It should come as no surprise to longtime readers of Random Acts of Geekery that I loves me some Popeye, and that my favorite Popeye cartoons are the Fleischer Brothers Popeyes! So it should also come as no surprise that, sooner or later, I'd start doing my little review thing on the Fleischer Popeyes, like I've been doing with the Beatles cartoon, the Monkees TV show, or MST3K!
So, I'm going to try to keep things more or less free-flowing with these reviews, but I will usually make note of certain specific things, although I won't necessarily be calling them out (like, say, I do with the formatting for Indexible Hulk, Geek TV, or Dog of the Geek):
Popeye's Job: Yeah, you'd think that in every one of these, that would be "Sailor," but he wasn't always employed (or self-employed) as a sailor!
Who or What He Fights: Most of the time, this will, naturally, be Bluto.
Why Is He Still With Her?: Things Olive Oyl does that make her unworthy of Popeye, yet he still is madly in love with her.
Spinach Activity Song: Yes, when he eats his spinach, the Popeye fanfare starts, but most of the time, right after that, "Stars and Stripes Forever" plays -- if that's not the case, I'll try to remember to note it.
Transformation Punch: A common thing in these is Popeye will hit something, it will go flying into the air, and come down transformed. For example, a huge bull will be hit by the sailor man, and when it comes down, it's neatly broken up into various cuts of meat -- and also placed in a neat little butcher shop setting, too!
Final Words: Most of the time, Popeye finishes the cartoon with, "I'm strong to the finach, 'cause I eats me spinach, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!" then toots his pipe twice. If it's any different, I should be telling you!
I'll also note any particularly funny bits, as well as any extra special effects used! And finally, I'll give it my personal rating, from one to five cans of spinach!
Anyway, the very first of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons wasn't a Popeye cartoon, it was a Betty Boop cartoon, because the Fleischers were looking for a new cartoon star, and they were using Betty's cartoon series as a way of introducing various features. Popeye was, naturally, introduced in the one titled "Popeye the Sailor," and there's a very different Popeye song used in the opening titles... well, actually, the song was "Strike up the Band (Here Comes a Sailor)," but with "Popeye the Sailor" inserted as appropriate!
This song is sung by someone with a voice very much like Bluto's, sort of a bit of a basso profundo, and then the next verse is sung by Betty Boop herself! Then we see some live-action footage of newspapers coming off the press, and then a closeup of a newspaper page, with the headline "Popeye a Movie Star -- Sailor with the "Sock" accepts Movie Contract", and a photo of Popeye walking on the deck of a ship. We cut to a close-up of that picture, and then Popeye starts moving, walking in his distinctive style and singing, for the very first time, "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man." Popeye's voice wasn't quite the way we think of it these days (it almost sounds like a bad impression of him). At one point in his song, he picks up an anchor, gives it a sock, and it falls to the deck as a pile of fish hooks. A number of paces later, he pulls a large clock off the wall, punches it, and it turns into an assortment of smaller clocks, pocket watches, and wrist watches. Also, at one point, Popeye pulls his shirt up, and we see he's wearing a girdle underneath!
His next transformation punch is when he pulls the mast off the boat, hits it, and it turns into a bunch of wooden clothespins. Finally, he pulls a stuffed fish mounted on a block from the wall, and punches it into a bunch of canned sardines. We cut to dockside, where a sailor resembling a humanoid dog pulls a lever to lower the gangplank of the ship to the dock, but it doesn't stretch far enough, so he pulls up a slide and lets enough water into the ship until it's at the right level. He calls out "Shore leave!" and a bunch of sailors come off the ship as Olive Oyl comes near the gangplank and calls for Popeye (again, Olive's voice isn't right, but it's more "off" than Popeye's). One of the dog sailors approaches her and asks, "Who ya waitin' for, baby?" but that only inspires Olive's ire, and she clobbers him off-screen. Then, a peg-leg pig sailor tries to hit on her, but she hits him as well.
Next, it's Bluto's turn (entering to "Barnacle Bill the Sailor"), with his evil laugh. Olive tries fending him off to no avail as Bluto keeps laughing, and then Popeye just saunters between them, puts his arm in Olive's, and walks away, shouting, "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!" Bluto gets mad at this, pulls his shirt open, and beats his chest (the tattoo of a battleship on his chest then sinks).
