Review by KC Carlson
In which Popeye goes to war. On a couple of different fronts.
Volume 3 of the complete and restored Popeye cartoon series documents a couple of major transitions for the sailor man. On the screen, he gets a new job, swaps his sailor duds for a uniform, and bids adieu to some of supporting characters (at least for now). And the tone of the series itself changes as, in the real world, World War II changes everything for America. Behind the scenes, the folks responsible for developing Popeye for animation — and creating some classic cartoons in the process — are forcibly removed from the series.
Popeye Joins the Navy
Beginning with The Mighty Navy (1941), Popeye entered a new phase in his animated history. He joined the American war effort and became an ensign in the Navy. At this point, the character is redesigned, swapping his stylish black sailor shirt for Navy whites. This is a major change, as with the exception of a few cartoons (most of them compilations of earlier cartoons), this will be the character’s standard outfit until the 1960s — and the end of Popeye’s theatrical animation career. Unfortunately, this may have been a design mistake, as the all-white uniform is not visually distinguished, and the character lost some of his impact, especially over time. In real life, Popeye became the official insignia of the Navy bomber division, as shown in this cartoon (ironically using a picture of him in his civilian outfit).
Two cartoons later, in Kickin’ the Conga Round (1942), it’s revealed that Bluto is in the Navy as well, and he’s assigned to Popeye’s ship. The two are still in competition for Olive Oyl’s affections, except in this cartoon, Olive isn’t Olive, she’s a senorita — complete with Spanish accent — who only wants to dance the conga. The boys are on shore leave and “Olive”, as usual, pits the two sailors against each other for a dance. Bluto, of course, is a suave and confident dancer, and Popeye pulls his “I can’ts dansk!” routine, until he eats his spinach and gains the skills of Astaire. Take note, Dancing With the Stars contestants!
Later, in Olive Oyl and Water Don’t Mix (1942), Olive herself comes aboard the boys’ ship on a tour, only this time it’s obvious that Olive has never met the boys before. So once again, if you’re looking for the Popeye cartoons to have some logical sense of continuity, you’re just out of luck there, pal. The cartoon has two great lines in it, however: the boys want to “have nothin’ to do with female women”, and later, Olive returns Popeye’s “you’re awfully pretty” compliment with “you’re pretty awful yourself!”
There’s one other great pre-War cartoon on this set that pits Popeye against one of his toughest foes ever — a housefly! In Flies Ain’t Human (1941), the sides are pretty uneven, until Popeye accidentally knocks the fly into a can of spinach. There are some great sight gags with the super-powered fly carrying chairs and flying around inside a boxing glove. Popeye finally ends the fight by picking up a shotgun and proceeding to shoot up the whole house. Since there aren’t any walls left, the fly simply flies away — and then brings back all of his friends!
A Change in Tone
Unfortunately, a certain sameness to the cartoons started to set in, and some ideas began to be recycled. In the non-war cartoon Nix on Hypnotricks (1942), Olive falls under the spell of an evil hypnotist. Soon she is walking around dazed in a high-rise construction site, a la the classic A Dream Walking (1934). At one point, Popeye gets conked on the head and ends up touring the 26th floor with Olive. It’s nice to know that even while unconscious, Popeye’s enough of a gentleman to tip his hat to a (unconscious) lady (Olive) while they pass each other on a girder.
The other unfortunate thing that happens during the wartime era is that the cast pretty much is boiled down to just Popeye, Olive, and Bluto, with occasional appearances by Popeye’s nephews Pip-Eye, Pup-Eye, Poop-Eye, and Peep-Eye. They were never in the original comic strip and seemingly replace Swee’Pea for awhile. Popeye’s father, Poopdeck Pappy, pops up in a couple of pre-war ‘toons but later vanishes. We haven’t seen Wimpy for a while, and great characters like The Jeep and the Goons were not followed up on.
The Fleischers Are Fired
Also in 1942, Max and Dave Fleischer, the key brothers behind the Fleischer Studios who developed both Popeye and Superman for animation, were fired by Universal Studios. The reasons why are long and convoluted, but by this point, Max and Dave were no longer on speaking terms, making Universal nervous and forcing their hand in a move that was almost certainly illegal. The last Popeye cartoon produced by the Fleischer Studios was Baby Wants a Bottleship. An era had ended.
But Popeye continued on, as did most of the staff of the former studio. Paramount reorganized the studio almost immediately under the name Famous Studios, now run by several former Fleischer Studio people. The changeover happened so quickly it was said that the animators and staffers signed their new Famous contracts “between cels” while they continued to work on new cartoons. For many animators, the change meant more recognition on the cartoons themselves, as now the directors would be credited for their work. Previously, Dave Fleischer was credited as director of all the Popeye cartoons.
