By Matt Hurwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 29, 2007
The mention of it conjures up two words: salad . . . and Popeye.
The oddly shaped sailor with his oversize forearms, dangling pipe and unique manner of speech inspired Depression-era audiences with both his humor and his strength. Faced with battling his nemesis over his broomstick-shaped girlfriend, Olive Oyl, Popeye would pull out a handy can of spinach, giving him power to beat the odds -- and the oversize Bluto.
First appearing in cartoonist Elzie Segar's "Thimble Theater" comic strip in 1929, Popeye the Sailor made his debut on movie screens four years later. By the end of the '30s, he was more popular than Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse, according to a poll of theater managers at the time.
Popeye's success was due, to a large degree, to the inventiveness of the Fleischer Studio, then the animation house of choice for Paramount Pictures. The New York-based studio, headed by animation innovator Max Fleischer and his younger brother, Dave, brought a quirkiness and eccentricity to the world of animation not seen in the work of its West Coast-based competitor, Disney.
It is their Popeye cartoons, released by Paramount from 1933 to 1942, that established the character, and they will finally be available on DVD on Tuesday for the first time. Warner Home Video's "Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938, Volume 1," completely restored from the original black-and-white camera negatives, includes featurettes on the Fleischers' work and the characters and actors who appeared in the films, as well as rarely seen early silent animation works.
"It was really Fleischer and Disney that monopolized the most popular animated films of the '30s," explains Warner's George Feltenstein, senior vice president of theatrical catalogue marketing. "Mickey Mouse, Popeye and Betty Boop [the Fleischers' other hit character] were the biggest cartoon superstars of the '30s, of the sound era. Warner Bros. didn't have Porky Pig until 1935, and he took a while to develop, and Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry weren't around until 1940."
Part of the appeal of the Fleischers' animation may be due to its location. "The Fleischer cartoons have an urban sensibility," says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, "and an ethnic sensibility, one that just oozes New York." Disney's cartoons, by comparison, he says, reflect a more Midwestern sensibility. "I always say their cartoons took place in barnyards, and the Fleischers' cartoons took place in the city."
"It's this black-and-white, dirty, New Yorky, urban world," adds animation historian Jerry Beck, who consulted with Warner Bros. on the project. Notes Fleischer historian Leslie Cabarga, author of "The Fleischer Story," "Disney's work was always superior, in a clean, technical aspect, but it was also kind of sanitized."
Another source of the Fleischer films' unique look came from the many animation innovations that Max created (and patented). One technique was "Stereoptic" animation. First introduced in 1935's "King of the Mardi Gras" Popeye cartoon, it utilized miniature cardboard and clay "sets" designed in the same style as the normal hand-drawn backgrounds, and placed on a rotating tabletop turntable. The animated character cel paintings were then placed in front of the set and photographed, one frame at a time, the turntable rotating in small increments with the shooting of each successive frame.
"It created an amazing illusion of depth," explains Maltin. "You actually got the effect of the character in a three-dimensional world," adds Beck. "And the thing is, it's still magical."
There's another aspect to the cartoons that sets them apart: They're funny. "The Fleischers figured out early on that it's one thing to make characters move, but it's another thing to make the audience laugh," says Beck. "And they just filled the frames with jokes and gags."
"Max's philosophy -- and he used to tutor the animators -- was, 'The essence of animation is that you can do anything,' " Cabarga explains. The films' nominal director was Dave Fleischer. "He was the one who egged them on and urged them to come up with more bits of business," explains Maltin. A simple walk from one end of a street to the other would evolve to include miscellaneous characters and clever bits of comedy.
The other important source of comedy was the actors, most notably Jack Mercer, who voiced Popeye for more than four decades, beginning in 1935, and diminutive powerhouse Mae Questel, who was the most notable voice of Olive Oyl as well as Betty Boop.
In the early days of animation, studios typically used staffers to provide voices for their characters -- most famously, Walt Disney himself speaking for his creation Mickey Mouse. For Popeye, the Fleischers were drawn to the voice of vaudeville artist William Costello, the drummer for the Fred Waring Orchestra, with whom he performed as "Red Pepper Sam," whose raspy tone seemed the perfect fit for Popeye. Costello voiced the sailor for the first 26 cartoons of the series. But by 1935, Costello had worn out his welcome. "He had proven himself to be a real pain in the neck," says Cabarga. "Mae Questel told me the success really went to his head. Once he got some acclaim with Popeye, he was a 'movie star,' and, unfortunately, the Fleischers realized they had to fire him."
Desperate to find a replacement voice for their popular character, Lou Fleischer, who was in charge of recording, happened upon Mercer, a staff "in-betweener" (an animator who fills in the incremental drawings between major poses in animation). "Lou told me he was walking by the in-betweening department one day and heard someone doing Popeye, in 'a real good voice.' So he pulled him into the next recording session, and he did a great job," says Cabarga.
Mercer's greatest contribution, however, was not his prowess at imitating Costello's voice but his incredible sense of comedy. "Mercer had a marvelous way of making spontaneous, off-the-cuff remarks, almost under his breath," notes Maltin. "And he also had an infectious sense of humor." This was most notable in the constant stream of "muttering" heard under Popeye's breath, nearly all of which was ad-libbed by Mercer.
Mercer had a penchant for plays on words, typically followed by the famous Popeye laugh, after the sailor had amused himself with his own jokes. For example, in "Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves" (one of three two-reel Technicolor Popeye "features" the Fleischers made in the '30s, two of which appears on the DVD set), Popeye has a run-in with bad guy Abu Hassem (played by Bluto, of course). After swiping the antagonist's undergarments, Popeye mutters, "Abu Hassem got 'em anymore!"
One of the things that made Mercer's mutterings unique was that he recorded them after the animation was completed, often in sections where the character's mouth, of course, is not seen moving. The common practice from the mid- to late-'30s onward is to record actors' performances first, and then a director would "time" the mouth movements so that animators could draw the character speaking the words. In the early days, however, animators would draw first, and the actors would "post-synch" their acting to the existing animation -- a practice the Fleischers continued well into the late '30s.
"It was a style that developed," Cabarga explains. "Also, because of the way he's drawn, it naturally lent itself to the idea that he looked like a mumbler. It also meant that they could cover themselves and not have to have perfect animation." The mumbles can actually be heard more clearly in Warner's new restoration, which is derived from the original sound-on-film recording masters. "The soundtracks really knocked me out because they're so clear," notes Feltenstein. "We're so used to hearing such collapsed sound, because they're so many generations away from the original."
Sadly, once Paramount closed the Fleischer Studio in 1942, the mumbling stopped. Besides feuding between brothers Max and Dave, Cabarga says, "there had always been the hope that the Fleischers could somehow catch up to Disney" in terms of style and success in the feature film world, something that never happened. Deciding to eliminate the middle man, Paramount took over production, making the films itself (with the Fleischers' crew) under its Famous Studios banner (whose shorts will be released in later DVD sets).
"Paramount felt that the Fleischers weren't the talent, per se," explains Cabarga. "They viewed the animators and the writers as the ones who were 'really' doing the work." But the excellence -- and creativity -- were gone.
Their appeal lives on, and through the new DVDs, perhaps they will be discovered by a new generation.
"The proof is in the pudding," says Maltin. "I show these cartoons to my students at USC, and they always go over like gangbusters."