Spinach cycle

Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938

Fittingly enough, Warner Home Video’s lush, lovingly conceived four-disc set, Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, showcases the eye-popping inventiveness of animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer. From the iconic seaman’s debut with tragically deformed co-star Betty Boop on, the Fleischer formula had Popeye getting the shit beat out of him (usually over anorexic flirt Olive Oyl), eating a can of Deus Ex Machina-brand spinach, and vanquishing his attackers (typically muscle-bound patsy Bluto, but there’s also a bellicose moose in “Wild Elephinks” and a Fight Club-like fraternity in “Can You Take It”) in an orgy of baroque violence. But the setup was also wildly flexible (“Beware of Barnacle Bill” applies it as a pop opera), and the cartoons’ urban, highly musical milieu adds to the fun, before Paramount neutered Popeye into a gung-ho G.I. swabbie in the 1940s—war ruins everything—he was just as likely to belt out a Tin Pan Alley tune as kick somebody’s ass.

Along with 58 black-and-white shorts and two 20-minute Technicolor mini-epics, the collection includes silent non-Popeye shorts (1918’s “Bobby Bumps Puts a Beanery on the Bum” is a standout), audio commentaries, and several informative “Popumentaries,” in which various animation historians weigh in on Popeye’s stature as Yank working-class hero. Fair enough. What could be more American than an elaborately crude, obsessively persistent romantic with a colorful vernacular and a compulsion to solve problems with his fists? For me, the draw was always his under-the-breath smartass asides, courtesy of voice artists William Costello and Jack Mercer. But it’s worth noting that the Fleischers immigrated from Austria near the beginning of the 20th century, so a case could be made for Popeye—whose catchphrase, after all, is “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam”—as existentialist provocateur. Well blow me down.