1933: Well Blow Me Down! - The Boith of Popeye

SPOTLIGHT: "Popeye the Sailor"

With: Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, Betty Boop
Animators: Seymour Kneitel, Roland Crandall

     STORY: On shore leave, Popeye meets Olive Oyl for a date at the carnival, but Bluto has other ideas.  Violence ensues.

The Gang's All Here     Although released as a Betty Boop cartoon, Popeye the Sailor is the granddaddy of all Popeye cartoons. You all remember this story line: Popeye wants to go out with Olive Oyl, Bluto wants the same thing (or more), and before you know it, a brawl breaks out. When all looks lost for our hard-fighting sailor man, he eats an entire can of spinach and then beats the snot out of Bluto. Before the film irises out, he sings a short reprise of his theme song: "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!" followed by a toot or two on his corncob pipe.

     In the Fleischer cartoon world where everything seems to be alive, including amusement park rides and railroad engines, the original Popeye character is oddly stiff and as of yet has no real personality. He has two expressions: looking left and looking right, and even when he joins Betty Boop on stage for a hula, he shows no indication of enjoying it, or not enjoying it. It would take the animators a while to figure out to make Popeye's oddly shaped face into an expressive emotional vehicle and, probably even more difficult, how to make his head move in three dimensions. They would also fill out his personality, which in this cartoon consists solely of stopping every few seconds to punch something hard enough to transform it into multiple items of something else (an anchor into a pile of safety pins, for example). He's not particularly talkative either; unlike the later Popeye who never seems to stop mumbling to himself, this Popeye hardly says anything beyond "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!" and "Well, blow me down!". Neither Olive Oyl nor Bluto have much personality either, but the Fleischer animation and surreal gags have enough spark of their own to make this a memorable debut for all the characters.  

     The musical nature of the Popeye series, always to be one of its strongest features, is primitively displayed here. Aside from "Strike Up The Band for Popeye the Sailor", sung over the credits, there are two songs in the cartoon itself, one from Popeye (his famous theme song) and one from Ms. Boop, and even when nobody's singing, characters refuse to stand still, feeling compelled at all times to bob up and down in time with the background music.

     Other than Olive Oyl and Bluto, the supporting cast consists mostly of the usual anthropomorphic animals you would find in other cartoons such as Disney or early Warner Brothers. Soon after this film, Popeye would exist in a purely human world, more often than not a run down urban environment, making his world distinctly different from that of characters from other studios.  

     Popeye is voiced by William Costello, who would hold onto the job until 1935, when he would be replaced by Jack Mercer, the man whose quick wit and uncanny ability to ad-lib a steady stream of muttered dialogue would be most responsible for turning a good character into a great one.  


I Yam What I Yam 

      "Strike Up the Band for Popeye the Sailor" is again played during the credits of I Yam What I Yam, but with Blow Me Down, "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man" would officially become the Popeye theme song.  

     The most striking thing about I Yam What I Am is the climactic gag in which a big, fierce Indian chief is knocked out of his garb and transformed into another kind of Indian, peace-loving Mahatma Gandhi - a double-racist visual pun on the word "Indian"!  Even now, with racial humor now often considered a hate crime, it's still hard not to tip your hat and say "nicely done." Otherwise, I Yam What I Yam, the first official Popeye cartoon, is much like Popeye the Sailor, with Popeye's "personaliky" yet to be defined and everybody still bobbing up down with the background music, which includes a minor-key version of "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It" from the Marx Brothers HORSE FEATHERS of the previous year.

SPOTLIGHT: "Blow Me Down"

With: Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto
Animators: Willard Bowski, William Sturm

     STORY: Popeye enters an untamed Mexican town (we presume, from all the sombreros), gets in a fight with Bluto and his gang and saves his "goil", eccentric dancer Olive Oyl.

     The first "classic" Popeye cartoon. It is also the first one to begin with the instrumental theme song "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man", a song written by Sammy Lerner and possibly inspired by the first two bars of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Oh, better far to live and die" from The Pirates of Penzance, which features the chorus "For I am the Pirate King!  Hurrah for the Pirate King!" sung to a similar melody (especially the second bar) as "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!  I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!".   

     Blow Me Down can be compared to the similar Bugs Bunny cartoon, Friz Freling's Bugs Bunny Rides Again (1947) in which Yosemite Sam enters a saloon and demands everybody scram. In the Bugs films, Bugs stays around and faces danger because he knows he is approximately a thousand times smarter than Yosemite Sam and can trick the idiot in falling down a mine shaft or launching himself off a cliff. Both Bugs and Popeye stand up to their enemies for the same reason - the belief that they have just as much a God-given right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as anybody else - but their tactics differ, Bugs battling with his wits, Popeye with his "fisks". When Yosemite Sam says "This town ain't big enough for the both of us!", Bugs runs out and builds a new town in the space of five seconds. If Bluto had said the same thing to Popeye, Popeye would have said "Oh, yeah?" and punched him hard enough to send him flying out of town.  

     The Popeye and Bugs belief in their right to be is shared by many other famous animated stars such as Jerry Mouse and Woody Woodpecker, but the one-eyed sailor and the light gray hare remain the most distinctly "American" cartoon characters.      


I Eats My Spinach/ Seasin's Greetinks / Wild Elephinks

Popeye gets a little behind in his lessons      There was a concerted effort in I Yam What I Yam and Blow Me Down to establish Popeye as a true sailor, each film beginning, like Popeye the Sailor before it, with Popeye on some sort of sea vessel. The sea plays no part in I Eats My Spinach, where we finally get a glimpse of the neighborhood Popeye will often live in in these films: a rundown ghetto filled with multiple saloons and cheap hotels, its streets filled with thugs and mugs always looking to get into a scrape. Look closely and you'll actually see a sign saying "Foist Street". Depicting such an environment was almost a declaration of independence from the Disney influence.

     In Seasin's Greetinks, Christmas with Popeye turns out to be like any other day with Popeye: a date with Olive, a fight with Bluto. "Dis is a day for Peace on Oith!" sez Popeye, before punching Bluto into New Year's. Later, the stars around Bluto's bashed head make for perfect Christmas tree decorations.  

    In Wild Elephinks, Popeye turns various jungle animals into fur coats via his deadly punch. This film displays an excellent example of the Fleischer team's unique definition of physical space in a cartoon, as Popeye whips an elephant around by its tail 360 degrees and tosses it over our heads and out of the frame. In a Fleischer film, action can actually be going on behind us. Despite this novelty, Wild Elephinks is not a cartoon to show at your next Be Kind To 'Aminals' meeting.

     Over these final cartoons of 1933, voice actor William Costello began to fill in gaps in dialogue with ad-libbed mutterings. An excellent idea, one that would help make the Popeye cartoons distinctly different from Disney or Warner Brothers fare. But it would take Jack Mercer, Costello's replacement, to make those ad-libbed mutterings funny. This is not meant as a knock to Costello, who did a splendid job providing a voice for Popeye, and invented many of the things Mercer would later imitate, such as Popeye's hicupping laugh and scat-singing.    

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