February 28, 2023 posted by James Parten

Popeye 1943-45: Popeye Gets Famous

When Paramount foreclosed on Max Fleischer’s studio, they certainly had great hopes for Popeye. He was their bread and butter (despite wartime rationing). The sailor didn’t disappoint the front office, and plans were made to do the 1943-44 season in color. Paramount was re-routing its dough. By dropping the triple-budget Superman’s, it was able to divert its funds into all-color Popeyes, Noveltoons, and Little Lulus, all at the same time. But there was still the 1942 – 43 season to burn off, with the one-eyed sailor still featured in monochrome.

Seein’ Red, White, and Blue (2/19/43). The film begins on a semi-subversive note. Bluto works as a blacksmith, reciting a slightly scrambled version of “Under the spreading chestnut tree…” Bluto does not want to sign up for another hitch in the navy, but gets what amounts to a draft notice. Popeye is in the unusual role of a selective service officer. Bluto tries feigning several different illnesses in order to get an exemption. At one point, he claims he can’t see his hand in front of his face. Popeye presses a button, and out rolls a mechanical version of an army nurse. Bluto can sure see that. Bluto attempts to lift the “babe”, and her costume falls away, revealing that her main frame consists of a 1,000 pound barbell, which Bluto is lifting with ease. Bluto is caught in his deception, but vows he’s gonna get himself injured and get his exemption anyway. (Shades of “Hospitaliky”.) Bluto and Popeye come across an orphanage, which is being used as a front for 5 Japanese spies. They begin beating up on Popeye, until Popeye gets into his spinach – and saves some for Bluto, too, who eats not only the leaves, but the can, then “Hulk”s out in wildly erratic Jim Tyer animation. One of the spies comments during the resulting beating, “This should happen to Hitler.” Popeye delivers blows so hard, even the Fuerher feels it, knocked cold at one of his rallies in distant Germany, while spoutung phrases that incorporate the Lifebuoy soap catch-phrase “B-O”. The film ends with Bluto finally signing up, asking “How do ya spell ‘Bluto’?” The Spies, behind bars, chime in with the spelling in the manner of a “J-E-L-L-O” singing jingle, for the fade out. Songs: “Blumenlied” (as Bluto lists his various ailments) and “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You”, music by Jule Styne, lyric by Frank Loesser. It was used in the film “Sweater Girl”, and its biggest version was by Harry James with Helen Forrest on Columbia. Cover versions included Bing Crosby on Decca, Dinah Shore on Victor, and Tommy Tucker Time for Okeh. In the 60’s, there was a single by Phyllis McGuire (of the Sisters) on Reprise, which made the Billboard “middle road” singles chartt at #78. Barry Manilow also had a successful album revival of the piece on Arista that got wide airplay.

Too Weak To Work (3/19/43) – Bluto is now in the navy, but still not anxious to perform his duties. He lollygags in a lifeboat, letting Popeye do all the heavy work. He eventually gets the idea to feign illness again, to get a comfortable bed to lounge in at sick bay, and “a pretty nurse”. Popeye detects the faker, and decides to provide him with the “pretty nurse” – himself in drag. Bluto’s reaction at first sight of “her” is, “She’s old enough to be me grandmother”. Popeye resorts to an old-fashioned remedy by “painting” Bluto’s throat – using a paintbrush to create pictures of childhood-scrawl scenery inside his mouth – including a surreal gag where an image of the sun falls into Bluto’s throat, setting his mouth on fire. Bluto also receives a dose of oxygen from a tank, but overinflates, rising into the air. He is punctured by ground fire, and plummets to the ground deflated. The only way to bring him back to speed is a dose of spinach. Bluto becomes an instant work-horse, painting lifeboats and throwing them on davits with lightning speed. The last item he picks up is Popeye, who also gets painted and hung out to dry, but is remarkably happy about it. Songs: “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” written by Joseph Lilley and Frank Loesser, for the picture, The Forest Rangers (where it was sung by Dick Thomas). The hit version went to Kay Kyser on Columbia. Others included Glenn Miller on Victor, Gene Autry on Okeh, the Merry Macs on Decca, and Tex Ritter on the brand-new Capitol label. The Sportsmen got to sing it in another feature, “Lost Canyon” starring Bill “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

