Popeye began his animated career in much the same way he originated on the printed page—as a secondary character whose popularity pushed him into a lead role. He first appeared in the King Features newspaper strip Thimble Theatre in 1929. The strip was already ten years old by the time he arrived, but Popeye became the featured character shortly after he was written in. Similarly, a positive reception following his debut animated performance in the 1933 Betty Boop short Popeye The Sailor quickly lead to his own self-titled series of short theatrical films, beginning in 1933 with I Yam What I Yam.
Popeye was a middle-aged, working class sailor with thinning hair who smoked a corncob pipe. The titles of his film shorts, being consistently formed of horrikibly misspelled words n’ poor grammers, aptly exemplified Popeye’s station. He dated Olive Oyl, a gangly and sometimes fickle girlfriend who made Popeye work for her affections. She was not above taking an interest in other men, at times even falling for Popeye’s chronic nemesis Bluto, a large, brutish bully who fit perfectly into whatever role the antagonist of the story called for. Popeye was a brave and self-assured sailor, but his struggles with Bluto, or whatever disaster he was facing, normally got the best of him until, after a barrage of hardships, he ate from a can of spinach to gain a massive surge of strength. The extra strength allowed him to perform fantastic feats in order to quickly and easily overcome his immediate problem or foe.
Several secondary characters appeared from time to time throughout the series—most being versions of characters taken from the newspaper strip. A portly fellow named Wimpy appeared in a variety of roles. One thing that never changed was his love of hamburgers. He enjoyed them to such a degree that he became absent-minded about everything else. Olive Oyl sometimes cared for an infant named Swee’Pea (with no real explanation in regards to their relationship). Swee’Pea had a tendency to wander off and get into hazardous circumstances from which Popeye had to rescue him. On occasion Popeye also had to care for his own nephews—a set of four rambunctious and untiring quadruplets by the names of Peepeye, Poopeye, Pipeye and Pupeye. A magical, pet dog named Eugene The Jeep sometimes helped Popeye. The dog could appear and disappear at will. Depending on the cartoon, Eugene also had abilities like phasing through solid objects or manipulating his tail into a useful shape. Poopdeck Pappy was Popeye’s ninety-nine year old father. He caused Popeye endless consternation by living life to the fullest, assuming the behavior and engaging in the activities of a much younger man.
In 1941, with the United Stated edging closer to involvement in the second World War, Popeye joined the U.S. Navy and—beginning in the short The Mighty Navy—was outfitted with a white Navy uniform in place of his original dark shirt and brimmed mariner cap. With a few exceptions, the new uniform remained Popeye’s mode of dress throughout the TV cartoons of the 1960s.
Other than the three, 16-21 minute, two-reeler specials Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937), and Popeye Meets Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939), the Popeye short films were black & white until 1943, when color was introduced as the standard beginning with the short Her Honor, the Mare.
Paramount Pictures commissioned a total of 230 Popeye the Sailor theatrical shorts. The Fleischer studio produced 108 shorts from 1933 to 1942. Paramount bought the studio in 1942 and renamed it Famous Studios, which continued uninterrupted production of the shorts until 1957. King Features Syndicate commissioned several studios to produce 215 made for television episodes from 1960-62. Later offshoot series starring Popeye included The All New Popeye Hour (1978), The Popeye and Olive Comedy Show (1981), and Popeye and Son (1987).