1935: Out wit' the old, In wit' the new

IN-BETWEENERS

Beware of Barnacle Bill / Be Kind to "Aminals" 

     1935 begins with the fun Beware of Barnacle Bill, yet another mini-musical short like The Man on the Flying Trapeze, this time using the old folk tune "Barnacle Bill the Sailor", which had already been the basis of an early Betty Boop film.  Popeye proposes to Olive but she loves another - the notorious Barnacle Bill, played by that jerk of all trades, Bluto.

      Be Kind to Aminals is a fine short about Popeye and Olive Oyl objecting to produce salesman Bluto's harsh treatment of his horse.  Bill Costello was not available to voice Popeye for this one cartoon, and in his place is Floyd Buckley, who had been Popeye on the radio.  Buckley's voice is deeper and less gravelly, and he just doesn't sound right to ears accustomed to Bill Costello and the later Jack Mercer.  The Fleischers may have realized this, because Buckley's lines are fairly limited to things like "Hey!" and "Stop that!".


SPOTLIGHT: "Pleased to Meet Cha!"

With: Popeye, Bluto, Olive Oyl
Animators: Willard Bowsky, Howard Walker

Destruction is just around the corner     STORY:  Popeye and Bluto show up to woo Olive at the same time. When Olive decides three is a crowd, Bluto suggests "da guy who does the best trick stays!" 

     The tricks performed by Popeye and Bluto are, of course, merely creative ways of inflicting pain on each other, and this, as you would suspect, quickly degenerates in a free-for-all that demolishes Olive's spiffily furnished home.  Why this kind of stuff continues to be amusing in short after short is hard to explain, but I think it all has to do with the little touches that make many an average Popeye film distinctive.

     For example, Olive's house as shown from outside looks like a one-room shack, but once inside, we see that it has several rooms and at least two foyers, the animators making no attempt to make the interior conform to the confines of the exterior. (Perhaps they invented the TARDIS!).  The characters are drawn a bit more grotesquely than usual, the most notable example being a closeup of Olive Oyl delicately eating a piece of candy, a shot that makes you wonder, if you hadn't already, just what these two swabs see in this gal.  Bluto is fatter than usual, his tiny head making his huge circular frame seem even larger than it is.  All the characters have harder wrinkles around their eyes, making their faces more expressive.  

     There is also the matter of how characters in the Popeye world move from place to place.  Characters in these cartoons rarely just walk.  They amble.  They perambulate.  They stroll, skip, strut or saunter.  In Popeye cartoons, every time a character needs to get from point A to point B, it is another chance to the animators to add a bit of personality to the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.

     By this time Mae Questel had become the voice of Olive Oyl and she is perfect in the role.  A talented woman, she not only voiced Olive Oyl but also Betty Boop, and during World War II, when voice artist Jack Mercer was fighting overseas, she even took over the voice of Popeye for several films, doing a wonderful job.  Bill Costello as Popeye is finally managing to instill a little personality in his mutterings, especially when he sings "Love is Just Around the Corner" while rolling around the apartment with Bluto.  In a manly way, that is.  I don't know who is voicing Bluto (possibly Gus Wickie), but he does a great job for a character that is basically one-dimensional.


IN-BETWEENERS

The Hyp-Nut-Tist / Choose Your Weppins / For Better or Worser / Dizzy Divers/  You've Got to be a Football Hero

    The Hyp-Nut-Tist is standard fare, with Popeye battling "The Great Hypnotist" (Bluto) on stage.  Choose Your Weppins is a deftly animated short in which a flim-flam man on the run challenges Popeye to a duel in his pawn shop.

     For Better or Worser is perhaps in need of deeper analysis that I will give here, as it is a rather cynical take on the tradition of marriage.  Popeye, tired of burning his own breakfast, decides he needs a wife and goes to a convenient shop where you can pick your own wife from pictures on the wall.  He and Bluto both choose Olive. After the usual scuffles, Popeye winds up leaving Olive at the altar because she's wearing too much makeup!

