1942-43: Famous Popeye

IN-BETWEENERS

You're a Sap, Mr. Jap/Alona on the Sarong Seas

    You're a Sap, Mr. Jap, the first  Popeye film produced by Paramount's new Famous Studios, is pure wartime propaganda.  Popeye meets up with what appears to be Japanese fishermen on the high seas, only to discover their small boat is only the top level of a gigantic Japanese warship.  The cartoon is filled with horrible Japanese stereotypes, the kind that can make some people cringe today.  In one way, I am glad that cartoons like this were not shown on television back when I was a kid, yet in another way I am glad that in the age of DVD, we now have access to such cartoons.  If we whitewashed everything in history that made us uncomfortable, our history would start this mornng and be rewritten by brunch.  

     Thankfully, Alona on the Sarong Seas is free from stereotypes, unless Olive in a sarong is a stereotype of Dorothy Lamour.  In this fun film, Popeye and Bluto contend for the affections of "Princess Alona" ("She looks so right in a sa-rong", sez Popeye).  The second half of the short is almost completely without dialogue and contains some very creative animation.


SPOTLIGHT: "A Hull of a Mess"

With: Popeye, Bluto
Animators: Al Eugster, Joe Oriolo
Directed by I. Sparber

     STORY: Popeye and Bluto compete for a battleship contract.

      And it's back to the good old days of the early 1930s, when it seemed every other cartoon has Popeye and Bluto as rivals in the same profession.  It's a surefire premise as long as the gags are good, and this cartoon is loaded with memorable ones, both visual and verbal, most of them perfectly timed to the peppy background music. Jack Mercer gets a story credit for this one, which could explain why it is so wonderfully old school, but director Izzy Sparber as well as lead animator Al Eugster both had much experience in animation.  Eugster's career was especially impressive, having worked not only for the Fleischers but also for Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, where he worked on such classic films as the short Clock Cleaners and the first animated feature SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS.

     A Hull of a Mess introduces yet a new title sequence featuring a cuter, smaller-chinned Popeye (seen at the top of this page) as well as a much more upbeat version of the Popeye theme song, with an accordian being the most prominent musical instrument.  This new arrangement would remain the standard for the rest of the Famous cartoons through the series demise in 1957.


IN-BETWEENER

Scrap the Jap

    Another wartime propaganda film filled with even more racial stereotypes as well as lines like "Looks like somebody's risin' sun is fallin'" and "I never seen a Jap that wasn't yellow!".  In the end, Popeye has a boatload of Japanese sailors in a floating cage, and just before the fade out, they all turn into rats.   All completely understandable considering the times cartoons like this were made in.  Japan had attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor and was aligned with Germany and Italy, who were doing their best to take over all of Europe.  The entire world was at war, and had the Allied powers not won, we would be living in a very different world today.  So Hollywood, a very different Hollywood from today, was in full flag-waving, "let's win this thing" mode.


SPOTLIGHT: "Me Musical Nephews"

With: Popeye and his four nephews
Animators: Tom Johnson, George Germanetti
Directed by Seymour Kneitel

     STORY: Popeye can't sleep because of a lengthy jam session by Pipeye, Pupeye, Peepeye and Poopeye.

     One of the most exquisitely timed cartoons ever, and like the earlier A Dream Walking, as well as the best Tom and Jerrys, Bugs, Daffy or Road Runners and the best Tex Averys, it all seems so effortless.  Yet, just watch what is passed off as animation today on The Cartoon Channel or Nickelodeon, and Me Musical Nephews will be revealed as the masterpiece it is, even if you don't like Popeye's annoying nephews.  Filled to the sprockets with creativity and imagination, Me Musical Nephews starts off at a leisurely pace, as Popeye tells his nephews every bedtime story ever, combined into one unintelligible ten second tale, and then sends them off to bed.  Bored and in no mood for sleep, the nephews start turnnig everything they can find - radiators, watering cans - into musical instruments before breaking out their own horn section and blasting out a big band jazz tune.  Every time Popeye peeks into their bedroom, the nephews immediately feign sleep, and every time Popeye shuts the door, the jam session begins exactly where it left off.  Having nowhere else to go, Uncle Popeye tries to find peace outside of the film itself, sneaking himself and his bed through the fadeout iris and into blissful quiet and peace.  Then the nephews step outside the film to join him, and he goes completely mad, hopping about the movie theater itself like Daffy Duck.  It's an ending Tex Avery probably enjoyed immensely.

