Shakespearean Spinach/ Females is Fickle
By 1940, the changes in the Popeye cartoons over the years had become noticeable. Popeye was no longer a rough, uncouth swabbie itching for a fight, but more of a genial, gentle comedian who mangled the English language. The violence had been toned down and some cartoons featured little or no violence at all. The series now had a full cast of characters - Olive, Bluto, Wimpie, Swee'pea, The Jeep and Poopdeck Pappy - to add more variety to the stories, so that the formula of Popeye and Bluto fighting over Olive Oyl was no longer the driving force behind the series.
Some of the 1940 entries are so fast-paced, they feel like they are three minutes long rather than six. The influx of new talent in 1938 had brought back a wacky, rubbery quality as well as a sense of surrealism and self-reflexivity to the gags. Jack Mercer, Pinto Colvig and Margie Hines were a trio of outstanding voice actors who could wring every drop of comedy out of their lines. Despite all the new talent, the house style was still evident and Popeye cartoons still looked like no other.
But there were some negative aspects of the changes also. Somewhere between 1938 and 1940, the cartoons became more heavily scripted, and the muttered asides became few and far between. Some of the cartoons were closer to being generic domesticated comedies and there were more misfires than usual, as new story men experimented with ideas that didn't quite work for this quirky cast of misfits.
Shakespearean Spinach started the year off on the right note, or actually series of notes, musically speaking. A mini-version of the climax of the Marx Brothers , it features Popeye and Olive Oyl in a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, while Bluto, who has been thrown out of the cast for being a ham actor, does his best to sabotage the proceedings. His tricks include playing with the stage backdrops (a gag straight out of A Night at the Opera), moving the spotlight to wherever Popeye isn't, playing with lightning, wind and snow machines (all three completely necessary for a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, I guess) and adding himself back into the cast. Bluto becomes Romeo, Popeye becomes Juliet, the love scene becomes a brawl (at which point the unseen orchestra of course strikes up "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man"), and in the end, the audiences is completely worn out.
Females is Fickle has Popeye under the sea in search of Olive Oyl's pet goldfish while fighting some of the weirdest underwater creatures you will ever see.
STORY: Bluto tries to get to Olive's secret gold mine before Popeye and Olive can.
Fast paced with a wacky gag sense more akin to what would later be the norm at Warners or in a Tex Avery film, Stealin Ain't Honest is still a good old-fashioned Popeye versus Bluto story. Bluto is firmly back in his villain role, his mission in life is to beat Popeye, both figuratively and literally. At the beginning of the film, he steals the map to Olive's secret goldmine, leaving Popeye and Olive with a goodbye "N'yah!". ("Did you hear that, Olive? He went 'n'yah' right in my face!")
Why he even needed the map is unknown, because not only is there a helpful arrow sign floating on the water, the secret goldmine is marked with a gigantic sign that says "Olive's Secret Goldmine" in flashing neon letters. Olive has also left a series of punning signs ("Karet Patch", "What's Mine is Mine") to make sure any passersby would know about her secret.
Since he started in the part
of Bluto back in Wotta Nightmare,
Pinto Colvig had few opportunities for those under the breath
mutterings that make the films so fun. He gets off a good one
here, while crossing out Olive's name on a sign and replacing it with
his own: "I guess that's how you spell it."
"It's Bluto the claim jumper! Oh dear, I hope he doesn't try to jump on my claim!"
My Feelings is Hurt/ Onion Pacific/ Wimmin is a Myskery/ Nurse Mates
Many Popeye films were pumped out in 1940, and there was often a feeling of been there and done that, as the new writers and artists delved back into the Popeye archives for stories, situations and gags. My Feelings is Hurt marries those cartoons where Olive leaves Popeye for somebody new with some old rodeo and bullfighting cartoons. The result is not much of a cartoon at all, and it is particularly unpleasant to watch both Bluto and Olive Oyl laugh uproariously at Popeye's attempts to saddle a wild horse.
Onion Pacific is a fun race between Popeye and Bluto for a new railroad franchise, or as Olive Oyl calls it, French fries. Guess who wins? Wimmin is a Myskery introduces the four little Popeyes who would later become Popeye's nephews in the series. In this cartoon, they are dream figures, as Olive Oyl has nightmare about what married life with Popeye would be like. It's not really funny watching four little Popeyes beat up on a woman, and the best gag is lifted from Hal Roach films, as the four little tykes combine to disguise themselves as a single adult, in this case, Popeye. Nurse Mates is a pretty funny short that has both Bluto and Popeye babysitting Swee'pea. At one point, Bluto scrapes the kid along a washboard in a tub and then rings him out, and Swee'pea couldn't look happier.
STORY: Dr. Bluto is off to Darkest Africa on an expedition. When news of his disappearance reaches Popeye, he travels to Africa on a rescue mission.
Dr. Bluto? Doctor of what, pummelology?
