Right from the release of “Popeye the Sailor” in 1933, Paramount knew they had a hit on their hands. Subsequent releases only served to confirm what they already knew.
By the time of the seventeenth cartoon in the series, The Dance Contest, Popeye was an established cartoon character, who could be counted upon to draw patrons to the theaters, even if the main feature was sub-par.
And, where there is dancing, there is music.
The Dance Contest opens up outside a hall that is being used as a venue for such a shindig. We see a taxi drive up, and its driver is a master of the form of parallel parking in which one pulls in until one makes contact with the car ahead of one, then pulls back until contact is made with the car behind, then the process is repeated untll the driver is nestled in to one’s satisfaction.
Popeye and Olive Oyl, none the worse the wear for their cab driver’s attempts at parking, emerge, with Olive noting that they are “very late”.
The orchestra (which we do not see to any great degree in this cartoon) is playing “The Champagne Waltz” (by Con Conrad, Ben Oakland and Milton Drake), which had been a modest hit earlier in 1934.
Judging by the way the other dancers are towing each other across the floor, this could have been a dance marathon–but it was not advertised as such. It is presided over by Wimpy, who is happy to have a large stack of hamburgers at his left hand, and a lever, set into the floor, at his right. This is the dreaded “Eliminator”, and, when it is pulled, a trap door appears wherever it is desired, sending dancing couples plummeting out of sight–sometimes for something as trivial as not having any mustard for Wimpy’s sandwiches.
At first, neither Popeye nor Olive are especially good dancers. Poieye seems to sped an inordinate amount of time either stepping on Olive’s large feet, or trying to keep up with the gentle waltz rhythm of the piece.
This causes great amusement to Bluto (voiced here by William Pennell), sitting at a ringside table. He comes along and sweeps Olive off her feet, causing Popeye (voiced by Billy Costello) to lament “I guess I has no sex-appeal!”
Popeye tries to drown his sorrows in a bowl of spinach (“My only friend!”), when he finds that the green leafy veggie puts some ginger into his feet. After downing the entire bowl (during which we hear “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” with a Charleston beat). He then goes onto the floor, grabs Olive from Bluto, and goes into a rhumba number, “Green Eyes”. During this number, Popeye and Olive slide into one of the newer ballroom dances, the Carioca (introduced the previous winter in “Flying Down To Rio”), whose salient feature is that the dancers are expected to dance wth their forheads pressed together.
Bluto, once again ringside, doesn’t much like this, so he invades the floor, shoves Poeye to a ringside table, and engages Olive in an Apache dance. Olive’s first reaction is alarm, then it changes to resignation as Bluto tosses her around like a basketball, in the best Apache manner.
Popeye, sitting ringside, gets up, trills on his pipe, and gives his standard declaration of war–”That’s all I can stands, I can’t stand no more!’
Making his way to the floor, he proceeds to do the Apache dance, with Bluto forced to take the female role. Bluto winds up well and truly beaten-up, with a couple of prominent lumps on his head, and a small statue resting atop his noggin as well.
Popeye and Olive win the loving-cup–which proves to contain Wimpy’s sought-after mustard.
Sammy Timberg’s crew of local-802 cleffers do their work with admirable precision. “The Champagne Waltz” is pleyed with delicacy and tenderness, with an occasional pause for effect. It sounds like a good society dance band of the time.
“Green Eyes” was a curious choice. It had been written as “Aquellos Ojos verdes” (“Those Green Eyes”) in 1929 by composer Nilo Menendez and lyricist Adolfo Utrera. The lyricist recorded it for Columbia in June of 1930; a record that was aimed at Spanish-speaking audiences exclusively.
About a year after that, an English lyric was written, and the piece was recorded by Don Azpiazu and his orchestra, with a vocal by proific light baritone Chick Bullock. The record was only a modest success–but then, record sales in 1931 were falling faster than Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff!
The piece was virtually forgotten until 1941, when Jimmy Dorsey recorded a sparkling arrangement by Salvador “Tutti” Camarata, which was a feature for romantic baritone Bob Eberly and hot swinger Helen O’Connell. This became a big hit, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
The Apache dance was handled in the way that such dances were usually handled in American films: pure slapstick.
The music used was the almost-inevitable “Valse des Rayons ” (also known as “Valse Chaloupee”) from the ballet “Le Papillon” by Jacques Offenbach. Why this piece became associated with the Apache dance is anybody’s guess. The clip at right is from Charlie Chan In Paris (1935)
When played straight, as part of the score for the aforementioned ballet, “Valse des Rayons” has a decidedly Viennese flavor to it. It sounds like something that could be danced on a chandelier-lit ballroom by elegatlay-dressed-ad-coiffed ladies and gentlemen.
When played here,, there are paused for Olive Oyl to be bounced to the floor, pulled by the hair (to steel-guitar gissandi), and bounced off of Bluto’s knee–again, onto the floor. When it is time for an invigorated Popeye to do unto Bluto what Bluto had done unto Olive, the music takes on a more elephantine mode.
Soft strings are replaced by trombone and baritone sax unisons. And Bluto ges a well-deserved comeuppance.
Popeye, Olve and Bluto would collide on the dance floor again, within a few years.