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81st anniversary of first Popeye cartoon

by Greg Belfrage

Who could have foreseen the lasting popularity of a bulgy-armed, squinky-eyed sailor?

Popeye made his first public appearance on January 17, 1929 in E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre. The comic strip originally focused on the adventures of Ham Gravy and his girlfriend, Olive Oyl, and her family.

The salty sailor first appeared as only a minor character. He was hired by Ham Gravy and Olive's brother, Castor Oyl, to take transport them on his ship to an island casino.

The popularity of the comic strip soared after Popeye's introduction. He later replaced Ham Gravy as Olive Oyl's love interest. Eventually, the name of the strip changed to Thimble Theatre starring Popeye... and later, simply Popeye .

However, it was on the silver screen that Popeye would enjoy his greatest notoriety.

It was on this date, July 14, 1933, that the sailor made his first movie appearance in a Betty Boop short appropriately titled, "Popeye the Sailor".

William "Billy" Costello (aka Red Pepper Sam) provided the first voice of Popeye.

The character was an immediate hit for Fleischer Studios. They went on to produce many dozens of Popeye cartoons, starting with "I Yam What I Yam".

Popeye could not have been in better hands, as Max and Dave Fleischer were ground-breaking animators. They developed and patented a process called "rotoscoping", in which animated characters were filmed against live action still photographs.

However, it was the innovation of the "setback camera" which gave their Popeye cartoons truly eye-popping results.

The setback camera allowed cartoon cells to be filmed against 3-dimensional background sets.

For example, some sets were drawn cut-outs of buildings. A small 3D set would be constructed using the drawings, much like a diorama. The use of the sophisticated turntable and camera system below allowed a 2-dimensional character to appear to walk through a 3-dimensional environment as the perspective actually shifted in the background.

The results were spectacular, especially for 1930's movie audiences. The first Popeye cartoon to feature the use of the setback camera was 1935's "For Better or Worser" . The effect is most noticeable at 4:10 in the clip below, as the characters are running through the streets. Note the changing perspective in the streets and buildings behind them.

Popeye encountered stormy seas when the Fleischers found it difficult to work with voice actor Billy Costello.

It's rumored that Jack Mercer landed the role after Dave Fleischer heard him doing an impression of Costello as Popeye. They immediately fired Costello, the story goes, and Mercer became the primary voice of Popeye until his death in 1984.

Mercer first appeared as Popeye in 1935's "King of the Mardi Gras".

Many of Popeye's funniest lines were ad-libbed by Mercer during taping. He used Popeye's classic muttering as a way of being able to insert dialogue without animators having to draw Popeye's lips moving.

Mae Questell is perhaps the best known voice actress to gave life to Olive Oyl in the Fleischer cartoons. She voiced many other Fleischer characters, including Betty Boop.

Questell is remembered fondly by many as Aunt Bethany in Christmas Vacation.

It's not widely known, but Questell also voiced Popeye in a few cartoons when Jack Mercer was called up for military service.

In my view, the Popeye shorts produced by Fleischer Studios remain some of the finest animation ever produced. The ground-breaking techniques, incredible detail, humor, wonderful music, rich backgrounds and memorable characters all combine to create animation that should not be missed.

Greg Belfrage is a lifelong Star Trek fan, Batman toy collector, sci-fi movie maniac and hopeless geek. He can be reached at greg.belfrage@mwcradio.com .


Teaser photo credit: Youtube.com
Setback camera photo by reFrederator at Photobucket.com