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Picture by Fred Grandinetti

The Popeye Cartoons: Leave Well Enough Alone
By Fred Grandinetti

   In September of 1956, 234 Popeye film cartoons produced by both the Fleischer and Famous Studios debuted on the small screen. The films were a smashing success and for three decades brought high ratings to stations telecasting them. The films produced by the Fleischer Studios are considered classics in the field of animation. Yet, because these outstanding cartoons were filmed in black and white they have been kept off television screens since the 1980s!
    Many of the Popeye cartoons, produced by the talented men and women at the Fleischer Studios, had meticulously painted backgrounds, which were carefully blurred to place emphasis on the foreground action. In many of the cartoons, real life photographs were used as backgrounds, giving a more three dimensional look to the films. Miniature sets were painted and rotated on the patented Fleischer animation turntable which provided stunning detail. For years animation and film historians have raved about the detail in these black and white cartoons. When Ted Turner acquired the films in the 1980s, I wrote to Turner asking if the black and white films would show up on his superstation. The postcard I received in the mail caused me to let out a loud groan as it stated, “The original black and white Popeye cartoons are being color enhanced for broadcast.” I knew what that meant. They were being shipped to Korea to be colorized. The Turner people also sent me a video showing supposed scenes from a black and white Popeye cartoon, then switching to color, in order to showcase the color images. What the video actually shows is a portion of a colorized Popeye cartoon, with the color turned off, then turned on; not the original footage from a black and white cartoon featuring the stunning backgrounds!
    When these cartoons were retraced and colorized, costing between $10,000-$11,000 for each film, the backgrounds became reduced to gaudy images. To our dismay, several of the cartoons feature scenes with incomplete animation. For example, on the soundtrack you can hear Popeye twirl his pipe, but the colorizers never bothered to redraw the twirling pipe. In another example, Bluto would shake his head, and you could hear a spinning noise, but in the colorized version Bluto’s head would remain motionless.
    The later Popeye cartoons produced by the Fleischer Studios during 1940-1942 do not feature the stunning backgrounds, so the colorization process doesn’t hinder them that much (except when the full animation of a scene is shortened), but nearly all of the cartoons produced from 1933 to 1939 are pale versions of the original classics. Here is a listing of some of the cartoons, altered by colorization:

    Blow Me Down (1933) - In the black and white cartoon, several objects are hurled at Olive Oyl’s dressing room, creating a knocking sound. Olive, after hearing this sound, says, “Come in.” In the colored film, the objects were not drawn, so Olive’s words make no sense.

    I Eats Me Spinach (1933) - In the opening scene, where Popeye sings his theme song, while the action goes on around him, the voice goes out of sync ruining the pacing of the scene. In the black and white original, the action and vocals are in sync. During a rodeo fight between Bluto and a bull, the bull’s antlers hit Bluto’s face causing the brute’s head to spin, which is heard on the soundtrack. In the colored cartoon, Bluto’s head doesn’t move. Towards the end of the cartoon, Popeye punches a bull, it flys into the air and then falls to earth in the form of various cuts of meat. In the colorized cartoon, Popeye punches the bull, it flies up in the air, and then suddenly, Popeye and the bull vanish, only to appear a few seconds later.
   
   A Dream Walking (1934) - This film features dazzling 3-D backgrounds, and the black and white version is considered a classic, but the added color makes it look like standard fare. In this cartoon are two brief scenes showing Popeye running behind Bluto against two different backgrounds. In the colored print, the same scene of Popeye running behind Bluto is repeated twice, showing the same background. Cheap shortcuts like this were typical of later cartoons, but not of classic Fleischer work.

    The Dance Contest (1934) - Featured the illusion of a moving ballroom, which is destroyed in the colorized version.

    For Better Or Worser (1935) - Yet again, Bluto suffers a head blow and we see him shake it off in the black and white film, but not in the colored version.

    You Gotta Be a Football Hero (1935) - Popeye eats his spinach and becomes a one-man football team with images of several ghostly Popeyes surrounding him. The ghostly images must have been scared away in the color cartoon.

    King of the Mardi Gras (1935) - Not only do Wimpy’s hat and coat keep changing color from scene to scene but Bluto is billed as “Bloto” on a circus tent. In the black and white cartoon, a bit of a tent partially covers the U in Bluto, but in the colored version, I suppose it was easier to change the spelling of Bluto’s name than to correctly trace the shape of the tent!

    Adventures of Popeye (1935) - This film features live-action, black and white footage of a little boy buying a Popeye book, then being picked on by a bully. Popeye comes to life and shows the tyke scenes from his earlier adventures. In the colored version, the live-action footage is left in black and white, but the animated scenes are redrawn in color. The last five minutes of the film get thrown out of sync with the animation due to the colorization process. A classic film ruined by color.

    The Spinach Overture (1935) - Popeye twirls his pipe, and in the color print you can hear it, but you cannot see it!

    A Clean Shaven Man (1935) - Popeye and Bluto run to “Wimpy’s Barber Shop” in the black and white film. In the colored print they run to a place redrawn as “Wimby’s Bber.”

