Olive Oyl is a character created by Elzie Crisler Segar in 1919 for his comic strip Thimble Theatre (which was subsequently renamed after Popeye ever since the sailor character became the most popular and prominent member of the strip's cast). Initially the joint protagonist of Thimble Theatre alongside her childhood sweetheart and longtime boyfriend, the now-obscure Ham Gravy, Olive was retooled by Segar into Popeye's girlfriend, a role she maintains within all subsequent media and merchandise stemming from Segar's strip, as the sailor became the strip's central character in 1930, While formerly prominent co-stars Ham and older brother Castor Oyl faded into comparative obscurity, Olive resultantly retained her role as a central character within the strip and, ultimately, its numerous media adaptations, most notably the long-running theatrical short series produced by Fleischer and Famous Studios between 1933 and 1957.
Since the 1930s, Olive has become one of the most recognizable female cartoon characters in the world and is often seen as a poster girl for the "damsel-in-distress" theme, despite the stark autonomy of her character as originally devised by Segar.
Creation and development in Thimble Theatre
Olive was created by E. C. Segar and is said to have been inspired by real-life Chester, Illinois local Dora Paskel. Olive would make her debut in the first strip of Thimble Theatre, dated December 19, 1919, as a nondescript "actress" who, alongside fellow protagonist Harold Hamgravy (eventually "Ham Gravy"), acted as a cipher whose age, appearance and identity were heavily dependent upon the theatrical idioms a given day's strip was lampooning. Segar would, however, relinquish the strip's dependency on theatrical satire within weeks of its debut, eventually phasing out recurring antagonist Willie Wormwood (a satire of melodrama villainy and an early competitor for Olive's affections) and rendering Olive, alongside Ham, the more individually-defined protagonists of a gag-a-day strip focusing on the pair, alongside the less-prominent Castor Oyl, Olive's implicitly insane brother.
While Olive and Ham had frequently been romantically paired (or, more specifically, the characters they portrayed) in the earliest strips, Olive rapidly settled into the permanent identity of Ham's long-suffering girlfriend. While Ham's lethargy, bankruptcy (or, as Olive laments, his "cheapness") and self-serving motives - rendering him an "unideal man" by contemporary standards - were a focal point of his character, Segar likewise presented Olive as an "unideal woman" by early 1920s standards via her oft-temperamental disposition (granting her combat abilities outclassing both Ham and Castor), unusually large feet, and abysmal baking and singing abilities (frequent comedic themes of the early strip). As both Ham and Olive faced doubts regarding each other's "unideal" characteristics, their relationship (an extension of a childhood romance beginning circa 1907, as a 1926 strip reveals) was plagued by frequent disloyalty on both sides, with Ham and Olive (often shamelessly) pursuing wealthier or more attractive partners, to the other's disgust. Despite the dysfunctionality of their relationship, however, the pair would almost invariably revert to a couple (however tenaciously) following such conflicts, and continued to harbor venomous jealousy in response to any indications of the other's disloyalty, as infamously evidenced by Olive's disgust towards Ham's conspicuous infatuation with the then-unmarried Cylinda Lotts.
While Ham and Olive's relationship formed the core of the Thimble Theatre of the early 1920s, both characters were arguably displaced from centrality by Olive's brother, Castor Oyl, by the mid-1920s, as his characterization became increasingly that of a multifaceted ambitious everyman, rather than the bizarre comic relief of the strip's earlier incarnation. However, Olive, alongside Ham, would nonetheless retain a prominent role within several daily storylines during this period (among them the arc introducing Battling McGnat in 1925, in which Olive unwittingly finds herself at the center of the burly prizefighter's affections, much to her chagrin), alongside the episodic Sunday strips of the period. It is notably during this period that Olive's physical build, previously depicted as more realistically-proportioned, began to gravitate towards the stylized slimness defining her now-iconic appearance. The introductions of Cylinda Oyl and her father I. Caniford Lotts in 1926 further exacerbated Olive's decline; following Castor and Cylinda's wedding, she and Ham were relegated to increasingly minor roles, frequently as short-term foils or support to Castor, eventually vanishing from the daily continuity by July 1927 and from the Sunday continuity four months later. The pair would ultimately return, however, days following the exit of Cylinda and her father in June 1928: after rediscovering a decrepit and defeated Ham within a seedy boarding house, who had descended into the underworld following yet another breakup with Olive, Castor returns to his family home only to discover Olive similarly distraught (a response Castor, having previously 'lost two wives', is bewildered by) over the breakup. The resulting storyline, centering on both Ham's attempts to pursue an elderly woman for her wealth and Olive's contraction of "lunaphobia" (a form of rage-induced madness) in response to Ham's disloyalty, is the first to focus on the turbulent Ham-Olive relationship for over two years, thus briefly restoring the strip's earlier cast and status quo.
