1939: My Dear Bluto!

IN-BETWEENERS

Cops is Always Right/ Customers Wanted/ Leave Well Enough Alone

     Cops Is Always Right features Popeye as an "everyman" comedian, not unlike Edgar Kennedy or Charlie Chase. While driving to Olive Oyl's house, he manages to rack up ticket after ticket ("Looks like the same one to me") from the same cop on the beat.  The fun is in the timing, the camera angles and the throwaway gags.  The rhythm of the film is marked by the repeated hat rack gag, wherein Popeye's hat is automatically caught on the rack as he enters Olive's apartment and caught on Popeye's head as he leaves. He keeps exiting the apartment because the cop is forever calling him out on one parking violation or another, interrupting the sailor as he attempts to help Olive clean and rearrange her apartment.  Standard stuff, but the camera angles are exquisite, especially one overhead shot that shows Popeye gathering up all the furniture in one room and then, as the camera pulls back even further, dragging into the next.

     Bluto returns (with a thick New Yawk accent) in Customers Wanted, a cheater that has Popeye and Bluto both running penny arcades at an amusement park, and both vying for the attention of Wimpie, the only customer who seems interested in watching their past film clips on the nickelodeon machines.  Normally, a cheater like this would be boring, as it often is with Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoons.  But the framing device - the boys working side by side at what is probably supposed to Coney Island - is so richly detailed and filled with gags, the film is actually better than several others of this period.  Marx Brothers fans will note what I always call "Chico's Theme" (also known as "I'm Daffy Over You") as a constant background refrain, another example of how the Fleischers made full use of Paramount's vast musical library (similar to all the MGM tunes you hear in Tom and Jerry films.)  For those who do not know "Chico's Theme", it is the percussive piano bit he plays in Animal Crackers, which then became the main title theme for Monkey Business, was played by Harpo in that same film, and marked Chico's first scene in Horse Feathers, thus becoming, for many Marx fans, Chico's Theme. 

     Customers Wanted is actually far superior to the next film, Leave Well Enough Alone, which is virtually gagless.  Popeye buys all of the dogs from Olive Oyl's pet shop and sets them free, only to discover it was a bad idea.  Point?  Escapes me at the moment.


SPOTLIGHT: "Wotta Nitemare"

With: Popeye, Bluto, Olive Oyl, Swee'pea, Wimpie, The Jeep
Animators: Willard Bowski, George Germanetti

nitemare     STORY: Popeye has a nightmare.

      Possibly the most bizarre of all the black and white Popeye cartoons, Wotta Nitemare is like Popeye in Wonderland.  As he dreams of Olive Oyl and Bluto, the world keeps changing around him.  Jail bars magically appear to keep him from breaking up the date, his bicycle wheels keeps changing size, his unicycle turns into a snail as a bulldozer bears down on him... It's not so much funny as plain weird and wonderful to watch.  

     We've already been treated to Popeye's father issues in Goonland, and now we get a glimpse of what he actually thinks of the other people in his life.  Olive is part tormentor, part angel, Bluto a devilish animal - his hair looks like horns and he is wearing a bear costume.  Three of Popeye's dependents - Eugene the Jeep, Swee'pea and Wimpie - all show up momentarily to steal food from out of his hands.  Man, this character got a lot more complex as he got older, didn't he?

     The funniest moment in the film occurs when Popeye wakes up and decides that he needs to pummel Bluto. It is the middle of the night so naturally Bluto is hanging out in front of a cigar store, puffing away on a stogie.  Popeye finds him and beats the hell out of him without warning.  Bluto's reaction?  A confused shrug to the camera.  He probably figured he had it coming anyway.


IN-BETWEENERS

Ghosks is the Bunk/ Hello, How Am I?

      Ghosks is the Bunkfinds Bluto "haunting" a house to scare Popeye and Olive Oyl.  The good news is that Bluto is back!  The other good news is that the short is pretty good, although its more dependent on dialogue than visuals for laughs.  One of Olive's best lines is "Popeye, the man that wasn't there went up the stairs!" while my favorite moment of the short is this exchange:

      BLUTO: I guess I'll be going.
      POPEYE: Well, there's the door, what's your hurry?

     Father issues, nightmares about everybody he knows, and now Popeye doesn't even know himself in Hello, How Am I?, a clever short in which Wimpie disguises himself as Popeye in order to mooch a free hamburger dinner from Olive Oyl.  Jack Mercer works overtime, not only voicing Popeye but also voicing Wimpie pretending to be Popeye. The man started his Popeye career doing an imitation of William Costello doing Popeye, and in this film he is doing Wimpie doing Jack Mercer Doing William Costello doing Popeye!  

