NEEDLE DROP NOTES
September 13, 2022 posted by James Parten

Max and Dave: Popeye 1936-37 – Most Remarkable and Extraordinary

It would be interesting to see the trade magazines of 1936 – 37, to see if they confirm what everyone expects – that Popeye cartoons were becoming the most popular ones around. Meanwhile, the industry was probably abuzz with news of “Disney’s Folly” – plans for a feature-length cartoon. Max Fleischer wasn’t yet ready to go that far – but he did think to try a two-reel Popeye cartoon – eventually producing three of them, all in Technicolor. After all, the two reel format was already standard for comedy shorts and serial chapters, so the exhibitors were well-familiar with fitting them on their programs. Max decided both the vibrant hues of Technicolor and the effects of the turntable camera could be well showcased on the two-reelers, along with more adventurous storylines (though Max chose not to mirror the longer story arcs of the Segar strip). One suspects the exhibitors were delighted. The returns preached their delights. It was even nominated for an Academy Award. I’ve also seen claims that some theaters advertised the Popeye two-reelers more than the features they were supposed to accompany. Of course it cost more to produce such a special than the usual black-and-whites – so these had to be categorized in ‘special” status, as “A Popeye Color Feature”, while the black and whites continued to satisfy the needs of a regular schedule.

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (11/20/36) – We are introduced to Sinbad (Bluto) as the lord and master of an island on top of a whale, complete with creatures he has mastered over the years, including a “Rukh” (commonly known as “Roc”), dragons, snakes, big cats, and a two-headed giant named Boola. This is a great vehicle for Gus Wickie and his booming basso voice (not that Mercer and Questel are left in the dust). It also appears to mark the first instance of Jack Mercer voicing Wimpy – a role he would return to in the TV productions of King Features Syndicate. Popeye, Olive, and Wimpy are sailing around, and Sinbad spots Olive through his periscope. As for Popeye, Sinbad comments, “Who fills the air with notes so sour, and dares to challenge Sindbad’s power?” He orders the Runh to wreck the ship – “but bring me the woman”. Popeye brings Wimpy along for a rescue from the shipwreck, and encounters the Rukn in battle (“There y’are …With gravy”), and Boola (unaccountably voiced in mock-Grecian accent like Parkyakarkus). Then, the climactic battle with Sinbad, which has the whole island abuzz. The green of Popeye’s spinach is fully appreciated for the first time, as the sailor hoists Sinbad on Popeye’s own “petard” – a flag with insignia of a spinach can and anchor. Songs: “Emmett’s Lullaby” (with special lyrics for Boola while punching Popeye), a full version of the Popeye theme (for the first time on film by Mercer), and an original song “I’m Sinbad the Sailor”, included in the Popeye Song Folio and also included on the Floyd Buckley Bluebird recording (embed below) and Cricket LP culled from the same folio.


We skip ahead to Organ Grinder’s Swing (2/19/37) – An organ grinder (Winpy), complete with monkey, comes into the neighborhood where Popeye, Olive, and Bluto are living in the same apartment building. Popeye and Olive love the music, but Bluto does not – and starts throwing various bric-a-brac out the window at Wimpy – and even heats up a hot coin for the monkey (muttering to make the monk sing a “torch song”). The inevitable fight ensues, with Bluto trapped in a piano, while Popeye twirls him like a barrel organ, stating “Who says we can’t have music?” Take that, Fiorello. Songs: “Organ Grinder’s Swing”, written by Will Hudson as an instrumental, and first recorded by the Hudson-DeLange Orchestra on Brunswick. It was also recorded as an instrumental on Decca by Jimmie Lunceford. Later, when a lyric was penned for it, Decca authorized a new recording by Ella Fitzgerald and her Savoy 8. Benny Goodman performed it on Victor. Joe Haymes covered it for Melotone, Perfect, et al. In later years, Jimmy Smith would have the closest thing he had to a hit on Verve, in a version played on a Hammond B-3 Electric organ.


My Artistical Temperature (3/19/37) – Popeye and Bluto both work at an art studio. Bluto specializes in painting, while Popeye’s skill is in sculpture. Bluto is derisive of Popeye’s craft, insisting that painting is the only true art. Olive comes by, wanting a likeness made. The boys argue over what kind of pose Olive should strike to suit their respective media (Bluto wants her “horizontal”, while Popeye insists “Perpendicular”, with Olive flipped and flopped in both directions). One gag has become politically incorrect, where Popeye flips an extra squirt of paint on the sun in Bluto’s painting to turn it black, resulting in the usual “Mammy” remark from the sun before it sets. The usual fight, and Bluto, the worse for wear, as Popeye creates his plaster masterpiece of Olive as the Statue of Liberty. “A painting won’t match you, it must be a statute, by Popeye the Sailor Man.” Songs: a return for “I’m Talking Through My Heart”, first used iin the Screen Song of the same title.


