The Fleischer cartoons, based out of New York City, proved to be among the most popular of the 1930s, and would remain a staple of Paramount's release schedule for nearly 25 years. Paramount would take control of the studio in 1941 and rename it Famous Studios, ousting the Fleischer brothers and continuing production. The theatrical Popeye cartoons began airing on television in an altered form in 1956, at which point the theatrical series was discontinued. Popeye the Sailor in all produced 231 short subjects that were broadcast on television for numerous years, garnering enormous popularity with new generations.
The cartoons are now owned by Turner Entertainment, a subsidiary of Time Warner, and distributed by sister company Warner Bros. Entertainment. After many years of negotiations, Warner Home Video reached an agreement with King Features Syndicate for an official DVD release of the series. Restored and uncut Popeye cartoons through 1943 were released on DVD in the late 2000s. The 1930s Popeye cartoons have been noted by historians for their urban feel, with the Fleischers pioneering an East Coast animation scene that differed highly from their counterparts. In addition to becoming iconic within mainstream public consciousness, the majority of Popeye short subjects are highly acclaimed by animation historians and fans.
Popeye the Sailor, created by E.C. Segar, first debuted in his King Features-distributed comic strip, Thimble Theatre. The character was growing in popularity by the 1930s and there was "hardly a newspaper reader of the Depression-era that did not know his name." It was obvious, however, that stars of a larger magnitude were being launched from animated cartoons, with the success of Mickey Mouse. In November 1932, King Features signed an agreement with Fleischer Studios, run by producer Max Fleischer and his brother, director Dave Fleischer, to have Popeye and the other Thimble Theatre characters begin appearing in a series of animated cartoons. The first cartoon in the series was released in 1933, and Popeye cartoons, released by Paramount Pictures, would remain a staple of Paramount's release schedule for nearly 25 years.
One source of inspiration for the Fleischers were newspapers and comic strips, and they saw potential in Popeye as an animated star, thinking the humor would translate well onscreen. When the Fleischers needed more characters, they turned to Segar's strip: Wimpy debuted in the first regular Popeye cartoon, Swee'Pea, Poopdeck Pappy, the Goons and Eugene the Jeep arrived onscreen by the late 1930s. Popeye was also given more family exclusive to the shorts, specifically his look-alike nephews Pipeye, Peepeye, Pupeye, and Poopeye. Spinach became a main component of the Popeye cartoons and were used for the energetic finale in each. Eventually, the Fleischers paired Popeye and spinach together far more than Segar ever did. In 1934, a statistic was released noting that spinach sales had increased 33% since the creation of the Popeye cartoons. Segar received crates of spinach at his home because of the Popeye association. The huge child following Popeye received eventually prompted Segar's boss, William Randolph Hearst, to order Segar to tone down the humor and violence. Segar was not ready to compromise, believing there would be "nothing funny about a sissy sailor."
- Jack Mercer as Popeye the Sailor. The character of Popeye was originally voiced by William "Billy" Costello, also known as "Red Pepper Sam." Costello had a gruff, gravelly quality in voicing the character. It is generally thought that Costello became difficult to work with after becoming overly-confident from the success of the first few cartoons. Jack Mercer was working in the in-between department of Fleischer Studios doing imitations of Costello, and, after practicing at home for a week, replaced Costello as the voice of Popeye beginning with King of the Mardi Gras (1935). Historians believe the character truly began to catch on when Mercer became the voice artist, employing acting and emotion into the character. Mercer voiced the character for the rest of the run, although Harry Welch substituted as Popeye in several wartime cartoons, when Mercer left to serve in World War II.
- Mae Questel as Olive Oyl. Questel was the voice of Betty Boop when she was brought in early on to play Olive Oyl, and she based the character voice on ZaSu Pitts. Questel voiced Olive Oyl until 1938 when Fleischer operations shifted to Florida. Mercer's wife, Margie Hines, voiced the character until 1943. Paramount moved the studio back to New York the following year and Questel reassumed voice acting duties until the series' end in 1957.