     For the past few cartoons, Margie Hines had been providing the voice of Olive Oyl.  It's fairly easy to spot, as it is more strident and angrier than Mae Questel's version of the character, and also has more of that Zasu Pitts the quiver than Questel used.  Mae Questel will always be remembered as the voice of Olive Oyl, but Hines was quite good herself, and delivers one of the greatest Olive Oyl lines ever in this film: "You oughta be ashamed of yourself for looking like Popeye!"

     Popeye and Olive Oyl may never have married, but in real life, Jack Mercer and Margie Hines did.  That still doesn't explain Swee'pea, of course.


SPOTLIGHT: "It's the Natural Thing to Do"

With: Popeye, Wimpie, Olive Oyl
Animators: Tom Johnson, Lod Rossner

     STORY: Bowing to pressure from The Popeye Fan Club to "cut out the rough stuff", Popeye, Bluto and Olive all try to be "ruff-fined".

     By 1939, the Fleischers had been given the green light to go ahead with production of the feature film Gulliver's Travels, and had added many new animators to their staff.  Of course, aside from work on Gulliver's Travels, the animators were also put to work on the studio's regular cartoons.  With It's the Natural Thing to Do, two new and unheralded artists - Tom Johnson and Lod Rossner - pull off a masterpiece that turns the whole Popeye - Bluto rivalry on its head.  

     Bluto had only made sporadic appearances since Learn Polikeness, as if they didn't want to bring the character back fully until they found the right voice actor to replace the late Gus Wickie.  In Pinto Colvig, who played Goofy at Disney, the Fleischers found the right man. Maybe nobody could recreate Wickie's deep baritone (I guess Billy Bletcher wasn't available) but Colvig's husky, gruff growl fit the character perfectly.   It actually made Bluto a little more human, as did the redesign that made him less of a hulk built from large circles and more of just a big fat slob.

     Rather than just remake the usual Popeye - Bluto - Olive Oyl love triangle film, Bluto was fully reintroduced in a self-reflexive story that assumed everybody knew what Popeye and Bluto were all about and examined what things would be like if they couldn't be "natural".  Like those great Tom and Jerry cartoons that begin in mid-chase without any explanation, It's the Natural Thing to Do begins with Popeye and Bluto in mid-fight in Olive's backyard while she happily washes dishes and warns them to have fun but keep off her flowers.  Then a telegram from the Popeye Fan Club arrives, requesting that they want the characters to behave properly, like ladies and gentlemen. "Gentlemen, eh?  Must be a character part," says Bluto, extending the motif of all the characters knowing full well they are motion picture actors on a screen.  

     The rest of the cartoon features the trio desperately trying to act like ladies and gentlemen while politely snacking on coffee, cakes and donuts delivered by the maid from the kitchen on a bicycle-driven snack cart - just one of the loopy, surrealistic touches that were becoming more commonplace in the late '30s.  An attempt at polite conversation gets stuck on the concept of conversation itself.  The dialogue that begins this conversation about conversation is well worth quoting in full:

OLIVE: "Shall we converse a bit?"
BLUTO: "Yeah, let's convoise.  Hey, I hear convoising is coming back."
POPEYE: "And conversing breaks up the monopoly of not talking."
OLIVE: "Well... who'll open?"
BLUTO: "Uh, yeah... I'll pass."
POPEYE: Oh, you'll pass, huh?  Er... they say language is used for talking more than any other, uh, don't you think?"
OLIVE: "Oh, yes, I don't think."

     Things get so boring even the clock struggles to move its hour hand to 8 pm, at which time, the convoising has completely stopped.  It takes Popeye to realize that be refined is not natural for him and his cast mates and that beating the hell out of each is, so a couple of playful slaps on the back soon turns into a full-fledged brawl.  The fight picks up speed as it goes on, but Bluto realizes something is missing - so he fires a can of spinach in Popeye's direction so that things can "really get going!".

     It's The Natural Thing to Do is also one of the most musical Popeye shorts, even though the title tune is never fully sung.  However, every gag is timed so that one of the players can stop and sing the chorus.  Great stuff all around.

SEZ ME

"Oh, never dunk your donuts above your elbow, oh."


IN-BETWEENER

Never Sock a Baby

     A touching and unique way of ending the year 1939, Never Sock a Baby (not to be confused with Sock a Bye baby or Never Kick a Woman) begins with Popeye "spanking" Swee'pea so gently his hand never touches the kid and ends with the sailor so filled with remorse that he wakes up the sleeping tyke to cover him with kisses.  In between, we have the usual Swee'pea adventures where he skirts danger at every turn while running away from home (Popeye's house is located right next to a frightening forest, a huge chasm and a treacherous mountain, so naturally he leaves the kid's window open).

     Jack Mercer provides three different voices for Popeye in this short - his regular voice, the voice of Popeye's good conscience and the voice of Popeye's bad conscience.  The bad conscience seems to have the upper hand until he makes the mistake of calling Popeye a "sissy"!

     1939 also saw the release of the final two-reel color special, Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp.

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