The subsequent dailies storyline would, however, serve as the first step in the outright dissolution of Ham and Olive's longtime relationship, eventually upending her role with the strip and, ironically, immortalizing her as a cultural icon, in a contrast to the now-obscure Ham. Four months into the story, Ham and Castor, intending to travel to Dice Island to break the bank of Fadewell's casino, attempt to deter Olive from accompanying them through ordering her to locate a "dime's worth of longtitude" for the journey. Despite their efforts, Olive ultimately stows away on their ship, leading to her earliest encounter with Popeye days later. While Olive professes a desire to 'kiss him' if he 'weren't so funny-looking' after his defeat of Jack Snork months later, this declaration is presumably motivated by gratitude rather than genuine affection, given that she remains attached to Ham throughout the narrative and displays no overt signs of attraction towards Popeye (even greeting him with hostility within their earliest on-panel appearance together). While the daily strip for August 27, 1929 (midway through the final daily storyline emphasizing the Ham-Olive relationship) features Olive mistakenly kissing Popeye (thus leading the sailor to fall for her), Segar did not suggest the attraction to be mutual at this stage.
Beginning in October 1929, Olive would vanish again from both the daily and Sunday continuities for five further months, eventually re-emerging within a duology of Sunday strips run in March 1930 in which she is revealed to have entered a relationship with Popeye during the events of the two-year "Great American Desert Saga", leading to Popeye and Ham competing for her affections (often, disturbingly, at Olive's physical expense). As of the March 16 strip, Ham is absent on account of being 'out of town', thus quietly marking the conclusion to his relationship with Olive; the Sunday continuity would, across the following year, heavily emphasize Popeye and Olive's newfound relationship. While Olive would remain virtually absent from the daily strip for months after Ham's disappearance, she would experience a resurgence with the Glint Gore storyline early in 1931, presenting an alternate version of her first extended solo encounter with Popeye (here depicted as Castor's business partner and companion over a heretofore-unknown interloper). Viewing his physical prowess and courage as 'wonderful' by the sequence's conclusion, Olive becomes Popeye's girlfriend outright by the following storyline, in which her vitriolic jealousy, previously applied to Ham's gold-digging, is now directed towards Popeye's eager granting of large loans to women he considers attractive. Having become a vital foil to the strip's newfound protagonist, Segar resultantly retained Olive as a lead throughout his remaining years, as would the strip's subsequent artists.
While Olive's feisty, temperamental demeanor largely remained unmodified as Popeye took over the strip (with her attempts to accompany him on his adventures likewise growing increasingly bombastic, down to parachuting from a hired plane and travelling on a boat hastily (and shoddily) constructed by Wimpy), her dynamic with the sailor nonetheless differs substantially from the one she shared with Ham. Whereas Segar presented the latter and Olive as comparably disloyal and argumentative, Popeye, while not invulnerable to disloyalty or outbursts of his own, maintains a more consistent moral code, thus presenting the pair's relationship, while frequently under stress, as less of a struggle between two fallible personalities than its predecessor. When not unnerved by Popeye's disloyalty, however, Olive acts as a form of straight man or foil to both Popeye's unorthodox perceptions and the bizarre manifestations of fellow 1930s lead Wimpy's narcissistic tendencies, although she (as with Popeye) sporadically falls victim to the allure of the moocher's eloquent rhetoric.
After Olive's run in the original Thimble Theatre, she would return as a main character in the 1948 comic book series by E. C. Segar's assistant Bud Sagendorf, which combined elements from both the original Thimble Theatre and the Fleischer Studios cartoons. Her comic book appearances would continue for decades until the title's end in 1984.
As Popeye's popularity grew, Fleischer Studios would produce a long-running series of animated theatrical shorts loosely based on Thimble Theatre due to the short-length of the shorts. Olive would be made one of the main characters of the animated shorts alongside Popeye, Bluto and occasionally Wimpy. The voice for Olive Oyl was created by character actress Mae Questel (who also voiced Betty Boop and other characters); Questel styled Olive Oyl's voice and mannerisms after ZaSu Pitts, including her catchphrase, "Oh Dear!". The first few cartoons, however, featured Bonnie Poe as the voice of Olive Oyl. In 1938, Margie Hines took over as the voice of Olive Oyl, starting with the cartoon Bulldozing The Bull.