Ration Fer the Duration (5/28/43) – Popeye is planting a victory garden, devoted to one crop entirely – guess which? His nephews are more interested in going out fishing than in planting. Popeye, to get them interested in horticulture, tells the boys a condensed version of Jack and the Beanstalk. The kids want to hear more, but Popeye falls asleep, and dreams a beanstalk has really sprouted, which Popeye chooses to climb, just to prove “There ain’t no giant.” High in the sky, he takes a ride from the beanstalk’s leaves to the castle by means of a cloud taxi. “Fare?” he asks the unseen driver. “Nope. Cloudy and rain”, responds the driver, as the cloud melts away into raindrops. It turns out there is a giant – as identified by the N.Y. Giants logo on his t-shirt. After the audience has a chance to read it, the giant rubs away the lettering, stating, “I didn’t think it was funny, either.” Popeye, hiding in the giant’s parlor, discovers that the giant is a sugar hoarder. On top of that, his golden goose lays rubber tires instead of eggs. Popeye observes a treasure room full of rationed items, and declares “Uncle Sam could use all that stuff.” After adventures in attempting to haul away the giant’s hoarded goods, Popeye awakens, to discover that the boys have really planted a victory garden – an unusual one, which grows items fit for salvage drive, such as pot-atoes, can-taloupes, pine-nipples, and finally a shoe-tree, with all the rubber one could ask. Song: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”, a patriotic song with words and music by Frank Loesser, inspired by stories circulating in the service about a military chaplain (known in army slang as a “sky pilot” who was also a skilled gunner. Hit version of the song was by Kay Kyser on Columbia. The Merry Macs performed it for Decca. The Southern Sons covered it on Bluebird. The Royal Harmony Quartet also sang it on Keynote. Joe Loss’s Orchestra performed it across the pond on HMV. (The song would also make an appearance in the Superman cartoon, “Jungle Drums”.)

The Marry-Go-Round (12/31/43) – In Popeye’s second color appearance of the new run, he and Shorty get shore leave. Popeye has purchased an engagement ring, and is actually contemplating popping the question to Olive – a prospect which suits Shorty all too well, in anticipation of the wedding. Shorty decides to give Popeye pointers on how to go about it, ranging from a dress rehearsal with Shorty playing both justice of the peace and bride, to demonstrations of technique as Shorty does impression of Charles Boyer to Olive. An accidental jolt of electricity makes Olive think Shorty is quite the kisser – and she drops all idea of accepting Popeye’s proposal, and starts pursuing Shorty in seductive fashion. This is all Popeye can stand, and he rigs up a trap for Olive by impersonating Shorty’s voice (indicating Mercer playing a double role), and luring Olive into the works of her own washing machine. Popeye ends the picture back aboard ship, finding new female interests by tacking up for himself all of Shorty’s pin-up pictures, while leaving Shorty tied in a hammock, with nothing to stare at but Popeye’s pictures of Olive. Yuck!. Songs: “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” (suggesting the line, “This is the way we wash out clothes”, every time Popeye and Olive fall into the washing machine). The new number is “Moonlight Becomes You”, from the Hope-Crosby picture Road To Morocco, embed below, composed by two of Crosby’s favorite songwriters, Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Husen. Crosby recorded the hit on Decca. Glenn Miller covered it on Victor, with Skip Nelson and the Modernaires. Harry James used it as a B-side on Columbia to the bigger seller “I’ve Heard That Song Before”, giving vocal chores to Johnny McAfee. In England, Carroll Gibbons performed a tasteful version on Columbia. Over the years, it has been recorded by several others, including Ella Fitzgerald on Verve, Frank Sinatra on Reprise, and The Hi-Los on Columbia.