- Gus Wickie and Jackson Beck as Bluto. William Pennell was the first to voice the Bluto character from 1933 to 1935's The Hyp-Nut-Tist. Gus Wickie is generally considered the most memorable voice actor by fans and historians. Wickie voiced Bluto until his death in 1938, his last work as the "Chief" in Big Chief Ugh-A-Mug-Ugh. Several other actors were employed to voice Bluto from then on (including Mercer and Questel). When Famous Studios took over production and moved back to New York City, Jackson Beck took over the role for the rest of the run.
- Popeye made his film debut in Popeye the Sailor, a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon. Although Betty Boop has a small cameo appearance, the cartoon mostly introduces the main characters: Popeye's coming to rescue Olive Oyl after being kidnapped by Bluto. The triangle between Popeye, Olive and Bluto was set up from the beginning and soon became the template for most Popeye productions that would follow. The cartoon opens with a newspaper headline announcing Popeye as a movie star, reflecting the transition into film. I Yam What I Yam became the first entry in the regular Popeye the Sailor series.
Thanks to the animated shorts, Popeye became even more of a sensation than he had been in comic strips. As Betty Boop gradually declined in quality as a result of the Hays Code being enforced in 1934, Popeye became the studio's star character by 1936. Popeye began to sell more tickets and became the most popular cartoon character in the country in the 1930s, beating Mickey Mouse. Paramount added to Popeye's popularity by sponsoring the "Popeye Club" as part of their Saturday matinée program, in competition with Mickey Mouse Clubs. Popeye cartoons, including a sing-along special entitled Let's Sing With Popeye, were a regular part of the weekly meetings. For a 10-cent membership fee, club members were given a Popeye kazoo, a membership card, the chance to become elected as the Club's "Popeye" or "Olive Oyl," and the opportunity to win other gifts. Polls taken by theater owners proved Popeye more popular than Mickey, and Popeye upheld his position for the rest of the decade.
Fleischer cartoons differed highly from their counterparts at Walt Disney Productions and Warner Bros. Cartoons. The Popeye series, like other cartoons produced by the Fleischers, was noted for its urban feel (the Fleischers operated in New York City, specifically in Broadway), its manageable variations on a simple theme (Popeye loses Olive to bully Bluto and must eat his spinach and defeat him), and the characters' "under-the-breath" mutterings. The voices for Fleischer cartoons produced during the early and mid-1930s were recorded after the animation was completed. The actors, Mercer in particular, would therefore improvise lines that were not on the storyboards or prepared for the lip-sync (generally word-play and clever puns). Even after the Fleischers began pre-recording dialog for lip-sync shortly after moving to Miami, Mercer and the other voice actors would record ad-libbed lines while watching a finished copy of the cartoon. Popeye lives in a dilapidated apartment building in A Dream Walking (1934), reflecting the urban feel and Depression-era hardships.
The Fleischers moved their studio to Miami, Florida in September 1938 in order to weaken union control and take advantage of tax breaks. The Popeye series continued production, although a marked change was seen in the Florida-produced shorts: they were brighter and less detailed in their artwork, with attempts to bring the character animation closer to a Disney style. Mae Questel, who started a family, refused to move to Florida, and Margie Hines, the wife of Jack Mercer, voiced Olive Oyl through the end of 1943. Several voice actors, among them Pinto Colvig (better known as the voice of Disney's Goofy), succeeded Gus Wickie as the voice of Bluto between 1938 and 1943.
Fleischer Studios produced 108 Popeye cartoons, 105 of them in black-and-white. The remaining three were two-reel (double-length) Technicolor adaptations of stories from the Arabian Nights billed as "Popeye Color Features": Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (1937), and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939).
- By the early 1940s, Max and Dave Fleischer found themselves at odds with Paramount over the control of their animation studio. The studio borrowed heavily from Paramount in order to move to Florida and expand into features, and Gulliver's Travels (1939) and Mister Bug Goes to Town (1941) were only moderate successes. In May 1941, Paramount Pictures assumed ownership of Fleischer Studios, and by the end of the year, Max and Dave Fleischer were no longer on speaking terms with each other, communicating solely by memo. Paramount fired the Fleischers and began reorganizing the studio, which they renamed Famous Studios. With Famous Studios headed by Sam Buchwald, Seymour Kneitel, Isadore Sparber and Dan Gordon, production continued on the Popeye shorts.
