The year 1940 was a major turning point for Fleischer Studios on several levels. BETTY BOOP and SCREEN SONGS had long run their course. And the studio, with Dave Fleischer in charge of production was struggling to find relevancy for the new decade. Trade plants announced a proposed series, SALLY SWING based on the pilot BETTY BOOP cartoon of the same title. But Dave cancelled these plans in favor of the STONE AGE series. A series of one shots emulating Warner cartoons was attempted in the ANIMATED ANTICS series, with a sub series starring supporting characters from GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, Twinkle Toes and The Three Spies. Even a series with GULLIVER’S Gabby was attempted. But its reception was so bad that his series was cancelled after eight entries in spite of being produced in Technicolor.
These new cartoons coming from the Miami Plant were not well received, and theater operators complained, stating that only the Popeye cartoons had box office value. Considering the hits Fleischer Studios had with the two-reel Popeye epic adventures, a return to that format would have seemed to be a good move at this time. And with a staff of over 700 geared for feature production they had the personnel to carry it out.
After exploring the Arabian Knights stories, other heroic tales were considered as Popeye vehicles. But their scope was unfortunately too small. Popeye Meets William Tell, directed by Shamus Culhane had great potential, but was a sadly misguided concept in spite of Culhane’s contributions. In his book, Talking Animals And Other People he recalled:
“Popeye Meets William Tell was a good example of my efforts to take a typical lusty Fleischer Popeye script and superimpose some Hollywood finesse in acting and cutting. The result was something like putting a lace sunbonnet on a wild boar.”
In spite of Culhane’s good intensions, Popeye Meets William Tell totally misses the fantasy/adventure that could have made this another robust and exciting two-reel Technicolor “Popeye Feature”. Unlike Sindbad and Ali Baba where Popeye was the heroic figure, this one-reel black and white short places him in a silly and embarrassing role, pretending to be William Tell’s son. Imagine the possibilities if it had been played straight as “Popeye Tell.” The obvious casting would place Swee’ Pea as his “son,” and Bluto as the evil Governor. The supporting characters could have been cast as well. But the main problem is that the Culhane version contains no real sense of threat or motivated revenge that was the root of the best Popeye cartoons.
In the original story, William Tell was a Swiss peasant from Bürglen who was known as a skilled Crossbowman. And because he opposed Austrian authority–an interesting parallel between the story and the Fleischer’s ancestral background, he was forced to shoot an apple from his son’s head. Hitting his target in true Robin Hood style, Tell vowed that his next target would be the Governor. Tell was arrested for making this threat, saved the Governor’s life en route to prison, escaped, then killed the Governor in an ambush, leading to the Swiss uprising against Austrian rule. Since the issue of death would have been out of character for Popeye, the reversal of imprisonment would have been the desired solution, with Popeye Tell appointed Governor by the people with a satisfying heroic ending. This solution would have also reflected Max Fleischer’s philosophy about rehabilitation over execution. William Tell would have made for great entertainment worthy of the Popeye formula. Instead Culhane and crew went for comedy in the worst way, mocking the character and the story as if just “going through the motions.”
Popeye Meets Rip Van Winkle, directed by Myron Waldman is another missed opportunity for a great adventure cartoon and is more uncomfortable than funny. Film Daily offered a very frank review.
The original Washington Irving story offered greater opportunities. And the logical choice would be casting Poopdeck Pappy in the role of Rip Van Winkle with Popeye as his son. The Irving story has Van Winkle walking out on his nagging wife, headed for the woods when a thunderstorm starts. He then comes across a group of gnomes seriously engaged in a game of nine pins bowling, which is the source of the thunder. The gnomes offer him some of their “homemade brew,” which causes him to sleep for 20 years. During Van Winkle’s sleep, the American Revolution occurs. When he wakes up, he is unaware of the passage of time, although his beard has grown extremely long. Van Winkle returns to the village and doesn’t know anyone and they don’t recognize him. The villagers become concerned about this stranger and alert the authorities after Van Winkle innocently declares his allegiance to King George. He is then arrested for treason and insanity.
His son, Rip Van Winkle II returns home from the Revolution to his wife and son (played by Olive and Swee’ Pea). Van Winkle II hears of the eccentric old man and realizes he is his father who disappeared 20 years before. This gives Popeye a big heroic rescue sequence leading to the resolution of the confused issues based on an innocent misunderstanding.
While this plot is fairly similar to the original comic strip adventure, The Quest for Poopdeck Pappy and its condensed version in the classic short, Goonland (1938), the Rip Van Winkle story offered far better situations. Instead, a routine and passable vehicle was produced that is not as remembered as the earlier adventure-themed cartoons.
The Quest for Poopdeck Pappy comic strip serial might have been another prospect for a two-reel Special. Even though it had been adapted in Goonland, an expanded version would have been a good choice since Fleischer Studios had already reworked A Dream Walking (1934) as Nix on Hipnotricks (1941). Of course, we all know that Goonland was remade by Famous Studios as the Technicolor short, Popeye’s Pappy (1952).
It is difficult to completely understand what may have influenced decisions that were made years before we were all born. While these proposals seemed to be the logical direction to take at a time when Fleischer Studios was struggling. It is apparent that Fleischer Studios lost the wind in its sails once they moved to Miami. In the process, they seemed headed “off course.” And with Dave Fleischer at the helm, the ship was run aground.
Max, who was in charge of business matters may have been too passive and accommodating with Paramount, conforming to their annual order of 12 black and white Popeye cartoons budgeted at $16,500 each. Why more Popeye Specials were not produced might have been based on their fears over their financial difficulties following the completion of Gulliver’s Travels. But Popeye continued to be lucrative for Paramount, and they continued to order a slate of 12 black and white cartoons. A smarter move at this point might have been a proposal from Max to produce 10 black and white shorts and one two-reeler per year. It is always so easy to reason what should have happened based on hindsight. But we have no idea of what underlying issues that contributed to the atmosphere of malaise that had crept over the studio. In spite of what could have or should have happened, it just did not.
Excerpted and adapted from The Art and Inventions of Max Fleischer: American Animation Pioneer (2017) by Ray Pointer