With the introduction of Popeye into Thimble Theatre in 1929, artist Elzie C. Segar struck gold. His strip evolved from a “gag a day” format to one telling extended story arcs, full of adventure and the comedy that had been Segar’s stock in trade. By 1933, Thimble Theatre had become the most popular strip in King Features’ Syndicate (arm of the Hearst Newspaper empire). KFS was looking at other media besides its papers to promote its characters, and figured Popeye would be perfect for animation (there probably not being a live star in Hollywood who would look the part). One would think that KFS made the deal with Paramount Pictures rather than with the Fleischers, although Max and Dave went along with it happily, inserting their first cartoon into the Betty Boop series, as discussed last time. It must have been an immediate smash with both moviegoers and exhibitors, as the first official episode of the sailor’s own series came out only two months later. The series became immensely successful, being the first to really give Mickey Mouse a run for his money in popularity. It would still maintain that popularity in 1956, when Associated Artists Productions offered the first package of Popeye cartoons to local television stations. Thus, an entire generation of kids experienced Popeye and his friends’ adventures on the small screen for the first time, hosted by someone dressed in nautical garb.
I Yam What I Yam (9/29/33) – Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy, on a raft which is clearly the remnants of a shipwreck, wash up on an isle inhabited by “savage” Indians, who surround the log cabin that Popeye has constructed by socking down trees. Wimpy gets to use one of his favorite lines from the comic strips, inviting Popeye inside for a duck dinner – “You bring the ducks.” Popeye begins to look like a human pincushion from all the arrows sticking out of him, but eventually socks the “Big Cheese” of the Indians, removing his garments to reveal Mahatma Ghandi inside. Songs: ”Song of the Volga Boatmen” receives a reuse. The newcomer is “The Little Old Log Cabin In the Lane”, written in the 1860’s by William Shakespeare Hays. Early recordings included Carroll C. Clark on Columbia disc (a genuine African-American, who wanted to be a concert singer, but found that Columbia was giving him Stephen Foster-type material). Another early acoustical version was by Bob Roberts with Vess Ossman on banjo for Columbia cylinder. Concert versions include Alma Gluck (Victor, 1921). Oscar Seagle (Columbia, 1921), and Reinald Werrrenrath (Victor Red Seal, 1926). There were also hillbilly versions by Fiddlin’ John Carson on Okeh (1923) (the first big-selling country record); Riley Puckett (Columbia, 1924), Fiddlin’ Powers and His Family (Victor, 1924), Hundermeyer and Tuckerman (known on radio as the “Gold Dust Twins”, depicted on their sponsors’ washing powder packages as two black children) cut for Edison; and Ernest Stoneman on Victor (1926, embed below), The song inspired parodies which had a life of their own such as “Little Old Sod Shanty on My Claim” by John White (the Singing Cowboy) for Perfect et al. in 1929, and “Little Red Caboose Behind the Train”, recorded by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter for Victor in 1928 (not to be confused with the more well-known children’s melody of the same title).
Blow Me Down (10/27/33) – Popeye goes to get some flowers for his “sweet petootie”, who is working in a dance hall at a Hispanic port of call. Along comes “Bluto the Bandit”, who shoots up the place, yet finds Popeye the only person still sitting at a table. Bluto immediately starts showing off his abilities with a pistol, after which Popeye shows him up on every turn. Bluto calls on his gang to try to mop the floor with Popeye. This endeavor proves futile, especially when Popeye fortifies himself with his favorite green. When Bluto tries to muscle in on Olive, he ends up socked clear around the globe for his troubles. Songs: “Jarabe Tapatio” receives traditional reuse. “By Heck” is also featured, recorded by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra in 1929, and by Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra (below) in three different versions, (Brunswick, Decca, and World Transcriptions) during the 1930’s.
I Eats My Spinach (11/27/33) – Popeye and Olive go to the rodeo, where Bluto is the star attraction. Ever-fickle Olive quickly falls for Bluto’s turning tricks on the wild horses. Popeye’s spinach as usual allows him to top Bluto’s feats, win back Olive’s heart, settle the score with Bluto, and sock a bull into steaks and chops at a meat market. Songs include use of Paramount’s newsreel march, “Paramount on Parade”, a revisit for the “Jolly Robbers Overture” and use of the “Toreador Song” from Carmen, early recordings of which included Taurino Parvis on Columbia circa 1905, Emilio De Gorgoza (under the name of “Sig. Francisco” for Victor black seal, and under his own name on red seal), Barnard Dudley on Nicole Records in 1904, Alan Turner on Victor circa 1910, and also on a Columbia Indestructible cylinder, Adamo Halpern on Zonophone, Anton Van Rooy on “Manhattan Grand Opera Series” (a Columbia product), Giuseppi Pimanzzoni on Columbia, Peter Dawson on Edison, Lawrence Tibbett on Victor in 1929, Pasquale Amato on Victor, Giuseppi Campanari on Victor, and Riccardo Stracciaru on Columbia. An early instrumental versions also appeared by the Columbia Band on Columbia.