In 1941, with World War II becoming more of a source of concern in the United States, Popeye was enlisted into the U.S. Navy, as depicted in the 1941 short The Mighty Navy. His regular costume was changed from the dark blue shirt, red neckerchief, and light blue jeans he wore in the original comics to an official white Navy sailor uniform. Popeye, in these cartoons, became an ordinary, downtrodden, Naval seaman always getting the blame for mishaps. Film historian Leonard Maltin notes that the studio did not intend to make light of the war, but instead make the character more relevant with the time and show him in action. The early Famous-era shorts were often World War II-themed, featuring Popeye fighting Nazis and Japanese soldiers, most notably the 1942 short You're a Sap, Mr. Jap. As Popeye was popular in South America, Famous Studios set the 1944 cartoon We're on our Way to Rio in Brazil, as part of a "good neighbor" policy between the US government and the rest of the continent during the war.
In late 1943, the Popeye series was moved to Technicolor production, beginning with Her Honor the Mare. Though these cartoons were produced in full color, some films in the late-1940s period were released in less-expensive two-color (usually) processes like Cinecolor and Polacolor. Paramount had begun moving the studio back to New York that January, and Mae Questel reassumed voice duties for Olive Oyl. Jack Mercer was drafted into the Navy during World War II, and scripts were stockpiled for Mercer to record whenever he was on leave. When Mercer was unavailable, Harry Welch stood in as the voice of Popeye (and Shape Ahoy had Mae Questel doing Popeye's voice as well as Olive's). New voice cast member Jackson Beck began voicing Bluto within a few years; he, Mercer, and Questel would continue to voice their respective characters into the 1960s. Over time, the Technicolor Famous shorts began to adhere even closer to the standard Popeye formula, and softened, rounder character designs – including an Olive Oyl design which gave the character high heels and an updated hairstyle – were evident by late 1946.
Many veteran Fleischer animators stayed aboard Famous Studios and produced the new Popeye cartoons, but the loss of the founders was evident. Throughout the 1940s, the production values on Popeye remained pretty high. Animation historian Jerry Beck notes that, however, the "gag sense and story sense fell into a bit of a rut." By the mid-1950s, budget at the studio became very tight and staff was being laid off, all the while still producing the same number of cartoons per year. This was very typical of most animation studios at this time period, as many considered shutting their doors and ending their current series. Paramount renamed the studio Paramount Cartoon Studios in 1956 and continued the Popeye series for one more year, with Spooky Swabs, released in August 1957, being the last of the 125 Famous shorts in the series.
- Popeye's signature theme song was composed by Sammy Lerner and premiered in the first Popeye cartoon in 1933. Cartoon music historian Daniel Goldmark notes that Popeye is one of few cartoon characters of the time to have a theme: Disney/Warner Bros. composer Carl Stalling and MGM's Scott Bradley disliked themes and phased them out quickly. For the first few cartoons, the opening-credits music consisted of an instrumental of "The Sailor's Hornpipe," followed by a vocal variation on "Strike Up the Band (Here Comes a Sailor)," substituting the words "for Popeye the Sailor" in the latter phrase. "I Yam What I Yam" was used as the theme song for further cartoons. Goldmark divides the Popeye theme into two parts: the sailor horn pipe and the lyrical portion. The opening horn pipe can be dated back to the 1700s and further as a traditional sea shanty. Winston Sharples and Sammy Timberg composed most of the music for Popeye shorts. Timberg composed the themes to the Fleischers' Betty Boop and Superman cartoons, but asked Lerner to write Popeye's theme song because he had a date that night.
The music of Popeye is described as a mix of "sunny show tunes and music from the street." Being located in Manhattan on Broadway, the Fleischers were well-placed for popular music developments in the 1930s. Director Eric Goldberg notes a very urban feel to the music of Popeye, reflecting "the type of cartoons they were making." The Fleischers were big fans of jazz and would approach local jazz musicians to work on the cartoons, most of which were more than happy to oblige. The use of jazz and very contemporary popular music highlighted how audiences were fascinated by new music. Tight on a budget, the producers took advantage of their free access to the Paramount music library, including hit songs that would be introduced in feature films. Many cartoons, such as It's the Natural Thing to Do (1939), take their titles from popular songs of the time. Staff songwriters would also write original songs for the shorts, such as in 1936's Brotherly Love and I Wanna Be a Lifeguard; the studio would hire outside songwriters to compose originals in addition. With the onset of World War II, the music in Popeye became more lush, fully orchestrated and patriotic.
