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When Popeye was Popular Without His Punch!

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It was reported on October 13-19, 1973 in the TV Guide: “Citizen’s groups bent on ridding TV of what they regard as objectionable kiddy fare have won a major victory: Metromedia-owned station KTTV in Los Angeles has agreed to ban 42 “violent” cartoon series, including Batman and Superman, and to air a “caution to parents” preceding the showing of 80-odd syndicated shows.” This action negatively affected the content of Saturday morning cartoon series when reviving classic characters in new situations.

The Los Angeles Times reported on December 7, 1977:

Popeye Will Return to Network TV Next Year

Popeye, the famous cartoon sailor still seen frequently in TV reruns, will return to network television next year in a new Saturday morning children’s series, King Features announced Tuesday. Officials at the company said they had licensed animation rights for Popeye to Hanna-Barbera. The Saturday morning series is scheduled to debut next September and will feature Olive Oyl and Wimpy besides Popeye, the company said.

How could Popeye, who survived the brutal attacks of Bluto by eating his spinach and fighting back, fare in new situations with citizen’s groups taking the muscle out of his fisticuffs?  Citing the violence in the old cartoons Art Scott, executive with Hanna-Barbera said, “It’s not going to be that way anymore.  The characters will look and sound the same as they did in 454 previous cartoons, but Popeye will not be punching anymore.”  Scott promised viewers that the runty sailor was not being fitted into a corporate image and that his spinach consumption was being directed towards non-moving objects such as  huge boulders,  trucks,  houses and a troublemaking mosquito.  Scott insisted “the sting and zip will not be taken out of Popeye.  The SPLATS, WHAMS, POWS and WHOMPS will disappear. Bluto will still be the pest when he changes a street sign.  Anything to divert Popeye.”

Title card used for Popeye’s new cartoons produced by Hanna-Barbera

Jack Mercer, Popeye’s voice over artist since 1935, was a writer on this new series of cartoons and commented on the fisticuffs; “The difficulty is cutting down on the violence.  Popeye never hurt anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. The silly part of it is the old violent shows are still being seen on TV all over the country and nobody objects.”

The violence content was not the only challenge the series had.  The production crew wanted to bring back the style of the original Popeye theatricals produced by the Fleischer Studios. A more modernized version of Popeye, wearing his Navy whites, appeared in a number of both his color theatrical and television cartoons.  For Hanna-Barbera’s new series he was seen in the attire worn in the Fleischer films: a black shirt, white buttons, red collar with black stripes, blue pants and brown shoes.  Originally he was to wear his Captain’s hat from the earlier cartoons.  However, in the Popeye comic strip at this time, he was wearing a sailor’s hat. It was this headgear which made it into the new films.  Olive Oyl retained her homely look and dress from the Fleischer period.  Supporting players, J. Wellington Wimpy, Poopdeck Pappy, Swee’pea, Eugene the Jeep and The Goons, for the most part, retained their original visual designs. The Sea Hag’s character design changed during the production of the cartoons.  Originally she was a skinny, squinty eyed witch dressed in red attire with short sleeves. Later she filled out more and wore a short-sleeved black dress with a more expressive face.

The original character designs of the cast before production began on The All New Popeye Hour

Popeye and Swee’pea as they appeared in The All New Popeye Hour

A series of 220 Popeye cartoons were made quickly for television by King Features Syndicate during the years 1960 through 1962. It was during this period Bluto was renamed Brutus. It was thought the bearded brute was a creation of the Fleischer Studios whose animated films were distributed by Paramount Pictures.  Although Bluto first appeared in the Popeye comic strip in 1932, syndicated by King Features Syndicate, Paramount claimed they owned the rights to the name Bluto. To avoid possible legal complications King Features Syndicate renamed Popeye’s opponent, Brutus! When Hanna-Barbera was given the animation rights to create new Popeye cartoons the name Bluto could be used. Popeye’s look-a-like nephews, who appeared in the theatrical films but were absent from the King Features Syndicate television episodes, returned.

Although Mae Questel, who provided Olive Oyl’s voice in the theatrical and 1960’s television cartoons, auditioned for Hanna-Barbera to reprise her role, she was replaced by Marilyn Schreffler.  A press release at the time stated the studio wanted a voice closer to the “original” Olive Oyl.  Questel said to work on the cartoons she would have had to temporary live in Los Angeles.  This was a move she didn’t wish to make.  Character actor, Allan Melvin (Sam from The Brady Bunch) provided a villainous voice to play Bluto. Daws Butler gave Wimpy a voice reminiscent of W.C. Fields. Schreffler also provided the vocals for Popeye’s enemy, The Sea Hag.  Mercer, as he did in the theatrical and television cartoons, piped up as Poopdeck Pappy.