Seasons Greetinks (12/17/33) – Here it is only the fourth cartoon in the series, and they’re already doing a Christmas cartoon. This rapidity suggest that the series was considered an immediate success with both the public and the distributors. Popeye, Olive and Bluto wind up ice skating, and Olive gets trapped on an impromptu ice floe that Bluto has cut off the frozen surface of the river, heading for a waterfall. Popeye manages a rescue, while Bluto takes the plunge, rolls into the form of a snowman, gets socked by Popeye, and produces stars from his head which decorate and illuminate a Christmas tree. The primary musical entry is “The Skaters’ Waltz (Les Patineurs)” by Emile Waldteufel. The “Metropolitan Orchestra” issued a version on Victor Monarch Records circa 1901. Sousa’s Band recorded it for Victor in 1912. The real orchestra of the “Metropolitan”, billed as the “Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra”, would record a 12″ version for Columbia around 1920. Nat Shilkret, as the “International Concert Orchestra,” would record a best-selling version electrically for Victor 12″ in 1926. Johnnie Sylvester would perform an accordion version on Columbia in Seattle in 1928. The Boston Pops finally recorded the piece complete as a two-sided recording circa 1937 on Victor. Bob Crosby had a “Skater’s Waltz (In Swingtime)” for Decca. The Berlin State Opera Orchestra recorded a European version in the late 1920’s, released on Parlophone. “Yankee Doodle” and “Jingle Bells” also appear.
Wild Elephinks (12/27/33) – Popeye and Olive wash up on an island full of wild animals. Popeye’s reaction is to start swinging his fists. When a lion comes along and announces his position as king, Popeye appropriately “crowns him”. By the end of the picture, Popeye has enough pelts to service a well-sticked haberdashery. Songs: “Memories” (accompanying an elephant remembering getting socked). It was a song from 1915, most notably recorded by Columbia in a version credited to Harry McClaskey (the real name of Henry Burr). “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2″ also makes a reappearance.
Sock a Bye Baby (1/19/34) – Popeye is pushing a baby carriage, containing a baby who he is trying to sooth (not Swee-pea), who starts crying at any noise. Popeye, in rather destructive fashion, uses his mighty fists to silence the town, including socking at a radio set to silence a singer across town in the studio via an electrical impulse of his fist, and destroying an entire high=rise construction site to silence its work crew. After all his efforts, the baby still awakens at the drop of a safety pin, leaving Popeye no alternative but to zipper his lip. Songs: the traditional “Rock a Bye Baby” and “Emmett’s Lullaby” (sung by Costello in his “Red Pepper Sam” style). “Out of Nowhere” appears as a reasonably current pop, introduced in 1931, recorded by Bing Crosby in his first Brunswick release, Harry Reser’s Radio Band for Hit of the Week, the Majestic Dance Orchestra for Romeo, Ranny Weeks for Melotone, and Ruth Etting on Columbia. In later years, Teddy Wilson performed it with Lena Horne on Columbia, Tommy Dorsey on Victor, Les Brown on Columbia, Helen Forrest on Decca, the Dick Hyman Trio on MGM, Donald Novis on Fidelity (a Chappell product), Ella Fitzgerald on Decca, Ckyde Hurley on Keynote, Boyd Rayburn on Guild, Victor Sylvester on Columbia, Georgie Auld on Royal Roost, Charlie Parker on Dial, Erroll Garner on Columbia, and Sidney Bechet on Vogue.
Let’s You and Him Fight (2/16/34) The first Popeye cartoon to be set in the boxing ring. Popeye is fighting Bluto for the championship. Olive, fickle as she usually is, tells Popeye that if he goes into the ring, they’re through. Popeye is not doing well in the ring, until Olive, who’s been listening to the bout on the radio, runs to the arena with open can of spinach, changing her mind and saying, “Go on and fight, ya big palooka.” Score includes “The Old Gray Mare”, “The Stars and Stripes Forever”. and “The Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore, recorded in early form twice by the Victor Male Chorus, once acoustically one electrically.
The Man on the Flying Trapeze (3/16/34) – Popeye makes port and decides to visit Olive, parking his large battleship right on the sidewalk as if it were an automobile. Only upon knocking on the door is he informed that Olive has run off with the Man on the Flying Trapeze. Popeye takes some kids to see the show, and ultimately mops the floor with the trapeze artist (who is not Bluto, and is built like an upside-down triangle). The title song is the only number in the film, written in 1867, inspired by the feats of Jacques Leotard (whose name became synonymous with the standard trapeze suit). I have located no early recordings, but the song experienced a revival in 1932 by Walter O’Keefe (styled “The Broadway Hillbilly”) in a two-sided version for Victor that became a good seller and stayed in the catalog for years (embed below). Cover versions were waxed by Dick Robertson for Melotone, Perfect, et al., Eddie Cantor for Melotone and Perfect (with special lyrics referring to Rubinoff), and Rudy Vallee on Victor (spinning off from a performance by him in the feature “George White’s Scandals”.). In the 1940’s, Spike Jones had a version with scrambled lyrics massacred by Doodles Weaver (used as a substitute flip side for the “William Tell Overture” when “By the Beautiful Sea” was pulled from catalog). The song is further remembered for performance by a busload of passengers in Columbia’s “It Happened One Night”. Dick Powell would also perform a film version in “Twenty Million Sweethearts.”
Next Post: Screen Songs 1933-34.