VHS REVIEW: Popeye in “Ancient Fistory” (Amvest Video, 1989)

Hey, do you remember when I wrote about that Amvest/Kid Pics Alice in Wonderland VHS tape, and I expressed my desire to find one of their offerings with the “Happy Hamster” intro and outro host segments included? Well, this review comes courtesy of that ongoing quest.

They don’t show up at thrift stores and the like very often, but in the time since I wrote that review, I’ve picked up several additional titles in that bygone line of budget videos. These tapes were your standard kids fare of the time, focusing on public domain cartoons and such (no small field back in the 1980s & 1990s, granted). Think Parent’s Approved Video, except harder to find nowadays.

Anyway, none of those subsequent finds yielded the ‘Ster (and two of them had the wrong tape inside; I still picked ’em up for the sleeves if nothing else, but it’s irritating because I generally don’t find mismatched tapes that often), so it was with that continuing failure that I picked up this Ancient Fistory, starring Popeye. This wasn’t a thrift purchase though; nah, I resorted to online buyin’ for this one. I thought the relatively-later date of 1989 would prove promising (I had been hovering around the 1986/1987 mark, and while you never know with this company and re-releases and whatnot, apparently the Happy Hamster waltzed on the scene around the 1988/1989 mark).

Look, it was $10, the shipping was free, and it came with three other Popeye tapes that I didn’t really need, so I pushed aside the nagging thought that I’ll eventually find it at a thrift somewhere and just bought it.

Of course, it figures the Happy Hamster isn’t on this one either, but I blew $10 on the tape so I’m getting a post out of the thing anyway.

(Actually, truth be told, awhile back I did pick up one of the Amvest releases with the Happy Hamster, a three-tape set of old Disney cartoons. Even though the shorts presented are all presumably public domain, I don’t want to taunt Mickey’s crew, so no-go on the update front where that one is concerned.)

My reference to Parent’s Approved Video (PAV from here on out) a bit ago was intentional; a lot of the earlier Kid Pics tapes featured artwork and fonts similar to PAV’s, so much so that at first glance it’s easy to think a certain one is a PAV title. But, as the years rolled by, the artwork started becoming a bit more sophisticated, relatively speaking. The tape we’re talking about today is a good example; just look at it here! The artwork isn’t just competent, it’s actually pretty good! Seriously, this is no small feat; there were some seriously-lacking budget Popeye tapes out there back in the day. Getting Popeye to, you know, look like Popeye, that didn’t always happen. But it happened here and that means Amvest won that round.

As per the back cover, here’s our line-up: Ancient Fistory, Greek Mirthology, A Haul in One, and Insect to Injury. These are all Famous Studios-era entries in Popeye’s oeuvre; while there are several cartoons from my preferred Fleischer-era Popeye that have lapsed, most of the public domain Popeye shorts are from the later Famous Studios years, and as such make up the majority of budget VHS (and now DVD) releases.

While I feel the Famous shorts pale in comparison to the Fleischer series (particularly the Fleischer series prior to them moving the studios from New York to Florida in 1938, after which they cutesy-upped and watered-down our one-eyed sailor), the Famous cartoons are still pretty solid, consistently good-not-great in my opinion.

Four cartoons on this tape may not sound like a whole lot, but considering that some budget releases around that time got away with three or even only two entries (sometimes with additional PD cartoon filler, sometimes not), four entries is practically a smorgasbord of animated fisticuffs! Even though they omitted my personal favorite Famous Studios Popeye, 1957’s Spree Lunch (the penultimate cartoon in the original Popeye theatrical series), this is still a solid bunch of cartoons, and had they flipped the last two entries, they’d even be in chronological order!

Let’s check ’em out, one by one…

The tape’s namesake comes from the very first cartoon presented (gee, you don’t say!), and it’s one of those ‘fantasy’ Popeye entries that I tend to be ambivalent towards. It’s not bad though, with some pretty funny sight gags (including a literal bullseye) and even an appearance by Poopdeck Pappy!

1953’s (ignore that copyright credit here; Wikipedia says it dropped on 1-30-53) Ancient Fistory is a play on the old Cinderella tale. Here, Olive Oyl plays a princess who is hosting a ball in order to net a hubby find a suitable prince. The kingdom isn’t stated, but considering all the “ye” declarations and “-eth” suffixes, old timey England is the implication.

Popeye works in the kitchen of “Bluto’s Beanery,” in the servile, dressed-in-rags role (it’s a pretty miserable existence, apparently), though Bluto must be doing pretty well with the venture; he’s spiffily dressed and headed to the ball. Enter Popeye’s “Fairy Godfather,” as portrayed by Poopdeck Pappy. Pappy turns a can on spinach into a slick automobile (anachronism?) and gives Popeye some swanky duds, with the expected caveat that it all goes away at midnight.