Popeye’s father, Poopdeck Pappy, appeared in several of his son’s Saturday morning adventures.

The hour long series debuted on the CBS Saturday morning schedule on September 9, 1978.  Despite the removal of the fisticuffs the program was an immediate hit with audiences.  Included with the sailor’s new adventures was a segment called Dinky Dog.  He was a huge dog that created chaotic situations for his owners.  Popeye’s Treasure Hunt featured the spinach-eater and his girlfriend as treasure seekers always having to keep one step ahead of the villainous Bluto.  During the show’s second season (1979-80) Popeye’s Sport’s Parade was added.  Public service announcements featuring the cast were sprinkled throughout the hour. These included the danger of smoking, doing drugs, promoting bicycle safety, hazards of swimming pools and eating too many sweets.

1978 TV Guide advertisement for The All New Popeye Hour

Artwork used in the production of the opening title to Popeye’s Treasure Hunt

A special broadcast of the new cartoons aired under the title, The Popeye Show, on September 13, 1978.  Cartoons selected for this special were Spinach Fever where the sailor escorted a disco-daffy Olive Oyl to a discotheque.  Popeye Out West was a spoof of classic western dramas with the sailor man as sheriff.  A Bad Knight for Popeye had Princess Olivette (Olive Oyl) needing rescuing from Sir Bluto the Rotten and his fire breathing dragon.  Popeye piloted his own home made plane in Wilder Than Usual Blue Yonder and only a can of spinach kept his plane and romance with Olive Oyl airborne.

Advertisement for The Popeye Show which aired September 13, 1978 on CBS

In visual style and storytelling Hanna-Barbera harkened back to the Popeye cartoons produced by the Fleischer Studios.  Audiences never knew what to expect watching a Fleischer produced Popeye theatrical.  Examples of similar situations occurred in the following Hanna-Barbera cartoons:

Popeye’s Self Defense-Olive wants Popeye to learn self-defense so he doesn’t have to always rely on his spinach every time he’s in a jam.  Instructor Bluto causes problems for Popeye and when the sailor pulls out his spinach can Olive eats the contents.  She turns into a variation of Wonder Woman and tosses both men on a ceiling fan.  The idea of Olive Oyl insisting Popeye rely on natural strength as opposed to consuming spinach was certainly unusual.

Pappy Fails in Love-Popeye is hardly in this cartoon as the spotlight shines on Poopdeck Pappy and Bluto’s attempts to win the love of a rich woman.  She ends up falling in love with Wimpy because of his cooking skills.

Popeye Goes Hollywood-Popeye and Bluto compete for a job as a stuntman but the director chooses Olive Oyl instead. Bluto and Popeye end up crying into each other’s arms.

A Goon Gone Gooney-Alice the Goon wants Popeye as her King but Olive eats the sailor’s spinach to rescue her boyfriend.

The Decathlon Dilemma-Poopdeck Pappy works out for the decathlon but Popeye is against the idea.  Despite Popeye eating the spinach it’s Pappy who ends up rescuing his son proving he’s not too old.

Bluto’s Bike Bullies-What starts out as a typical plot has an unexpected ending.  Motorcycle menace Bluto wreck’s Popeye and Olive’s ride with his gang of bikers.  Defeated Bluto ends up becoming a motorcycle patrolman.

Popeye Versus Machine-Popeye uses his muscles and Bluto machines to create a new highway.  When all looks lost for Popeye he says he’d hate to let his fans down and finds one last burst of energy before eating spinach.

Popeye the Robot-It’s “National Popeye Day” but Bluto has replaced the sailor with his robot look-a-like which causes chaos at the festivities.

Yukon County MountiePopeye and Bluto are Mounties trying to save Olive Oil’s payroll from a criminal with a French accent.  The pair recovers the money and both are promoted to Sergeants!  However Olive prefers the criminal because of his prison attire.  She loves men in stripes!

Ballet Hooey-Popeye and Bluto get mixed up chasing the sailor’s basketball and end up ruining Olive Oyl’s ballet performance.  Popeye breaks out his spinach to save the day but Olive intercepts the vegetable and gets even with the pair for ruining her show.

Bully Dozer-Popeye tries to wake up Princess Olive Oyl from an enchanted sleep.  When he decides to eat his spinach the sailor swallows a can filled with red hot peppers!

This version of Popeye also parodied current trends of the period:

Olive Goes Dallas-Olive Oyl decides to try out for the Dallas Cheerleaders!  Bluto tries to ruin her audition but thanks to eating spinach she prevails.

