Through 1934, it probably became apparent to Max and Dave where there success was coming from. Theaters were not running “Betty Boop Clubs”, but they were running Popeye clubs to get kiddies to attend the Saturday matinee. The Popeye phenomenon was going on in England, too. There exists a famous essay, comparing the popularity of Popeye to that of Mickey Mouse in Britain. The sailor was doing precisely the opposite of an old nautical motto – and “making waves” resoundingly felt in the entertainment industry.
Can You Take It (4/27/34) – Myron Waldman was normally known for a reputation of peaceable, gentle-humored situations for the characters he directed or supervised as lead animator. But in this early effort, possibly for the only time in his career, he completely cuts loose with over-the-top violence in abundance, to the point where some (including Los Angeles Popeye host Tom Hatten) came to treat this film as unsuitable for the airwaves. Popeye is following Olive Oyl to her work. She’s a nurse at the hospital of the Bruiser Boys’ Club. Popeye sees a sign that dares him to just try to join the club. He finds Bluto in charge of the organization, while several members are busily occupied, happily bludgeoning each other with clubs. Popeye is extremely confident that he can “take it”, and Bluto orders his lackies to put Popeye through the works – a death course that wouldn’t be out of place in Bimbo’s Initiation. Popeye, blindfolded, has to pass between two circular saws, which become twisted into abstract art by trying to cut him. He then has to run a gamut of devices that deliver blows to the noggin and kicks to the rear, leading to an iron maiden. When the iron maiden is brought up to the level of Bluto’s office, Bluto is disappointed to find Popeye walking out on his own two feet instead of sliced and gashed. As a final blow, the Bruisers fire a cannon into Popeye’s abdomen, finally delivering Popeye into one of the club’s hospital beds, where Olive informs Popeye that he couldn’t take it. Defiantly, Popeye eats his spinach, then takes on the entire membership, knocking them all into the hospital ward. Popeye assumes the presidency, bangs the gavel once – and the whole building comes down. Songs: “The Day You Came Along”, introduced by Bing Crosby in Too Much Harmony, recorded by Crosby for Brunswick as a vocal (below), Meyer Davis as a dance record for Columbia, Coleman Hawkins and his Orchestra (a pick-up group from Fletcher Henderson’s band) for Okeh and released in England on Columbia, and Bill Scotti on Bluebird. Lew Stone recorded a British version on Decca with Al Bowlly vocal. A late revival was recorded by Dean Martin on Reprise. Also in the score, “You Gotta Be a Football Hero”, a 1933 pop recorded by Don Bestor on Victor, Ben Bernie on Columbia, and Harry Reser for Melotone, Perfect, et al. Dick Robertson had a version in 1938 for Decca. Also, returns for “Stars and Stripers Forever”, and “Goodnight Ladies”.
Shooin’ Hosses (6/2/34) – Olive is running a blacksmith shop. She has to fire Wimpy, who is more interested in hamburgers than hammering on anvils. So, she puts out a want ad sign for a man. Popeye and Bluto both apply, and show what they can do. Popeye uses the direct approach, by placing four horseshoes, nails, up, on the floor, then picking up a horse bodily to whomp him down on the shoes, fitting four hoofs at a time. A war develops between Bluto and Popeye, where flying horseshoes form shackles to bind opponents to the wall. Bluto gets a bump on his head, and Popeye scores five “ringers” with the shoes upon it. Songs: “Where’s the Village Smithy Today?” an original by Sammy Timberg and Hack Scholl, “The Old Gray Mare”, “Spring Song”, and the obligatory “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Strong to the Finich (6/30/34) – Olive Oyl is running a health spa for children. Their reaction is what you’d expect from kids, as bowls of spinach wind up thrown in Olive’s face. Popeye arrives with a crate which he claims contains a surprise, but it is not to the kids’ liking – a whole crate of spinach cans. Popeye turns the kids opinion around by several demonstrations of what the stuff can do, including knocking out a passing prizefighter out for some road work. The kids feed the stuff to some scrawny bulls, who grow in size to become threatening. A sock from Popeye somehow puts a halt to their charge, transforming them into hamburger, The kids finally eat the spinach themselves, and form a human pyramid with Popeye included for the finale. Songs have all been seen before: “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree”. “The Old Gray Mare”, and “You Gotta Be a Football Hero”.