W’ere On Our Way To Rio (4/21/44) – A favorite that has received considerable write-up on this website. Popeye and Bluto are in fighting pals mode, riding an ox down from the hills of Rio De Janeiro. They take in a fancy night club, where they meet a South American equivalent of Olive, the star performer at the Samba club. Bluto puts Popeye in an embarrassing situation, by introducing him to Olive as “the champion Samba dancer of the Navy.” “I don’t know anything about no Sambo dancing”, mutters Popeye, but the spotlight falls upon him, like it or not. Popeye bluffs some hoofer moves, then plays hide and seeks with the spotlight. Eventually, the only way out of the dilemma is resort to the spinach can. Bluto realizes he’s become too good, and tries to break up his fancy steps with Olive, but gets the usual pummeling for his trouble. Popeye’s final wild spin with Olive results in a whirlwind swap of costumes, Olive now wearing the sailor suit, and tooting Popeye’s pipe for the closing. Songs: “I’m on My Way To Rio”, an original, presumably with music by Win Sharples. The lyric sounds typically tin pan alley, as if written by someone who’s been no closer to Rio than the 1939 World’s Fair. “Samba Le Le (Broadway Samba)”, the featured dance number, was recorded by Carlos Gallhardo on Victor around 1938, and issued here around 1942 as part of an album of Brazilian songs.

Pop-Pie a La Mode (1/29/45) – Popeye, victim of a shipwreck, is floating on a raft in the South Seas, anointing himself liberally with sun tan oil. He lands ashore on an island after seeing a sandwich-board sign worn by a native passing by on a paddleboat, advertising “Joe’s Always Inn” = a multistory hotel with glass box architecture. Joe turns out to be a large African (?) Native, voiced by Jackson Beck, in his best impersonation of Andrew Brown from Amos ‘n’ Andy. Popeye receives royal treatment as the “Specialty of the House”, including a diet of every kind of fattening starch and sweet imaginable. He is then invited to an initiation into the “Secret Order of the Midnight Bath”. Believing he’s taking a bath before the tribe (“I ain’t done anything like this since I lost a bet on Hoover”), Popeye enters a “tub” that is really a cooking pot – then discovers the tribe are cannibals – complete with their proper allotment of meat rationing stamps. Popeye is pounded with a large mallet into the shape of a steak, then thrown on the Bar-b. Only his spinach can revert him to original form, and then some, as he lets out with a Tarzan yell, and launches the natives like javelins at their leader. Popeye winds up new chieftain of the island, with the natives obediently repeating a chant first heard in “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp” = “Salami, Salami, Baloney.” Songs: “Blue Hawaii”, introduced by Bing Crosby in the film Waikiki Wedding, recorded by Crosby on Decca. Dance versions included Richard Himber on Victor, Russ Morgan for Brunswick, Henry King on Decca, Chick Billock and his Levee Loungers on Melotone, Perfect, et al., and George Hall and his Hotel Taft Orchestra on Bluebird. Late revivals included Johnny Maddox on Dot, and Elvis’s title version from his Paramount feature of the same name, released on RCA. “Strange Enchantment”, also appears, from the Jack Benny feature, Man About Town. A vocal version was issued on Bluebird by Dorothy Lamour. For the dance crowd, Victor had it by Skinnay Ennis and his Orchestra. Bluebird gave it to Ozzie Nelson. Vocalion had a version by Dick Barrie’s big band. Decca gave it to Bob Crosby, with Marion Mann on vocal.

Tops In the Big Top (3/16/45) – Popeye and Olive are working in the circus, with Bluto as ringmaster. Having eyes for Olive, Bluto sabotages Popeye’s high wire act, even besmirching Popeye’s reputation by framing him as a drunk. Popeye is threatened with being torn apart by gorillas, until the green leafy stuff is ingested, and the gorillas transformed into the famous stature of the three wise monkeys. Popeye’s and Bluto’s battle brings down the house as the big top falls. Songs: “Marche Militaire” by Schubert, recorded at various times by the Columbia Salon Orchestra directed by Mortimer Palitz, who would become an executive for the label. Also by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy for Victor, The London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Hamilton Hardy for HMV, and eventually by many other orchestras such as the Boston Pops on RCA. A new number, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, is also featured, from Paramount’s Here Come The Waves with Bing Crosby and Betty Hutton. Music was by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The pseudo-spiritual was waxed by Bing with the Andrews Sisters on Decca, but was virtually matched for sales by Johnny Mercer himself on his own new label, Capitol, accompanied by the Pied Pipers. The Four King Sisters also covered it as a vocadance on Victor. Kay Kyser also performed it on Columbia, with vocal by Dolly Mitchell. Artie Shaw got a dance version on Victor. In England, Jack Payne waxed it for the British Isles on HMV. Aretha Franklin would perform a revival of the tune in 1962 for Columbia.