     Dizzy Divers is a rare short that finds Popeye and Bluto to be friends and colleagues working in the treasure hunting business.  However, seconds after they have worked out a plan to find a sunken treasure chest, Bluto double-crosses Popeye.  You knew that was coming.

     You've Got to Be a Football Hero, apparently based on another popular song of the times, is William Costello's last turn as Popeye.  Reportedly, Costello had become difficult to work with, so when it was discovered that in-betweener artist Jack Mercer did an outstanding imitation of Costello doing Popeye, Mercer was suddenly in and Costello out!  Costello's final short is a good one, with lots of football gags.  Think Harold Lloyd's The Freshman or The Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers.


SPOTLIGHT: "King of the Mardi Gras"

With: Popeye, Bluto, Olive Oyl, Wimpy
Animators: David Tendlar, William Sturm

Mardi Gras, Coney Island Style     STORY: At Coney Island, rival strong men Popeye and Bluto try to top each others feats of derring-do.

      Based on the surefire premise of Popeye and Bluto as rivals in the same field, in this case carnival sideshow performers, King of the Mardi Gras is really an average Popeye short made memorable by its impressive opening shot of Coney Island, rendered by the Fleischer Brothers technique of using three-dimensional models as backgrounds, and by the debut of Jack Mercer as Popeye.  Even though Mercer's mutterings are initially not much more humorous than Bill Costello's were, Mercer's inflections immediately make Popeye a warmer figure, one who is always thinking out loud as he goes through life.  There is little Mercer does that Costello did not do before, but Mercer seemed to understand Popeye better, and had a knack for making him funny.

     The short ends with a splendidly animated action sequence on what looks to be the world's largest and most dangerous roller coaster, one that seems to be long enough to run through several counties.  There is the by-now standard split-second near misses of Olive, Bluto and Popeye all riding in separate cars, chasing each other.  When Popeye picks up Bluto's car and rocks it back and forth over his head, Mercer's mumbling rendition of "Rockabye baby on the tree top" shows how much humor and personality he could bring to the character of Popeye.

     The song "King of the Mardi Gras", sung by Bluto and Popeye, is catchy, but owes much of its melody to the previous "We Aim to Please".

SEZ ME:

"Don't anyone wanna see a man choke to death... free?"


IN-BETWEENER

Adventures of Popeye

     Adventures of Popeye is technically known as a "cheater", a compilation film which allows animators to collect a paycheck for the week without doing much work at all.  It makes use of clips of earlier Popeye films with a wrap-around live action story of a sissyish young boy who is picked on by a bully.  Popeye pops out of the kid's comic book and says things like "Here's what I did in my rodeo picture," which is a cue for a clip from I Eats My Spinach.  And so on.  After four clips, the sissy kid learns that eating spinach is a good thing, and knocking the bully through a third story window even better.  Cartoons - they're not just fun, they're edjamicational!

     For the record, the films which are excerpted are I Eats My Spinach, Popeye the Sailor, Wild Elephinks and Axe Me Another, and each excerpt has been redubbed with new music and Jack Mercer's voice.


SPOTLIGHT: "The Spinach Overture"

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

     STORY: In competing rehearsal halls, Popeye and Bluto tangle over who is the better orchestra conductor.

With all due respect to the great maestro     Jeez, is there no profession these two guys won't try? 

     Just three films into his long tenure as Popeye, Jack Mercer is already proving to be exactly what the series needed to take it to the next level. Mercer's muttered commentary makes his Popeye much more of an unpredictable character.  From now on, we will not just be watching Popeye, but leaning forward a bit to hear just what nonsense is going to come out of his mouth.

     When Bluto refers to Popeye sarcastically as "The Great Maestro", Popeye soon throws it right back at Bluto, referring to him as "The Great Mousetrap".  While keeping the orchestra in tempo, he calls out the German numbers eins zwei drie for no particular reason except that those are what came into his mind at that moment.  And in the middle of a spinach-inspired ragtime piano solo, he begins to scat-sing like crazy.  Ladies and gentleman, Popeye has arrived.  

     The cartoon is unique in that there is little violence until the end, and even then, while beating Bluto into a bloody pulp, Popeye pauses to conduct the orchestra.

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