Hopitaliky (4/16/37) – Popeye and Bluto are following Olive to her place of employment – a hospital. Both feign sickness, but when Olive tells them they have to be really sick to be in a hospital, each tries to get himself into the worst accident possible. Gags include a falling safe, “mad” bull, jumping from a plane, dynamite blasting, and laying on the tracks in the path of a train – all unsuccessful, Eventually, Popeye makes Bluto eat spinach, and takes the beating himself – leaving him comfortably in need of aid by Olive Oyl. Songs: “Please Keep Me In Your Dreams”, another returning number previously featured in the Screen Songs.


The Twisker Pitcher (5/21/37) – After two football cartoons, Max abd Dave finally get Popeye onto the diamond. Mae Questel seems to perform double duty here, playing both Olive Oyl and an ungainly maiden who supports Bluto. Gags are the sort you’d expect from a baseball cartoon, although someone remembers his baseball history. Bluto refers to one of his pitches as a “Fade-Away”, which is what Christy Mathewson (top pitcher of the early 1900’s for the New York Giants) named what would later became known as a screw ball. Christy was one of the first college-educated big leaguers (at a time when most players were of Irish descent and often lacking in book learning). Songs: “Take Me Out To the Ball Game”, a 1908 song which by the 1930’s had already become the unofficial anthem of the national pastime. Lore has it the lyricist Jack Norworth had never been to a ball game in his life. The best-knowm recording is by Harvey Hindermyer, who recorded it for Columbia, Victor, and Edison 4-minute Amberol Cylinder. Edwin S. Meeker also recorded the piece for Edison 2-minute cylinder, and the Haydn Quartet for Victor. An organ version frames the commercial release on records of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First”. It became a frequent selection for children’s records, including Peter Pan Records and others.


Morning, Noon, and Night Club (6/16/37) – Bluto, out for a night on the town, takes delight in socking posters promoting the appearance of “Popita and Olivita at Wimpy’s Café”, punching a hole wherever Popeye’s face appears. He waits at the stage door for Olive, but is snubbed as she walks in with Popeye. Bluto vows to crab their dance act. On an elaborate stage shaped like the stern of a sailing ship, the duo perform a Latin-flavored dance act, much in the style of Veloz and Yolanda. Bluto pulls dirty tricks like shooting rows of ice cubes onto the dance floor to trip them up, then cuts in to brutalize Popeye before his public. Olive provides the spinach can, and Popeye’s feet instantly assume a rhythm combining Russian and Mexican speed steps. Popeye is not sure what is happening at first, but catches on: “Oh, I get it”, and uses his new pep to vanquish Bluto in rhythm, his back side massaged by Popeye’s flying feet. Songs: an original number is provided for Olive, “Why Am I So Beautiful?”, delivered by Mae Questel with all of Olive’s natural vanity showing. “Moonlight and Shadows”, written by Leo Robin and Frederich Hollander for the movie Jungle Princess (the film that made Dorothy Lamour a star, and demonstrated that she looked “so right in a sarong”.) It was recorded by Eddy Duchin for Victor (below), Chick Bullock for Melotone, Perfect, et al., and Bing Crosby on Decca. Popeye’s big dance with Olive is performed to “Night In Manhattan”, originally introduced by Benny Fields in “The Big Broadcast of 1937″. Part of the Fields performance appears on a transcription disc used to promote the film on radio. Eddy Duchin also commercially recorded it on Victor. Also in the score were “Song of the Volga Boatmen”, “Jarabe Tapatio”, and “Lezginka”.


Lost and Foundry (7/16/37) – Popeye has found himself “land-lubber’s” work at the Useless Machine Works (although one can’t quite figure what it is he’s doing there – as everything seems to be automated – and how!). Popeye takes his lunch al fresco, getting some fresh air. Olive comes along pushing a perambulator carrying Swee’pea. Like most kids his age, Swee’pea is prone to crawl off and explore, leaving Olive in a tizzy as she realizes he’s entered the factory (scared that he’ll be “killed to death”). Popeye sets off to the rescue, as Swee’pea crawls over a knife switch which sets off all the factory’s machinery running at once. Popeye faces “the works”, while Swee’pea casually dodges each peril as if it is a mere amusement park ride. Olive follows to see Popeye having no luck in rounding up the child, and yells, “Can’t someone stop the machinery?” She trues pulling a random lever, which closes a pair of metal plates upon her ankles to hold her fast, and sets a huge metal press bearing down upon her from above. There’s no one left to eat the spinach but Swee’pea, who manages to hold back the pressing apparatus with his bare hands, bending the machinery to stop it cold. He carries out both the prone Olive and Popeye on his shoulders, and develops a voice to sing Popeye’s song for the iris out Songs: a reprise of “Brotherly Love” (below, from the short of the same name), heard in the early sequences of the film, and “Yankee Doodle”, to accompany Swee’pea’s heroics.