SEZ ME!

"Bless Olive Oyl and Swee'pea and Wimpie and Bluto.... and Popeye...  and all the people who come to see our pictures!"


IN-BETWEENERS

Spinach Fer Britain/ Seein' Red, White and Blue/ Too Weak to Work/ A Jolly Good Furlough/ Ration for the Duration/ The Hungry Goat/ Happy Birthdaze

     And once again it is back to war-effort films.  There is a curious lack of detail in Spinach Fer Britain, a short in which a Nazi submarine attempts to keep Popeye from delivering his boatload of spinach to No. 10 Downing Street. For a series that always prided itself on distinctive backgrounds and painstakingly detailed textures, Spinach Fer Britain often resembles one of the careless and shoddy Popeye television cartoons from the 1960s.  There is not a single label on any of the cans of spinach in Popeye's rowboat, the clouds are just blobs in the background, and half the time, Popeye doesn't even look like Popeye but rather like the third runner-up prize in a Draw Popeye Contest for six-year-olds.  It's all so very strange, considering it followed such a masterful Popeye film like Me Musical Nephews.  Maybe they put everything they could into that one and simply tossed this one off without any effort.  It sure looks like it.

     Seein' Red, White and Blue is one of the more interesting propaganda films as Bluto receives a letter ("Who do I know that can write?") that turns out to be a notice from the draft board.  The film feels like it was put together in bits and pieces.  Popeye is strangely silent for most of the film as if Jack Mercer wasn't available to spice up the film with some of his mutterings.  Yet in other scenes, Mercer is obviously there.  As in many comedies and cartoons of the time, rubber tire gags dominate.  Because so much was needed for our military, there were many shortages of goods in civilian life, including rubber, and gag writers found this to be a cheap and easy way to get a laugh from wartime audiences. Halfway through the film, Popeye discovers that a local orphanage actually houses a nest of Japanese spies, and he east his Spinach (and forcefeed Bluto some too, can and all) and beats the hell out of them. There are caricatures of Emperor Hirohito and Adolph Hitler, both who are knocked out by a long distance Popeye punch.  It's just a weird cartoon, and fun to watch for that reason alone.

     Too Weak to Work is also very strange.  Bluto feigns illness to get out helping paint rowboats (for the war effort, we presume) and when Popeye finds out, he disguises himself as a nurse and tortures Bluto into submission. Bizarre, surreal gags rule the day.  It is one of those shorts where you can actually tell that different animators worked on different scenes, because the drawing style and energy level changes so drastically.

      The best thing about A Jolly Good Furlough is the title.  Otherwise, it's an annoying six minutes of Popeye's nephews demonstrating home defense to their uncle Popeye.  After being injured in myriad ways, Popeye decides he'd get better rest back at the war.  Ration for the Duration has Popeye dreaming of Jack and the Beanstalk.  The Giant comes out wearing a N.Y. Giants shirt, and just as you are growning at the obviousness of the gag, he says "Uh, I didn't think it was funny either." Otherwise, it's more shortage gags, with Popeye saying patriotic but unfunny things like "Uncle Sam could use all that stuff!"  There's a definite Tex Avery influence on The Hungry Goat, as our goat "Billy the Kid" wanders through the title sequence and then asks for the film to be rolled back so he can read the title again.  This is reminiscent of several Avery cartoons, especially the Bugs Bunny cartoon Tortoise Beats Hare.   Other gags, such as the admiral going to the movies and then showing up in the audience watching The Hungry Goat, have Avery written all over them.  Too bad the goat in question is just as annoying as Avery's Screwy Squirrel, or this would have been a much better cartoon.

