November 22, 2022 posted by James Parten

Max and Dave – Popeye 1938-40: It Ain’t Broke, So Why Fix It?

By the 1938-39 season, even though the Fleischer studio had been transplanted all the way to Miami, Florida, it was still “Steady as she goes.” There would be another two-reel color special, and a little less of the usual menage a trois, as their selection of Bluto voices in Florida was not as good as the New York models. Mae Questel also did not travel to Florida, but they were able to find Margie Hines, who could do Olive reasonably well, though not with the singing abilities of Mae. The Florida move, precipitated by a wish to remove the studio from the influence of a strong New York-based union, is said to have brought a brighter look to even the black and white episodes, in much the way that West Coast cartoons had a brighter, sunnier feel than New York productions. There seems to have been less pressure from Paramount to include songs from their features in the cartoons, although some would still show up every now and then. There also seems to be less impetus to try to develop a hit song from any of the cartoons. In this regard, Fleischer was no Disney. Yet, the cartoons seem to have maintained their popularity, though a studious review of the trade publications would probably be necessary to determine how well in reality the films did for the local houses.

Plumbing is a ‘Pipe’ (6/16/38) – Olive is trying to frost a cake, but finds a leak has sprung from one of the pipes in her kitchen. Trying to stop it, Olive bends herself into numerous impossible positions not covered by the Kama Sutra. She does manage to telephone J. Wellington Wimpy, the plumber. A literal “running” gag has Wimpy repeatedly trotting all the way to Olive’s door, then recalling he’s forgotten one thing or another, and running back to home base again. Meanwhile, practically every pipe in the kitchen has busted, and water is jetting everyplace. (Good thing it’s the kitchen, rather than the other place.) Popeye comes by to find Olive’s predicament, and, try as he might, stopping one leak merely starts another, (Haven’t we all been there before?) Popeye finally turns to his spinach, fixing things in his own unique way, just long enough for Wimpy to finally arrive with all his tools, asking if anyone needs a plumber. He gets his answer in the form of a blast in the face as the pipes burst again, to close out the film while Popeye completes his theme song. Songs: “How’d’ja Like To Love Me?”, introduced by Bob Hope and Martha Raye in “College Swing”. It was recorded by Horace Heidt and his Brigadiers with the King Sisters on Brunswick, Jimmy Dorsey on Decca, Dolly Dawn and her Dawn Patrol on Vocalion, Bob Causer (a house name possibly covering Gene Kardos) for Melotone, Perfect, et al., Abe Lyman on Bluebird, and in England by Carroll Gibbons and his Savoy Hotel Orpheans on Columbia, and Roy For on HMV. There were also aircheck performances by the bands of Bunny Berigan and Glenn Miller. Also, a return for “Over the Waves”.

Bulldozing the Bull (8/19/38) – Popeye is walking down the street in some Latin-American venue, when he sees crowds entering the bullfight arena. Popeye spots a Senorita (a Mexican Olive), and tries to impress her – but she only has eyes for the matadors. Popeye finds himself in the bull ring, though protesting that he ain’t gonna fight no defenseless little bull. The bull is not all that defenseless, spending its time sharpening its horns against each other. At one point, Popeye is knocked clear out of the arena, with someone yelling “Touchdown” as he lands. When Olive tries to intervene, she only finds herself pursued by the menacing horns, leading to Popeye’s usual spinach lunch to save her. Some wrestling moves and the patented twisker punch leave the bull down and in a daze, as someone in the stands drops a sword into Popeye’s hand to finish the bull off. Popeye insists once again that he won’t harm the defenseless bull, and snaps the sword into little pieces. The bull appears to charge again, but only to extend his hand and make friends with Popeye by a hearty handshake. Popeye and Olive ride out of the arena, escorted atop the bull’s horns. Song: “Arabe Tapatio” – this time using the passage we know as the Mexican Hat Dance”, often used as a marker to signify anything Mexican. Notable versions include the Orquesta Dajaro Azul on Mexican Bluebird, and a swing arrangement as “Mexican Hat Dance” in the 1940’s by Les Brown on Okeh.

