(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
For Better or Worser is so eye-popping (so to speak) on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.
The basic premise is simplicity: Popeye is an unhappy bachelor who decides to marry Olive Oyl (who else?), but Bluto almost beats him to it. But the final elaboration of this premise is anything but simple.
First off is this cartoon’s idea of marriage as something to be done as quickly, and with as little thought, as picking up a couple of groceries on the way home. Popeye starts the cartoon in a grungy bachelor pad, burning every food he tries to cook. Hastily, he decides, “I gotta get me a wife!” So apparently, if he hadn’t burned his dinner, matrimony wouldn’t have even crossed his mind.
Then there’s the matrimonial agency where Popeye goes to obtain his spouse. The agency’s desk clerk blithely tells him, “Take ya pick!” and points to a wall filled with framed pictures of potential brides. The cartoon does everything but come right out and say, “Popeye has just entered a brothel.” As cartoon historian Greg Ford screams on the DVD commentary soundtrack to this cartoon, “It’s all up there on the screen — it’s not the subtext, it’s the text!” (I highly recommend your listening to Ford’s commentary, which is nearly as funny as the cartoon he’s critiquing.)
Popeye sizes up the women’s images and picks Olive Oyl, who responds by adding a ton of make-up to a face that, as plain as it was to start with, would be far better off without it. But Bluto is another customer in the brothel, er, agency, and he also chooses Olive’s photo. Naturally he and Popeye butt heads (literally) over Olive, each man trying to drag Olive away from the other.
The back-and-forth chase scene is a feast for the eyes, not the least because the trio are running against a 3D-looking background. Max and Dave Fleischer went to the trouble of making an actual, rotating model against which their drawings were placed, making the cartoony Popeye and his peers look as though they’re making their way through the “real” world. Every time I watch this scene, I think of how, as a kid, my sister and I would derisively point out the same stupid backgrounds popping up over and over in Hanna-Barbera cartoons. This is just one more example of how the Fleischers never cut corners with these remarkable shorts.
Bluto and Olive make it to the office of the justice of the peace (Wimpy, who barely looks up from his hamburger to officiate in the marriage), and Bluto bleats, “We wanna get married in a hurry!” When you stop to think that, in ’30s movies, quickie marriages = “I wanna get laid!”, you realize there’s more subtext, text, and hyper-text in this cartoon than one should be asked to digest.
Of course, Popeye gets to the office in time to belt Bluto and claim Olive for himself. But when he gets a look at Olive’s transmogrified kisser, he almost pops out his other eye before declaring, “I do not [take this bride]!” and hightailing it back to his bachelor pad — because after all, a wizened, one-eyed sailor must have standards.
I’d love to know what any women think of this cartoon, because it obviously does them no favors; in terms of its regarding women as sides of meat to be haggled over by near-Neanderthals, it’s probably as offensive to women as some other Popeye cartoons are to minorities. The cartoon’s saving grace is in showing that these matrimonial “rules” were concocted by men who show that they’re not exactly prize packages themselves.
Though the Fleischers probably didn’t intend it as such, For Better or Worser is a nifty deconstruction of man’s most basic instincts. Plus, it’s an absolute hoot.