FOR BETTER OR WORSER (1935) – Joining in holy headlock

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The following is my first of two entries in The Popeye Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Sept. 28-30, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to the fictional one-eyed sailor!

(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.

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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.

Brothel

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.)

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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.

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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.

Justice

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.

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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.

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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.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanCan

(If you enjoyed this blogathon entry, click here to read my second entry, a “psychological examination” of Popeye & Co. And click here to listen to my Fleischer Bros.-Popeye podcast!

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Announcing THE POPEYE BLOGATHON!

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After serving for four years as the “breakout star” of E.C. Segar’s comic strip Thimble Theatre, Popeye the Sailor Man made his movie debut on July 14, 1933 and became as big of a hit in animated cartoons as he was in comics. To honor the 85th anniversary of his film career, we proudly announce…

THE POPEYE BLOGATHON!

The rules are simple. Write a blog about any aspect of Popeye you like. Here are some ideas:

  • E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre
  • Theatrical cartoons:  the Fleischer Bros. era (1933-1942), and/or the Famous Studios era (1942-1957)
  • TV cartoons: King Features (1960-1962), Hanna-Barbera (1978-1983, 1987-1988)
  • Robert Altman’s 1980 movie adaptation, starring Robin Williams

Again, any aspect of these subjects is fine. (For example, you could write about the entire Fleischer Bros. era, or you could write about just your favorite cartoon from that era.) Also, if you have an idea of your own, let me know, and if it relates to Popeye, I’ll gladly accept it.

My only request: No duplicate entries! At the bottom of this blog entry, I will keep an updated list of blogathon entrants. Be sure to check the list to ensure that your idea isn’t already taken.

How Do I Join the Blogathon?

In the “Comments” section at the bottom of this blog, please leave your name, the URL of your blog, and the movie trio you are choosing to blog about. At the end of this blog entry are banners for the ‘thon. Grab a banner, display it on your blog, and link it back to this blog.

The blogathon will take place from Friday, Sept. 28, through Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. When the opening date of the blogathon arrives, leave a comment here with a link to your post, and I will display it in the list of entries (which I will continually update up to the beginning of the ‘thon, so keep checking back!).

I will not be assigning particular dates to any blog posts. As long as you get your entry in by the end of the day on Sept. 30, I will be satisfied. (That said, the earlier the better!)

Again, be sure to leave me a comment and grab a banner, and have fun with your blog entry! Here’s the line-up so far:

Movie Movie Blog Blog – the 1935 theatrical cartoon For Better or Worser, and a “psychological examination” of Popeye, Olive Oyl, Wimpy, and Bluto

Caftan Woman – the 1936 theatrical cartoon Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor

Movierob – Fox TV’s 2004 CGI special “Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest for Pappy”

The Midnite Drive-In – Robert Altman’s Popeye movie

Talk About Cinema – Seasin’s Greetinks! (1933), Let’s Celebrake (1938), Mister and Mistletoe (1955), and Spinach Greetings (Popeye TV cartoon)

It Came from the Man Cave! – “There Goes the Neighborhood,” Episode 12 of Hanna-Barbera’s “Popeye and Son” (1987)

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COMPRESSED HARE (1961) – Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote, together again

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The following is my first of two entries for The 1961 Blogathon, being hosted by little ol’ me at this blog on April 27-29, 2018 in honor of my 57th birthday. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to a variety of movies released in or related to the year of 1961!

As I stated above, this blogathon is my self-indulgent tribute to my birthday. And what does my birthday make me think of? Childhood, and watching cartoons on Saturday morning! So I’d like to honor one of those cartoons, released a few months after my birth.

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Compressed Hare is the fourth pairing of Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote — they would be paired again in Hare-Breadth Hurry (1963), with Bugs standing in for an ailing Road Runner — and it doesn’t take a SPOILER ALERT to let people know which of this duo is going to win this grudge match. (The cartoon is embedded below for your viewing pleasure.)

This is also one of the last great cartoons of Warner Bros.’ “golden age” of animation, hereafter followed by mostly dull outings with the Road Runner and Coyote (not directed by their originator, Chuck Jones), and Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzales.

