Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL

Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


Friday, July 27, 2007


       You might think it a bit of a stretch, to be talking about the release of some Popeye cartoons on a blog supposedly devoted to obscure -- even hidden -- cinema. But here’s the thing: while every tyke over the age of two can sing the Popeye-the-Sailor-Man theme, and we all know that spinach gives ya’ “musk-kles”, nonetheless most of us are acquainted with the one-eyed seaman from his later animated cartoons -- the reasonably well-crafted ones produced by A.A.P. and Paramount in the 40’s and 50’s, and the positively God-awful, made-for-TV shorts produced by King Features in the early 60’s (these frequently featured a character named the Sea-Hag -- they’re terrible -- please to avoid). But Popeye made his rep -- on the big screen at least -- through an early series of cartoons produced by the Fleischer Bros., Max & Dave; and only now, some 75 years after their creation, are they getting their due on home video.

       Popeye first came to light as a character in the newspaper strip, Thimble Theater, created by E.C. Segar, one of the greats of comix art; and one of the great strips as well -- right up there with George Herriman’s Krazy Kat -- but that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother blog. In 1932, the immense popularity of Segar’s character attracted the attention of a successful producer of animated shorts: Max Fleischer. He already had a stable of popular characters: Betty Boop, KoKo the Clown, to name just two -- but was looking for a new cartoon “star” -- and the baleful, but well-meaning sailor seemed to fit the bill. And he did -- becoming, in his heyday, as popular as Mickey Mouse. The Fleischer Bros. produced about a hundred Popeye cartoons between 1933 and 1942; but then some bad business practices -- and the ruthless ones of competitor, Walt Disney -- caused the Fleischer Bros. to abandon their namesake company and go their separate ways. Dave to Columbia’s Screen Gems animation studio, and Max to a maker of commercial and educational shorts called Jam Handy. Neither produced anything thereafter that matched in appeal, popularity, -- and just plain sense of fun -- those hundred or so Popeye cartoons.

       While Segar’s newspaper strip had a satirical edge to it that was, in part, responsible for its’ success, the appeal of the Fleischer shorts was much more basic. First off, the Fleischer animation style -- a rubbery, almost vibratory sense of motion was invested into every character -- into almost every object in the frame, actually. it’s quite unlike anything done by Disney or Warner Bros; or anybody else, for that matter. Secondly, the savvy integration of popular musical styles of the day -- a whole Betty Boop short was built around Cab Calloway’s hit tune Minnie The Moocher, for example. And finally, the character of Popeye himself -- he’s rough, he’s tough, he’s a little bit gruff... and more than a little bit awkward (just look at those forearms!); but he means well, so ya’ gotta’ love him. The same basic plot -- Popeye likes Olive/Olive fancies Bluto/Bluto behaves beastly/Popeye gives him his comeuppance (with the aid of some spinach!) -- propelled the narratives of nearly all the shorts in the series; but the panache and craftsmanship of the Fleischer Studios made almost all of them a pleasure to watch.

       The Fleischer Bros. were every bit the innovators that Walt Disney was -- it was Max & Dave who produced the first sync-sound cartoons, not Disney as is sometimes erroneously attributed. And for these very same early sound shorts, they developed the “Bouncing Ball” method for following along with on-screen lyrics: a cinematic trope still popular...        if only in Karaoke bars. The Fleischers also developed the process of rotoscoping, a technique still used by animators today -- albeit with a little computer-aided assistance -- in movies like Waking Life, and many others. And just so I don’t get accused of being a Disney-Basher (quite a popular sport out here in L.A., truth be told), I should mention that while as a businessman W.D. was quite ruthless, he was not vindictive; he later gave the job of directing Disney studios first -- and IMHO, best -- live action feature, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Max’s son, Richard Fleischer.

       The 4-DVD set of Popeye the Sailor: Vol. One, 1933 - 1938 comes out -- gobblin’ spinach and swingin’ its fisks' -- this Tuesday, July 31st. You can rent him here or buy him there; just don’t make fun of the poor fella’ -- after all, he is...        what he is.

Some links:

The Fleischer Popeye Tribute Page.

The Internet Archive’s webpage where you can download literally dozens of Flesicher shorts -- for free!.

Some info. regarding the movie, Forbidden Zone -- a film very much inspired by the Fleischer Studio style.

Next post -- 08/03/07


Rich said...

Best post yet! Can't wait for the chance to see these cartoons without the inane natterings of "Captain Pennywhistle" or "Gargles the Clown" or the other afternoon Cartoonaroony hosts of yesteryear.

When it comes to a smackdown between Disney and Fleischer, there's no doubt -- the Fleischer guys were smoking the better stuff (probably copped it off Cab Calloway).

Anonymous said...

gut pöst--informativ--but vat about ze robert altmann film?

Ingmar Bergman

grigorss said...

Thanks Rich -- yes, we'd all like some of what the Flesicher Bros must have been smokin' -- especially when they made this
Also, thank you Ingmar -- I know how difficult it is for you to stay in touch these days; as for the Altman film, it's great! And been available on DVD for some time now -- but unfortunately, nowhere to be found is the highly enjoyable soundtrack by Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks -- much overdue on CD or as download