Shiver Me Timbers (7/28/34) – This would mark one of the first strong support roles for Wimpy, who is again out with Popeye and Olive for no apparent reason on a random rowboat cruise, washing up on a strange coastline where a ghost ship lies beached on a sand bar. Never the ones to leave a strange sight alone, Popeye insists that the gang investigate. No sooner are they aboard than the ship releases itself from the sand and sets sail. Wimpy receives a fun sequence where he discovers the ship’s galley, and announces, “The search is temporarily discontinued”, then attempts to partake of a steaming hot pile of ghost hamburgers, which prove not to be very satisfying, as they keep disappearing from his hand before he can take a bite. When he finally gets one in his mouth, the burger simply passes through his cheek and returns unscathed to the plate! Meanwhile, Olive falls into a coat of molasses and flout, making due as a “ghost” – until the real thing comes along. Popeye battles a crew of both ghosts and skeletons, and even the ocean waves come to life to try to swamp the ship, until Popeye socks the wave in its watery jaw, flattening the seas to a perfect calm. Songs are all old friends: ”Sing You Sinners”, “Pizzicato Mysterioso”, “Blow the an Down”, and “William Tell Overture – Dawn”.
Axe Me Another (8/21/34) – Popeye is building a rowboat inside a small shack on a river pier. A scream for help is heard, which Popeye discovers through a periscope is Olive thrown into the river. To expedite a rescue, Popeye quickly finishes his boat bottom by slapping a coat of glue on the boat sides, sticking them to the planks of the pier, then cutting into the pier planks with a saw to carve a hole matching the shape of the boat. Upon fishing Olive from the water, he discovers that Olive was thrown in by Pierre Bluto, head of the local logging company, who didn’t like her spinach. “Anyone who don’t like spinach is my emeny”, shouts Popeye. The usual challenge develops into a competition at logging skills, set to the current popular tune “What’s Good For the Goose Is Good For the Gander”, with Popeye repeating the chant from the tune, “I’ll do anything that you do”. Don Bestor recorded a good-selling version for Victor (below), benefitting in sales from its flip side, “My Little Grass Shack”. Ted Fio Rito had a version on Brunswick. Chick Bullock did a version on Melotone, Perfect, et al., which was also released on British Rex as “Ed Loyd and his Orchestra”. Elsie Carlysle and Sam Browns issued a British vocal version on Regal Zonophone. The film concludes with a battle in the river amidst floating logs, A crowning blow by Popeye sends Bluto sky high, while another punch converts a log into a giant baby’s high-chair, just Bluro’s size, where he is imprisoned and force-fed spinach by Olive and Popeye for the iris out. Also in the picture is a return for “Strike Up the Band (Here Comes a Sailor)”.
A Dream Walking (9/26/34) – Popeye and Bluto hear the gentle, awkward footfalls of neighbor Olive outside – sleepwalking in the middle of the night. Both vow to be the one to save here, and the rivalry is on again. Olive receives one of her first “glamour” shots, duplicating a situation used several times for Betty Boop, as backlighting from the moon reveals silhouette of her feminine figure =- except that Olive has all the shape of a beanpole! She wanders onto the girders of a skyscraper under construction, allowing the Fleischer animators to run wild with some of the most elaborately conceived and meticulously drawn thrill-comedy shots ever put on film. Watchman Wimpy offers no help, commenting, “She’ll awaken – once she falls.” The boys make use of every construction prop in the book, while Olive blissfully continues on, unaware of the whole thing, and eventually finds her own way back into her apartment, unhurt. Popeye, looking in at the window, upsets an alarm clock, and awakening Olive shows her gratitude by accusing him of being a Peeping Tom, and clobbering him with every thrown object from her apartment she can lay her hands on. The film would become the template for many an Olive or Swee’pea episode to follow placing the characters in unaware peril in or on skyscrapers, building ledges, foundries, etc. Musical score consists primarily of revisits by “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking” and “The Man On the Flying Trapeze”.
The Two Alarm Fire (10/26/34) – Popeye and Bluto run separate fire companies of a volunteer fire department, and their rivalry is as usual. Olive’s house catches fire, and flames are visible in all windows from ground floor to gables. An anthropomorphic flame rings the alarm itself – twice, calling both companies. Flames over the eaves travel like ducks in a shooting gallery. Each sailor tries to outdo the other with the water hose. Bluto is as usual bested, and has to be resuscitated by Popeye, who asks if he is all right – then socks Bluto’s lights out. Olive is rescued, but her home is reduced to the look of charred matchsticks. Songs: “The Midnight Fire Alarm”, a piece written in 1900 as a “march and gallop”, recorded on a number of occasions in the acoustic days by Prince’s Band on Columbia, and as an anonymous Little Wonder 5″ disc. Many many years later, the Firehouse Five Plus Two would include the piece on their album, “Goes To a Fire”, and the Medallion Concert Orchestra would perform a manic high fidelity rendition on the Medallion album, “The Sound of Musical Pictures”: A theme from Liszt’s “Second Hungarian Rhapsody”, “Streets of Cairo”, and “Strike Up the Band (Here Comes a Sailor)” are also reused.