Later, at a carnival that's manned by animals, Popeye and Olive arrive, followed by Bluto. Bluto shows off at the "ring the bell" and gets up to the bell, winning a cigar and laughing. Popeye then takes the hammer, whittles it down with his hands to toothpicks, and punches the lever, sending the bell all the way up to the sun! Later, Olive is trying her luck at a booth where she tries to hit someone in the head with a ball, but is being unsuccessful. Bluto saunters up, grabs a ball, and hits the poor guy square in the head, the ball bouncing back and landing in Bluto's mouth. Then, it's Popeye's turn, and he grabs an armload of balls, rolls them from his forearm to his hand, flips them to his bicep, which he flexes to send the balls down where they all hit the target.
Next, the three arrive at a performance stage, where the hula dancer, Betty Boop, is about to perform! Now, remember when I said the carnival was manned by animals? The only humans here are Popeye, Olive, Bluto, and Betty -- it's possible the target at the previous booth was supposed to be a stereotyped black man, but it could easily supposed to be a monkey or a cat (hard to tell at the size shown). Betty's introduced by a monkey, and the crowd includes a cat, a goat, and a dog, all of them dressed in clothes! There are apparently other humans employed, as the background shows pictures of "Rajah Guzlem" and "Madame Hari the Bearded Lady", both of whom are human.
Betty performs her hula dance, and as you can see from the screen shot, her costume is rather revealing -- this was one reason that the Hays Office tromped down on the Fleischers, and Betty got toned down to the point where she was practically a different character entirely! Popeye jumps on stage to dance alongside Betty, and when Madame Hari opens the curtains of her booth to see what's going on, Popeye grabs her beard and wears it as a hula skirt! When they dance close to the snake charmers' snake, it tries to give Popeye a bite, but Popeye uses his pipe's smoke to knock it out.
Bluto decides to take advantage of Popeye's absence to grab Olive and demand she marry him, but Olive fights back, kicking him with her size 25 shoes, but Bluto still carries her off. On stage, Betty points out what's happening to Popeye, and Popeye starts chasing after them! Bluto quickly runs across a rope bridge, and before Popeye can get there, he grabs a handy flying bird and uses it as living scissors to cut the ropes! As the bridge falls neatly from one end to the other, Popeye starts to cross it, and when he gets to where it's dropping, he turns around and runs back! He then grabs a handy length of rope that just happened to be laying around, lassos a tree trunk on the other side of the chasm, and then pulls it over to him!
The chase continues, but Bluto's taken Olive to a nearby train track, where he's pulled up two lengths of rail and bound Olive in them! Popeye approaches, but Bluto hits him, sending Popeye flying back to a rock (which crumbles into pebbles as Popeye's head hits it again and again). Popeye kicks Bluto in the jaw when Bluto gets too close, sending Bluto's head upwards, neck stretching, his Adam's apple acting like the weight on the "hit the bell" booth from before.
Bluto then grabs Popeye by the ankles and starts spinning him around, but meanwhile, a train is approaching! Popeye manages to break free of Bluto's grip, and, spinning in the air, sends a barrage of punches! The approaching train, meanwhile, hits a section of track that splits off into a bunch of other tracks and then goes back again -- the train cars follow different sections before rejoining. Back at the fight, Popeye and Bluto get into a whirlwind of blows, oblivious to the train (which grows a face and blows a whistle using its "fingers" to get their attention)! Next, Bluto's jumping up and down on Popeye, who doesn't appear to be bothered by it. Finally, Popeye casually reaches into his shirt, and pulls out a can of spinach!
Swallowing a good-sized handful of the stuff, Popeye gets up punches the tree Bluto's about to hit him with, followed by Bluto, sending both into the air! The tree comes down in pieces forming a coffin, with Bluto landing inside it! It even comes complete with nails, but I have no idea where they were supposed to have come from! What's odd about this is, there's no fanfare, no special effect on his muscles indicating strength, none of the usual stuff!
Anyway, Popeye then goes to Olive, tries to pull her out of the rails but doesn't succeed, and then simply punches the train when it gets there, turning it into a long line of broken pieces. Singing, "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man," and blowing his pipe, we iris out to the end!
So, as you can see, aside from Betty Boop's brief appearance, it is still very much a Popeye cartoon, just without all the usual stuff we've come to expect from these early black and white Popeye's. It's almost anticlimatic when Popeye finally eats his spinach, just because there's no real buildup... it's just like Popeye's thinking, "The pitcher's almosk over, I better eats me spinach and end it!" Even the transformation punch is almost wasted, because we had so many examples of this earlier in the cartoon.
So, what's my rating for this first Popeye? Well, they're still feeling their way, and it is the first... but I'll give it... three cans of spinach!