The return of a spinach-lovin' icon
By G. Michael Dobbs
This week's DVD column has some classic cartoons and silent features.
Popeye the Sailor 1938-1940
The release of the first volume of the Popeye cartoons produced by Max Fleischer last year was a revelation to some animation fans those who had never had the opportunity of seeing the black and white shorts and a blessing to geezers such as me who grew up watching the cartoons on television.
The Popeye shorts were a successful staple of local children's programming when they were first sold for broadcast in the 1950s. Because the cartoons were in black and white, television programmers eventually stopped their use on local stations in the 1980s and because of various rights issues, the films have largely never been legally available on either VHS or DVD.
The 31-cartoon collection has some prime examples of the long-running series including "Fightin' Pals" that explores the peculiar relationship between Popeye and Bluto "Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep" that introduced a great character from the Popeye comic strip and one of the very best Popeye shorts, "Goonland," in which the one-eyed sailor is reunited with his long lost father on Goon Island.
The collection also features the third and last Popeye special, the two-reel or 20-minute color shorts that were promoted like feature films. "Aladdin and his Magical Lamp" is a great cartoon full of great one-liners supplied by the voice of Popeye, Jack Mercer.
Mercer and fellow voice actor Mae Questel, who performed Olive Oyl and Betty Boop at the studio, are the subjects of several of the extras in the two-disc set. There's an audio interview of Mercer and a feature on Questel.
Also among the extras is a rare pencil test for a Popeye short. Common at Disney, the Fleischers didn't like to spend the money on the tests, which photographed the initial pencil drawings to check the quality of the animation.
There is also a documentary on the Fleischer Studio and the lives and career of Max and Dave Fleischer that isn't awful, but has some factual error and omissions that bothered this nitpicker.
That criticism should not stop you from buying and enjoying this wonderful collection.
Nosferatu: The Ultimate DVD Edition
Okay, because director F.W. Murnau's ground-breaking vampire film was essentially an illegal production that fell readily into the public domain, there are only about five million different grainy, dark copies of the film out on VHS and now DVD give or take a million.
Those terrible prints and transfers have done little to sustain the reputation of the film, but now Kino on Video has released the most impressive version of the film I've ever seen. It's like being in an audience in 1922 and seeing the film for the first time.
Not only is the print immaculate and complete, it is properly tinted as well and has a new performance of the original written for the film.
"Nosferatu" is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," but forget the suave Bela Lugosi or the dynamic Christopher Lee. The vampire in this film is repulsive and looks as evil as he is.
Filmed at the height of the Expressionism movement in German cinema, "Nosferatu" is filled with shadows that help set the mood for the film. It's still a genuinely creepy film.
Murnau was a fabulous director whose other work on home video includes "Faust," "Tabu" and "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans." It's a shame that audiences today might know him only through the film "Shadow of the Vampire," which told the highly fictionalized story of the making of "Nosferatu."
Among the extras is a very detailed accounting of the making of the film, complete with a visit today to the film's locations.
A landmark film is finally presented in the way it should be.
The Stan Laurel Collection, Volume Two
Stan Laurel had a full career prior to his teaming with Oliver Hardy in the late 1920s, and this two-disc collection from Kino on Video features 21 short subjects starring Laurel.
Laurel was an inventive comedian whose work, though, varied in success from picture to picture. Unlike many other comics of his day, Laurel didn't seem to adopt a particular look or persona. His characters were different from film to film, which in some ways showed a lot of creativity and in another way created a problem.
The problem was that Laurel was completely dependent on the scripts he had no shtick to fall back upon. The beauty of his work with Hardy is that the comedy came out of a character and his his relationship with another character.
Sometimes the scripts worked, as in his parody of the bullfighting movies "Blood and Sand" his version is "Mud and Sand" and in the fast-moving "A Man About Town" as he tries to sell a phony patent medicine.
But other times his films drag on and on feeling much longer than their 20 minutes or so.
Only if you're a silent film comedy completist, this two-disc DVD with no extras should be on your shelf.