Sock-A-Bye Baby/ Let's You and Him Fight
Sock-A-Bye Baby, the first Popeye offering for 1934, ditches the usual formula and all the characters except Popeye and an unnamed baby who is definitely not Swee'pea. The animators were still tinkering with Popeye's personality and approach to life, and not everything worked. In this curious film, Popeye doesn't want his baby to wake up, and in his effort to squelch any city noise, he engages in a series of increasingly surrealistic events that are not so much gags as, well, murder. These include killing Harpo Marx (who then flies up to Heaven, harp already in hand), sinking an ocean liner (presumably filled with people), and demolishing a construction site (definitely populated with construction workers whose legs are the only thing you can see sticking out of the ensuing rubble). This cartoon is followed by Let's You and Him Fight, which features Popeye and Bluto in a boxing match. There are some good gags, but putting these two in a boxing ring is like putting The Three Stooges in an insane asylum. What's funny about the violence Popeye and Bluto inflict on each other is how inappropriate it usually is to the task at hand. A boxing ring? As if these two need a legal excuse to pummel each other.
STORY: Olive Oyl dumps Popeye for the titular character.
It's the little things in the Fleischer Popeye cartoons that I always find fascinating. Notice the detail in this frame from The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Look at the perspective on the apartment building next door, the one after that, and the city block that goes on into infinity. Check out the broken handle on the rocking chair, and the obviously repaired leg, as well as the warped fence behind it. The early Popeye films were filled with this sort of detail, clearly defining the ramshackle world Popeye lived in. Almost everything was a little ugly and grimy, and there were always worlds to explore just down the block. Just who lives behind all those little windows?
One of a handful of Popeye cartoons based on a popular song, The Man on the Flying Trapeze is an early gem that paints Popeye as a man whose heart could be broken, and Olive Oyl as a fickle girlfriend who could always be counted on to ditch Popeye in a heartbeat for somebody who happened to fit her definition of "manly" that day - a football hero, a clean-shaven man, or in this case, a musclebound yet foppish trapeze artist.
Most of the cartoon consists of beautifully timed and executed trapeze gags, including one which would develop into a Popeye and Bluto standard, even though Bluto is not in this film. On occasion, Popeye and Bluto will find themselves clinging to something in mid-air - rival airplane wings, for example - yet when they get close to each other, their instincts take over, and they simply have to risk their own lives to get in one good punch before scrambling back to safety. Popeye and Bluto will trade blows, anytime, anywhere. The androgynous fop in this film, however, is no Bluto, and by the time Popeye shows up to the circus, towing three neighborhood kids and their cat with him, Olive has already realized she made a mistake and wants Popeye back. But unfortunately for her, there are a few more choruses of the song to get through, plus a half-dozen of the above-mentioned trapeze gags.
STORY: Popeye tries to join the Bruiser Boy Club but cannot pass the initiation.
Cartoon violence is not always funny. In cheaper cartoons, it is used as a substitute for intelligent gags. In the best cartoons, such as MGM's Tom and Jerry series and Fleischer's Popeye cartoons, violence is made funny with timing, attitude and imagination. The Fleischers created a violent world and reveled in the that violence. Case in point, Can Ya Take It?, in which the Bruiser Boys, a local bunch of hoodlums, have so much mayhem in their souls, they have started a club where they can happily bash each others heads in with wooden mallets all the live long day. Into this club walks Popeye, who is immediately engaged in yet another manhood contest with President Bluto. Bluto smokes a cigar made of rope and blows the smoke in Popeye's face. Popeye smokes one and blows smoke right back, through his good eye.
The centerpiece of the film is an imaginative trip through an underground initiation center, where a blindfolded Popeye must make his way past a series of bizarre mechanical devices designed to inflict major harm on his internal and external organs. Finally felled by a cannonball to the stomach, Popeye gets his revenge by punching the entire membership roster through the club's walls one by and one and then, for good measure, reducing the entire structure to rubble.
Mechanical violence was always a staple of the Fleischer films, and would be spotlighted again and again, coming to a head in the later classic Lost and Foundry, where Swee'pea wanders into a factory and crawls his way through assembly line machinery.
