Hornpiping In: Popeye of the Cartoons

Posted by on August 23rd, 2010 at 1:52 AM

I see where Popeye is being discussed on one of the satellites, and as I just happen to have been watching the DVD collection Popeye the Sailor Volume One 1933-1938 lately I thought I’d take the liberty (or have the infernal cheek) to set up my own little roundtable for one over here.

The DVD set encompasses most of the Popeye cartoons made before Max and Dave Fleischer moved their studio from New York to Miami to make Gulliver’s Travels and avoid unionization, not necessarily in that order.  Much is made of the gritty urban setting of the Popeye cartoons in contrast to the barnyard and Fairyland environs where Disney dwelt.  This is accurate so far as it goes but not as significant as some think.  Here’s the thing.  Walt Disney did not have a sophisticated bone in his body.  The Fleischers did have a sophisticated bone in their collective body, but it wasn’t connected to anything.  Most importantly, it wasn’t connected to an artistic ambition bone, because the Fleischers didn’t have one.  Disney had a whole skeleton of them.  Like all the New York animation studios they were mercenary hacks.  They just happened to be inspired hacks.  Even their most inspired cartoons at the beginning of sound were no more than a series of incidents with no real point of view behind them.  The rooming houses and greasy spoons of the Popeye cartoons were nothing more than a logical place for roughhousing.  They were urban but they weren’t urbane.

With a precision that would have done Henry Ford proud, the Fleischers dipped into E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theater, plucked out the exploitable elements and assembled a formula designed for industrial production.  You must have seen at least one of them, and if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.  Nevertheless, for form’s sake, a Fleischer Popeye cartoon consists of the following:  Popeye and Bluto, rivals for the affections of Olive Oyl, engage in a test of prowess to gain her favor.  In the course of this contest Bluto might threaten, abuse or abduct Olive Oyl, or he might not.  Popeye is overmatched by Bluto’s superior natural strength until he resorts to his PEV (Performance Enhancing Vegetable), spinach.  Having ingested a canfull, he proceeds to beat Bluto senseless.  Sometimes Wimpy is hanging around, eating hamburgers.  This is the pattern of the overwhelming majority of the cartoons.  The audience comes to a Popeye cartoon waiting for the spinach moment.  It’s very seldom really that there is even an obstacle to spinach eating; presumably Popeye refrains from it as long as he does because he doesn’t like the taste any more than anyone else does, testimonials to the contrary.  The tone is set by the first gag in the first cartoon:  Walking down the deck, Popeye picks up an anchor and gives it a sock that turns it into a pile of fishhooks.  Gags of this nature would appear throughout the series.  Really the biggest difference between the first and the last cartoon on Volume One is that the characters had stopped their constant bouncing up and down in time to the music, an annoying tic that continued through the first dozen or so cartoons.

As an example linking to (but not embedding, you can click that pic until your finger falls off) King of the Mardi Gras, the first cartoon to feature Jack Mercer as the voice of Popeye.  All the elements are present:  urban setting (the “Mardi Gras” of the title takes place on Coney Island), Popeye and Bluto vie for Olive Oyl as competing sideshow performers, Wimpy plays his supernumerary function, Olive endangered, a final confrontation on a roller coaster settled by spinach.  You also get some old-style Fleischer grotesquerie in the carnival crowd (pictured above) and a glimpse of the Fleischers’ multiplane method, which preceded Disney’s by several years.  As Michael Barrier wrote in his definitive history Hollywood Cartoons, “For all that the Fleischers emphasized a kind of cartoon engineering on the screen, they were reluctant to embrace advances that were more than just mechanical.”  Disney’s multiplane camera served the purpose of creating an illusion of reality and allowed camera movement through the planes.  The Fleischer setback method put a three dimensional background behind a two dimensional plane and served no purpose because Fleischer cartoons had no interest in emulating reality.  There’s not much point to creating a three dimensional world if your characters can’t enter it.