Like so many of these shorts, Olive falls for both Popeye and Bluto, which sets in motion a series of feats of strength. Popeye doesn’t win before midnight, but then the car turns back into the can of spinach, Popeye consumes said can of spinach, and, well, you know how things turn out.

The second short presented continues the “ancient history” theme. 1954’s Greek Mirthology always seemed to me like Famous’ attempt at getting in on the vibes of those two-reeler cartoons from the Fleischer reign that placed the ‘Eye in situations featuring historical characters (Sinbad Sindbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba) but without recycling footage from those cartoons (which Famous also did).

‘Course, it’s not like these cartoons in general were always strictly “real time,” and this isn’t a two-reeler, so I’m probably all kinds of off-base here. Still, that’s how I’ve thought of Greek Mirthology in the past and how I will continue to do so in the future. And you can’t stop me.

Here, Popeye recounts the tale of great-ancestor Hercules to his nephews Pip-Eye, Peep-Eye, Pup-Eye and Poop-Eye in an effort to get them to eat spinach. (It’s important to note that not only was Popeye given actual teeth by this point in his run, but his one eye is just squinty rather than straight-up missing, which is good, because his nephews all exhibit the same trait.) According to Popeye, Herc had been getting his strength from sniffing strong garlic (glad he wasn’t eating it!), until a marauding bully (Bluto, of course) shows and discovers the weakness in that method. A chance-landing in a spinach patch (naturally from a Bluto punch) produces superior results, and the rest is, erm, history.

Popeye’s nephews naturally remain unconvinced and head outside to get some ice cream from a vendor who turns out to be…Bluto! In a sad turn of events, Popeye doesn’t deliver a beat down upon him as the short concludes.

The third cartoon takes place solely in the present time (I presume), but it’s still more-or-less the same as what we’ve just seen twice-over: Popeye and Bluto competing with each other until Popeye ends it all by downing some spinach. Olive is back as the object of desire again, as opposed to the attempt to gain love for spinach from the nephews in the previous installment. Look, the general plots of these were pretty durable, okay? (Similar or not, they were all pretty entertaining, to the endless credit of the people behind these cartoons.)

1956’s A Haul in One is one of those Popeye cartoons in which he and Bluto are actually pals at the start, before Olive enters the picture and provides the catalyst for punchin’. Here, the two former (?) sailors have their own moving company, an apparently harmonious affair until they stop by Olive’s. It’s never explained why she’s moving, but I’m going to assume it’s due to unpaid rent. (Good luck gettin’ your deposit back, Olive!) Anyway, as you may have guessed, Popeye prevails in the end.

Now is as good a time as any to talk about the print quality of all this. Technically, Amvest didn’t get terrible copies of these shorts; there’s some dust and whatnot, but compared to how they could have looked, these really aren’t that bad. Far uglier things have shown up on budget videos!

The main problem is the VHS duplication. Boy are these blurry! Sure, the prints were probably a few generations removed anyway, but there should still be more sharpness than there actually is. It all just looks like a budget VHS tape. (Go figure!) And I was playing all this on my right sporty RCA SVHS deck, too!

Still, this wasn’t meant to be an archival release. This was for the kids, and on that front, hey, they’re more than watchable, they’re entertaining, they’ve got their opening cred—

Aw c’mon!

Yes, this is how our fourth and final feature commences. Obviously there was some VHS-to-VHS duplication going on at some point! 1956’s Insect to Injury, on my copy here anyway, starts at the beginning, but not the very beginning. Not only were the opening credits MIA, but you’ve got that on-screen VCR info up in the upper-right hand corner!

I’m going to guess this took place when they were creating their “master,” I doubt they made each and every copy from VHS-to-VHS. Unless they were, I dunno. It’s kind of a funny reminder of how laid back things could be in that era of budget video, if nothing else.

As for the short itself, Popeye’s house is besieged by termites. They eatin’ up everything, man! No Bluto or Olive in this one, it’s strictly Popeye vs. bugs. It ends the same though: Popeye fails in his quest to stop the creatures, so he slams some spinach and builds a house out of metal. The termites aren’t destroyed by this, but they are defeated.

You know, I realize Popeye’s famous “I takes all I can stands…” line implies a certain amount of patience, but really, shouldn’t he have realized at some point that his natural strength can only take him so far? Just stay powered up on spinach all the time, man!

Anyway, there you have it, four Famous Studios Popeye adventures courtesy of Amvest Video’s Kid Pics division. These tapes aren’t very common, and since Popeye (and Superman, while we’re at it) are top-tier PD cartoon properties in my eyes, I had to nab this one online. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it’s a good example of budget cartoon compilations from that era. If nothing else, I got a post out of it, so I’m saying I got ten bucks worth out of the whole thing.

I just wish the Happy Hamster had been included.

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