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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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

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, Bluto, and Wimpy in KING OF THE MARDI GRAS (1935) – All hail Jack Mercer!

King

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

“Oh, I’m king of the Mardi Gras, What’s more, I’m the whole bloomin’ show…” (Sung by Bluto and Popeye at various times in this cartoon)

After years of listening to that “one-eyed freak” warble his theme song, Bluto finally gets a theme of his own (in retrospect, a warm-up for his braggadocio number in Sindbad the Sailor) — only to have Popeye appropriate Bluto’s song, too.

This bit of filching comes about when Bluto and Popeye have neighboring sideshow acts at Coney Island. Bluto has a huge crowd awaiting his exploits; all Popeye has is Wimpy daydreaming and eating a burger.

Popeye, who usually respects others until they get in his personal space, loses a few points here for maliciously sabotaging Bluto in mid-act. In a desperate bid for attention, Bluto is reduced to wrapping a live snake around his neck and muttering, “Don’t anyone wanna see a guy choke to death for free?”

Bluto, of course, tries to take revenge by taking Olive. Olive clambers on to a roller-coaster ride, followed by Bluto and then Popeye, and the Fleischers’ as-usual-astounding animation and perspectives handily prove that the ride wouldn’t pass the most cursory state inspection. Popeye and Bluto soon end up in the same roller-coaster car and are so intent on beating the bejesus out of each other that they don’t even notice they’re a few miles above Earth while they do it.

After getting his usual spinach fix, Popeye’s punches ultimately land Bluto at the wrong end of a carny’s strong-man contest, where his head causes him to hit the bull’s-eye thrice (perhaps as punishment for Bluto’s stealing a box of cigars from a similar carny in Popeye the Sailor [1933]). Olive ends up safely in the arms of Popeye, who temporarily forgets his theme music and melodically declares himself King of the Mardi Gras.

(Trivia: As most Popeye-philes know, this was the first cartoon in which Popeye’s voice was contributed by Jack Mercer. Mercer was a Fleischer animator who imitated Popeye’s previous voice-man, Bill Costello, for his own amusement and was hired to do the real thing when Costello went on an unplanned vacation and was then dismissed. As generations of Popeye fans agree, Mercer definitively passed the audition.)

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

Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy in MORNING, NOON AND NIGHTCLUB (1937) – Feets of strength

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

“Popito” and “Olivita” are nightly dancers at Wimpy’s Café. Bluto gets his kicks by punching in Popeye’s face from ads posted all over town. (Bluto heartily confesses, “I never did like that guy!” We never would have guessed.)

Bluto waits at Olive’s stage door and tries to pick her up (“What a sweet momma!” he touchingly declares), but Olive snubs him, so Bluto decides…wait for it…to get revenge.

Olive’s opening number is “Why Am I So Beautiful?”, which convinces us that Olive can sabotage her own act quite well without Bluto’s help. Then comes the dance duet (far superior to Olive’s solo). When Bluto’s machinations fail to ruin the act, Bluto pushes Olive aside and dances with Popeye himself. (One gets the impression that these guys are beating on each other to cover up how much they really enjoy dancing together.) Once Popeye downs the spinach, he gets happy feet, which he promptly uses to kick Bluto’s butt (literally).

Something about music just revs these cartoons up. Beautifully animated and scored.

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

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy in PLUMBIN’ IS A “PIPE” (1938) – Great comedy on tap

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

To clean her apartment floor, Olive Oyl spreads soapy water across her floor, attaches towels to her feet, and skates across the floor to soak up the water. (Is this really the same woman who can barely stay upright five cartoons later, in A Date to Skate?)

Then a pipe on the side of the wall springs a leak. Olive plugs the leak while she calls a plumber — ever-helpful Wimpy, who offers the query, “Why didn’t you call yesterday? I was in that part of the neighborhood.” Wimpy does his usual un-speedy work in getting to Olive’s place, leaving enough time for Popeye to pop in.

Between the two of them, Popeye and Olive turn a single leak into multiple geysers. The house nearly floods before Popeye pulls out his “plumber’s helper” — the spinach can.

As with most of the great Fleischer cartoons, a breezily simple plot is propped up by delightfully elaborate gags. A simple pleasure to watch.

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

Popeye, Wimpy, and Bluto in WHAT – NO SPINACH? (1936) – You wanna buy a duck?

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In plot terms, What – No Spinach? is little more than a reversal on We Aim to Please (1934); here, Bluto runs a restaurant, and Popeye is his customer. The cartoon’s pleasures come from the embellishments on the now-well-known characters — particularly Wimpy, whose mumblings here elevate him to equal comic status with Popeye and Bluto.

The cartoon opens with an exterior shot of Bluto’s Restaurant, the menu for which is just as intimidating as its owner: “Ham Sandwich, 10 Cents – With Ham, 15 Cents – Bread, 5 Cents Extra.” One wonders how Bluto would react if you deigned to ask him for mustard on the sandwich.

As if that isn’t discouraging enough, Wimpy is the restaurant’s chef. His first scene shows him delivering “ode to a hamburger” while fixing same with such zest that this clip would be worthy of broadcast on cable TV’s Food Network. It’s almost charming to find Wimpy as this enthusiastic of a chef — if only Bluto didn’t have to steal the final product away to keep Wimpy from eating it.

Then Popeye comes in and orders roast duck (which, as we all know, was a specialty of Depression-era greasy-spoon restaurants). Of course, Wimpy tries to steal the cooked duck for himself; when he fails, he sneaks hot sauce onto the duck when Popeye isn’t looking — under the theory, I’m guessing, that if Wimpy can’t have the food, the customer can’t either.

Popeye exhales fire after trying the duck and then rushes from the restaurant without paying. Bluto thinks Popeye is trying to welsh out of paying for his meal (now Bluto knows how it feels), so he chases Popeye down and starts beating him. Naturally, in the ensuing melee, Popeye’s omnipresent spinach can pops out and helps him fight Bluto.

I know this is “just” a cartoon, but I can’t help noticing: (1) Any guy who walks around with his own supply of spinach probably isn’t or shouldn’t be too concerned with getting roast duck to start with. (2) As with the earlier cartoon, the restaurant gets so thoroughly destroyed in the Popeye/Bluto battle, you wonder if it was worth the price of a lousy meal. “Yeah, my café was leveled, but at least I made him pay for the darn duck!”

In the end, Wimpy walks out stealing an errant hamburger — and the movie.

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