The End of Fleischer Studios
The last few years in the life of Fleischer Studios saw some significant changes in the "Popeye" series.
First of all, Popeye's creator Segar died in 1938, the same year when Fleischer Studios moved from New York to Miami,
Florida, where many West Coast animators joined the old Fleischer staff.
Interestingly, Fleischer cartoons started looking brighter in this period, losing much of their gray
tones and gloomy New York feel. In this period, 1940 to be precise, Bluto mysteriously disappeared in an
astounding span of 18 consecutive cartoons. Consequently, the hilarious fistfights that made the earlier
cartoons so appealing, now became almost non-existent. Popeye started being paired with rather
uninteresting characters such as Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye's four annoying nephews (inspired by the
popularity of Donald Duck's nephews), and funny animals such as flies, crows, or Segar's Eugene the Jeep.
In The Mighty Navy (1941), the Fleischers changed Popeye's original uniform into Navy white, as Popeye enlisted in the American armed forces a few months before America joined World War II. Popeye would continue to appear in his navy uniform for the rest of his theatrical cartoon career (Famous Studios shorts), and even in his first incarnation on TV (the 220 limited-animation King Features Syndicate cartoons).
Due to many unfortunate circumstances, the Fleischer Studios were closed down by Paramount Pictures in 1942. The cartoon studio moved back to New York where it was renamed into Famous Studios, with new artists, including some former Fleischer animators, as newly-appointed head animators and cartoon directors. Some of the artists who re-joined the Fleischer staff in the late 1930s were former Fleischer animators, Shamus Culhane and Al Euguster. Culhane, after returning from Disney, became a director of Disney-flavoured shorts at Fleischer Studios. Al Eugster, who left Disney in March of 1939, joined the Fleischer staff in April of the same year. The two of them worked on such films as Popeye Meets William Tell (1940) and A Kick in Time (1940) [For more details, consult the most thorough history book dealing with Hollywood theatrical cartoons - Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)].
Contrary to the popular belief, the early Famous Studios "Popeye" shorts did not show dramatic changes in quality when compared to the Fleischers' product. On the contrary, the early black and white Famous cartoons were visually as sophisticated as the original Fleischer pictures. Some cartoons such as Me Musical Nephews (1943), Cartoons Ain't Human (1943), and The Hungry Goat (1943), retained the recognizably Fleischeresque self-reflexivity and cartoony playfulness. As in the later Fleischer pictures, Popeye continued his service in the Navy during the early Famous era. These films featured Popeye in direct combat situations against the American war enemies. Films like Scrap the Japs (1942), You're A Sap, Mr. Jap (1942), and Seein' Red, White 'n' Blue (1943) portrayed rather distasteful demonizations of the Allies' adversaries by means of offensive racial/ethnic stereotypes. Still, these cartoons continued to display superb craftsmanship and top-notch animation by any standards. Not all of the "war" cartoons featured Popeye's direct clashes with the Axis. Some shorts, like A Jolly Good Furlough (1943), dealt with the problems of returning home from the war, a theme anticipating the later live-action Oscar winner, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). In 1943, beginning with Her Honor the Mare, colour was permanently introduced to the series.
Unfortunately, "Popeye" cartoons slowly started to change during the Famous era. Gone were the hilarious ad-libbing asides from the Fleischer period as the dialogue started being pre-recorded for the animated pictures. Numerous changes in the 1950s animation industry, including tighter budgets and stylistic trends of the period, slowly transformed one of the most electrifying Hollywood cartoon series into animation of simplistic ("UPA-ized") backgrounds, unimaginative characters, dull ambiance, and repetitively cheap gags. Paramount decided to end the production of its theatrical "Popeye" cartoons with Spooky Swabs in 1957. Interestingly, that was the same year when the studio sold its "Popeye" cartoon library to TV stations, allowing a new generation, that of baby-boomers, to fall in love with the incredibly creative Fleischer and early Famous Studios cartoons of their fathers.
Over the last four decades, there have been many revivals of the "Popeye" cartoon series by different companies such as King Features Syndicate and Hanna-Barbera. Numerous cheaply produced animated films, made exclusively for TV, however, have never been able to match the quality of drawing and animated detail, the frantic energy and unprecedented charm, the hilarious self-consciousness and whimsical plasticity of the original Fleischer shorts.
Me Musical Nephews.
Parlez Vous Woo
Bride and Gloom