In the cartoons, she would usually be Popeye's sweetheart, or a girl that both Popeye and Bluto were trying to impress. Other times, she would help to take care of a baby named Little Swee'Pea; it is not made clear in Fleischer's continuity if Swee'Pea is Olive's biological or adopted son. In the comics, Swee'Pea is a foundling under Popeye's care. Later sources, mostly in the cartoon series, say that Swee'Pea is Olive Oyl's cousin or nephew that she has to take care of from time to time. Because of the episodic nature of the shorts, Olive's character was severely limited to only serving as a damsel-in-distress who was often kidnapped by Bluto and saved by Popeye. However some shorts did show her as being as much of a scrapper as in Thimble Theatre. Unlike most modern damsels-in-distress, Olive Oyl has her hair tied back tightly in a bun and is tall and skinny, with oversized feet and rubber-like limbs, making viewers often wonder why so many men find her so appealing and are willing to resort to violence for her.
Following the takeover of the Popeye animated franchise by Paramount Studios in 1942, Famous Studios made drastic changes which abandoned almost all traces of Thimble Theatre and focused largely on plots involving Popeye, Olive, Bluto in something resembling a love triangle, without many other characters appearing and with very few shorts deviating from that setup, which involved Olive falling for Bluto and Popeye beating him after eating spinach in an oft-repeated formula. Olive's design was changed quite a bit, now being given more hair, smaller feet, wider eyes and a more feminine face, likely as to try making her a more attractive prize for suitors to fight over.
This re-design also brought in a drastic change in Olive's personality, where she was now always completely helpless, along with being more vain and fickle towards others, especially Popeye, whom, unlike in previous media, she would quickly leave at the drop of hat over petty or questionable reasons, which made the character come off as very superficial, and only a few shorts ever retained any resemblance to how she was.
Questel returned as the voice of Olive Oyl in 1944, starting with the cartoon The Anvil Chorus Girl.
First television series
In 1960, the first Popeye the Sailor animated television series was produced for first-run syndication which proved successful. Like the earlier theatrical cartoon series, it would use many elements that were already well known, mostly the basic storyline of Popeye trying to keep his sweetheart Olive safe from the hands of other male suitors while using spinach to remain fit and healthy. While the show did involve Popeye and Olive's love life, episodes actually focused more on Popeye and his adventures around the world (and beyond) not unlike the Fleischer and comic strip incarnation. In the show's pilot, Olive's design was faithful to her original depiction, but when the series was picked up she was made to look like her Famous Studios incarnation. Olive also usually helped Popeye against The Sea Hag in this show much like in Thimble Theatre due to his unwillingness to harm women. The show also saw a new addition to Olive's family in the form of her niece, Deezil Oyl.
The All-New Popeye Hour
In 1978, Hanna-Barbera Productions, with King Features Syndicate, would produce a new Popeye television series, The All-New Popeye Hour. Unlike the previous show, this series had higher-quality animation and was more akin to Segar's work and Fleischer cartoons than other Popeye animations, with Olive being seen as less cowardly and more daring, and her design was also changed back to match her original look rather than her design from the Famous Studios and 1960s eras. Olive also gained a new gimmick in that whenever she ate spinach, she temporarily became a superhero called Wonder Olive. She also gained her own segment titled Private Olive Oyl, where she was teamed up with Alice the Goon. In said segment, both were female army recruits trying to learn the ropes and protocols of army life while having to endure the strict enforcement of their no-nonsense superior, Bertha Blast.
Popeye's first movie
In 1980, a theatrical movie called Popeye was released, featuring an original story and serving as a more faithful adaptation to Segar's Thimble Theatre. In the film, Olive was played by Shelley Duvall and one reviewer called her performance "eerily perfect". Also of note was that the film featured Olive's brother Castor Oyl in a major supporting role, making it the second theatrical instance of the two siblings together since the 1934 Fleischer cartoon The Spinach Overture.
Popeye and Son
In 1987, the most recent animated series focusing on Popeye was produced, entitled Popeye and Son. The series was unique in the Popeye franchise for taking place later in Popeye's life, where he and Olive Oyl finally got married, settled down and had a son of their own (a notable change considering the rarity of having well-known cartoon characters actually move on with their lives). In it, Olive served as a trendy mother who was always eager to help her son and family. Her new look reflected the sporty fashion sense of most mothers of the decade.
In 2004, a CGI-animated TV movie titled Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy was produced by Mainframe Entertainment for Lions Gate Entertainment and King Features Entertainment which featured Olive joining Popeye in his search for Poopdeck Pappy, while serving as the crew's cook and Swee'Pea's caretaker. An attempt at a full-fledged animated theatrical film was also made by Sony Pictures Animation for release in 2012, with test animation made by Genndy Tartakovsky, yet production on this film has apparently remained on an indefinite hiatus. In the test animation, Olive seemed younger and wore a white gown.