Mutiny Ain’t Nice (9/25/38) – Popeye is about to set sail as the captain of a square-rigger, with a full crew of burly boys (none of whom look like Bluto). Olive wants to go along on the voyage, but Popeye honors what he believes to be an old naval superstition – that women on board a ship is a jinx. Olive accidentally winds up a stowaway when she is hauled aboard in a barrel, and Popeye tries his best not to let the crew discover her. Eventually, however, Olive’s cover is blown, and the crew feel Popeye has had a part in her presence – so are moved to mutiny. Popeye is forced to turn to the spinach to show them just who is captain. The entire crew is put out of commission, with Popeye managing the voyage all by himself – but he still observes tradition by insisting that Olive ride separately behind the ship on a raft – at least having the courtesy to tame the sea water to not toss Olive around in the waves, by pulling on the water’s surface to flatten it out. Songs: In addition to “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”, and “The Girl I Left Behind Me” – a nautical classic: “A Life on the Ocean Waves”. Surprisingly, this seems to be the first Popeye cartoon to get around to using this classic theme, written in 1838. It was recorded in early Columbia acoustic form by Andrea Sarto. It was included in a Medley of “Seas Songs” by the Victor Mixed Chorus. A country version was issued by Malcolm Legette on Columbia in 1929. A military band version was issued in England by H.M. Band of Royal Marines on HMV. It would also appear periodically as an album cut on various military band LP’s, such as budget label Somerset’s “The Regimental Bands Pass In Review”. In case you’ve never heard it, here’s Thurl Ravenscroft on a 1971 Disney Treasure Island record tie-in.

Goonland (10/21/38) – Popeye sails again, on the first on his many quests for the elusive Poopdeck Pappy – the dad who took one look at his child, and headed for the open seas and parts unknown. The likely locale for Popeye’s search is the mysterious Goon Island. The goons were first introduced in the Segar strip in 1933, one in particular becoming well-known – Alice the Goon, who for a time served as slave to the Sea Hag, but eventually became a baby sitter to Swee’pea. (What a traumatic effect this could have on an infant.) Neither Fleischer nor Famous chose to incorporate Alice into their plot lines, and it would not be until the television episodes of King Features that she would appear as a semi-regular in animated form. Popeye infiltrates the island despite its “Humans Keep Out” sign, by taking some local foliage and adapting it into a disguise of artificial “goony hair”. He finds Pappy held in a central prison in the middle of the goon village. Pappy’s reaction when addressed by Popeye through the barred window is less than cordial. “I don’t likes relatives”. Receiving no encouragement from Pappy for a rescue, Popeye walks from the window dejected, forgetting to reapply his goon disguise. He is instantly captured, and, while being dragged away, has his spinach can knocked from his hand, which rolls to the foot of Pappy’s window. Popeye is placed in a death trap at the foot of a mountain, with a line of goons pushing a large boulder to a cliff edge above to crush their victim. Meanwhile, Pappy spots the spinach can, commenting that he hasn’t had spinach in forty years. Unable to reach the can, he uses his pipe as a hook to extend his reach, lifting the can by the bowl of his pipe up to the window. The effects of spinach are hereditary in the family, and Peppy becomes the fighting dynamo. The rock is bashed upwards back upon the goons on the cliff, pinning them under it. More goons encircle Popeye and Pappy, but a lucky “break” in the film” dumps all the goons out the bottom half of the film frame, while human hands in the projection booth patch the film back together for Popeye and Pappy with a safety pin. Popeye and Pappy leave happily together at the iris out. Songs: “I Found Out Where To Find My Pappy”, an original opening number for Popeye on his voyage, A musical leitmotif for the goons is also original, though title is unknown.

Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (4/23/39) – Another two-reel Technicolor special (the longest of the three). The plot follows more or less the bare bones of the classic tale, with the genie given a Lew Lehr personality. Olive Oyl is writing the script for the whole thing for Surprise Pictures (somehow not falling back on the expected line, “If it’s a good picture, it’s a Surprise”). Olive casts herself as the princess, and Popeye as Aladdin. The villain (who does not resemble Bluto) lusts after her. Popeye too has eyes for the maiden, but is a mere blacksmith/chain maker (manufacturing chain by hand, like twisting pretzels). The villain finds Aladdin’s name in an old book of magic, as the only one who can retrieve the lamp (complete with Aladdin’s address on the corner of Chow and Main). As usual, Popeye is trapped in the magic cave, until a genie appears from the lamp, who Popeye asks for “the entrance to the exit”. Transported to the surface by escalator, Popeye wishes to become a wealthy prince. He performs a catchy original number for the public, “What Can I Do For You?” (below), as he rolls gold coins to the populace over his shoulders. He courts the princess with jewels that turn the entire room their respective colors from their dazzling light (a gag that would later form the centerpiece of Famous Studio’s “Private Eye Popeye”), but is a little rusty on his actual romantic technique (”I’ve never made love in Technicolor before”), Things get complicated when the villain trades a new lamp for old to get the genie away from the princess’s apartment, and Popeye is reduced to rags before the public, who sentence him to be crushed under a large stone disk as a faker. Only then does Popeye eat his spinach, zoom off in a whirlwind to rescue the princess from the villain’s clutches, and engage in a staircase battle with a menagerie of monsters created with the lamp, and a duel with the evil wizard himself. The picture ends as Olive receives a letter from studio management, announcing that her script is being thrown out – “So are you. Surprise!” Olive collapses over her typewriter, as one of her pages covers the lens with the words, “The End”. Pacing of the film is sometimes uneven and rushed, as if fitting it all in two reels was a bit uncomfortable for the writers, who were already looking forward to the bigger and better world of feature production.

