Let's Celebrake/ Learn Polikeness/ Big Chief Ugh-a-Mugh-Ugh
1938 was a transitional year for the Fleischer Popeye cartoons. Because of the untimely death of voice actor Gus Wickie, the character of Bluto virtually disappeared from the shorts for a long time after Learn Polikeness, though Wickie did voice the title Indian Chief for Big Chief Ugh-A-Mugh-Ugh. Apparently there was no immediate candidate to replace Wickie, so the series went through a stretch where it relied more on gags and situations rather than the eternal battle between the one-eyed sailor and his overweight murderous pal.
Mae Questel (Olive Oyl), too, would leave the series some time in 1938, not wanting to move to the new Fleischer Studios in Miami. Several other voice artists would fill in for her, and the character did not change all that much. Questel would later return in the 1940s.
My colleague Steve at Salty Steve's Popeye Page is not a big fan of Let's Celebrake, but I think it is intriguing. The animators cheated a lot with this one, with nearly half the short making use of extremely limited animation, using the same few drawings over and over again. This is not the first nor last time this kind of shortcut would be used in the Popeye series, but it is the most noticeable so far. Luckily, the story is about a New Year's Eve Dance Contest, so there are many dance routines that, when combined with repeated backgrounds, swinging music and Popeye's endless mutterings, come off just swell. There is also some experimentation in this short, using what appears to be two layer of animation cells, one for the foreground action of crowds of people dancing, one for the background action of Popeye and his party doing the same. That foreground action is extremely limited also, amounting to what appears to the eye to be about five drawings cycled again and again. The opening scene, with Bluto and Popeye riding on a donkey-pulled carriage and singing "New Year's Comes But Once a Year" also makes use of limited animation, but it's so well done, who would care?
From the opening pan of Professor's Bluteau's gorgeous penthouse etiquette studio, it is clear that Learn Polikeness will be a much better film than its immediate predecessor. No new ground is broken, the story being the same as dozens of other Popeye cartoons. When Olive Oyl brings Popeye for some etiquette lessons, Bluto dresses up in a tux and proceeds to do what he was born to do - humiliate Popeye and sexually attack Olive Oyl. After trying to unsuccessfully to kiss Olive Oyl, he immediately starts choking her. What's wrong with this guy? The House Builder Upper is basically the Popeye version of Buster Keaton's One Week or Laurel and Hardy's The Finishing Touch, as Popeye and Wimpie attempt to rebuild Olive Oyl's house after a fire. Lots of mechanical gags pulled off nicely and played against the jaunty tune "We'll Build a House."
Big Chief Ugh a Mugh Ugh is one of the most controversial Popeye cartoons, featuring gross caricatures of a Native American tribe. According to the song sung by the Chief (Wickie in his last role ever for the series), "Big Chief Ugh a Mugh Ugh Gotta Have'm Squaw". Said squaw turns out to be Olive Oyl, of course. There are lots of ad-libs about keeping your wig warm, scalp treatments and so on, although there is one classic muttering that few people will get today: "Who made yer bows, a amateur?". The Major Bowes Amateur Hour, kind of the Star Search/American Idol of its day, was a popular radio show at the time. The best part of this cartoon is the catchy title tune, insensitive though it may be.
STORY: To test if Olive Oyl still loves him, Popeye pretends to be sick.
One of the cartooniest Popeye cartoons in quite a while, I Yam Love Sick is a deft, loony combination of off the wall animation (sometimes literally!), classic mutterings ("Women - there a funny race of people!") and slapstick gags about doctors and patients. Worried that he is losing his "sex repeal", (Olive is stuck on Bluto - apparently nobody told her the character had been written out of the series), Popeye immediately faints, causing Olive to peer out of the film frame and ask the audience if there is a doctor in the house. A rubbery ambulance bounces down the block, stops on a dime in front of Olive's house and two identical Snub Pollard lookalikes run into the house with a stretcher while mumbling something like "ib bib bib bib bib bib". Their function in this cartoon is to find as many funny ways of getting Popeye on a stretcher as possible. When they reach the hospital, they run madly down the weirdly serpentine hallways at such a furious pace, they wind up running along the walls, and at one point, the ceiling.