It’s interesting to note that in the wartime Fleischer Popeyes, the enemy was largely unseen or neutral. This was not always the case with the cartoons produced under the Famous banner, starting with You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap (1942). This cartoon is not only filled with offensive Japanese stereotypes (as well as a singalong jingle based on the title), but it shows one Japanese officer committing hari-kari by drinking a couple of gallons of gasoline and swallowing lit firecrackers! Shockingly, nothing at all happens to him for over a minute, until he presumably explodes (not on camera). As the cartoon fades out on the slowly sinking Japanese ship, the sound effect we hear is the sound of a toilet flushing. It’s no wonder that this cartoon has been banned from official release for decades, along with three others on this set: Scrap the Japs (1942), Spinach fer Britain (1943), and Seein’ Red, White, and Blue (1943). Warner is including its standard advisories on both the package and the discs, so hopefully parents won’t just simply hand this set over to their kids as a baby-sitting tool, as these cartoons are pretty hard to get through without wincing.
A Period of Experimentation
With the Fleischers gone, the remaining staff began experimenting with the Popeye cartoons, not all of them successfully. Over the next couple of years, various shorts featured talking animals, odd fantasy sequences, suicide attempts, Popeye and Bluto working together (and Popeye actually sharing his spinach with him!), some very loose animation, and even Popeye crying after being repeatedly pummeled by his nephews. The designs of the characters began to change, becoming softer. Popeye’s head was redesigned to make him more attractive and younger, and while Olive was never really pretty, all of the charming ganglyness of her character was slowly taken away. It was becoming obvious that certain members of the production crew ware paying close attention to what industry leaders Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM were up to. And taking notes.
Nowhere is this more evident than in The Hungry Goat (1943), a short that looks like the “great lost Tex Avery cartoon”. Popeye plays second fiddle to Billy the Kid, a wisecracking, clever goat who, unable to find scrap cans to eat because of the war effort, wanders onto Popeye’s ship and begins eating that. The goat, who could be a long-lost relative to Bugs Bunny, bests Popeye at every turn in a cartoon filled with Averyesque wild chases, freeze takes, backwards film, interacting with the film audience — as well as the opening and closing credits — and just general wackiness. Although this all sounds like a complaint, it isn’t! It’s actually a great cartoon! It’s just not really a Popeye cartoon.
Another high point is Me Musical Nephews (1943), an amazing barrage of syncopated music and action as Popeye’s hyperactive nephews jazz up the place when they can’t sleep, while the exhausted sailor man tries to shut them down and get them to sleep. The closing iris-out gag is one of the funniest in all cartoons.
The “huh?” moment of the set comes in Happy Birthdaze as Popeye tries to help cheer up his new sad sailor friend, Shorty, by bringing him along to a birthday party for Popeye at Olive’s house. (And it’s nice, for once, to see Olive really, really happy to see Popeye, even if it is off-camera.) Shorty is so bummed out that he frequently pulls out a gun and tries to shoot himself in the head. Fortunately, Popeye’s always around to prevent the suicide. But after Shorty makes a shambles of the party, the birthday cake, Olive’s apartment, and probably Olive and Popeye’s relationship, the two sailors end up trapped in the building’s furnace. As the lights go out, Shorty is happily singing a birthday song to his pal, when suddenly a gunshot rings out, Shorty abruptly stops singing and the cartoon fades out on a card that reads “The Bitter End.” What the heck happened?! Fortunately, Shorty pops up later in two more cartoons (not on this set).
The two-disc set is abounding with special features. There are four documentaries. Artist Myron Waldman is spotlighted, as are Popeye’s four nephews. Popeye the Mighty Ensign delves into Popeye’s WWII exploits, and Forging the Frame: The Roots of Animation 1921-1930 is a fascinating look at the silent era of animation, spotlighting the Fleischers’ impact on it. Plus, there are three Koko the Clown silent cartoons. It always amazes me how expressive Koko is for a character with no voice — and no sound at all! An additional cartoon, Finding His Voice (1928), is one of the early sound cartoons made by the Fleischers and cleverly explains how sound cartoons work! A total of seven individual cartoon commentaries, by Jerry Beck, Mark Kausler, Bob Jacques, John Kricfalusi, Eddie Fitzgerald, and others round out the set.
So, all in all, with the wrap-up of the classic Fleischer era and the oddball black and white beginnings of the Famous Studio era, with some hard-to-find War-era cartoons to boot, Popeye Vol. 3: 1941-1943 is a strangely fun addition to this should-not-miss classic animation series! And next time, the color Popeye cartoons begin!
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)