Shape Ahoy (4/27/45) – One of the 40’s episodes in which Mae Questel is suspected of doing the voice of Popeye. Bluto and the sailor are shipwrecked upon a deserted island – and loving it, finding peace and serenity in a land with no women. That is, until another shipwreck victim, Olive, drifts in on a raft. She claims to have been at sea so long, she’s forgotten what food tastes like. The boys feign a disdainful disinterest in her, responding in unison “Lady, it’s got the same old taste.” But, when apart from each other, their true nature as womanizing wolves is revealed, and they each try to impress Olive with a variety of foodstuffs. Eventually, tempers rise to the fever pitch of the usual battle, as the boys uproot trees to use as weapons. But the spinach is never broken out – as Olive makes a sudden departure from the island in the midst of the battle, hitching a ride with a shipwrecked Frank Sinatra. The boys respond in unison, “Well I’ll be a…”, with their last words covered by human hands which paste labels across their mouths reading “Censored.” Songs: “I’m on the Mood For Love”, an oldie from Paramount’s Every Night At Eight. Victor had a sterling version by Paul Whiteman with Ramona. Royal Blue Columbia gave it to Little Jack Little and his Orchestra. Frances Langford did a vocal version on Brunswick. Louis Armstrong gave it a blow on Decca. In the 40’s, Billy Eckstine recorded it on National. Jazz versions appeared on Prestige by James Moody, and on Mercury by the Coleman Hawkins quintet. A concert version appeared by Freddy Gardner, recorded in England for Columbia. A well-remembered parody version appeared on RCA Victor by Spike Jones, with Billy Barty doing his best impersonation of Liberace. It was revived in the 50’s by Fats Domino on Imperial, and by the Chimes in 1961 on the Tag label. Many will also remember it as one of the many hits that the unforgettable voice of Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer got to massacre in the Our Gang comedies, this one in The Pinch Singer. “Let’s Get Lost” came from the Paramount feature “Happy Go Lucky”, an all-star affair with Mary Martin and Betty Hutton, among others. Lyric was by Frank Loesser and music by Jule Styne. There were three versions that made the charts: Kay Kyser on Columbia, Jimmy Dorsey on Decca, and the biggest seller, Vaughn Monroe on Victor.

Next Post: Oh, Lulu!


  • “I’m in the Mood for Love” was also played by Bluto on the violin and trombone in “Symphony in Spinach”, using the instruments’ bow and slide, respectively, to bring Olive into his embrace.

    “Jingle Jangle Jingle” was sung with altered lyrics by the title character in “The Hungry Goat”, then played in reverse when the goat asks the projectionist to go back to the beginning. It was also sung by Jon Walmsley and Lisa Harrison in a late episode of “The Waltons”, with Harrison in particular really going full-on Ethel Merman Broadway foghorn in that performance.

    Dick Thomas’s dancing cowgirls are somewhat imprecise in their movements, and they look embarrassed to be there, but I think it’s a cute number just the same.

  • “We’re On Our Way to Rio” has always been a top fave of mine, espesh since it has TWO musical numbers in it. (!!) Always wondered about their origins….and thank YOU for that clarification!!

  • For myself Popeye after Fleischer is Popeye after INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Something elemental is missing. I like WE’RE ON OUR WAY TO RIO but there, too, something is missing. Nothing is missing from this post though. Great work. Thank you.