Anyway, Fighting Pals is one of those infrequent but always fascinating cartoons that examine the friendship, if you can call it that, between Popeye and Bluto. They bid each other goodbye at the docks by punching each other as hard as possible, and Bluto gets the last word in by hurling an anchor at the back of Popeye's head from off screen as the ocean liner pulls out, which, instead of killing Popeye instantly, merely makes him chuckle all the more uproariously. Moments later, we find Popeye sitting in his cabin staring at the most horrid portrait of Bluto (or anybody) ever taken and decrying "I wish Bluto wuz here." Within one shot, several months fly by and Popeye is still sitting there. Then the radio mentions that Dr. Bluto is lost and has little hope of survival. "I'll find Bluto if I have to take Affreekee apart!" cries Popeye. "Well, get going!" cries the man on the radio.
A takeoff on the legend of the lost explorer David Livingstone and reporter Henry Morton Stanley who found him in 1871 ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"), Fighting Pals mixes some old fashioned gags of the early Popeye cartoons with the new-fashioned self-awareness of the late '30s. When Popeyes does arrive at Africa (bypassing war torn Europe, which fires at him when he gets too close), he comes upon the usual assortment of Fleischer animals and does his usual stuff - he turns a rhino's horn into a fancy hood ornament, pulls an elephants tail to shorten his trunk, that sort of stuff. When a lion swallows his pith helmet, Popeye travels deep into the lion's mouth and retrieves it - now inside a fancy hat box. Dark Africa and Darkest Africa are separated by a fork in the trees and are clearly marked by handy signs.
By the time Popeye does find Bluto, who is living the life of wine, wimmin and coconuts, it is Popeye who must revived. Bluto promptly pulls out his own can of spinach and force feeds it to his lifelong pal, and after a few pleasantries ("Dr. Bluto, I presume?"), the fight begins anew.
Doing Impossikible Stunts/ Wimmin Hadn't Oughta Drive/ Puttin on the Act/ Popeye Meets William Tell/ My Pop, My Pop
Doing Impossikible Stunts is a cheater, and a pretty dull one, in which Popeye shows clips of some of his old shorts to a movie producer. Wimmin Hadn't Oughta Drive is a generic comedy about Popeye teaching Olive Oyl how to drive. It's the kind of thing that any two movie comedians could have done, and Popeye and Olive come off as a kind of Laurel and Hardy, with Popeye often repeating what Olive just said in Hardyesque tones. There are too many jokes that have been used before and would be used again - throw out the clutch, give me the wheel.
Puttin on the Act (the title creators never had any real system worked out for when to use the "g" at the end of words, or even when or when not to use an apostrophe) is a fun one for old movie lovers, for its short scene of Popeye doing impersonations of three great movie comedians: Jimmy Durante, Stan Laurel and Groucho Marx. Olive hears that vaudeville is coming back, and that means they can put on their old act. It's like those episodes of I Love Lucy or Dick Van Dykewhen the plot calls for the gang to put on a show. Except it's Popeye and Olive Oyl, and they're cartoon characters, so to see them juggling and doing feats of derring do is not all that impressive, since, as a Tex Avery character once mentioned "You can do anything in these here cartoony pictures!" . But it's a fun short in spite of itself.
Somebody at Fleischers must have really liked Groucho, because he is referenced for the second time in a row in Popeye Meets William Tell, an otherwise forgettable cartoon that completely misses what Popeye is all about. When Popeye asks William Tell about his son, Tell pulls out a pocket watch, opens it, and inside is a stock photo of Groucho from the early 1930s! I don't get the gag, but maybe that's the point. My Pop, My Pop is yet another misfire. The humor throughout the entire cartoon is about how old and useless Poopdeck Pappy is. Laughing at an old man - yeah, that's a riot.
STORY: Pappy goes out for a night on the town, Popeye goes out for a night of tracking down Pappy.
With Poopdeck Pappy (the title is probably supposed to be Popeye The Sailor With Poopdeck Pappy) does a much better job at reviving the Pappy character. Popeye wants Pappy to go to bed, but Pappy wants to sneak out to a nightclub. When Pappy achieves this, it is up to Popeye to rescue Pappy from the clutches of all the brutes and scallywags whom the old man has insulted and annoyed all night. It's a return to that real run down, "everything is covered in dust and everybody is from bad side of the road" feeling that the Popeye cartoons used to have when they were being made in New York during the Great Depression. The floors are once again made of warped beams, the characters sitting around at tables at the dive Pappy visits are once again frozen in time by being part of the painted backgrounds (and there is one really icky foreground guy pictured here - obviously a long lost "relakive" of the Popeye family!). With Poopdeck Pappy is fast and funny ("Listen, Pappy, you're 99 years old! You can't be goin' out every night! You gotta save your youth for your old age!"), it's got swing music, jitterbugging and tough mugs galore - it's like a blast from the past. We even get some more of Popeye's father issues: "I hates meself for bein' your son!" he screams as the short comes to a close. I'm sorry, Popeye, but our six minutes are up. We can talk more about your father next week.
Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep
And yet the final short of the year, Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep, is all about Popeye, living in a nice house, trying to get his dog - The Jeep - to sleep outside for the night. It's cute, but it is worlds away from where we just were moments ago with Poopdeck Pappy getting into scrapes at the shabbiest little hellhole in town. And there is a curious moment when even an untrained eye can spot the work of two different animators. At one point, when Popeye is heading for his bedroom, he is drawn in that stiff, blank, robotic 1933 style where his head never moved because nobody yet knew how to animate him any other way. Yet when he reaches the bedroom, he is suddenly drawn in the more modern style - rubbery, full of personality and detail.