(If you’ve ever wondered why Wile E. Coyote speaks in some cartoons but not in the Road Runner series [where he first became popular], Jones said he regarded Wile E. as an “actor” in three separate series: the Road Runners, the Ralph-and-Sam episodes [where Wile E., as “Ralph Wolf,” is pitted against a clever sheepdog], and his outings with Bugs Bunny.)

The cartoon begins with Wile E. conveniently planting a live telephone outside Bugs’ hole. When the phone rings, Bugs, playing along with the premise, nonchalantly answers it (because Bugs deserves a phone, doesn’t he?). Wile E. is on the other line, asking to borrow a cup of diced carrots, and Bugs is happy to comply with the request.

When Bugs arrives at Wile E.’s cave, he sees a mailbox adorned with the title “Wile E. Coyote – Genius.” Bugs offers the camera a withering look before knocking on Wile E.’s door and inquiring, “Are you in, genius? Are you incapable? Insolent? Indescribable? Inbearable?” The door slams open, and Wile E. grabs Bugs and pulls him inside.

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We next sees Bugs tied to a stake in the cave while Wile E. prepares rabbit stew, for which he announces that Bugs is the main ingredient. (Bugs is cooler about Wile E.’s impending cannibalization of him than I am in getting up in the morning.) While the stew is brewing, Wile E. tends to his wine collection, wondering which selection best complements game. “You are game, aren’t you?” Wile E. asks Bugs.

Bad choice of words. “Oh, I’m game, all right,” sneers Bugs, who uses the stake to tap on a floorboard and pop a wine cork into Wile E.’s eye. “Now, look here, me bucko,” Wile E. snaps.

Bugs taps the floorboard again. Wile E. ducks to avoid a second wine bottle uncorking, but through a series of Rube Goldberg-like machinations, the cork ends up doing in Wile E. for good. Still tied to the stake, Bugs hops out of the cave and back to his hole.

Three more of Wile E.’s failed attempts to subdue Bugs lead to the cartoon’s centerpiece: a 10-billion volt electronic magnet (probably purchased on credit from the Acme Company). Wile E. drops a metal-plated carrot into Bugs’ hole to tempt the rabbit, but Bugs isn’t fooled — he sends the carrot (and several of his appliances) back Wile E.’s way via the magnet’s draw. Mother Nature is also only too happy to help with Bugs’ revenge — we see other metal-based properties from around the world heading for Wile E.’s cave, including this priceless shot:

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When an oversized rocket plows into the cave, it’s finally too much. The cave explodes, sending Wile E. into celestial parts unknown. Bugs comments on the then-current “space race” by saying, “One thing’s for sure — we’re the first country to get a coyote into orbit!”

When the character of Bugs Bunny was created in 1940, he was regarded almost as a “wartime hero,” a symbol of America’s determination in the grim face of World War II. Animation buffs have since marvelled at how the guys at “Termite Terrace” (the nickname for the slovenly offices of Warner Bros.’ cartoon unit) could come up with so many un-war-like situations to demonstrate Bugs’ spunk. This cartoon remains one of the finest.

(Another of my birthday indulgences: Click here to read my 1988 interview with Chuck Jones. Also, if you enjoyed reading this, click here to read my second blogathon entry, about Stan Laurel receiving an Honorary Oscar in 1961.)

 

A cold, hard analysis of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Even though certain movies might have been made decades ago, usually I can enjoy them in the age I’m in, in the here and now. But for me to fully appreciate Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I think I’d have to have been part of one of its original audiences in 1937. I first saw the movie during its 50th-anniversary re-release, and I’m afraid that the — forgive me — sexual politics of 1987 sort of laid the movie bare for me.

Yes, I can easily appreciate its technical aspects. The fluid, hand-drawn animation — an element that seems to drift further away in modern movies — is truly something to behold. And the rich and funny characterizations of the Seven Dwarfs — something that was thought impossible for a feature-length cartoon (of which, of course, this was the first) — remain distinct and enjoyable.

But then there’s the little matter of…Snow White.

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She is the movie’s heroine, the groundwork upon which Disney laid the foundation for the movie’s premise, its reason for being — and I’m afraid she comes off as too much of a simp for me. I can understand her being frightened in given situations. (Who couldn’t get chills from the scene where Snow White scampers nervously through the dark forest and is seemingly menaced by every tree?)