Close Encounters of the Third Spinach-This Star Wars spoof featured Olive as Princess Olive-Pit, Poopdeck Pappy as Alta-Poppa and Bluto as Darth Bluto.  Popeye not only rescues the Princess but discovers his long lost Pappy.  This is probably the only cartoon, due to a voice-over mistake by Jack Mercer, where both the names Bluto and Brutus are used to identify one character.  Mercer calls the menacing villain, “Darth Brutus” in one scene.

The aforementioned Spinach Fever and Popeye Out West both parodied trends in the motion picture industry.

While Olive Oyl still needed Popeye’s help in these new adventures she was also more self-reliant.  In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Popeye she slips out of Bluto’s grasp. Then the bearded brute gets flipped over Olive’s shoulder.

In the Popeye’s Treasure Hunt segments the sailor and his girlfriend were equal partners. Olive often discovered the clues and used her cleverness to get herself and Popeye out of trouble. She was also seen having varied careers.  In Queen of the Load Olive was a truck driver, a superb tennis player for Olive’s Shining Hour, recruit for the military in Top Kick in Boot Camp and the owner of a radio station in W.O.I.L.

On February 14, 1979 CBS aired, at 8:30pm, The Popeye Valentine Special: Sweethearts at Sea, produced by Hanna-Barbera.  Olive Oyl takes a cruise searching for Mr. Right and naturally Bluto is aboard. Additionally The Sea Hag uncharacteristically wants Popeye for her husband. This colorful special was very entertaining and can be viewed on The Popeye and Friends Official You Tube channel.

The Popeye Valentine Special: Sweethearts at Sea, featured a love starved Sea Hag!

During the production of these cartoons noted animation historian and author, Jim Korkis, stated in an article published in The Comics Journal; “The series is a welcome continuation of Popeye’s adventures. In fact, Hanna-Barbera seems to have lavished more care on this series, making a real effort within budgetary limitations to recapture some of the virtues of the earlier Popeye cartoons, including nicely muted color and greater fidelity to character.  The cartoons are a pleasant addition to the Saturday morning line-up.”

Although I’ve previously written The All New Popeye Hour aired for two television seasons my memory was faulty (this was during the period when my high school days were over and college loomed ahead). The program aired in the hour long format for a total of three seasons. I must again cite my faulty recollections but probably the third season consisted mainly of repeats from the prior two.

Premiering on September 12, 1981 CBS presented a retooled version of the program. It was cut to thirty minutes and known as The Popeye and Olive Comedy Show. Along with new adventures of the sailor man he also appeared as Prehistoric Popeye.  Olive Oyl finally graduated from being a supporting player, along with Alice the Goon, to headline her own series, Private Olive Oyl. The misadventures of Olive and Alice were inspired by the feature film, Private Benjamin. Versatile comedian, Jo Anne Worley, provided the voice of Sgt. Bertha Blast. She referred to the inept pair, as “Oyl!” and “Goon!” and suffered humiliation from their blunders.  Prehistoric Popeye featured the age old rivalry between the sailor and Bluto in a setting similar to The Flintstones. Rounding out the half-hour were the familiar safety tips.

Private Olive Oyl, Alice the Goon and Sgt. Bertha Blast.

This version of the show, with the additions of reruns from The All New Popeye Hour, lasted on the CBS network until the conclusion of the 1982-1983 Saturday morning television season.  Immediately after these ‘new’ Popeye cartoons left the network they began running in syndication.  King Features Syndicate was quick to announce their availability.

All New Popeye syndication advertisement from 1983

Since debuting on television critics have had varied opinions of the cartoons.  On the web site, DVD Talk, David Cornelius stated, The All New Popeye Hour wound up as yet another great big mess stinking up Saturday mornings in the late 1970s.  Shoddy animation and terrible writing were a factor, yes, but the big culprit was the parent watchdog groups that pushed outlandish restrictions on content due to what they considered to be an abundance of unnecessary violence that just might rot the fragile minds of America’s youth.”

Hal Erickson said of the cartoons in his publication, Television Cartoon Shows: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, 1949 through 1993 (McFarland, 1995): “The animation was fuller and livelier than expected of the studio and the comedy content hit the audience full wave.  There had to be an upsurge in comedy because CBS Standards and Practices had vetoed the violence and fisticuffs that had cemented Popeye’s reputation back in the 1930’s

Several of the cartoons have been released on video and DVD.  They can be heard in various languages on You Tube.

Despite Popeye’s lost punch these cartoons added to his already lengthy film credits. They’re also a reminder of the controversial period in his long animation career.

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