In 2012, IDW Publishing began a brand-new Popeye comic book that primarily stayed faithful to the original comic strips by E. C. Segar and Bud Sagendorf. As such, Olive is portrayed as the assertive and aggressive scrapper she was in the comics of old. One notable issue featured the return of her old boyfriend Ham Gravy once again pursuing Olive.
Olive is always depicted as a tall, skinny and lanky young woman with a stick-like figure and oversized feet. She has short black hair which she always keeps tied in a bun and wears a pair of large brown boots and a long black dress with a red top that goes past her knees. Her unique frame gives her a number of odd features, with her lanky body being so flexible that it almost seems as though she is made of rubber, with her limbs often twisting or stretching beyond the norm to the point where she might even seem boneless. Despite her odd physique, she is seen as something of a beauty by several male suitors, and her exact charm seems to be that she is very "unique" in her prettiness compared to other women, as explained in the 1960s cartoon episode "Insultin The Sultan".
A visually different Olive began appearing in later Famous Studios releases. Meant to be more appealing to the eyes of the public, this Olive is noticeably changed, having bigger, more expressive eyes and a modern hairstyle. At the same time, she would demonstrate more empowerment, as she would often put up more of a fight towards her abductor(s) (but with little success) or other female characters trying to woo Popeye. This incarnation, however, is found by some to be more unlikeable due to her vain and fickle tendencies.
A common criticism refers to how Olive Oyl was employed in the animated adaptations of the original comics (mostly in the Famous Studios era), which made her the center of a love triangle that included Popeye and Bluto. Thus, the finesse and complexity of Thimble Theatre was almost always superseded by simplistic conflict between two rivals for her favor. Because of this, some critics have taken issue with her appearance, regarding her as too ugly, old-looking or plain for such a role as an object of desire, ignoring the fact that she was chiefly meant to be a humorous character by her creator. However, while some dismiss her as a proper love interest, others such as author Steve Bierly argue for the character's appeal.
Olive is a woman whose life is filled with awkward and unlucky circumstances, often making her easily worried which leads to her usual expression "Oh Dear!". Despite this, she is a very assertive (sometimes violent) and fickle woman and is not one to hide her true feelings, showing no restraint when she is angered and may even sock some hussies and bozos in the eye if need be. Despite her assertive attitude and confidence, she is still a bit cowardly most of the time, not surprising considering the number of unlucky and dangerous situations she finds herself in regularly, and even more so when having to deal with some of Popeye's dangerous foes, such as Bluto the Terrible, Pirates, Ghosts, Martians or even the dreaded Sea Hag. As helpless as she might seem towards more fearsome foes, she is still a tomboyish scrapper who will not back down against ordinary opponents (whether they be armed or unarmed) and will do her best to help others, and when even those who've come to her rescue are incapacitated, she will do whatever it takes to free herself and fight, even willing to sock the likes of the Sea Hag for Popeye's sake when she knows that his chivalrous nature will not allow him to hurt women (no matter how homely and witch-like they are). Olive is also an avid gun enthusiast who was often shown in several strips polishing and admiring her collection, and would only use them against crooks and other armed ruffians who threatened her or others in her day-to-day life, but most of the time she would rather use her mighty feet or quick fists to do pummel others.
Olive cares deeply about Popeye, and despite their rough start, she eventually grew to love him dearly. However, at times she can be quite bossy and possessive, always wanting to make Popeye do what she wants, but the quick witted sailor usually manages to find a way to avoid his lover's wrath. Despite these difference, the two really do love each other and both are willing to fight for each other if need be, as both get easily jealous and will often fight any potential rivals that threaten to separate them, and Olive will go all out against any rival like the scrapper she is. In fact, Olive's violent tendencies towards rival women once even made her literally go mad with rage. In the Famous Studios cartoons, Olive was portrayed as more of a sassy, vain, shallow and completely helpless woman, with her zany attitude, silly personality and her wacky side. Olive has her romantic feelings for Popeye usually being less faithful and she would often be wooed by the likes of Bluto only for Popeye to win her back in the end, or for both Popeye and Bluto to give up on her.
Olive is very close to her family and regularly spends time with them, including her brother, Castor Oyl, their mother, Nana Oyl (after "banana oil", a mild slang phrase of the time used in the same way as "horsefeathers," i.e. "nonsense"), their father, Cole Oyl, Castor's estranged wife, Cylinda Oyl, and more recently, Olive's niece, Deezil Oyl (a pun on diesel oil) appears in the cartoons. Also among Olive's family are her cousin, Sutra Oyl and various uncles such as Otto Oyl and Lubry Kent Oyl, as well as her Auntie Bellum. In Popeye and Son, she would also be shown to be an excellent wife and mother, always standing by Popeye when needed and always doing what is best for their son, Popeye Junior.
