Popeye The Sailor ► Saturday Morning Cartoons
An early Thimble Theatre starring an early Popeye

Popeye the Sailor Man is, according to the Wiki, a “cartoon fictional character,” in case any of you were confused.

He began his fictional life in the comic strips, which were a very big thing in the early years of the last century. Elzie Crisler Segar was the cartoonist who midwifed Popeye, adding him to his Thimble Theatre strip in 1929, 10 years after he began drawing it for King Features Syndicate.

Right from the start the strip featured the adventures of Olive Oyl, her older and shorter brother Castor Oyl, and her fiancé Harold Hamgravy. Ten years into the strip Ham Gravy (his name got shortened) hired a new character named Popeye to captain his treasure hunting ship. Little did he know that Popeye would become so popular that he’d become a regular and would eventually push him aside in Olive’s heart.

However, it was not love at first sight.

Olive and Popeye actually hated each other when they first met (her first words to him were “Take your hooks offa me or I’ll lay ya in a scupper”); they fought bitterly—and hilariously—for weeks until finally realizing that they had feelings for each other.

Popeye didn’t become animated until 1933, when Max Fleischer obtained the rights to make the original cartoons for Paramount Pictures. In his cinematic debut (above), Popeye appeared under the rubric of a Betty Boop cartoon, which the Fleischers were already producing, the only time that would happen.
The WikiWackyWoo picks up the story:

In every Popeye cartoon, the sailor is invariably put into what seems like a hopeless situation, upon which (usually after a beating), a can of spinach which he apparently regularly carries with him falls out from inside his shirt. Popeye immediately pops the can open and gulps the entire contents of it into his mouth, or sometimes sucks in the spinach through his corncob pipe. Upon swallowing the spinach, Popeye’s physical strength immediately becomes superhuman, and he is easily able to save the day (and very often rescue Olive Oyl from a dire situation). It did not stop there, as spinach could also give Popeye the skills and powers he needed, as in The Man on the Flying Trapeze, where it gave him acrobatic skills. (When the antagonist is the Sea Hag, it is Olive who eats the spinach; Popeye can’t hit a lady.)

In 1941 Paramount took over control of Fleischer Studios and they fired Dave and Max Fleischer, renaming the company Famous Studios. The quality of the Popeye cartoons began going downhill until the ’60s, when 220 cartoons were produced exclusively for television. These are the worst of the lot.

In 1980 Robert Altman directed a Popeye live-action musical comedy starring Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl, with songs written by Harry Nilsson, except this one, of course:

The movie bombed at the box office, but has become a cult classic. Robin Williams was not a fan. He said that if you play it backwards, there’s a plot.

“Some people say” Nilsson’s songs were the best part of the movie. In fact, Harry recorded each of the songs as demos to be given to the actors, so they could earn the tunes. Luckily for Nilsson fans, some of these demos have escaped from the recording studio. What’s impressive about these songs is how they do not need the actor’s voice to stand up on their own. Each tune embodies the character within the music and lyrics. Listen:

However, the classic Popeyes are the original Fleischer cartoons. There are 109 of them. Here are just 10 for your viewing pleasure.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.