     Happy Birthdaze begins with Popeye's new pal Shorty trying to blow his brains out. Unfortunately, Popeye talks him out of it.  Famous was beginning to excel at creating really irritating characters you couldn't possibly like. Perhaps they were trying to emulate Warners' growing menagerie of wiseguys, but try as they might, Famous couldn't come up with a new character, besides Popeye, who would be as memorable as Bugs or Daffy.  Later on, Casper the Friendly Ghost would be as close as they came to creating a real cartoon star.  Shorty is so godawful a character, in the end, Popeye shoots him himself.  A shame that Famous had to keep teaming Popeye with such aggravating partners, because the shorts of this period were filled with tons of energy and fun, strange gags that would have been a lot funnier had we actually given a damn about the people in the cartoons.  

     Case in point: Wood-Peckin'.  The short actually takes the right approach, the one they were perfecting at Warners.  Usually, Bugs Bunny is content to live out his life in peace, and only restorts to revenge and violence when his life, liberty and/or pursuit to happiness is threatened.  Thus, we root for him.  We should root for the woodpecker in this short too, as Popeye attempts to cut down the tree in which the woodpecker lives.  But, although he is a better character than either Billy the Kid or Shorty, he still is too annoying for us to really get behind.  And his Edward G. Robinson voice just underscores the fact that nobody could come up with an original personality for him. Walter Lantz did much better with Woody Woodpecker.


SPOTLIGHT: "Cartoons Ain't Human"

With: Popeye, Olive Oyl, His four nephews
Animators: Orestes Calpini, Otto Feuer
Directed by Seymour Kneitel

     STORY: Popeye creates his own Popeye cartoon!

     In September of 1943, Famous Studios released the last black and white Popeye cartoon.  One month later they would release the Technicolor Her Honor the Mare, and the series would remain in color from that moment on. For the last black and white Popeye cartoon, the animators seemed determined to cut corners, as Popeye unveils an amateurishly drawn Popeye cartoon all of his own making.  The cartoon within a cartoon, "The Wages of Sin (Less 20%)" is so wacky, it helps make Cartoons Ain't Human the most fun Popeye cartoon since Me Musical Nephews.  Popeye's cartoon is a satire of Popeye cartoons, as well as of old silent melodramas, and Cartoons Ain't Human is a satire of the entire process of cartoon-making itself.  Towards the end of the real cartoon, one of Popeye's nephews accidentally hits the speed button on the projector, making the apparatus bounce so violently, it starts moving all around the room, projecting the cartoon within the cartoon onto various surfaces in Popeye's living room.  Everybody's so wrapped up in Popeye's cartoon, they don't even stop to fix the projector - they just scramble around the room trying to follow the projected image itself.  

     Fittingly, and perhaps on purpose, both cartoons end simultaneously with an image of Popeye saving Olive Oyl from an oncoming train, exactly how the first Popeye cartoon ended back in 1933.  Popeye comes full circle.


POPEYE: THE REST OF THE STORY

     The Popeye theatrical cartoons, now in color, would actually continue until 1957.  Jack Mercer and Mae Questel provided the voices of Popeye and Olive Oyl and Jackson Beck played Bluto.  The color Popeyes eventually bogged down and became very formulaic, and many of the shorts were pale remakes of the older black and white ones. However, Popeye was still the best thing coming out of Famous Studios, though that is not saying much.  

     In the 1960s, the series would be revived on television with dozens of new, cheaply produced and often bizarrely animated cartoons.  In 1980, director Robert Altman released his theatrical version of Popeye, starring Robin Williams as the title character and a perfectly-cast Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl.  Also in the '80s, Popeye was featured in several Saturday morning cartoon shows.  Jack Mercer continued doing the voice of Popeye until his death in 1984.  Maurice LaMarche voiced Popeye for the 1987-88 kiddie series Popeye and Sons.  

     In 2004, Popeye entered the world of computer animation in the television special Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy.  Impressionist Billy West did a more than creditable job providing the voice for the one-eyed sailor.  This special was quite a treat for fans of the old cartoons, although, as nice as the CGI animation was, it would have probably played better as a traditional 2D cartoon.

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