The bulk of the short features examination gags where Popeye attempts to fool a team of identical bearded doctors into believing he is at death's door. Speaking of doors, it seem like every door in the hospital is capable of being opened at least three or four different ways, but never, of course, by simply pulling on the doorknob or any other way that doors are meant to be opened. While Olive paces back and forth worrying about her man ("I hope it's nothing trivial!"), the doctor try every examination in the book, including that most accurate of tests, The Tickle System, until they are convinced they have killed Popeye ("We've lost another one!"). Then Popeye reveals he was only fooling, at which point Olive Oyl beats the snot out of him before he can even get off his usual chorus of "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man". Wacky good fun. If this is what the Fleischers could do without Gus Wickie and Mae Questel *, audiences and cartoon fans had nothing to worry about.
* Olive certainly doesn't sound like Mae Questel in this short, though I may be wrong. Whoever is doing the voice does an excellent job.
Plumbing is a Pipe/ The Jeep/ Bulldozing the Bull/ Mutiny Ain't Nice
Plumbing is a Pipe is a companion piece to The House Builder Upper, with mechanical gags, this time revolving around plumbing, making up most of the short. Olive Oyl's house has more pipes than a church organ and they're all leaking!
In an effort to fill the void left by a missing Bluto, the Fleischers looked to E. C. Segar's Popeye comic strip for inspiration and came up with the title character of The Jeep, a magical dog-like creature who can disappear and walk through walls. The Jeep - full name Eugene the Jeep - leads Popeye on a wild goose chase through the city while searching for a missing Swee'pea. Bulldozing the Bull hearkens back to 1933's I Eats My Spinach as Popeye accidentally finds himself fighting a bull in some unspecified Latin country. The short is fun, but the expected violence is hampered by the otherwise praiseworthy notion of Popeye disliking bullfighting because it is "inkind to aminals and besides it's unhuming!". Mutiny Ain't Nice finds Olive Oyl accidentally stowed away on Popeye's schooner, leading to a revolt by the crew because, as we all know, wimmin on ships is bad luck. One classic pun emerges as Popeye, hearing Olive's voice, looks around for the source and examines a container of water because it might be a "talking pitcher" (aka, talking picture).
STORY: Popeye travels to Goonland to rescue his long lost Pappy.
In retrospect, the death of Gus Wickie, sad it as may have been, had a positive effect on the Popeye cartoons. Without an immediate voice artists to replace Bluto, the Fleischers were forced to ditch the standard love triangle formula for a while and come up with new ideas for the series. As with The Jeep, Goonland features characters straight out out of E.C. Segar's comic strip. Although she doesn't appear in this film, Alice the Goon was a bizarre character introduced to the comic strip in 1933. In the course of her story in the strip, it is revealed that she came from Goon Island, where a tribe of Amazonian misfits lives. Credit Segar for the design of the Goons, Seymour Kneitel and Abner Matthews for bringing the Goons and their island to life on film, and the one-man show of Jack Mercer for voicing not only Popeye in this film but also Popeye's father, Poopdeck Pappy, another Segar creation who was essentially an older, more ornery version of Popeye with a grizzled white beard.
The short begins with Popeye singing about his father issues ("One look at me made him unhappy/ forty years have gone since he was sawn") while traveling to Goon Island to retrieve him. But first he must get past the Goons. Luckily, they are really stupid. Unluckily, when Popeye does find his Pappy, Pappy wants nothing to do with him.
Jack Mercer's mutterings this time around are a
complete joy. Some samples:
"He must be a goon from
"Now how am I gonna get from here to over there without them knowing I'm over here?"
"Hair today, Goon tomorrow."
The addition of Poopdeck Pappy to the cast meant
that even when Bluto returned to the series (in 1939's Customers Wanted),
the series wouldn't always have to rely on him as an adversary.
Occasional stories of Poopdeck Pappy and his natural ability
get Popeye into trouble would give the series a little variety.
A Date to Skate
1938 ended on the excellent note of A Date to Skate, yet another example of how free the cartoons could be without relying on the character of Bluto. Popeye wants to go roller skating at a local rink ("Good Skates 50 cents - Cheap Skates 25 cents") but Olive Oyl doesn't know how to skate. The ad-libs are all over the place, as are Olive and Popeye, who wind up careening through the streets of the city in a wild chase that anticipates the Marx Brothers on roller skates in and W. C. Fields's tangles with a fire engine in . The animation is superb with one curious exception: if you watch closely, one of the background skaters has a shirt that keeps changing from gray to white and back again!