Thursday, December 02, 2004

Funny, he doesn't look a day over 74

Newsday traces the 75-year history of Popeye, from a bit part in the Thimble Theatre Sunday comic to international multimedia star. He's even getting an anniversary salute from the Museum of Television & Radio:
"I think most people of our generation know Popeye from TV," says museum researcher Barry Monush. "He was all over the place in syndication for years and years."

That voyage from funny- page obscurity to small-screen ubiquity started when a pioneering animator took notice of the emerging "Thimble Theatre" star. "The best thing that ever happened to him was Max Fleischer, who decided to make a Popeye cartoon," Monush said. In the early 1930s, Max and his brother Dave Fleischer had their own stable of popular animated characters, including Betty Boop. Looking to create a new star, they signed a deal with Hearst's King Features Syndicate for the right to use Popeye.

... There was something else about those early cartoons. "The very concept of plot was old-fashioned to the Fleischers," writes animation historian Mark Langer of Carleton University in Ottawa. "Hackneyed and ritualized story conventions were torn apart, recombined in odd juxtapositions and satirized in endless variations."

Monush describes the appeal of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons more simply: "They're just plain weird," he says. But, he adds, they were also funny. With titles like "Wimmin Is a Myskery" and "Protek the Weakerist" (a lobby poster promoting that 1937 short is included in the exhibit), the cartoons featured elaborate, surreal backgrounds (including the famous closing ship-cabin doors on the opening credits) and ad-libbed asides by the voice actors ("Ya think I got rocks in me head?" says Popeye in one early cartoon, shown as a part of a reel at the exhibit, while a group of goons shower him with boulders).