Olive Oyl has had many rivals in the animated Popeye cartoons and a few instances in other media. In the cartoon series she might have been often perceived as a "helpless female", but in the original E.C. Segar comic strips she is shown to be quite the scrapper and will fight for her man.
- Mae West caricature (Fleischer Studios)
- Bluto's girlfriend (Fleischer Studios)
- Possum Pearl (Famous Studios)
- Blutessa (Hanna-Barbera)
- Lizzie (Hanna-Barbera)
- Sutra Oyl (Comics)
The only cartoon female to get let off without a single cat-fight from Olive would have to be Betty Boop. In the first Popeye cartoon, entitled Popeye the Sailor, Betty is shown onstage doing a seductive dance together with Popeye while Olive dances in the crowd. In Myron Waldman's official artworks both Olive and Betty are shown to be quite good friends even when Popeye is flirting with Betty. King Features continues to feel this way about both characters, which they portrayed as a Twitter message between the two.
Olive was born the daughter of Cole Oyl and Nana Oyl, and the younger sister of the ever ambitious Castor Oyl. Upon reaching adulthood, Olive became the target of two male suitors, the "lounge lizard" Harold Hamgravy and the villainous Willie Wormwood, however Olive chose the young Ham Gravy to be her suitor. Regardless, the lowdown Wormwood was determined to win Miss Oyl's hand and often concocted many devious schemes to win her heart, but all ended in failure either in part due to his own shortcomings or the efforts of Ham Gravy. Eventually, Wormwood would finally leave Olive be, allowing her to try and move forward in her relationship with Ham Gravy who would become her more-or-less fiancée. Their relationship however would be a very difficult one as Ham Gravy was a slacker type who did as little work as possible and was always borrowing money when not being enamored by other women. His attraction to other women—particularly if they were rich—naturally incensed Olive, and she once succumbed to a fit of "lunaphobia" (a kind of angry madness) over one of his amours. When she recovered, she continued to pretend to have the disorder to win him back. She was not immune to flattery from other men, but remained committed to Ham throughout the length of their rocky relationship.
After Olive's brother Castor came into the possession of the magical Bernice the Whiffle Hen, he, Olive and Hamgravy sought to make it rich in the casino paradise of Dice Island. To reach their destination, Castor hired a local sailor in the port known as Popeye the Sailor. Upon first meeting the gruff sailor, Olive immediately hated his guts, and her first words to him were "Take your hooks offa me or I'll lay ya in a scupper", and they fought bitterly---and hilariously---for weeks until finally realizing that they had feelings for each other. It was at this point that Olive left her longtime boyfriend Harold Hamgravy to be with the sailor she now loved, and the two would remain almost inseparable from then on.
Since her debut in animation, Olive Oyl has been given a few unique songs.
- "I Want a Clean Shaven Man"
- "Why Am I So Beautiful"
- "By a Waterfall"
- "Brotherly Love"
- "It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day"
- Bonnie Poe (1933-1934,1938)
- Mae Questel (1934-1938,1944-1962)
- Margie Hines (1938-1943)
- Olive LaMoy (radio)
- Corinne Orr (1972)
- Marilyn Schreffler (1978-1987)
- Cheryl Chase (1998)
- Shelley Duvall (live-action film)
- Kelly Hu (Robot Chicken)
- Tabitha St. Germain (The Quest for Pappy)
- Lani Minella (2011)
- Grey DeLisle (2014 animation test)
- Marjorie Kouns (Fleischer Cartoon digital remix series)
- Alex Borstein (commercials)
- Tara Strong (Robot Chicken)
- "Oh Dear!" (Mannerism taken from ZaSu Pitts)
- [clinging to the hull] "Oh! Oh, oh dear, what happened?" (Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor)
- "Help! Popeye, save me!"
- [singing] "My heart's palpitatin'/Whenever I'm skatin'/With Popeye the Sailor Man!" (A Date to Skate)
- [singing, in Popeye's voice] "I knock the dame sky-high that tries to take my guy - Popeye the Sailor Man!" (Hill-billing and Cooing)
- "(Crying) Oh, my poor house burned down! I only cleaned my dress in a gallon of gasoline!" (The House Builder-Upper)
Olive's gallery can be viewed here
- Olive is named after olive oil, used commonly in cooking or in salads.