The Dance Contest (7/28/34) – Popeye and Olive attend a dance competition at a local hall. Wimpy is in charge of the event, spending his time equally between chomping on hamburgers and pulling the lever of an “eliminator” that produces trap door anywhere where needed to drop unsuccessful contestants out of the picture. Popeye, demonstrating his two left feet, keeps stepping on Olive’s toes (which doesn’t require a great deal of marksmanship, as her huge feet are easy targets). Their performance attracts the derision of Bluto, who cuts in in his usual manner. Popeye takes consolation in a large bowl of spinach – “My only friend’ – which allows him to engage in some fancy terpsichore. Popeye cuts back in, and breaks into a fancy rumba with Olive. Bluto breaks in again, changing Olive’s number into a apache dance. Popeye takes Olive’s place to toss Bluto around for the same treatment. Wimpy is more than anxious to hand Popeye the winning loving cup – mainly so Popeye can hold it while Wimpy dips his burgers into mustard contained inside the cup. Songs: “The Champagne Waltz”, recorded by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra for Brunswick (below), Roy Smeck’s Hawaiian Quartet for Melotone, Perfect, et al., and George Hall for Bluebird. “Green Eyes (Aquellos Ojos Verdes)” a 1931 Cuban song, provides the cartoon’s rumba beat, recorded by Don Azpiazu for Victor with vocal by Chick bullock (also below). The tune is best remembered from a later 1941 revival by Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra on Decca, with contrasting vocal tempos provided by Bob Eberly and Helen O’ Connell. Also appearing is the “Valse Chaloupee” by Offenbach – the standard go-to tune for apache dances from the golden era.
Next Time: Color Classics 1934-35.
I’ve long had a vague memory of having heard lyrics sung to the tune in “Axe Me Another”. I still can’t place it, but I’m thrilled to hear the song it was based on at long last. Very cute; I’ll have another listen before bedtime.
When Popeye and Bluto begin fighting in “Shoein’ Hosses”, the song “Love Thy Neighbor”, previously featured in a Screen Song, plays ironically in the background. It’s a funny musical joke now that I finally get it. Makes me want to bust out in William Costello Popeye laughter: “Op op op! Op op op!”
When the ghost ship puts out to sea in “Shiver Me Timbers”, the music we hear is the opening leitmotiv from the overture to Wagner’s opera “The Flying Dutchman”. It occurs in many old cartoons, especially from the Terry studio, whenever there’s a pirate ship or a storm at sea.
The “Dream Walking” extravaganza is the finale to the Paramount musical “Sitting Pretty”. Arthur Jarrett, “America’s Song Stylist”, who had appeared in the Fleischer Screen Song “Popular Melodies”, sings the song to Ginger Rogers. That’s future Tin Man Jack Haley who winds up married to Ginger in the end. All through the picture it looks like Jack Oakie is going to get the girl as usual, and Jack Haley is going to be the nice guy who finishes last, like Phil Harris losing Betty Grable to Victor Mature in “Wabash Avenue”. So it’s a nice twist.
I’m really enjoying this series. In fact, I yam ecskatic!
Re “Shiver Me Timbers”: As the ghost ship sets sail, we hear a few bars of the Overture to “The Flying Dutchman” by Richard Wagner.
Too bad a less high contrast version of “Sitting Pretty” isn’t available. This number sure has a Busby Berkeley look to it. A less high contrast version would let us see just how revealing those costumes really were, OOH, La La!
“Shiver Me Timbers” is possibly the first truly great Popeye cartoon, a welcome change from the already overused Popeye-and-Bluto-fight-over-Olive formula (although “Shooin’ Hosses” is distinguished by Olive actually having breasts), and one of the surprisingly few occasions where the famous sailor is actually at sea.
I don’t think any other cartoon studio could have brought Popeye to life as satisfactorily: the rough-hewn Thimble Theater characters were ideally suited to the helter-skelter, highly improvised (pre-1935) Fleischer style. The Fleischers misstepped when, undoubtedly under pressure by Paramount, they seemed to be asking WWWDD and proceeding accordingly, despite their limited understanding of WWDWD.