The Popeye the Sailor Story

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

Popeye the Sailor made his comic strip debut in January of 1929. Popeye was originally just one of the many characters in a comic series drawn by Elzie Segar called Thimble Theater. Popeye was a one-eyed, 34-year-old (born in a typhoon in Santa Monica, California) semi-deformed-looking sailor with a severe speech impediment. The other main characters are Popeye's great love/girlfriend, the anorexic-looking Olive Oyl and his arch-nemesis, another (much-bigger) sailor named Bluto (later changed to “Brutus" for legal reasons).

Popeye's undying love for Olive Oyl persists throughout the sailor's career, in spite of the obvious fact of Olive's unattractiveness and lack of sex appeal. In the original Thimble Theater comics, Olive Oyl's boyfriend was “Ham Gravy.” He was soon dropped from the comic series because of Popeye's skyrocketing popularity.

In the Popeye comics and cartoons, Olive insults and berates Popeye regularly, is unfaithful routinely, and in general, treats him like dirt on numerous occasions. In more than one Popeye cartoon, Olive actually hits, strikes, and/or beats the heck out of the luckless sailor. One wonders about Popeye's attraction to the figure-less Olive Oyl, and his very strange desires in women.

One also wonders about Popeye's relationship with Bluto. In a majority of Popeye episodes, Bluto is a clear-cut enemy and rival for Olive's affection. However, on many occasions, Bluto and Popeye start the cartoon out as "friends" and "pals." Bluto, however, inevitably double-crosses his "pal" on almost every occasion, causing one to wonder why Popeye doesn't drop the guy out of his life and "list of buddies" like a bad habit.

In the comic, Popeye's one-eye facial feature is attributed to "the mos' 'arful battle" It is later a bit unclear whether Popeye actually only has one eye or is just squinting (although in at least one cartoon, Bluto calls him a "one-eyed runt").

The Popeye character quickly became so popular, the strip was re-christened Thimble Theater starring Popeye. It later was just called Popeye, the same title it carries to this day. Although Popeye soon became a very popular comic strip character in his own right, it is as a movie cartoon star that most people know and remember him.

Popeye's first appearance on film was actually in a 1933 Betty Boop Paramount cartoon called entitled (appropriately) "Popeye the Sailor." Some current television stations edit out parts of this first Popeye cartoon because of racist portrayals of African-Americans in it.

(YouTube link)

The offensive racial stereotypes of African-Americans can be seen in later Popeye cartoons as well. these parts of the Popeye episodes are also edited out by some TV stations. The degrading portrayals of blacks were, as we all know, not infrequent in cartoons, radio, movies and other art forms in the days before our country became more enlightened. We may laugh when we view these outdated scenes, but most of us will cringe too.

The "classic" Popeye cartoons are this first series, beginning in 1933 and running through the mid-fifties. It is this series of cartoons for Paramount studios that Popeye gained his greatest fame and immortality.

The cartoon Popeye was originally voiced (1933-1935) by a character named “Red Pepper Sam". Reputedly, Red Pepper Sam's erratic behavior forced Paramount to fire him. He was replaced by Jack Mercer, and it is generally agreed that Mercer achieved Popeye's greatest performances. (All three of the series main characters, Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl were voiced by several different actors and actresses during the series' run.)

Interestingly, it wasn't the actual Popeye "written, scripted dialogue" that got the cartoon's biggest laughs. Mercer, an inherently funny man, started ads-libbing "off-the-cuff" comments and asides during the Popeye recording sessions. These hilarious asides regularly got the cartoon's biggest laughs. At first, the studio was worried because mercer's ad-libs were not seen in the cartoon to be spoken by Popeye (his mouth didn't move), they just seemed to be spoken out of thin air. They soon realized the movie audiences didn't care about the lip-syncing, they just loved the hilarious remarks. The Popeye "asides and ad-libs" soon became Popeye's trademark and most beloved feature.

In the comics, Popeye originally derived his great strength from rubbing the head of the whiffle hen. This gimmick, of course, was changed to spinach by 1932. Spinach not only gave Popeye superhuman strength, but also endowed the sailor with abilities like virtuoso dancing or playing piano.

The Popeye cartoons were so popular during the Depression, sales of spinach in America increased by a third. “Popeye" Spinach is still the second largest-selling brand of spinach in america. In one cartoon, Popeye tells his nephews he is a descendant of Hercules and his ancestor originally got his strength from inhaling garlic. He gets beat up and thrown into a spinach field, and this is the "genesis" of his love (and need) for spinach.

In a few cartoons, Popeye eats no spinach at all, but these are rare. In one, hospital patient Popeye force-feeds spinach to Bluto, so Bluto will beat him up and he can evoke sympathy from Olive. In another (semi-risque) cartoon, Olive Oyl actually eats the spinach so she can beat up a very sexy woman gym instructor who is flirting with Popeye (the gym teacher is obviously based on Mae West).

The Paramount Popeye cartoons were so popular that in 1937, the city of Crystal City, Texas, erected an official “Popeye" statue, marking the first time in world history a city had erected a statue in honor of a cartoon character.

