Fleischer Studios "Popeye"

Max Fleischer
Max Fleischer
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In November of 1932, Max Fleischer, one of the greatest animation pioneers, signed an agreement with Hearst's King Features Syndicate for the right to cast Popeye in his animated films. At the time, Max Fleischer, the head of the New York-based Fleischer Studios, which operated under Paramount Pictures, and his directing brother, Dave, were looking for a new cartoon "star" to compete with the growing popularity of other studios' animated products (mainly Disney's Mickey and Donald). Fleischer, whose creations included such popular cartoon characters as the mischievous Ko-Ko the Clown and Betty Boop, an internationally-recognized curly-haired flapper, was a big fan of Segar's comic strip. His instinct and Paramount's eagerness to use Popeye, an oddly unattractive character, as their new "star" proved to be terrific, since Popeye seems to have been destined to become an exceptionally popular cartoon hero. There are some conflicting historical accounts as to how exactly Popeye became a "movie star." Leslie Cabarga, for instance, maintains that this was primarily the result of Max Fleischer's strong desire to use Segar's sailor in his cartoons [See The Fleischer Story, Revised Edition (New York: DaCapo Press, 1988), p. 82]. According to other sources, there is an indication that the Fleischers might have been pressured by Paramount to take on Popeye [See Norman M. Klein, Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon (London & New York: Verso, 1993), p. 62].

The black and white animated universe of Max and Dave Fleischer was bizarre, otherworldly and dreamlike. It was characterized by spectacular metamorphic effects where rubbery characters could easily transform into other creatures and where inanimate objects could randomly gain lives of their own. In that sense, this peculiar cartoon world favoured the arbitrary nature of humorously affective gags at the expense of a coherent narrative and/or logical closure. The Fleischers' "Betty Boop" series, for example, depicted some outlandish, dazzling fantasies. These films were set in a realm where human characters freely interacted with anthropomorphic animals. Segar's Popeye was introduced to this "cartoony" world of the Fleischer brothers on July 14, 1933 as a guest star in a regular "Betty Boop" picture entitled Betty Boop Presents Popeye the Sailor.


Betty Boop: Popeye the Sailor (1933)

Metamorphosis, Shiver Me Timbers (1934)

Metamorphosis 2, Shiver Me Timbers

Even though the short took place in the Boop's surreal universe, it also introduced something completely new. This experimental "pilot," to use modern lingo, provided a staple of what was to become the principal narrative thread for many later "Popeye" entries. It was a simplistic plot that, with minor variations, usually went like this: Popeye and Bluto, an obnoxious, ill-mannered beefcake, who prior to this cartoon had made an appearance in Segar's comic strip, compete for Olive Oyl's attention. The flat-chested girl eventually gets abused by the discourteous bully. The two tough

I'm in the Army Now(1936)
guys then engage in an exhilarating exercise of masculine power by means of an uproariously energetic fistfight. Once Popeye realizes that "that's all I can stands, 'cause I can't stands no more," he ends the fight by ingesting his favourite strength-inducing green vegetable - spinach - and knocking his troublemaking adversary down. This narrative thread was used, with minor variations, in many later Popeye shorts, such as, for example, Blow Me Down (1933), I Eats My Spinach (1933), King of the Mardi Gras (1935), The Paneless Window Washer (1937), I Never Changes My Altitude (1937), and many, many others. But, beside this main storytelling principle, Fleischer "Popeye" cartoons sometimes examined other thematics such as kindness to animals (Be Kind to Animals [1935], Proteck the Weakerest [1937], Leave Well Enough Alone [1939]), female fickleness (A Clean Shaven Man [1936], Females is Fickle [1940], Wimmen is a Myskery [1940], Women Hadn't Oughta Drive [1940]), or doomed attempts to care for a loved one (Sock-A-Bye Baby [1934], Little Swee'Pea [1936], Lost and Foundry [1937], Problem Pappy [1941], Quiet, Pleeze! [1941]).

Although this narrative thread was nowhere nearly as complex as Segar's satiric comics, it proved to be a great storytelling device, since it easily translated Popeye's loveable personality into a new medium, which, at the time, conveyed simplistic stories that rarely exceeded 8 minutes. Even in Popeye's very first venture on the silver screen, many Segaresque elements of the sailorman's star persona shone through - his admirable self-confidence, his down-to-earth "I Yam What I Yam" philosophy, and his uncompromising toughness, which was never used for something that the character perceived as morally wrong. With the passage of time, Popeye's brusque nature started to soften in both Segar's and Fleischers' stories, but the sailor's enthralling aura remained uniquely captivating throughout the 1930s.


The Fleischers, unlike Segar, placed emphasis on the strength-inducing power of spinach. Still from Let's Get Movin' (1936).

Spinach-empowered, Popeye fights back in Paneless Window Washer (1937).

Sometimes other characters ate spinach (Wimpy, Olive, Swee'Pea, even Bluto). Still from I Never Changes My Altitude (1937).

As the series progressed, the Fleischer "Popeye" universe lost much of the arbitrariness of metamorphic gags, which abounded in the studio's earlier shorts. When used, the transformational effects were more "metaphoric" than random, often signifying Popeye's physical strength.

Metaphoric Metamorphism. Still from Can You Take It? (1934)
The sailor could easily transform one physical matter into another with a single punch. In I Yam What I Yam (1933), in an extreme instance of such metaphoric metamorphism, Popeye's spinach-induced blow transforms a menacing "Indian" chief into Mahatma Gandhi, an embodiment of peacefulness (or a "politically incorrect" association between a Native Indian and a Hindu Indian, depends on your interpretation). [To find out more about metamorphic effects in Fleischer cartoons, consult Norman M. Klein, "Animation and Animorphs", in Vivian Sobchack (ed.), Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 21-39]. Michael Wassenaar, for example, argues that Fleischer "Popeye" shorts of the 1930s celebrated American technology during the Depression by means of metaphoric association of the man with the engine. He maintains that, in Fleischer "Popeye" shorts, Popeye metaphorically becomes the mechanism - the engine - through which energy is transformed into work [See Michael Wassenaar, "Strong to the Finich: Machines, Metaphor, and Popeye the Sailor," in The Velvet Light Trap, No. 24 (Fall 1989), pp. 20-32].

The "Popeye" series also remained enchantingly rubbery, defying the laws of physics and biology in the characteristically "cartoony" fashion. For example, the 1930s Olive Oyl was one of the most elastic cartoon characters of all time. Rather quickly, anthropomorphic animals were also replaced by an all-human cast, which included a number of Segar's original characters such as J. Wellington Wimpy, Swee'Pea, and, later, Popeye's aging father known as Poopdeck Pappy.