(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)
Paramount Pictures hedged their bets by introducing comic-strip character Popeye the Sailor to the big screen as a co-star in a cartoon featuring the Fleischer Studios’ “star” Betty Boop. But the Fleischers knew better from the start. The first image of the sailor’s debut cartoon features newspapers coming off the press that are headlined, “Popeye A Movie Star” — one of the few instances where Hollywood hype was truly prescient. (This, despite the fact that the star enters his first scene singing his theme song while beating up inanimate objects, and lifting his sailor shirt long enough to mistakenly show us he’s wearing a girdle.)
The cartoon gets right down to cases. A sailing ship on shore leave dispenses with its sailors, and Olive Oyl stands beside it, calling out for Popeye. However, this is apparently not the first time Olive has met the ship; two unknown sailors try to hit on Olive even before Bluto arrives on the scene. Naturally, when Bluto does arrive, he also tries to force himself upon Olive. Popeye nonchalantly pushes Bluto aside, bleating the last line of his theme song at Bluto for good measure. Bluto is so furious that his anger sinks the battleships that are tattooed on his chest. Hmm, this can’t be good.
Then a ten-second establishing shot shows the carnival where the trio is about to enter. Not to make too much of it, but take a good look at the hyper-activity in the shot; objects are moving so quickly that one group of carnival riders is deposited directly from a ferris wheel onto a roller coaster before they even hit the ground, and a merry-go-round is so giddy that it nearly slides off its framework. Now try to imagine any cartoon nowadays that would expend this much effort on a simple bit of exposition.
The trio eventually come upon Betty Boop, who displays the reason for her then-current popularity by doing a hula dance in which a thin lei barely covers her chest. (Other Popeye websites have said that if you look closely enough, you can actually see one of Betty’s nipples briefly exposed. I haven’t examined the cartoon that thoroughly, having sworn off arousal by animated characters after my traumatic experience with Jessica Rabbit.)
For a guy who wants everyone (including his new movie audience) to like him, Popeye is awfully brash. He jumps up on stage and does the hula dance right in sync with Betty Boop (though one imagines he’d be considerably less popular if his clothing were as minimal as Betty’s). In fact, Popeye is so eager to show off his dance lessons, he doesn’t even notice Bluto’s kidnapping of Olive until Betty points it out to him. Bluto demands of Olive, “Marry me!” — which, as the later cartoon For Better or Worser blatantly demonstrated, was the ’30s movie equivalent of “Gimme some lovin’!” Bluto’s id is so off the charts that he barely gives Olive a chance to snub him before he ties her to a railroad track (with one of the track’s own beams, no less).
Popeye intervenes, and of course Bluto starts to wail on him. But Popeye is so blasé about what is to become a standard motif for his series, he quietly lies on the ground, as if he was on a picnic instead of getting his butt kicked. Eh, what does Popeye care? The spinach’ll keep.
Not surprisingly, Popeye knocks Bluto and the oncoming train flat and still squeezes in the final line of his theme song at the finale, establishing that he’s going to be with us for quite some time and we darned well better get used to it. It’s a threat one can live with.