I Never Changes My Altitude (8/10/37) – Plot recently reviewed in the Animation Trails series “Flights of Fancy” earlier this year on this site (Q.V.). Popeye takes to the air in a battle with pilot Bluto, who has flown away with Olive, but only to use her as an in-flight maintenance and repair crew, with threat to drop her like yesterday’s baggage if she doesn’t please. Both planes take a lickin’, but Popeye stays aloft with the help of a spinach-powered duck, and leaves Bluto hanging on the blade of a windmill, to get ducked repeatedly in the airport water tower.

Although there is really no new music in this score, I close with it in attempt to solve a mystery concerning an old piece of music, often reused in Fleischer films. There is a melodramatic violin strain, highly familiar from use in films, that appears behind Popeye’s lament at the beginning of the film at the loss of his lady love to Bluto (clip is embed below). It was Fleischer’s default music for any melodrama, and is an alternate strain to the more recognizable composition “Hearts and Flowers”. Another use of the same strain appears in Disney’s “The Wise Little Hen”, as Peter Pig and Donald Duck exchange sad glances about their respective fictitious ailments of spots before the eyes, etc. Yet I cannot for the life of me discern the title of this tearful piece, nor locate any clue to its origins on the internet. It may be a popular song, or a lift from something classical – but it was at one time obviously well-known. Can someone please solve the mystery, and provide us with the name of the tune, and links if possible to any recordings, if any? UPDATE: “Coop, The Golden Dog” below, in the comments, has the answer!

Next Time: More Color Classics.

10 Comments

  • Sorry, I can’t help you with that sad mystery tune. My guess is that it’s from a book of cues for silent film organists, as it’s always used to accompany melodramatic scenes of lachrymose sentimentality. If it were a classical work, it would appear in a greater variety of contexts.

    That Fats Waller recording is a new one to me. If only he and his Rhythm had been featured in the Screen Song instead of Henry King and Barbara Blake!

    Since you brought up Christy Mathewson, may I take the opportunity to mention his teammate on both the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Reds, the college-educated and non-Irish third baseman Heinie Groh. No relation, but when my dad was growing up he used to get asked about him a lot.

    I’m not sure that Boola’s accent is derived from that of Parkyakarkus and other Greek-dialect radio comedians. His comic cross-talk, and the fact that he mentions “peaches and cream” during the lullaby, call to mind an old vaudeville routine where two Russians talk about how wonderful life will be after the Revolution:

    “Comes the Revolution, we’ll all eat peaches and cream!”
    “But I don’t like peaches and cream!”
    “Comes the Revolution, we’ll make for you to like peaches and cream!”

    • ” My guess is that it’s from a book of cues for silent film organists, as it’s always used to accompany melodramatic scenes of lachrymose sentimentality. If it were a classical work, it would appear in a greater variety of contexts.”

      He wasn’t asking for a guess. In any case, Coop the Golden Dog came up with the correct answer, Blumenlied op. 39

      The composer, Gustav Lange died in 1889 so I guess you’d have to call it classical music.

      • My compliments to Coop for providing the answer. A music historian would call it late Romantic salon music, not Classical, but that’s academic hair-splitting.

  • Flower Song, Gustav Lange.

    https://youtu.be/gfYp9J5uahY

    • Brilliant! Thanks for answering that.

      Here it is on violin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwIgS-n4Ecg

      • Now that we know what the song was called, we can identify some early recordings of it. Possibly the earliest is by Louis Heine on Victor, although it seems to have been quickly replaced and outsold by possibly multiple versions by Rosario Bourdon on the same label. A competing version was issued on Columbia by Stehl, Henneberg, and Surth ( a string trio). One of the Bourdon versions can be found on Internet Archive, while the Stehl version can be heard on the Library of Congress website.

  • Noted: Bluto’s voice was by Gus Wicke, not Wickie, and his story was shared on Cartoon Research three years ago. To look at his photo, you’d never know.
    https://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/gus-wicke-an-appreciation/

  • It is said that Jack Norworth was inspired to write the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” while riding on a subway train which had a sign advertising a game at New York’s Polo Grounds. He finally attended his first baseball game 32 years later.

  • It’s a shame that “Max chose not to mirror the longer story arcs of the Segar strip” because any one would have made a great feature. They wouldn’t have needed songs or even Technicolor (though neither would have hurt); as long as they kept the pace up, including Popeye’s ad libs, they’d have had a surefire hit. If they made those features like ten shorts with a single story line, which is how Shamus Culhane and others have said they did anyway with “Gulliver” and “Mr. Bug,” it wouldn’t have cost them much.

  • Speaking of Technicolor, I’ve always hated Olive’s brown skirt (with its black stripe) in “Sindbad.” Charles Solomon wasn’t wrong referring to the “acid palette” of the color Fleischer cartoons. Of course the dreary blue of her skirt and Popeye’s blouse in the disastrously colorized 1980s prints was even worse.

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