From July 2007 through November 2008, Warner Brothers released three volumes of Popeye the Sailor cartoons on DVD, which contained the first 123 cartoons from Popeye the Sailor (1933) through to Cartoons Ain’t Human (1943). Aside from three Popeye Color Specials, two-reelers shot in Technicolor, those cartoons were in black and white. Now 10 years later, Warner Archive is continuing the run with Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s Volume 1, featuring the next 14 theatrical cartoons made by Famous Studios, all in Technicolor, from Her Honor the Mare (1943) through to Mess Production (1945).
For those new to the Popeye series, Popeye the Sailor is frequently seen competing for the hand of Olive Oyl against Bluto, whose relationship to Popeye can be best friend or complete stranger. There are even episodes where Popeye and Olive start out committed to one another yet he still has to win her fickle heart. Why on earth Popeye tolerates this is the same reason the other Stooges put up with Moe’s abuse.
The following cartoons all have a variation of this storyline: We’re on Our Way to Rio, The Anvil Chorus Girl (remake of Shoein’ Hosses), Spinach Packin’ Popeye (which includes clips from Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves), Puppet Love, Pitchin’ Woo at the Zoo, She-Sick Sailors, Tops in the Big Top, Shape Ahoy, and Mess Production. For Better or Nurse, a remake of Hospitaliky, puts a twist on the story with the fellas competing for Olive by injuring themselves in order to get into her care. A highlight in the entire volume is seeing Popeye give Bluto spinach in order to lose the competition.
The remaining shorts include Her Honor the Mare, which features Popeye’s four nephews, Pipeye, Peepeye, Poopeye and Pupeye, trying to sneak a horse in the house. It’s similar to Donald Duck dealing with his three nephews. Popeye’s naval buddy Shorty makes his final two appearances in The Marry-Go-Round, with Shorty helping Popeye propose to Olive, but it leads to her falling for him. Moving Aweigh sees the pair helping a silent Olive move. Some of the gags involving the cop are reused from Cops is Always Right. Pop-Pie a la Mode is the reason the disc opens with a racial insensitivity disclaimer due to the manner the cannibals are depicted.
In addition, some of the cartoons are notable for the voice talent. We’re on Our Way to Rio is the last time William Pennell was Bluto. Jackson Beck took over the role in The Anvil Chorus Girl, which was also the first appearance of Mae Questel as Olive Oyl since A Date to Skate (1938). She played Popeye in Shape Ahoy, giving him a much gruffer voice. The only other time Jack Mercer doesn’t portray Popeye in this set is For Better or Nurse, the first of 10 times Harry Foster Welch played the role due to Mercer being drafted.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. All 14 cartoons exhibit vivid hues that pop on the screen. Whites are bright and accurate. The blacks are inky. Contrast is strong and film grain is apparent. There are some instances of spots and marks that appear. Focus is usually sharp, but occasionally scene will present a soft focus like when Olive and Popeye have to deal with an elephant in Pitchin’ Woo. It really stands out when cutting to and away from that scene.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, but doesn’t match the quality of the video. There’s a noticeable hiss to varying degrees throughout, and a crackle can be heard during a new portion of Spinach Packin’ Popeye. Different elements are too loud in the mix. For example, Her Honor the Mare opens with the music too loud. During The Anvil Chorus Girl, the music is so loud it’s distorted. Marry-Go-Round, has dialogue too loud. When Olive speaks of never letting Shorty go in a vampy voice, she sounds distorted and unclear.
Completists will certainly be glad Warner Archive is continuing the release of Popeye cartoons, but I don’t find them as funny. Gone from these 14 shorts are the amusing asides Popeye mutters under his breath as well as supporting characters like Wimpy. Limiting the cast of characters means the love-triangle premise has to be used more often, but to be repeating material in four out of the 14 illustrates the well running dry at the studio, a fact driven home that they are still more entertaining than the four cartoons that tried something different. The Blu-ray offers a mixed HD experience with impressive visuals but disappointing audio. There are no extras.