All that He Is

5 March 2011

Although I'm something of a fan of E[lzie] C[risler] Segar, what I like most when it comes to Popeye are the animated cartoons made by the Fleischer Studios, before they relocated to Florida. (Some years ago, the Woman of Interest got me a copy of Popeye the Sailor: 1933 – 1938, which was exactly the perfect collection for me.)

Anyway, I thought that I'd present my single favorite bit from those cartoons: [animation of Popeye jumping from a stool and beginning to pump his fists] For a better sense of what is happening here, watch Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (1937), or at least the minute and 48 seconds starting at 6:12.

Popeye and Olive and Wimpy are the restaurant of an oasis village, when there is a warning that Abu Hassan and his band of forty thieves are out on a raid. The villagers go into hiding (as does Olive). Indeed, the thieves approach this very village. Popeye hears a great commotion outside, leaps from his stool, and begins pumping his fists.

Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves is, over all, not actually my favorite Popeye cartoon — which, off the top of my head, might instead be Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), though I'm not sure — but this one bit is perfect. Popeye isn't sure what he's about to confront, but he's prepared to fight it! Popeye is emotionally prepared to fight anything,[1] and he expects to do so with his fists!

Popeye is, in important respects, a simple man. He has many apparently unexamined certitudes, leaps to conclusions, and often does things that are very inappropriate. And he knows that he's simple; that's part of what he's saying with I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam! Popeye doesn't typically think his way out of a problem; it doesn't even seem to occur to him to try. If thinking were suggested to him, then he'd probably confess that he couldn't. He uses his fisks 'cause that's what he's gots. And, ultimately, they've always seemed to be enough.

But, in the moral sphere, he is consistently doing his very best. Not just what others might see as enough, but his best. I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam! isn't used to rationalize shirking. Popeye is prepared to fight whatever comes through that door because, if it's bad, somebody has to fight it; and, if Popeye doesn't fight it, well, then who will?

BTW, on Thursday, I received copies of the first three volumes of the Fantagraphics Popeye reprints from Edward R. Hamilton, mentioned in a previous entry; they had no remainder marks. (And the transaction seems otherwise to have been perfectly satisfactory.)

[1] Except in-so-far as he has no personally acceptable means by which to fight a woman.

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2 Responses to All that He Is

  • the apocolyte says:

    In my youth I spent time studying early animators such as Ub Iwerks and the Fleischers, and for some reason my favorite Popeye cartoons are the Black and White ones. This one is definitely a classic from the same era, but has a somewhat less nightmarish and surrealistic appearance than the B&W's. I could watch old Fleischer cartoons all day long and not get weary! I remember the Out Of The Inkwell shorts and even some Betty Boop's. These old time cartoons, even with scenes of repetitive running in front of repetitive background scenery, possess a quality and a charm that is sorely lacking in anything produced in the past several decades.

    I like your characterization of Popeye. As you describe, what you see is what you get. He is straight-forward and guileless; imperfect yes, but as you said, always doing his best to do what he feels is right.

    • Daniel says:

      A book would be required for a proper treatment of surrealism and nightmare in animation from the time of Emile Cohl into the '30s. Certainly I agree that the Fleischer cartoons had been more surreal and more nightmarish. The earliest Fleischer cartoons were surreal, and they'd developed the nightmarish quality by the time that the first Popeye cartoon was introduced.

      And, indeed, that all began to evaporate even before the Fleischer studios moved to Florida. In the early '30s, every scene in a Fleischer cartoon would have at least one surreal gag; setting aside the one scene of people and things going into hiding after the radio announcement, there are perhaps six or seven such gags in the whole of Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (and they basically end with the camel being filled with gasoline). And Popeye himself, originally leathery, unsmiling, and mechanical, has become smooth and cheerful.

      The introduction of color surely had some effect here, as black-and-white or grey-scale are intrinsically grim, and it's at least difficult to be nightmarish with color without being obvious (and I don't think that the Fleischer cartoons were consciously nightmarish).

      But if we look at Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor, released almost exactly a year before Forty Thieves, we see that it is significantly more surreal and grim; and Sindbad too was in color; whatever effect color had, it wasn't instantaneous. And there was only one more color Popeye cartoon, Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939), and then none further from the Fleischer Studios nor even from Famous Studios, until late 1943 (Her Honor the Mare). Yet I suspect that you'll agree with me that the Popeye cartoons continued to be both less dream-like and lighter from Forty Thieves and beyond Aladdin.

      I think that part of what was happening was that what the audience was perceived to want had changed; the tone of movies more generally had evolved. Part of what was happening was that, in particular, the animation industry and its more immediate customers (those between it and the ultimate audience) had been hugely impressed by Disney.

      Meanwhile, the Fleischer Studios were for a time relocated from NY to Florida. And the Fleischers themselves were, in more senses than one, losing their grip. They'd never been particulary able as businessmen, there were unionization troubles erupting, and they were becoming alienated one from another.

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