Vim, Vigor and Vitaliky/ A Clean Shaven Man / Brotherly Love / I-Ski Love-Ski- You-Ski / Bridge Ahoy
1936 begins with two films in which Bluto loses his beard in service to the story. In Vim, Vigor and Vitaliky, he dresses in drag (very disturbing!) to gain entry to Popeye's exercise class for women. In the better A Clean Shaven Man, Olive Oyl sings the jaunty title tune which reveals that she now finds men without beards to be the dreamiest, prompting Popeye and Bluto to shave each other. Popeye does a creditable job on Bluto, who winds up with hair parted in the middle and a barbershop quarter mustache. But, naturally, Bluto double-crosses his pal and does major damage to Popeye's face with various barber implements. Not for the squeamish!
Brotherly Love is a concise dramatization of Popeye's philosophy towards life - in the end, it all comes down to fighting. Popeye tries to take Olive's message of peace to the neighborhood toughs, and winds up having to beat them into passivity. This short has all those little things that make Popeye films so much fun to watch again and again. Popeye dining in the seediest dive ever, and overtipping a clearly mentally handicapped waiter. Backgrounds depicting streets and sidewalks as warped and crooked as Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life. A gang of roughly fifteen tough guys fighting each other in a huge pile, animated so smoothly, you hardly stop to realize how difficult the scene must have been to coordinate. And, of course, Olive Oyl singing "Brotherly Love" ("Make every Tom and Dick and Otto/Obey our Golden Motto!"), the catchiest little ditty to come along in a Popeye film in a while.
I-Ski Love-Ski You-Ski has Popeye and Bluto both wanting to take Olive skiing, and when Popeye winds up winning round one, round two consists of Bluto attempting to kill them both in various nefarious ways. And by now we all know what happens in round three. Bridge Ahoy finds Popeye so incensed over the rates Bluto charges for a ride on his ferry, he decides to build a bridge to let people cross the river for free. It features the kind of construction site gags the Fleischers just loved - hot rivets going awry, characters hitting each other with girders, all that good stuff. And it still finds time for funny characterization - when Wimpy is thrown into the river, he doesn't yell "Help! Help!", he yells "Assistance! Assistance!". Best of all is a subtle moment probably not intended to be funny. After what looks like several months of work by Popeye, Olive and Wimpy, Bluto finally seems to notice the bridge they are building over the river... twenty feet from where he docks his ferry every day.
STORY: Popeye visits Bluto's eatery.
An atypical short - no Olive Oyl, and Bluto and Wimpy are running a business together - but it's one that seems to herald a new era of creativity fun in the series. By this time, the animators have so much confidence in the vocal talent, they hardly bother to animate any lips except on major lines that advanced the story. Otherwise, the three gentlemen doing the voices of Popeye, Bluto and Wimpy have a field day, throwing out muttered dialogue left and right. Historically, Jack Mercer usually gets most of the accolades, but in this short and many others, Gus Wickie's Blutoisms match Mercer's Popeyisms sentence for sentence. For every "I think you been out in the sun too long, that's what's the matter with you" from Popeye, there's a "I had an old duck in here, I never ate it - give to that guy, I guess" from Bluto. The film doesn't even end with the traditional reprise of "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man", but rather with Wimpy reprising the final line from his opening song about the joys of a hamburger. Yes, Wimpy gets his own song and gets the iris-out shot at the end. That's the kind of cartoon this is.
"There is nothing in this world that can compare/ to a
hamburger juicy and rare."
STORY: Popeye and Bluto compete for a lifeguard job.
1936 wasn't just a year for great Popeye cartoons, it was a year for great Popeye songs. "I Wanna Be a Lifeguard", not to be confused with the similarly catchy hit by the '80s band Blotto, may be less than a minute long, but once heard, you will be singing it at random moments for the rest of your life (much like the Blotto song!)*
The plot of I Wanna Be a Lifeguard is typical and formulaic, with Popeye and Bluto trying to outdo each other until the inevitable moment when Bluto runs out of tricks (his bag usually contains about three per short) and gets real mad. Been done before, will be done again, but this time it takes place in an elaborately drawn public pool, shot from just about every possible angle. As good as the artists were at Warners and MGM, it's rare that you would stop and marvel at a background while Bugs or Tom and Jerry were on the screen. With a Popeye film, you could spend five minutes just looking at the art work and have a wonderful time. You could then go back and spend the same five minutes listening for what you missed in the dialogue, or watching Popeye and Bluto beat the hell out of each other and have just as good a time. The backgrounds can actually be distracting, but in a good way: there's so much to these cartoons, you can see them again and again and appreciate different things each time. There was, and still ain't, nuthin' else like these cartoons.
