Popeye the Sailor: The 1960s TV Cartoons
By Fred M. Grandinetti
230 pages/$30 hardcover $20 softcover/Bear Manor Media
Like author Fred M. Grandinetti, I was a child of the 60s and was exposed to all the Popeye cartoons, and it took time for me to understand that some were excellent, some were good, and some were outright bad. It slowly became clear to me that the best was the theatrical shorts made in the 1930s by the Fleischer Studio. What was less clear was who made the others of varying quality.
Thankfully, Grandinetti provides us with a handy guide, breaking down which animation house did what, all in an attempt to corner the syndicated cartoon market when there were hours upon hours of time to fill.
Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theater featured the Oyl family, with new characters coming and going as needed for each serialized adventure. On January 17, 1929, readers met Popeye, who caught their imagination, and he never left. (That same month, they were also introduced to Tarzan and Buck Rogers, quite an exciting time to read the newspapers.)
Grandinetti has written many other works on animation with a focus on Popeye so he’s the acknowledged expert. The problem with being the expert on something is that so much is in your head that sometimes you presume everyone knows this too. There’s an awful lot of context missing from the narrative.
We open with a brief background on the strip, although the current creator, R.K. Milholland, is not listed. Then we get into his screen adaptation (here, David Fleischer is not credited at all. From here, we get the handoff from Fleischer to Paramount’s Famous Studios, and then Associated Artists Productions acquired the library of 234 shorts dating back to 1933.
As children’s television programming arrived in 1949 (Crusader Rabbit), more followed with limited animation used for cost purposes. The made-for-television shorts could never compete with the hand-drawn work for features. However, by the late 1950s, cartoons vanished from movie screens and could only be found on the small black and white screens at home.
AAP’s package of cartoons was a ratings hit for countless stations and a financial bonanza for them. King Features, which owned the character, decided to get in on the act and formed King Features Syndicate Special Service, which went on to make the comic strip characters and turn them into animated fare with very mixed results.
Hired to oversee the Popeye cartoons was Al Brodax, best known today for his work on Yellow Submarine (which featured a Popeye cameo). To get 220 new cartoons made, he divided the work over six animation houses worldwide, hence the uneven quality and clear lack of quality control.
The book has an odd order, so we get info on these studios before we do the characters. Additionally, Grandietti and the book’s editor don’t like using paragraphs, so there are long blocks of type that really needed to be broken up.
Thankfully, when he does get to the characters, he clears up, once and for all, the confusion between Bluto and Brutus, so thanks for that.
We also get nice thumbnails of the key voice performers, including Jack Mercer (whom Grandinetti wrote a bio about) who was an animator that got discovered. He also wen ton to write some of the cartoons.
Grandinetti includes sections on spinoffs inspired by the cartoon, including related merchandise.
By page 77, he seems to run out of things to say about the character and the animated history. The remainder of the book is very detailed episode guides divided by the production house. Some contain additional credits; some contain one or two lines of opinion on the quality. As a result, you really have to be a fan of the character or an animation aficionado to appreciate this book.
The designer oddly clustered all the images at the end of text sections rather than intersperse them for a better overlook loo; It would have been nice to see examples from each studio as we’re reading their history or about their output.
Ultimately, this is an uneven valentine to the lesser known and appreciated animated saga of everyone’s favorite Sailor Man.