Leave Well Enough Alone (4/25/39) – Popeye passes Olive’s pet shop, where he sees all the critters locked up in cages, waiting to be sold. Popeye offers to buy them all, and Olive calculates a price, with Popeye responding with a pop-culture reference to then-current Lucky Strike cigarette ad slogan, imitating a tobacco auctioneer and concluding “Sold to an American.” All the critters leave as Popeye flings their cages open, except for one parrot, who sings the original title song, as a cautionary warning to Popeye that meddling in a situation may lead to trouble. The lyric is credited to Dave Fleischer. The parrot points out that the animals are suffering out on the street, as well as being collected by the local dog catcher. Eventually, Popeye has to rescue and round up all the strays to save them from a worser fate. They all return happily to their cages, while the parrot repeats the chorus of his song as a final rerminder to let things stand as they are.

It’s the Natural Thing to Do (7/30/39) – The film starts with Bluto and Popeye having their usual knock-down drag-out fight in Olive’s front yard. There is some collateral damage, as one of the flying flower pots hits a telegraph delivery boy. Olive obtains the telegram addressed to all three of them, urging them to be less rough and more refined like ladies and gentlemen. Popeye comments “I can be rough – bit what’s rough-fined?” Bluto comments at the word “gentleman” – “Must be a character part.” Olive tells the boys to come back for a party when they are in a disposition befitting the message. They return in fancy suits, trying to look distinguished, while Olive dolls up to the nines in a gown that doesn’t necessarily fit her beanpole figure, complete with overabundant jewelry accessories. Olive hires a maid to serve coffee and donuts, and the three thumb through their etiquette books trying to figure when to drink with pinky extended, and how to balance the high tower of plates and cups they are presented with off the maid’s serving cart. After getting through this awkward situation, they are placed into even more embarrassing position, as they try to decide what to do with themselves with no fight going on. Someone suggests conversation, and Popeye comments that it breaks the “monopoly” of not talking. Olive asks who will lead, and Bluto responds, “I’ll pass”. Time ticks by, and it is obvious the three are getting nowhere. Olive begins a fit of uncontrollable giggles, the first to realize how ridiculous the concept is of their acting like ladies and gentlemen. She tears apart her etiquette book, and Popeye and Bluto join in the laughter, beginning to exchange friendly socks on the jaw. Soon, objects are being flung at each other across the room – and the three are obviously having a ball. They swirl into a whirlwind cloud of battle, taking their action outside again, and proclaim to the audience between blows, “Can’t you see”, “It’s the natural…” “…thing to do?” Songs: The title song was from the Bing Crosby picture, Double or Nothing, and was the hit song from that picture, recorded by Bing on Decca. Jimmy Dorsey had a dance version on Decca. Horace Heidt and his Brigadiers covered it on Brunswick, with vocal by the King Sisters. Mildred Bailey did a version on Vocalion. Also included in the score was “Two Sleepy People”, from the Bob Hope picture, “Thanks For the Memory”, performed by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in both the film and on a studio recording for Decca The song was written by Frank Loesser (lyric) and Hoagy Carmichael (melody), and carries some of the specter of the stars’ previous hit, “Thanks For The Memory”. Other versions were recorded by Kay Kyser on Brunswick, Sammy Kaye on Victor, and the best -selling version by Fats Waller on Bluebird (also performed by him on a V-Disc during the war years).

Shakespearian Spinach (1/19/40) – Popeye and Olive are starred in a musical stage presentation of Romeo and Juliet. This upsets Bluto no end, as he had held the role of Romeo previously, and receives word (on the back of a poster of Popeye he tears off the wall, someone predicting his reaction to the cast change) that his “services are no longer needed – you ham.” Bluto (voiced by Pinto Colvig), tries to ruin the show, first getting up into the lighting rigging, and trying to ruin Popeye’s appearance. Bluto eventually barges in on the stage, his singing giving us every indication why he was fired in the first place. Olive adapts her lyrics to tell him in no uncertain words to get lost. Popeye tries to save the show by switching places with Olive, appearing in costume as Juliet to battle the ham Romeo on stage. Bluto changes stage signs to announce the “Death Scene”, and appears to be doing Popeye in, placing a funeral wreath on his chest. Wouldn’t you know it, the wreath is made of spinach leaves? The villain is as usual vanquished, and Popeye and Olive share a closing kiss, as the theater curtains close with an advertisement for non-skid lipstick. Song: “Martha”, a swing arrangement of the tenor aria “M’Appari Cutt’Amor” from the opera “Martha” by Flotow. The piece was most famously swung by Larry Clinton and his Orchestra with vocal by Bea Wain on Victor. Bluebird also had a version by Wingy Manone with a different lyric. All the major tenors recorded versions of it straight, including Caruso, Martinelli, Schipa, Gigli, Jussi Bjorling, Mario Lanza, and Placido Domingo, among others.

