Eye-Popping!

On my recent New York jaunt, Guy Budziak kindly presented me with a collected set of Fleischer POPEYE cartoons, stuffed with extras. Since we’re teen-sitting this week, I thought I’d experiment upon Louis, our young charge, to see whether 1930s animation still pleases the youth of today. 

Turns out it does, and it also pleases me. Elzie Segar’s newspaper strip goes through a set of funhouse-mirror distortions to emerge from the Fleischer inkwell, with characters internally reshaped internally even when their exteriors remain the same — if I were a purist I’d be offended. I love the Segar strip, but I can still enjoy the gene-splice of Popeye characters with Betty Boop’s universe: a surreal nightmare-scape obeying strange rules of its own. Everything is alive, and therefore transmutable into something else –

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“He’s hijacked a whale!” exclaimed Louis.

Popeye steers his cetacean ride into harbour, and it converts into a nifty staircase to get him onto the pier.

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“That whale is Popeye’s bitch!”

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19 Responses to “Eye-Popping!”

  1. Very Moby Dick. Here’s a song from Willie:
    (deleted)

  2. The clip can’t be embedded, because whoever posted it had disabled that function. But you can link to it.

  3. I had only intended sending the link. Embedding never crossed my mind. You may as well eliminate the embedding bit.

  4. WordPress seems to be embedding things regardless of our intentions. Hmm, maybe that’ll help me embed stuff from Veoh.

    Nevertheless, this turns out to be another clip that won’t play outside of Ireland. Sorry, Peter!

  5. I was just watching some of these cartoons again these past few days, only with the commentary tracks on. Even though the majority of these were made in black and white, it’s still pretty amazing how technically creative they are, how rhythmically well-timed and rife with gags, both visual and oral. More than one commentator made mention of how “urban” Fleischer’s ‘toon’s were, since they were based in NYC, not the Big Apple of sleek skyscrapers but rather the urban funk of dilapidated Depression-era apartment buildings. As a child I much preferred the early Fleischer shorts, but unfortunately too often the post-Fleischer Popeyes were shown instead, blander, more workmanlike in production. Disney cornered the market on eye candy with his West Coast sensibility, but the Fleischers’ work had a jittery rhythmic energy that could only have come from the urban New York of its day.

  6. The Altman is rather underrated. Shelley Duvall is the perfect Olive and the Harry Nillson songs are great. Robin Williams is a tad problematic, but then so is Popeye.

  7. I like the Altman, although his signature chaos is in principle inappropriate for slapstick, which demands clarity. But the whole jumble is pretty pleasing, with some great casting, of which Duvall’s Olive is the crowning cherry. I think Williams is a pretty good choice, out of the available options (in the 30s it might be easier).

    The first Popeye cartons strike me as the best, although some of the technical stuff in the longer films is incredible and fascinating. Simply inserting Popeye into the Fleischer world of craziness is actually more interesting than the later films, whose simplified approach to plot is rather wearing. Segar’s stories are Dickensian in complexity by comparison.

  8. Duvall famously said people had been telling her she was born to play Olive her whole life, so it was her role by rights. Also she had just shot The Shining “where I was crying all the time. I knew I’d get to laugh with this one.”

  9. Robin Williams said, “At first I thought ‘Great! This is gonna be my Superman,’ but by the end I was thinking ‘Please let me out of here.'”

    Don Simpson, that great cinematic mind, said of Duvall, “Well, I don’t want to fuck her, and if I don’t want to fuck her, she shouldn’t be in this movie.”

    Idiot.

  10. Christopher Says:

    I love the earliest Black and white popeyes..some of my first recollections of seeing cartoons were those and Betty Boop and Ub Iwerk’s Flip the Frog cartoons.The surreal Fleischer world was the closest thing to actual dreams and nightmares that I’d ever seen while awake!..the goons..Alice the goon used to terrify me as a little kid!..lol…My favorite thing about the Popeye’s,especially the early ones,is the constant gibberish popeye is uttering under his breath..I always thought Barry Fitzgerald would make a good Popeye in a live action film..

