, is rarely seen in North America these days. The reason for this is not the lack of public interest, but an extremely complicated corporate politics.

Fleischer “Popeye” cartoons were some of the best and most innovative animated pictures of the 1930s. By the mid-1930s, the one-eyed sailor surpassed even Disney’s Mickey Mouse in popularity. From 1933 until 1957 Paramount Pictures released the total of 234 theatrical Fleischer and Famous Studios “Popeye” cartoons. In the late 1950s the studio decided to sell all of its cartoons to television. Subsequently, in the 1960s, these films became a staple of children’s TV shows. The new generation, that of baby boomers, thus, re-discovered these amazingly creative animation gems of their fathers in a new medium.

Unfortunately, Fleischer and Famous “Popeye” cartoons have been in a sort of legal limbo for more than a few decades now. Neither Fleischer nor Famous Studios “Popeyes” (except for 34 public domain shorts) have ever been officially released on either VHS or DVD. The reason is a rather intricate copyright issue that concerns E.C. Segar’s popular character: The big studios that have legally owned theatrical “Popeye” cartoons over the years have never reached a deal with the Hearst’s King Features Syndicate, the company that owns "Thimble Theater" characters, to make these Paramount Pictures' animated classics available to the public. The situation is unchanged today. While Fleischer and Famous “Popeye” cartoons are owned by Time-Warner corporation, the character of Popeye is still King Features Syndicate’s intellectual property. Recent negotiations between Warner Bros and KFS to release Popeye on the home video market seem to have failed once again and it is very unlikely that Popeye’s 75th birthday will be celebrated with an official DVD release of these original and very entertaining classic cartoons.

This whole Time Warner-KFS legal quagmire works mainly against Popeye fans - against older generations that grew up watching these cartoons on either silver screen or TV, but also against new generations who cannot be properly introduced to Segar’s pipe-tooting hero due to the lack of availability of Fleischer/Famous films. To make the injustice toward the gruff sailor even worse, Warner Bros, the company that owns Paramount “Popeye” cartoons today, is not particularly enthusiastic to make their cartoon prints available for public theatrical screenings.

Here is what Fred Grandinetti, the co-founder of the International Popeye Fan Club and the author of the most comprehensive history book on Popeye (Popeye:An Illustrated Cultural History ), has to say about this issue:

Max Fleischer’s "Popeye" cartoons: Forever Withheld from DVD?
by Fred Grandinetti
20 May 2004

“I wrote to King Features Syndicate Archives and they replied they do not keep copies of old Popeye cartoons but suggested you might be of assistance” - From a letter dated August 6th, 2003 from The California Foundry History Institute to me (Fred Grandinetti), Popeye historian.

Popeye the Sailor celebrates his 75th Anniversary in 2004 and though he first appeared in the Thimble Theatre comic strip in 1929, he is best known for appearing in over 500 animated cartoons for both motion pictures and television. While there are several videos and DVD collections of Popeye television cartoons of varying quality, the black and white theatrical cartoons produced by the legendary Fleischer Studios have yet to be released commercially either in video or DVD format.

Popeye fans and animation buffs have been asking for a commercial release of the Fleischer cartoons for years. Not only was the series the most successful the Fleischer’s produced for Paramount pictures, they are filled with inventiveness, outstanding animation and wonderful under the breath mutterings of various voice performers. What has held up the release of the cartoons is plain and simple: corporate ignorance.

King Features Syndicate/The Hearst Corporation owns the rights to the Popeye family of characters. It was this same company who licensed the rights to have the characters appear in a series of animated cartoons produced by the Fleischer Studios in 1932. Popeye first appeared in one of the Fleischer's Betty Boop cartoons and the film was such a smash the sailor’s own series began shortly after. For the next twenty for years, Popeye cartoons were Paramount Pictures most successful short subject series and became the longest running animated series in motion picture history. When the Fleischer cartoons debuted on television in September 1956, they were such a hit with children that King Features Syndicate decided to produce their own series of television cartoons. This passage from the August 27th – September 2nd 1960 issue of TV guide explained the ownership issue:

“Why a new Popeye series for television? Apparently it’s the result of a running battle between United Artists Associated, which syndicates the oldies and King Features. The newspaper syndicate firm owned no TV rights in the movie shorts. When they were released on TV, consequently, King Features did not share in the lucrative residual payments.”

Fast forward to 1983 and the home video market is in full swing. United Artists, who retain the rights to the theatrical Popeye cartoons, decides to begin releasing them on the home video market only to get a strong “cease and desist” letter from King Features Syndicate stating that they and only they can release Popeye on video. King Features was wrong however and United Artists never countered; ending the matter.

While King Features Syndicate does own the rights to the Popeye characters they have never owned any legal rights to the Fleischer’s films their characters happen to appear in. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers, who now own the films, think that they have to negotiate with King Features Syndicate to release the cartoons on DVD and home video due to the error, which United Artists made.

Why doesn’t King Feature Syndicate legally go after hundreds of companies cranking out Popeye videos and DVDs featuring a dozen or so grainy, worn, sound doctored prints of theatrical cartoons with the sailor? It is because these cartoons are in the public domain, they are owned by the public, just as the Fleischer Studios’ Popeye cartoons are owned by Warner Brothers. As long as Warner Brothers releases only the Popeye cartoons, which are their property and packages them with images, again from their property, there is no need to negotiate with the King Features Syndicate/The Hearst Corporation. While I admire Warner Brothers for wanting to play it safe and negotiate, if, for whatever horrendous reason, King Features Syndicates wishes to deprive people the chance to enjoy these cartoons in a home video or DVD format Warner Brothers still has the legal right to release the cartoons on their own. Throwing more dirt on the audience’s face, King Features has been using the Fleischer’s Studios designs of the Popeye characters on merchandise since 1996.

If Warner Brothers legal department doesn’t realize they can fly solo on this project or King Features Syndicate refuses to sign a deal with them, Popeye will possibly become the only classic cartoon character not to have a commercial release of his best work. This is not the way to honor the pipe-tooting sailor man on his 75th Anniversary