During World War II, the Popeye cartoons reached new heights of popularity and were regularly used to boost U.S. morale. A handful of Popeye cartoons during the war years, while definitely funny, were incredibly racially offensive to Japanese. Seen today, these Popeye "propaganda" artifacts are viewed, much like the previously mentioned African-American stereotypes, with very mixed emotions. Japanese are referred to as “Jap-pansies" and portrayed with vicious, buck-toothed faces sporting thick glasses.

A fascinating "banned" racist World War II Popeye cartoon called “Seein' Red, White 'n Blue" has the unique historical distinction of being the only Popeye where Bluto and Popeye join forces and gulp down a shared can of spinach to beat up on an agreed-upon enemy, namely the Japanese soldiers.

(YouTube link)

During the war years, Popeye also made a clear cut wardrobe change. Instead of Popeye's customary skipper's hat and black rolled-up shirt, Popeye made the switch to the all-white Navy sailor's uniform, complete with white sailor's cap. This outfit was to remain with Popeye through the run of the cartoon series, even after the end of the war.

Interestingly, the Popeye cartoon has given a few terms and words to the English language. J. Wellington Wimpy, an apathetic, overweight, hamburger-loving friend of Popeye's is reputed to be the source of the term "wimp" (meaning timid or cowardly). “Wimpy's" is also a hugely popular hamburger chain of fast food restaurants in England.

In later Popeye cartoons, Popeye acquires a pinkish, dog-like creature named “Eugene the Jeep". Eugene only speaks one word "jeep" and has magical, indestructible powers, including the power to evaporate through walls. It is also generally accepted that the military vehicle, the "jeep", derived its name from Eugene the Jeep. According to other sources, jeep is a shortened version of "general purpose (vehicle)" or “GP”.

The word "goon," slang for a criminal or thug, did not originate with Popeye. Popeye cartoons, however, did bring to life a "goon family," a group of strange, odd-looking creatures (featuring Alice the Goon). This gave "goon" it's other meaning of "weird or strange-looking.”

The later Popeye comic strip (not the movie cartoon) introduced a character named “Dufus". Dufus (listed in some sources as Popeye's nephew and in others as the nephew of a friend) soon took a place in the American vernacular as a "silly fool, a dimwit, or a stupid person.” Dufus's spelling is sometimes changed to "doofus.”

In the wonderful animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? a climactic scene at the end of the film features almost every famous, beloved cartoon character in animation history. Many critics pointed out the omission of Popeye the sailor. The curious omission occurred, not because of a writing omission, but simply Disney studios could not procure legal permission from Paramount studios to use the sailor's likeness.

After the great Popeye cartoons ended by the late 1950's and in the early 1960's, a new, much-lesser series of Popeye cartoons was issued by King Features Syndicate. This series lacks any genuine humor and pales in comparison to the very funny original Popeye. These Popeyes range in "quality" from the "vaguely tolerable" to the much more common- "unwatchable".

Interesting, the producer of these lame latter-day Popeyes, Al Brodax, later produced the superior (but not great) Beatles TV cartoons in the mid-1960's. Brodax achieved his greatest work of art by being involved as the producer and co-screenwriter of the Beatles' wonderful, groundbreaking animated 1968 film Yellow Submarine.

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No mention of the Popeye Vs. Bluto for Olive Oyl. The way Bluto tries to capture her when she so obviously doesn't want him. What is going to do with her if he gets her?
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I rarely take issue with Eddie Dreesen's articles, but he regretfully omitted the names of the masterminds behind the Golden Age of Popeye Cartoons, Max and Dave Fleischer, which was why his debut was in "a Betty Boop cartoon", even though the story was mostly Popeye. (Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop, also voiced Olive Oyl in the early cartoons) Fleischer Studios was one of the most successful cartoon studios in the 1930s, thanks to Betty, Popeye, "Bouncing Ball" sing-alongs and the first cartoons featuring Superman. A big reason Jack Mercer's "ad lib mumbling" for the character was possible was because at first the Fleischers didn't pre-record the voices, but rather made the actors lip-sync to the produced animation, which Mercer made the most of. Paramount started out just distributing the cartoons, but ended up acquiring the studio and firing the brothers in 1941. It was then that, IMO, the Popeye cartoons started going downhill.

And the main reason the 1960s Popeye TV cartoons were so inconsistent, weird, and frequently awful was that King Features farmed out the production to four totally different animation producers:
Jack Kinney, a long-time Disney animator who had made Goofy cartoons and the wartime propaganda cartoon "Der Fuhrer's Face"
Larry Harmon, creator and animator of Bozo the Clown
Halas & Bachelor, British animators best known for an animated version of "Animal Farm"
and Gene Deitch, whose checkered career included Tom Terrific on the Captain Kangaroo show, the Oscar-winning short "Munro" and an also extremely strange later version of Tom & Jerry.
Some serious talent there, but all totally wrong for the spinach-chomping sailor.
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The home of Popeye is Chester, IL -- where creator Segal lived. I don't know when it was erected, but they have a bronze statue of Popeye and hold a yearly parade.
I read an article a few months ago that said it's unlikely we'll see any Popeye revival in cartoons or movies, as kids today just can't relate. Popeye's Chicken is even separating itself from his image because he isn't as well-known.
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