By the summer of 1933, the Fleischer brothers’ self-named animation studio was riding high. Based largely on the success of flapper dream girl Betty Boop, whose risqué series of cartoons became immensely popular in the early 30s, Max and Dave’s studio rivaled that of Walt Disney in popularity. And that July, the Fleischers inked the film debut of a character that would go on to effectively challenge Mickey Mouse for the title of the most popular animated figure in the world.
Popeye the Sailor Man was an unlikely hero. Born in the Sunday comics in 1929, Elzie Segar’s blustering nautical strongman was initially introduced as a supporting player in the cartoonist’s weekly Thimble Theater strip, but became so popular that the strip was eventually renamed and retooled to spotlight the character. The strip was so popular, in fact, that entire generations of comic strip artists have credited Segar as an influence on their own work, including the beloved creator of Peanuts, Charles Schulz. In 1932, the strip’s immense fame led Segar’s syndicate, King Features, to sign with the Fleischer Studios to bring Popeye to the big screen, and the cartoons, distributed through Paramount, became huge draws for audiences.
Popeye made his debut in what was ostensibly a Betty Boop cartoon (though Boop herself only appears briefly), 1933’s Popeye the Sailor. The short was deliberately billed as being part of the Boop canon in an attempt to gauge whether Popeye would attract a big enough audience to justify having his own series. But the studio needn’t have worried. Directed by Dave, produced by Max, and animated by Fleischer stalwarts Seymour Kneitel and Roland Crandall, this first Popeye short was a smash hit. Betty’s popularity soon began to wane (largely due to new restrictions enforced by the Production Code in mid-1934), but Popeye was just getting started.
In November 1936, the Fleischers took Popeye on a new adventure: a two-reel, Technicolor journey to a fantastic island populated with marvelous creatures (and one “remarkable fellow”) that would become one of the Sailor Man’s most memorable and eye-catching cartoons.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor was, by almost any definition, a groundbreaking cartoon. Before the Fleischers tackled the project, it was practically unheard of to make an extended-length animated short. The industry average was seven minutes, and Sindbad and its two Arabian Nights-themed sequels, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937) and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939), more than doubled that run time. Combined with the beautiful Technicolor animation–marked by a softer, richer saturation than the color ‘toons of their contemporaries at other studios–and the uniquely-designed three-dimensional backgrounds, the color Popeye shorts became an event unto themselves, sometimes even being billed above the accompanying feature film. Sindbad became the first Popeye cartoon–and the first Fleischer Studios cartoon, period–to be nominated for an Academy Award (though it lost to a Disney Silly Symphony, The Country Cousin). And today, Sindbad is recognized as one of the greatest animated shorts in history, landing at #17 on the 1994 list of the best cartoons of all time.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor was more than a mere experiment for the Fleischers–it was a chance to get even closer to their dream of producing a full-length Technicolor animated feature. They would be beaten in that quest the next year by their rivals over at Disney, who would premiere their film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in December 1937, but the double-length color Popeye shorts got the Fleischers that much closer to their goal. In fact, the Fleischers’ first full-length feature, Gulliver’s Travels (1939), premiered eight months after the release of the final Popeye two-reeler. The Fleischers would complete one additional animated feature film, 1941’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town, before Paramount removed them from the company that bore their name and rechristened it Famous Studios in 1942.
FYI, this wasn’t the only time Popeye would encounter Sindbad onscreen. A 1952 Famous Studios short, Big Bad Sindbad, reuses footage from this cartoon as Popeye “retells” the story of his encounter with Sindbad to his three nephews while on a visit to the nautical museum.