All of which is not to say that the Popeye cartoons serve no artistic purpose.  They became a kind of living fossil.  The fictional Fleischer-like animation studio in Kim and Simon Deitch’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams has its creative individuality crushed by the encroaching Disney influence.  Without Popeye the Fleischers might have suffered the same fate.  Betty Boop had been neutered by the Production Code.  The Color Classics, the Fleischers’ attempt to imitate Disney’s Silly Symphonies, were positively nauseating.  As Disney came to the fore the Fleischers found themselves purveyors of nightmares to an audience that wanted dreams.  As cuteness was the only attribute of the Disney style that didn’t cost a lot of money to emulate, Disney’s competitors chose cuteness as the attribute to emulate.  The problem this posed for the Fleischers was that despite the nightmarish situations they would get into, their character designs were already as cute as Disney’s.  (This is why Betty Boop is still a hot marketing property.)  Faced with the challenge of emulating Disney the only direction the Fleischers could think of to go was cloying and sentimental.

In the fortress of their instant popularity the Popeye cartoons became a kind of game preserve for rambunctious rubber-armed Fleischer animation.  While they were no innovators beyond a certain point, by the 1930s the Fleischers had the style of the 1920s down pat.  One Popeye cartoon is like another Popeye cartoon in the same way that one piece of popcorn is like another piece of popcorn.  Like popcorn, you can swallow them down by the handful.  While Disney’s shorts dazzle artistically and engage emotionally, their militantly middlebrow point of view erects a barrier between them and the contemporary viewer.  While the Fleischers had no point of view, their brow was never anything but low.  Though the Fleischers did nothing but put them through a very limited set of paces, Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oyl are stronger characters than anything in the Disney menagerie with the possible exception of Donald Duck.

But to see the history of animation as a struggle between the values of Disney and the Fleischers is a fundamental error.  The true alternative and counterargument to Disney came not from the Fleischers but from Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, from the Tex Avery unit at MGM, and from UPA.  It was there that you found the urbanity, sophistication and wit that were missing from both Disney and the Fleischers.  The problem for the regional chauvinist is that like Disney, they all worked out of Hollywood.  In animation, that’s where the artistic ambition was.

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4 Responses to “Hornpiping In: Popeye of the Cartoons”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “or have the infernal cheek”

    Not at all! The more the merrier and all that…

  2. […] at once. But cooked and seasoned, or raw in a salad, sure! Wait, what was I linking to? Oh! R. Fiore talks Popeye—specifically, the cartoon Popeye—at The Comics Journal. It’s a great piece, and […]

  3. patford says:

    A collection on DVD is the worst possible way to see many cartoon “classics.”
    The Fleischer Popeye cartoons might be compared to the Chuck Jones “Roadrunner” cartoons. The best way to see them is one every once in a long while.
    That’s how they were designed to be seen, and it’s really the only way they work.
    Even my young children get bored with formula cartoons very quickly.
    This isn’t to say they don’t like a Bugs Bunny cartoon from time to time, but one or two is enough, where as they will watch a whole disc of Simpsons episodes.
    I don’t see even the “best” Popeye cartoons as having much of anything to do with Segar’s Popeye. They have far more in common with Betty Boop.

  4. Russ Maheras says:

    Despite their repetitive nature, I always liked the Fleischer cartoons because of their unique artistic style and enthusiasm. Maybe the same strong, stubborn emotions that eventually drove the two brothers apart was the catalyst for the undeniable energy and power their cartoons exuded.

    The studio had a special something that could not be emulated. For example, if one looks at the 1940s “Superman” cartoons as a whole, the Fleischer Studio versions were superior in every way to the flat (uninspired?) Famous Studio versions made just a year or two later.

    And your article got me thinking again about Fleischer Studio’s “Hoppity Goes to Town” (aka “Mr. Bug Goes to Town”). I haven’t seen it in about 40 years, but I remember I really liked it at the time — especially the animation. I’m curious as to whether or not it still holds up in my estimation.