For generations, the iconic Popeye theme song became an instantly recognizable musical bookmark, further propelling the character's stardom.
- The original 1932 agreement with the syndicate called for any films made within ten years and any elements of them to be destroyed in 1942. This would have destroyed all of the Fleischer Popeye shorts. King was not sure what effect the cartoons would have on the strip; if the effect was very negative, King was very eager to erase any memory of the cartoons by destroying them. Paramount knew that the Popeye cartoons were among their best-selling and most popular, and they held them separately for future distribution, seeing television as a rising outlet.
In 1956, Paramount sold the black and white cartoons to television syndicator Associated Artists Productions, the biggest distributor of the time, for release to television stations. Shown with a.a.p. logos replacing the Paramount logos (with one Paramount reference in the copyright line remaining), these cartoons were enormously popular. Jerry Beck likens Popeye's television success to a "new lease on life," noting that the character had not been as popular since the 1930s. King Features realized the potential for success and began distributing Popeye-based merchandise, which in turn led to new Popeye TV productions. These productions were farmed out to numerous studios and were of very low quality, employing limited animation, and many artists were unhappy with the quality of such cartoons. Most cities of large size aired an "uncle show," in which a local weatherman or entertainer would host a children's show in the afternoon, and Popeye shorts became a huge component in the success of these.
- By the 1970s, the original Fleischer and Famous Popeye cartoons were syndicated to various stations and channels across the globe. In the intervening years, however, Popeye cartoons slowly disappeared from the airwaves in favor of newer television editions. a.a.p. was sold to United Artists, which was absorbed into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to create MGM/UA in 1981. Ted Turner purchased MGM/UA in 1986, gaining control of all Popeye shorts. Turner sold off the production end of MGM/UA shortly after, but retained the film catalog, giving it the rights to the theatrical Popeye library. After acquisition, the black-and-white Popeye shorts were shipped to South Korea, where artists retraced them into color. The process was intended to make the shorts more marketable in the modern television era, but prevented the viewers from seeing the original Fleischer pen-and-ink work, as well as the three-dimensional backgrounds created by Fleischer's "Stereoptical" process. Every other frame was traced, changing the animation from being "on ones" (24 frame/s) to being "on twos" (12 frame/s), and softening the pace of the films. These colorized shorts began airing on Superstation WTBS in 1986 during their Tom & Jerry and Friends 90-minute weekday morning and hour-long weekday afternoon shows. The retraced shorts were syndicated in 1987 on a barter basis, and remained available until the early 1990s. When the Cartoon Network began in 1992, they mostly ran cartoons from the Turner library, which included Popeye.  Turner merged with Time Warner in 1996, and Warner Bros. (through its Turner subsidiary) therefore currently controls the rights to the Popeye shorts.
For many decades, viewers could only see a majority of the classic Popeye cartoons with altered opening and closing credits. Associated Artists Productions had, for the most part, replaced the original Paramount logos with their own. In 2001, the Cartoon Network, under the supervision of animation historian Jerry Beck, created a new incarnation of The Popeye Show. The show aired the Fleischer and Famous Studios Popeye shorts in versions approximating their original theatrical releases by editing copies of the original opening and closing credits (taken or recreated from various sources) onto the beginnings and ends of each cartoon, or in some cases, in their complete, uncut original theatrical versions direct from such prints that originally contained the front-and-end Paramount credits.
The series, which aired 135 Popeye shorts over forty-five episodes, also featured segments offering trivia about the characters, voice actors, and animators. The program aired without interruption until March 2004. The Popeye Show continued to air on Cartoon Network's spin-off network Boomerang. The restored Popeye Show versions of the shorts are sometimes seen at revival film houses for occasional festival screenings. The Popeye Show is currently airing on Cartoon Network in Pakistan as well as in India. In the U.S., a daily half-hour block of Popeye can be seen on the Boomerang network from time to time; however, the Fleischer Popeye shorts shown on this block are mostly the 1980s colorized versions, and most of the title cards thereof have been edited to hide the a.a.p. logo.