On 17 January, 1929, Popeye the Sailor made his formal debut in Thimble Theater; the comic strip would eventually be named in his honor as he became the central character. When Max Fleischer adapted Popeye into a series of animated shorts in 1933, he first appeared alongside Betty Boop – also a creation of Fleischer, Boop ran up against the Hays Code of the 1930s and became more toned-down appearance-wise late in the decade, and in Popeye’s inaugural short, she appears briefly performing a hula (which Popeye joins in on).As a bit of history, Betty Boop’s design went through a significant change during the 1930s – Popeye the Sailor, made before the design shift, shows Boop in her more flapper-influenced years, when her sexuality was more of a selling point (a nod to her roots in the Jazz Age). Popeye, by contrast, has more of a “tough guy” appearance – he’s powerful and reliable, a stark contrast to the more brutish antics of antagonist Bluto, who vies against him for the affections of Olive Oyl (another Thimble Theater regular).
Popeye the Sailor (as well as the second Popeye short, I Yam What I Yam) has a different opening song than what came later; this one is based on “Strike Up the Band,” a song that lent itself to an animated short of the same name in 1930 (directed by Dave Fleischer, brother of Max), with lyrics changed to emphasize Popeye as the central focus. As can be seen here, this short opens with a newspaper announcing Popeye’s new-found status as a movie star – this introduces him to the movie-going audience as one would a real-life figure, and Popeye sings his trademark theme (“I’m Popeye the sailor man,” etc.) when the scene shifts to movement. Speaking of movement, Popeye the Sailor contains a lot of it; like most shorts of the day, it shows off the capacity for animation to be very animated, with characters engaging in Golden Age cartoon antics such as Popeye punching a mast into clothespins, or a large clock into a collection of smaller ones.
Unlike cartoons of today, animated shorts of the 1930s illustrated how animation could be used to establish a reality where different physical laws exist – after all, the medium allows for animators to explore new horizons, and animators of the 1930s frequently examined the the frontiers of cinema. After all, this is the decade of such films as Anemic Cinema and other experimental films that pushed the boundaries of film as art; animation had been around since nearly the turn of the 20th century, and by 1933, synchronized sound complemented the action on-screen as directors and animators brought sound into the limelight. Technically speaking, Popeye the Sailor isn’t exactly new – Disney had already established similar “rules” for animations in his Mickey Mouse shorts – but it deftly illustrates how animation can be inventive. For example, the opening scene of Popeye singing as he punches things shows the use of comedic timing to create a sense of cartoonish wonder; Popeye can display his incredible strength by changing his environment, as well as win the girl at the end by defeating the oafish Bluto at his own game. As one might expect, action takes center stage here – movement carries the animation as, to give an example, Popeye saves Olive Oyl when she is tied by Bluto with a railway beam.
For his next short, I Yam What I Yam, Popeye goes West and encounters Native Americans; unfortunately, the depiction of Native Americans here is negative, as is usual for the decade, with Stagecoach (1939) being a famous example of the Native American as the enemy of the cowboy. Here, Popeye further displays his physical strength against his antagonists; Wimpy appears for the first time here as an ancillary character, a comic foil whose hunger is legendary. Like Popeye the Sailor before it, I Yam What I Yam illustrates the sort of cartoonish silliness Popeye became famous for – he’s capable of taming lighting and scaring clouds away with his sheer might, something that cannot be done through live-action. Also of note is the musical score; every movement has some sort of musical accompaniment, whether it be through background music or individual instruments imitating other sounds (such as drums playing when Popeye punches trees, turning them into a house with a stone chimney). Cartoons of the decade had their own musical scores, and music sheets of particular compositions featured in cartoons were sold.
The final short examined here, Blow Me Down!, features Popeye in Mexico, matching wits with Bluto as a bandit; this sort of story had been looked at before by Disney, with The Gallopin’ Gaucho (where Mickey fighting Pete, who appears as the bandit in that short), so it’s nothing new. Of note here are the animators, Willard Bowsky and William Sturm; Bosky worked at Fleischer Studios with the Talkartoons and Superman shorts (not to mention Popeye), while Sturm worked primarily on Popeye shorts. This would be the first Popeye short featuring the two as animators; Popeye the Sailor had Seymour Kneitel and Roland Crandall, while I Yam What I Yam featured Kneitel and William Henning. As for the cartoon itself, it has the classic bar fight as well as Bluto and Popeye fighting over Olive Oyl – going briefly on Mexico, this short was released during the Mexican Repatriation, an event where many people of Mexican descent were forced back into Mexico, so Mexico’s relationship with the U.S. had been strained.