Shoein' Hosses / Strong to the Finich / Shiver Me Timbers / Axe Me Another
Shoein' Hosses is based on the oft-repeated premise of Popeye and Bluto going out for the same job, this time as "the village smithy" at Olive Oyl's blacksmith shoppe (conveniently located across the street from a bar). In his attempts to prove he is the better man, Popeye is more creative in various tasks such as breaking anvils and shoeing horses, causing Bluto to lose his cool. The ensuing fisticuffs leaves Bluto down for the count but the blacksmith shoppe still standing... just barely.
Strong to the Finich has Popeye teaching a bunch of kids all about the wonders of spinach. When they are finally convinced, they each down a can of the stuff and go on a wave of random destruction... just like their hero Popeye!
Shiver Me Timbers finds Popeye and pals on a haunted ship chock full of ghosts. Even the hamburgers Wimpy attempts to eat are non-corporeal. In Axe Me Another, Popeye and lumberjack "Pierre Bluto" engage in one-upmanship to the jaunty tune of "I'll Do Anything That You'll Do". Of course, after Bluto is shown up in three separate tasks, he loses his temper, leading to the inevitable humiliation when trying to defeat Popeye.
STORY: Olive Oyl's somnambulism takes her on a dangerous journey through the city.
A Dream Walking is a masterpiece of animation. Combining split-second timing, awe-inspiring backgrounds and typical Popeye humor based on two guys kicking the crap out of each other, it shows how much work goes into making the greatest cartoons seem so effortless. Nearly every frame of this film is timed to the melody of the hit tune "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking", made famous by Bing Crosby. Each one of Olive Oyl's sleepwalking steps lands on a beat, almost every gag is timed so that the payoff also lands on a beat. Even though Olive Oyl seems to be in peril, the film is strangely serene. Unlike watching a Harold Lloyd film, we never worry about Olive Oyl falling off the skyscraper because we know somehow something will always pop into the screen to catch her next footstep. So we can sit back calmly and marvel at the inventiveness of it all, and laugh at the way Popeye and Bluto put themselves and the object of their affection in danger every few minutes by taking time out to crack each other in the head. At one point they manage to knock themselves out and begin to sleepwalk along with Olive. When they bump into each other and wake up, their first instinct is to begin fighting again. Boys will be Boys. Near the end of the film, when Popeye reaches for his spinach, Bluto registers fear. Pretty smart cookie, this Bluto: it only took him a dozen-plus films to figure out that Popeye plus spinach equals major butt kicking.
As in all of the best early Popeye cartoons, the backgrounds are filled with fascinating details. In Popeye's apartment, the plaster in the wall is cracked right behind the picture of Olive he keeps next to his bed, and his floorboards are warped. In Bluto's apartment, he has knives scattered on the floor and a rusty and jagged straight razor on his dresser, while Olive Oyl's penthouse apartment is revealed to be a luxury suite by comparison.
The camera angles simulated by the animation rival those found in any great movie. Check out the way Olive Oyl's head passes underneath the camera as she begins her sleepwalking journey, or the extreme high-angle shot of the apartment building as she walks out on the flagpole outside her window. The timing, too, is impeccable throughout, with all three character just missing each other as the each criss-cross their way across an intersection of girders, and Olive Oyl being lifted up about three or four floors in mid-step by a rising elevator.
"I'll save her... ya pop-eyed freak!"
The Two Alarm Fire / The Dance Contest / We Aim to Please
Sometimes the inappropriately-timed Popeye and Bluto blowouts are really inappropriately timed. In The Two Alarm Fire, Olive Oyl is stuck on the roof of a house that is burning down, and the Boys still find time to mix it up. When they begin wetting each other with their hoses, the term "pissing contest" leaps into the mind. The Dance Contest features a rather dapper Bluto as a champion dancer, and Popeye as a foot-stepper-onner, at least until spinach turns him into the nautical equivalent of Fred Astaire. We Aim to Please, in which Popeye and Olive run a restaurant, is a pleasant little short that has Popeye and Olive singing the catchy title tune, which is filled with ridiculous lines like "Our hamburger steaks are a riot / you better try liver instead." Wimpy and Bluto each take turns in scamming a free meal in Popeye's new eatery. Wimpy goes in and out quietly, while Bluto overstays his welcome and is pummeled into sausage for not paying his 60 cents.
"I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."
--- Wimpy's first utterance of this deathless line, in We Aim to Please