    • At least in that one Popeye enters the nightclub with his arms positioned in fighting mode. There’s a little of the old spark in Pop-Pie a la Mode,” too, but you’re right about the Famous Popeye having increasingly less of his old moxie. Was it the white sailor suit? The loss of his hair? Careless animators giving Popeye teeth and/or a working second eye? Concerned moviegoing mothers wanting Popeye’s violence toned down while still pushing spinach to the point of Popeye being presented in several cartoons as a cowardly weakling until he eats the stuff?

      As Steven Bierly theorized in his book “Stronger Than Spinach,” Olive and Bluto (similarly refined) seemed suddenly to belong together, making Popeye the nerd.

  • ON OUR WAY TO RIO is almost a remake of the black & white KICKIN’ THE CONGA ROUND (1942). I’d have a hard time picking a favorite. RIO’s color and musical numbers are wonderfully appealing, while CONGA has more comedy and some great dance animation. Would it be overkill to run the two together?

    RIO definitely feels like a riff on Paramount’s Road pictures (Is it just me or does the orchestra look like caricatures of Bob Hope?). “Road to Rio” didn’t happen until 1947, but I like to think somebody somewhere programmed RIO to run with that or some other Road picture.

  • Popeye’s spinach-fueled samba in”W’ere On Our Way to Rio” [sic] is remarkably smooth; rotoscoping is strongly suspected, with the reference dancer wearing an oversized Popeye head. Margie Hines is still Olive in “Marry-Go-Round”; Olive is oddly silent in “Moving Aweigh”; Mae Questel doesn’t resume Olive detail until “The Anvil Chorus Girl” (also Jackson Beck’s debut as Bluto).

  • I may have said this before here – I’m a little “under the weather” today, but one of my biggest regrets when I interviewed Dave Tendlar over the phone – was that I did not ask him who was behind the “changed” version of POPEYE at about the time of the transfer of power between the Fleischer’s to Famous. He was not in good health at the time and I had to do a lot to “spark” his memory. I sent him an article or two I had done – a long one with Gordon Sheehan – on the Fleischer POPEYE series and one I had done on ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP. I probably should have sent him a piece on my own suggestions as to what happened to Popeye’s overall screen character in the early ’40s. As Jack Mercer was doing a lot of the writing of the stories for the POPEYE series at this time, I wonder if his big push to make the character more friendly and less “rough around the edges” had a lot to do with the change? I also wonder if the writers though that the old “formula” needed some “fixing-up” to make it seem fresh and new?

    My first exposure to POPEYE cartoons as a youngster was to see a huge 16mm reel of them – the color Famous offerings (with original titles, as I recall) – at our local Catholic parishes’ “Chuck Wagon Dinner.” That was a time – close to an hour – when the kids were herded off to the parish rectory basement to see cartoons while the parents got to relax a bit and have a beer or two without having to worry about the kids. Anyway, after seeing five or so of these later POPEYE cartoons in a row, I started to see through the “formula” pretty quickly. Popeye was a jerk who only became heroic after eating his spinach and – yes – breaking up a romance between Olive and Bluto. Frankly, I thought then that the fickle Olive and nasty bearded bully named Bluto deserved each other! The TV POPEYE cartoons from the early ’60s kind of reinforced that “negative” image I had of Popeye. But – of course – I wondered where the heck Bluto went to and was Brutus a more slovenly twin brother?

    It wasn’t until I saw the “two reel color specials” much later and – very rarely – the black-and-white POPEYE cartoons, that I realized the character was something special. It was toward the end of high school that I discovered reprints of Segar’s original comic strips in a hugely expensive (for me) hardcover book from Nostalgia Press (I think it was the story where Popeye is reunited with Pappy) in a nearby suburban bookstore. Man, I WANTED that book! So, I discovered the greatness of POPEYE in backwards order … but it all worked out in the end!

    • The comic strip gave in, finally, about 15 years ago; today, post-retcon—more or less by popular demand—Brutus IS Bluto’s more slovenly twin brother, with the two just as often seen hanging around the house bickering as challenging anyone to a fight.

  • In “Pop-Pie A La Mode” the part where they use large mallets to flatten Popeye into a steak STILL freaks me the fuck out to this day.

  • Those are some if my all time favorite Popeye shorts. Had NO IDEA these great songs were available elsewhere. Thanks!

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