  11. The color two-reelers, two of which were on the DVDs I gave you, are gorgeous, just as much in the way of eye candy as any Disney. I remember seeing these in b&w on TV as a kid, and even then I thought they were a treat. I think I’m going to have to delve into the Segar comic strip work, what they have to say about them in the supplements intrigues me (as well as your comment about them being Dickensian). The Goons, the Sea Hag (I think that’s her name), the Jeepster, they didn’t show up in the cartoons until after 1938, the cut-off point for the batch I gave you. I look forward to seeing them as well, for their utter strangeness (although the Jeepster is damn cute). I’ve only seen the Altman film in bits, never the whole thing, and yes, no one on the planet was more suited to play Olive than Duvall. I forgot about Nilsson’s involvement, you could say that he also was best-suited for what he brought to the project.

  12. kevin mummery Says:

    I’ve been wanting to pick these up since they became available…reading everyone’s comments makes me want to even more. One of my earliest memories of TV is hearing someone, Popeye I think, singing “Asleep In The Deep” in one of these cartoons. And I think it was on one of those kids shows like Captain Jolly and Poopdeck Paul, or Jerry Booth’s Funhouse. Funny what we remember.

  13. Kevin,
    You’re talkin’ channel 9 CKLW in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. I also remember Captain Jolly, Poopdeck Paul and Jerry Booth. I don’t think the first two would’ve even existed without Popeye as their featured entertainment, and therefore their primary source of inspiration. I’d totally forgotten the link between them and the cartoons ’til you brought it up. CJ and PP could’ve easily hung out with Popeye on the docks.

  14. What’s great about the Fleischer films (actually directed in many cases by the head animators) is the beautfully solid cartooning and the hallucinatory world. Also Popeye’s weird (ad-libbed?) mutterings.

    What Segar brings is better dialogue jokes (Bad guy: “I can’t swim!” Castor Oyle: “It’s easy — just lie real still and open yer mouth!”) and characterisation (Comrade K told me “Wimpy is an AMERICAN ARCHETYPE”) and really hilarious scenes of sustained violence, like Olive shooting twenty seven men in the arm and then, after each one, saying how much she deplores violence. “I can’t bring myself to shoot him dead so I’ll just throw him in the cellar, maybe he’ll break his neck.”

  15. Yeah, that all sounds great, nutty as hell, I like it. Hopefully it’s out there where I can acquire it from the beginning and read it at my leisure.

  16. kevin mummery Says:

    Guy,

    Yeah, definitely CKLW out of Windsor. How I miss that kind of local programming! Popeye is linked forever in my mind with CJ, PP and Jerry…must be a Michigan thing.

    I’ve never seen any compilations of Segar’s Popeye, but I think I recall reading somewhere that either Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly was releasing serialized (by years) collections. Maybe check out their websites.

    One of the real joys of the early Popeyes is Jack Mercer’s ad-libbbed mutterings. One I think I recall is when, eyeing Olive’s chest region, Popeye says (mutters): “I’ve seen bigger lumps in oatmeal”. Pretty wild stuff, especially as I was about 7 years old when I heard it.

  17. The yearly collections are great, and all three volumes so far are available. Kind of pricey, but worth it. I guess there’ll only be about nine in total, since Segar died so young.

  18. The Altman proved a tough shoot for all concerned as it was filmed on location in Malta –far away from the world any of the participants came from. In fact the “set” had been a pile of empty rocks on which nothing lived until the production designers created the town. Everyone pretty much lived in the set during the shoot.

    Rather like Boom! — but on a much larger scale.

  19. Sweethaven in Popeye should be twinned with the town of Presbyterean Church in McCabe and Mrs Miller.

    Olive’s hometown still stands, and can be visited by Maltesers during the holiday season, for a modest fee.

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