And maybe it's just me, but I find it hilarious that Bluto will walk into a scene, look at Popeye and mutter "I wonder what that's guy's lookin' at?", as if he had never met Popeye before. Maybe he really was as stupid as he looks.
* THE SPINACH OVERTURE
According to a friend who was once in the inner circle of the band, several members of the band Blotto used to watch Popeye every day, and the Popeye version of "I Wanna Be a Life Guard" was such a favorite, the band worked up an arrangement. They didn't record it because they had no idea who wrote it or who owned the rights. Eventually, they came up with a self-written song of the same name, which is the one that is still remembered today by guys like me who heard it, loved it and said to themselves "Hey, it's got the same title as that Popeye song!".
Let's Get Movin' / Never Kick a Woman / Little Swee'pea / Hold the Wire / The Spinach Roadster / I'm In the Army Now
Don't assume because I am not giving a full review to these films that they are somehow lesser shorts not deserving of attention. By 1936, everything was clicking in the Popeye world, making for the best year so far. The Fleischers produced and released over a dozen offhandedly outstanding Popeye cartoons, including a color two-reel special. The shorts had lost some of the early cartoony atmosphere, where inanimate objects would come alive and interact with the characters but they now had a quicker pace, a better understanding of the characters, and a new emphasis on wall to wall on rambling, half-improvised dialogue . All of the cartoons listed above, with the exception of the cheater I'm in The Army Now, would be worthy of a full review.
Let's Get Movin' is yet another competition film, with Popeye and Bluto both trying to prove to Olive Oyl that he is the better man to help Olive relocate. Popeye wins the job by throwing the piano out the window, running down several flights of stairs and catching it. This prompts Bluto to throw all the remaining furniture out the window. In the end, after the Popeye-Bluto battle royale, all Olive has left is a flower vase, but she seems happy. Never Kick a Woman starts with another catchy song, "Learn the Art of Self-Defense", sung by Popeye. When Olive is dragged into a gym to get in shape, she gets jealous of the Mae West-inspired proprietor who finds Popeye irresistible.
Little Swee'pea introduces the title character, a baby of unknown origins (the original comic strip by E. C. Segar explained it all, but why should I spoil it here?) who is now in Olive's care. The story is simple and loaded with gags as Popeye takes Swee'pea to the zoo, and as Swee'pea, escapes the confines of his stroller, as he always will, and goes wandering through the animal cages. It's a tour de force of timing, use of perspective, animal animation and stunning use of the Rotograph (see the review of Popeye Meets Sinbad) to create the illusion of a three-dimensional zoo. Popeye is a more mature character in this film, no longer turning animals into pelts and luncheon meets. The greatest damage done is when a leopard is slammed so hard into a wall, he loses his spots.
Hold the Wire has Bluto pretending to be Popeye on the phone and making rude comments to Olive Oyl. Saying that the animation is wonderful and the film is funny is hardy necessary. The Spinach Roadster is based on the premise that Popeye and Bluto both get new cars on the same day and each want to take Olive Oyl for a drive. The gags write themselves.
The only disappointment of the year is I'm In The Army Now, a cheater featuring Bluto and Popeye both showing highlights of their previous films in order to get into the army. The only real moments of interest are when Gus Wickie and Jack Mercer get to improvise new dialogue to the very early Popeye short Blow Me Down, and the introduction of a classic bit of Popeye dialogue during the relooping of footage from King of the Mardis Gras:
"Lemme down! Lemme
"Lem you down? I'll lem you down!"
It's understandable that the studio would resort to a cheater at this point, because much of their energy was devoted to the first Technicolor Popeye special, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor.