Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy in THE SPINACH OVERTURE (1935) – Classical comedy

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The following is my first of two entries in my ‘One’ of My All-Time Favorite Cartoons Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Nov. 7-9, 2015! Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ entries about great ‘toons that have stood the test of time!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Bluto: “With all due respect to the great maestro…”

It’s hard not to think of this thoroughly enjoyable short as a sequence in a long line of classical-music inspired cartoons: first Walt Disney’s The Band Concert (1935), then this one, followed by Disney’s feature-length Fantasia (1940), followed by a huge list of Warner Bros. Looney Tunes too numerous to mention here.

Here, though, as in the later Looney Tunes, the music is mainly a springboard to some very inventive gags lampooning said music’s pretentiousness. The cartoon begins with Popeye conducting a rather undignified orchestra, with Olive Oyl essentially doing Harpo Marx (she even uses one of her spindly legs to reach a string at the far end of her harp), and Wimpy doing Ringo Starr (he uses his cymbal as a “frying pan” to baste his omnipresent hamburger).

It’s not surprising that this makeshift crew might be the target of some derisive laughter. What is surprising is that the laughter comes from a nearby orchestra led by Bluto (in a Leopold Stokowski wig)! Did Bluto get a brace of culture at some point when nobody was looking?

Bluto plays first on the violin, then on the piano, and then he challenges Popeye to do the same. (Because as any concert-goer knows, a conductor has to be ready to improvise on an instrument should one of his orchestra members call in sick.) Popeye fails miserably, to the surprisingly derisive laughter of his usual followers Olive and Wimpy, who go off with Bluto to join his ensemble. (Olive, honey, you’re belittling Popeye after playing a harp with your foot??)

A dejected Popeye reaches into the piano and finds an errant can of spinach, which he munches on unthinkingly. Next thing he knows, he’s playing like Duke Ellington and scat-singing like Ella Fitzgerald. So after all this time, he couldn’t have figured out beforehand that the spinach might pep up his musical outings?

In a grand finale, Popeye plays and conducts flawlessly, gets a bout in with Bluto for good measure, and squeezes in a mock-classical version of his theme song for a “strong-to-the” finish. Bravo!!

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

(If you enjoyed this blogathon entry, please click here to read my second entry about the terrific TV cartoon, Tiny Toon Adventures.)

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My new Twitter.com Live Tweet: POPEYE & FRIENDS

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If you’re “of a certain age” (i.e., mine), you remember the pre-DVD and -Internet days, when we were at the mercy of TV programmers as to when we could see our favorite movies and cartoons. That brought about the golden age of kids’ shows hosted by local celebrities.

I always fantasized about hosting one of those shows. But since that era of TV is long gone, I’ve taken it upon myself to do the next best thing: Host a Live Tweet of classic cartoons every Sunday night at Twitter.com! No re-inventing the wheel for this one — just like the old TV shows, I’ve given it the umbrella title of Popeye & Friends, and it’ll be a weekly half-hour of cartoons featuring Popeye and whatever other “classic” cartoons I can dig up on YouTube.

However, for the first segment this Sunday (Oct. 4), I’m sticking strictly with Popeye, showing four of my all-time favorites from the Fleischer Bros. era:

I’ve already reviewed 3 of the 4 cartoons at this blog; click on their titles above if you’d like to read my critiques of them. Otherwise, “tune in” to Twitter.com at 7:30 p.m. on Sun., Oct. 4, use the hashtag #PopeyeFriends to follow along and comment on the cartoons, and have a happy second childhood with us!

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Swee’pea in BABY WANTS A BOTTLESHIP (1942) – Farewell, Fleischers

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Swee’pea is by far my least favorite Popeye character; even more so than Olive when she’s in Bluto’s clutches, Swee’pea exists for the sole purpose of being rescued (and annoyingly oblivious to the trouble he’s caused). So I’m doubly sorry that the Fleischers’ final Popeye cartoon is another routine Swee’pea entry. One has to believe that the Fleischers were indeed yanked off the Popeye series with no forewarning and that if they’d had a chance, their finale would have been far more ambitious.

Olive drops off Swee’pea so that Popeye can spend the day babysitting him aboard ship (because we all know that Marines had nothing better to do in 1942). Swee’pea, to no great surprise, gets loose aboard the ship and nearly causes more havoc than the Japanese could have done on their own. This cartoon brings you right to the brink of wishing that Swee’pea could have gotten what he deserved — maybe a Wile E. Coyote-like ride on one of the rockets he set off, or getting scooped up by Child Services once and for all.

Well, Messrs. Fleischer, it was nice while it lasted.

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

Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy in THE DANCE CONTEST (1934) – Break it down, Popeye

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Popeye and Olive enter a dance contest, but Popeye continually shows off his two left feet. Bluto wins Olive over on the dance floor, causing Popeye to conclude, “I guess I have no sex appeal.” (It took a dance contest to show him this.) Popeye drowns his sorrow in a bowl of spinach. Do you suppose that will help?

Worth the entire cartoon just to watch Popeye strut his post-spinach steps on the dance floor. Wimpy’s great as the “eliminating” contest judge, too.

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

LET’S SING WITH POPEYE (1934) – Follow the bouncing ball!

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This is a real oddity that barely gets a nod in the Popeye Vol. 1 DVD set (it’s on Disc 4). Various sources place its release year as either 1933, ’34, or ’35. It was distributed by Paramount to play at special Saturday matinees for members of the Popeye Fan Club.

It’s an “authentic” Popeye cartoon (with the usual “Adolph Zukor Presents” opening credit), but with the format of a two-minute “Follow the Bouncing Ball” sing-along. We see and hear Popeye’s first version of his theme song from his debut cartoon. Then the screen goes black, the song’s lyrics come up, Popeye tells us to “sing along wit’ me,” and the bouncing ball goes to town.

I didn’t bother giving this one a rating, because how do you rate an item like this? Weird to think that in 1934, anyone at Paramount would even think this film was needed to help anyone remember the lyrics that your garbage man can sing eight decades later.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy in HELLO, HOW AM I (1939) – Double trouble

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Popeye’s roommate Wimpy overhears Olive inviting Popeye over for a hamburger dinner. Wimpy then goes to an outrageous extreme to impersonate Popeye and get the dinner.

An interesting premise quickly becomes obvious (even by cartoon standards of disbelief-suspension) and mechanical. You kind of lose sympathy for Popeye when all it takes to fool him is some clown who puts on a Popeye Halloween costume and chirps nothing but, “I’m Popeye.” The best gag comes early, as sleeping roomies Popeye and Wimpy play “toesies” to decide who should answer Olive’s incoming phone call.

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

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in A CLEAN SHAVEN MAN (1936) – Popeye and Bluto start splitting hairs

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

A Clean Shaven Man is most notable for its depictions of (a) the grotesqueries it inflicts upon Popeye and Bluto, and (b) the conspicuous fickleness of Olive Oyl.

The cartoon begins with The Boys at a greasy-spoon restaurant, looking starry-eyed at waitress Olive Oyl as she seductively (at least for her) sings the title song. Bluto is his usual furry self and Popeye is more five-o’clock-shadowy than usual, so they figure that if all it takes to impress Olive is a shaven face, they’d better not press their luck.

The duo go to Wimpy’s Barber Shop (strangely labeled “Wimpy’s Bber Shop” in this cartoon’s cheapo colorized version). But Wimpy is — lucky for them, probably — off getting a shave somewhere else, so they agree to shave each other. Why Popeye would even consider letting Bluto go at him with a straight razor is one of this cartoon series’ Great Unsolved Mysteries, but so be it.

Popeye does an expert job in cleaning up Bluto’s kisser; unfortunately, it doesn’t help Bluto a bit. Just as a make-up job only makes Olive Oyl homelier (For Better or Worser), an ostensible clean-up just makes Bluto look like…well, at least like someone with whom I wouldn’t leave my child alone in a dark alley.

Then Bluto returns the favor to Popeye, and Popeye seemingly gets what he deserves. Bluto makes indentations in Popeye’s face that a tractor would have done more gracefully, and he somehow even sneaks a hair ribbon onto Popeye’s bald pate. (The movie’s hands-down “Eeeew” moment comes when Bluto tests a straight razor by flicking it on his tongue. And 1950’s parents worried about the fist fights in Popeye cartoons!)

When Popeye protests, Bluto beats him up and drags him off to scare Olive. Popeye tries to open his can of spinach, but for once Bluto catches on; “None o’ that stuff!”, Bluto yells, and he pitches the can away. Unfortunately, Bluto’s one moment of intelligence vanishes when he ignores the can’s rolling back into Popeye’s grip.

Popeye whips Bluto for the umpteenth time and then drags him off to startle Olive. Sadly, Olive does a better job of shocking The Boys; she walks past them while arm-in-arm with a man whose beard nearly drags on the ground. The Boys punish themselves by kicking each other’s butt (literally, for once) as the film fades out.

Postscript: In his book Hollywood Cartoons, Michael Barrier gives short shrift to a gag in this movie’s climax, where Popeye spins a barber’s chair off its base to press Bluto against a wall, and then the chair swings back onto the base. Barrier calls this a “gaucherie” because “There is no sense that this might somehow be physically possible; the seat simply floats.” Physically possible?? Hey, Mike, news flash — it’s a cartoon! You know, the kind of flick where Mickey Mouse uses a hippo’s teeth as a xylophone?? If only Popeye were still around to belt a cartoon deconstructionist instead of Bluto.

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