Saturday, September 25, 2004

Reflections on a Sailor Man

Last night I went to a showing of the Ottawa Animation Festival, a special retrospective on a classic cartoon character -- Popeye, the Sailor Man. We saw a few of the Max Fleischer cartoons from the mid- to late 1930's, including one where Popeye guest-starred with Betty Boop. We didn't see anything from the later periods because of copyright disputes, according to our host: Time-Warner (through Turner Broadcasting and the Cartoon Network) owns the later cartoons (including the Fleischer color, Paramount and Hanna-Barbera versions) while King Features owns the character, making for a tricky legal situation for publishing a DVD.

The charm of the Fleischer cartoons isn't really in the animation -- Fleischer was apparently one of those people who didn't really believe in improving his artists. Nor was it the backgrounds which were very innovative for the time (3-D modelling shot on a turntable; very realistic looking for pannings). Nor is it from the story writing, which is pretty formulaic -- we all know that once Pops chomps down on the green stuff, it's bye bye Bluto.

No, the real charm of the Fleischer cartoons comes from the stream-of-consciousness mutterings of voice-actor Jack Mercer as Popeye as he talks to himself during the action. Since lip-sync was less of a concern (and it was something mastered by Disney and Warners), the directors felt free to let Mercer, Mae Questel (as Olive Oyl) and the other actors improvise some dialogue, and the results are witticisms that add a much needed depth to this character. It's one of the reasons why the later color cartoons seemed so bland, at least until the H-B years.

Popeye was one of the first cartoon characters I learned to really draw well, when I was in school, so of course he's a sentimental favorite of mine. I hear they're planning a computer graphic movie with him as the star. Well, no matter what form he takes, here's hoping he makes his full century.