But at some point through all of these adventures which Snow White proves worthy to survive, couldn’t she have developed just a bit of a spine? At no point in the movie is she not entirely dependent on someone else for her well-being — the Wicked Queen, the woodsman who spares her life, and those damn dwarfs. And of course, the prince who awakens her with “love’s first kiss.”

And what about those dwarfs, and the shortchanging they get? After tending to her every need for Disney knows how long, she gets swept off her feet by that one-kiss prince, after which Snow White is perfectly content to abandon her wards, and they her. As the Wicked Queen would say, “Bah!”

We all have particular movies where we can appreciate the skill and talent that went into them, and yet we’re still left baffled as to their wide popularity. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it appears, is my cross to bear.

How the critics stole Christmas

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Like most people who love Chuck Jones‘ TV adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, I’ve been watching it since I was a kid, and I can never get enough of it. (The less said about Ron Howard’s ghastly movie version starring Jim Carrey, the better.)

I wish I could find a fresh way to describe how much this cartoon delights me, but I can’t. So instead, I refer you to a very enjoyable blog titled Tralfaz, which dives deeper into the creation of animated movies and TV shows than I would have ever thought possible.

Click here to read the blog’s surprising account of how some contemporary TV critics sniffed at what has long since become a holiday classic. If you ever get too full of yourself as a blogger or critic (and I can be as guilty as anyone), remember that the work you’ve critiqued will probably last long after you do.

 

Your Saturday morning cartoon

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Did you know that the Looney Tunes troupe did a parody of Casablanca? It came out in 1995 and is titled Carrotblanca (starring guess-who). It was originally released as a curtain-raiser for a forgettable Warner Bros. family filim, The Great Panda Adventure.

When I first heard about this release, I was dying to see the cartoon; the pandas, not so much. So one day on my lunch hour, I drove to my local bijou, dutifully paid full admission, sat through Carrotblanca, and left to go back to work. It was worth every dollar of my movie ticket.

Carrotblanca is 14 minutes long, an epic by Looney Tunes standards. It was produced by Warner Bros. during their brief “cartoon renaissance” period of the 1990’s, when someone in the front office got talked into actually making decent theatrical cartoons again for a while. (Chuck Jones did his final theatrical work during this time.) And in the grand style of Jones’ mock-epic The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1949), this cartoon features practically every member of the famous Looney Tunes ensemble, from famous to peripheral. Enjoy!

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003) – Mighty sporting of the little black duck (and friends)

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At last, those tired spy-movie spoofs are right where they belong — right in the middle of a Looney Tunes cartoon.

I wouldn’t have thought that the sensibilities of a seven-minute cartoon could be stretched to feature length as well as in Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Not even Space Jam (1996) went for broke as much.

If you tried to diagram the plot for this movie, it would probably look something like several Looney Tunes strung together. It starts out with a harried movie executive (Jenna Elfman) firing and then trying to re-hire Daffy Duck. Then it turns into the story of a security guard (Brendan Fraser) who finds out that his father (two-time James Bonder Timothy Dalton) is, guess what, a secret agent. Then there’s the whole subplot about the Acme Corporation’s evil leader (Steve Martin) trying to turn the world’s human population into monkeys. And the mind still reels at Bugs Bunny and Daffy finding out that the Roswell UFO incident wasn’t a fake.

There’s probably only one man in Hollywood who could meld these shards of plot into a cartoon/live-action movie, and happily, the Warner Brothers hired him. His name is Joe Dante, who made his name in the ’80s directing cartoon-like feature films (GremlinsInnerspace). Dante has probably been licking his chops at the thought of doing a Bugs/Daffy feature ever since he had them do a cameo in Gremlins 2, and he has done himself proud. Even though the original Looney Tunes directors have long since gone to comedy heaven, Dante’s lead “actors” don’t seem to have aged a bit. It’s like finding a newly uncovered Marx Brothers movie.

As for the flesh-and-blood performers, Fraser, Elfman and the rest of the movie’s live actors, they’re admirably good sports, cheerily getting walloped around by hand-drawings. The only sour note is struck by Steve Martin, who overdoes trying to be even more cartoony than the cartoon characters.

In a year filled with typical Hollywood blockbusters, who could have guessed that Finding Nemo and this gem would be the year’s highlights? Some days, a movie viewer feels like Porky in Wackyland.