By early 1944, Famous Studios–the former Max Fleischer studios, now under the direct control of Paramount Pictures bean-counters–was getting ready to bid adieu to Miami ad return to New York–where those bean-counters could exercise more control over the product.
The expensive “Superman” cartoons had been allowed to die a natural death, replaced in the program by the “Little Lulu” series. The “Noveltoons” were starting to serve as the vehicle for introducing new characters. And now all the “Popeye” cartoons would be in Technicolor.
On the national level, the Roosevelt Administration was still promoting the Good Neighbor Policy–which was seen as even more important now that we were at war with the Axis.
Since Popeye and Bluto had already visited an un-named Caribbean country where they danced the Conga, it made sense that they might find themselves in a South American country whose melodies were on everybody’s lips–and whose rhythms were on everybody’s hips.
W’ere On Our Way To Rio was the third in the new series of Technicolor one-reelers to be released by Paramount. And, upon seeing it, one could argue that it was the most lushly-animated cartoon to ever have the banner of Famous Studios plastered upon it. (You’d have to go back to the two-reel specials to find more lush animation.
Plotwise, it is almost–but not quite–identical to Kickin’ The Conga Round (1942). However, the differences are telling, and have an impact on the final product.
First off, Popeye and Buto are buddies here – flat-out buddies, not arguing over girls or anything. They’re singing a pleasant little ditty about what they expect to see in Rio – with Popeye even making an hourglass motion with his hands that leaves no doubt in anybody’s mind as to what is on his mind. This ditty–and some comic business with a couple of the local birds–gives this cartoon a friendly spirit to start out with.
Also impressive is a shot of Popeye and Bluto on their bullock, looking over the sight of Rio de Janeiro with a full moon just coming up. There is no sign of the Cristo Redentor statue, but there is Sugar Loaf easily visible.
From there on,the plot becomes predictable. There is an Olive Oyl-ish dancer at a cafe, who brings out some Texaverienne reactions (especially in Bluto). Bluto, hoping to embarrass Popeye, touts him as the “Champeen Samba Dancer of the U.S.A.”
Of course, Popeye does’t know the dance–but once he gets around some spinach, he becomes an expert dancer,imoresses the girl, and beats up on Bluto.
But no, they don’t get hauled off by the Shore Patrol to send time cooling their heels in the brig.
The little details make this cartoon work on a visual level.
First off, this is an adult situation. As we enter the cafe where the action takes place, we see two silhouettes–and then “he” lights “her” cigarette. This harkens back to a days when cigarettes were seen as “cool”, and nobody ever gave a thought to lung cancer or emphysema.
We even get shots of the musicians at the cafe. One is shaking a Chocalho (cho-KAL-yo), a Brazilian analogue to a maraca. The danseuse makes her entrance in a giant Pandeiro (pan-DAY-ro), which is a Brazilian tambourine. (Bluto later uses a regular-sized one to try to trip up a spinach-charged Popeye, to no avail.
The orchestration sounds more lush than would be found on late Fleischer or earlier Famous shorts. (compare this with say Cartoons Aint Human (1943) or even Kickin’ The Conga Round) There seem to be some strings in the orchestra, and an improvement in the sound recording.
The singer is unknown to me at this ime. She seems to be quite conversat with Brazilian Portuguese–and it sounds like it may be her native tongue. It does not sound like either Magie Hines nor Mae Questel (who would take over with the next cartoon released, The Anvil Chorus Girl).
Finally, there’s the song featured. “Samba Lele” was a genuine Brazilian samba, recorded for Victor in the middle-to-late 1930’s by Carlos Gallhardo (gal-YARD-oh). The side was issued–along with four other songs by Gallhardo and an insrumental by Fon-fon and his orchestra, in an “album” of Brazilian music, issued by Victor in 1942 to continue to celebrate their belief in the Good Neighbor Policy.
Not that we were unfamiiar with Brazilian music or Brazilian rhythms. Carmen Miranda had come up here in 1939 to appear in the Broadway revue “Streets of Paris”. Her success there led to a contract with 20th. Century-Fox, where she was used to brig some added spice to various of their musicals, with her Brazilian songs, her spirited dancing, her tutti-frutti hats–and her running battle with the English language.
When Carmen came up here, she brought a large catalogue of Brazilian songs with her Not only did she hve her own hits–she was,after all the superstar of Brazilian entertainment–but others’ hits that she made poplar up here. None were more popular than “Mamae Eu Quero”—the hit of the 1937 Carnival season as writen and performed by Jararaca and his Conjuncto. Cartoon fans will recognize this song from its use in the Tom and Jerry short Baby Puss.
She brought her accompanists with her, in the company of the Bando da Lua,who had their own successful career down in Brazil. And she brought her sister, Aurora Miranda – who wound up working for Walt Disney Productions (The Three Callaleros).
All in all, W’ere On Our Way To Rio leaves the viewer with a good feeling–and what can be bad about that?