Next post: Betty Boop 1938-39.


  • Flotow’s “Martha” is a German opera, and the original title of the aria used in “Shakespearean Spinach” is “Ach, wie fromm” (Oh, how divine). “M’appari tutt’amor'” (not “cutt’amor”) is the title of the Italian version. Italian translations of German arias are always full of apostrophes, because Romance languages have more syllables per thought than Germanic ones. (By the same token, English translations of Italian arias always add a lot of extra syllables like “oh” and “ah”.) When Clark Kent and Lois Lane go to the opera in the Superman cartoon “Showdown”, they hear the aria in the standard English translation (“Ah, so pure”) by Charles Jeffreys. The aria is performed in Italian in the 1958 Paramount Noveltoon “Finnegan’s Flea”. I can only guess that the studio’s music director Winston Sharples must have liked it, in whatever language. “Martha” was one of the most frequently staged operas in the second half of the 19th century, but it’s seldom revived nowadays.

    “Two Sleepy People” is also heard in “Finnegan’s Flea”. I first became acquainted with that song through Fats Waller’s recording and always assumed that he had written it. Live and learn.

    “Plumbing is a ‘Pipe'”: in “Goonland”, when Pappy uses his pipe to retrieve Popeye’s can of spinach through the bars of his prison cell, he says “It’s a ‘pipe’, it is!” My mother explained to me that back in her day, a “pipe” was a slang term for anything easy, just as a pipe is the easiest musical instrument to learn to play. I’ll always be grateful to her for helping me out with the archaic slang expressions in these old Popeye cartoons, like “ducky” and “the berries”.

  • Re “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp”: I recently noticed that the lyrics to “What Can I Do For You” scan almost perfectly to the tune of “Hooray for Hollywood.”

  • Not to displace Mae Questel, but Margie Hines was a terrific Olive Oyl. Her sense of the Zazu Pitts demeanor was spot-on. Can’t know how much, or even if, she improvised, but her non-sequitur mutterings and one-liners were always right up there with Popeye and Bluto.

    From the ‘conversation’ in “Natural Thing…”

    Popeye: “They say language is used for conversation more than any other, don’t you think?”

    Olive: “Yes, I don’t think.”

  • I prefer the Talkartoon era, personally.

  • I just noticed that you omitted the cheater “Customers Wanted” — logically enough, as it consists mainly of footage from “Let’s Get Movin'” and “The Twisker Pitcher”. However, during the framing sequences where Wimpy gazes into the arcade mutoscope, a carnival organ plays “I’m Daffy Over You” by Chico Marx and Sol Violinsky. This insipid ditty had been previously used in Betty Boop’s “Ha! Ha! Ha!” and became something of a theme song for Chico over the years.

    Boy, what wouldn’t I give to be able to play in an arcade like that today. I’d give a million dollars — for which I will gladly pay you back Tuesday!

    • I was disappointed when I discovered Customers Wanted this year. “Crap! Clipshow!” Fine on Starsky and Hutch…but cartoons? CRIMINAL!

      How are Australian arcades, Paul? No Chico in the States.

      • In Australia, an “arcade” is an enclosed pedestrian alley lined with shops, like the Victorian-era Strand Arcade in Sydney. But the arcades you’re talking about have pretty much vanished now that everyone plays games online. As for the cool mechanical arcade games seen in “Customers Wanted” (not a bad cartoon for a cheater; at least Wimpy is pretty funny), you’d be lucky to see one in a museum, and forget about ever getting to play one.

        No Chico in the States? What about the one in California? (When a contestant on Groucho’s radio show said she grew up near Chico, he replied: “I grew up near Chico, too. Are you Gummo?”)

  • If only they could have sustained the level of “Mutiny Ain’t Nice” and “Goonland” which combined the best of Fleischer and Segar (at the time, of course, Segar was dying and “Thimble Theatre” was about to undergo the first of many sea changes). The Disney artists who defected to Florida made the cartoons slicker, but Popeye began to lose his edge–along with his hair.

    Whoever can recite all the lyrics of the “Shakespearian Spinach” take on “Ach, wie fromm” gets a prize.

  • Interesting that “A Life on the Ocean Waves” didn’t work its way into a Popeye cartoon until 1938, fully a century after it was written. It would later become something of a subsidiary theme for the character: for example, Popeye plays it on a variety of musical instruments in “Symphony in Spinach” (1948). But Philip Scheib was already incorporating it into his scores for nautically-themed Terrytoons like “Pirate Ship” (1933) and “The Sailor’s Home” (1936).

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