    Bridge Ahoy (1936) - Olive and Popeye are building a bridge. In one scene, they are tossing rivets to each other. In the colored print, for a split second, Popeye and Olive switch places because the colored cel, featuring the two characters, was filmed in reverse, ruining the careful pacing of the scene.

    Little Swee’pea (1936) - The 3-D backgrounds are lost in this film, and did you ever see a yellow hippo at a zoo?!

    Morning, Noon and Nightclub (1937) - In the black and white cartoons, the Fleischer Studios took the time to add detail to any posters featured in the films. In this colored version, they look as if they have been redrawn by an artist wearing a blindfold!

    Learn Polikeness (1938) - At the end of the cartoon, Popeye toots his pipe. While we hear the toot-toot on the soundtrack, the related animation was not redrawn. Popeye is just seen bobbing his head!

    Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh! (1938) - Popeye and Olive are riding a donkey, and you hear a “bump” but you don’t see the donkey trip because this action was not redrawn.

    Goonland (1938) - This classic cartoon features the film breaking, and two human hands using a clothespin to put the film back together. In the color version, the film puts itself back together, ruining the effect.

    Shakespearean Spinach (1940) - Again, Popeye twirls his pipe and the animation was not redrawn to conform to the soundtrack.

    Child Psykolojiky (1940) - Popeye plays poker with his Pappy in the opening scene, but Popeye’s poker chips keep vanishing and appearing for no reason!

    Pipeye-Pupeye-Poopeye and Peepeye (1942) - Popeye’s nephews have their names carved in their chairs. Because the names were redrawn so carelessly, in some shots we see only the letters “Pee” carved on Peepeye’s chair!

   Olive Oyl and Water Don’t Mix (1942) - In a brief scene as Olive approaches Popeye and Bluto from behind, the back of Bluto’s hair was not colored in, making him look bald!

    Many Tanks (1942) - Yet again, Popeye’s tooting of his pipe is not redrawn at film’s end!

    Me Musical Nephews (1942) - This black and white film was produced by the successor to the Fleischer Studios, Famous Studios, but with the crew from the Fleischer unit. In the opening scene where we see Popeye’s nephews saying their prayers (“Bless Olive Oyl and Wimpy ...”), Popeye is wearing a black shirt, blue pants, and red collar. This would be fine, but he’s supposed to be colored white as he is wearing his white sailor’s uniform before and after this praying scene.

    Too Weak To Work (1943) - Why are Popeye and Bluto’s sailor knots colored red in this cartoon?!? Blue or black, but red?

    A Jolly Good Furlough (1943) - Another cartoon with a portion of the soundtrack going out of sync thanks to colorization.

    Woodpeckin’ (1943) - The opening credits are redrawn so light you can’t read them!

    Cartoons Ain’t Human (1943) - The last black and white Popeye cartoon features a scene where Popeye, after putting on paper a rather suggestive idea, a human hand holding a stamper appears to stamp “Censored” on the paper. In the color print, the word “Censored” just pops up, the hand is not seen.

    Why were these black and white classics colored to begin with? During the mid-1980s, programmers decided that people were not watching black and white programs anymore. Gone were the black and white episodes of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, and the colorizers were put to work on the first season of Gilligan’s Island. It was believed at that time that to make the Popeyes profitable they had to be shipped off to Korea (where the old black and white Warner Bros. cartoons and Betty Boop films were poorly colorized) to “enhance” them for broadcast and syndication.
    In more recent years, Warner Bros. wisely had their colorized cartoons colored again but this time by computer. The colorization by computer does not delete any scenes and is far superior to the colorized Popeyes. Warner Bros. now owns the Popeye cartoons, but since they do not own the licensing rights to the character, I doubt that these films will get the computer treatment soon.
   With the success of “TV Land” and “Nick at Nite,” as well as the enduring popularity of I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Three Stooges, programmers need to realize what an asset they have in the black and white Popeyes. Currently they air on The Cartoon Network, Monday mornings at 1 AM, as part of the Late Nite Black and White show. However, the same films are shown time and again, while others are ignored. The series also doesn’t air a black and white Popeye on every program. In the past, The Cartoon Network has run specials featuring the greatest cartoons of all time, and while the Fleischer Popeyes have been included, a colored cartoon has been shown instead of the classic black and white shorts.
    I have called The Cartoon Network and while stating they know there is an audience for the black and white cartoons, they have, thus far, failed to put them in a decent time slot and make good use of them. They appear much more content with filling up airtime with episodes of “Scooby Doo” or “Johnny Bravo” than listening to what followers of classic animation want! If you would like to write to The Cartoon Network and ask them to please show the black and white Popeyes more often and at a reasonable time, send a letter to: Ms. Dea Perez, Vice President of Programming, 1050 Techwood Drive, Atlanta, GA 30318. (404) 885-2263.
    The Popeyes are priceless classics that brought great success to The Fleischer Studios in theaters around the world. In later years the cartoons were a boon to the TV stations that aired them. Because of their artistry and wit, the Popeyes deserve to be seen by a wider public again


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