Popeye is the King of the Mardi Gras


I want to do some more amusement park/boardwalk shorts for July. I’m not aiming exclusively at cartoons, but they do offer some great examples of amusement park action. Probably that’s because they can actually be as wildly out of control as amusement park cartoons like to present themselves as being. (Of course, a cartoon is a thoroughly controlled medium. A real actor can ad-lib a facial expression or a bit of movement that even the best cartoon can’t. Freedom and control are weirdly entwined concepts.)

The Popeye cartoon King of the Mardi Gras was released the 27th of September, 1935. Really, what is the better time to watch a cartoon with Mardi Gras in the title and its catchy recurring song than six months after Mardi Gras? Or, for that matter, to watch a cartoon that says it’s happening at Coney Island than a month after the end of summer? I’m not sure they understood calendars back then.

Anyway. It’s a black-and-white Popeye cartoon, so you know already it’s almost certainly worth the watching. Wikipedia asserts this to be the first time Popeye’s voiced by Jack Mercer. Mercer would be the default voice for Popeye until 1980. There’d be a few substitutions, mostly while Mercer was in the Army. But whether Fleischer Studios, Famous Studios, King Features Syndicate, or Hanna-Barbera, Mercer would be the default voice. Even in this first appearance he’s got the voice down. The performance doesn’t have to change much to be right.

The plot’s got a nice natural build, with Bluto and Popeye taking turns out-doing one another’s stunts. It gives Bluto maybe the best line, too, the wail of everyone who’s tried to make a living as an artist on the Internet: “Don’t anyone want to see a man choked to death — free?”

Since the cartoon dates to 1935, the Fleischers make use of some live-action backgrounds, for a wonderful three-dimensional rendering of the amusement park. It’s gorgeous. And it’s almost a touchstone for roller coaster history, too.

At about the 40-second mark there’s a view of a roller coaster with a loop. That’s a curious choice. There were no loops on roller coasters in the 1930s. There were a handful of roller coasters that did loops made before about 1910, most of them with names like “Flip Flap Railway” or “Loop the Loop”. But these weren’t terribly successful. They didn’t carry many passengers per hour, and they weren’t very good rides, by accounts. These Loop the Loops were built before the innovation of “upstop wheels”. Those are the sets of wheels that clamp roller coaster cars to the top and bottom of the tracks. That keeps the car secured tightly to the track. Without those, though, a Flip Flap car would have to stick to the track by going so fast it couldn’t possibly drop off the loop. The result is the ride has to be not much except one small, tight, neck-breaking loop. So after a few seasons of this, the rides quietly disappeared before World War I.

In the 1970s new roller coasters, mostly using steel tracks, would make loops that could be more graceful, and less painful. As a result loops have almost become the default element of a roller coaster ride after the first drop. Sometimes before.

In the climax, Bluto runs off with Olive to a ride billed as a “Thrill Ride Scenic Railway”. “Scenic Railway” is indeed an old name for roller coasters. This normally connotes a ride that’s slower and less thrilling, but that takes one past tableaus of, well, scenery. There are few of those left, especially with scenery still intact. The only one the Roller Coaster Database lists as still operating is The Great Scenic Railway in Luna Park, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. There’s another at the recently-reopened Dreamland in Margate, Kent, United Kingdom, but it’s not yet opened. That’s a real pity, as that roller coaster dates to before automatic braking. A railroad brakeman has to ride with the car and slow it at the right moment. Imagine!

At about 7:26 there’s a fun sequence on the Scenic Railway where the track rolls a bit side to side, one side of the track going higher than the other. That’s a fun ride element known as “trick track”. It was popular in the 1920s, but faded out of use after that. The only roller coaster I’m aware of that still has any is the Shivering Timbers ride at Michigan’s Adventure, in Muskegon, Michigan. I don’t see why it’s gone extinct. It’s a fun and seemingly easy way to add excitement to what would otherwise be a straight block of track.

Just before that is a moment of the roller coaster going in a bow-tie loop. I don’t know if there were any early roller coaster that did that. There are modern examples of this, such as Magnum XL-200 at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. I am curious whether the animators were building on stuff they might have ridden, or remembered hearing about, or were just imagining what might someday make a thrilling ride.

The Scenic Railway, besides its fun for an amusement park buff, is also an artistic triumph. The wooden roller coaster requires drawing a lot of track structure, in perspective, and moving quite rapidly. The Fleischers don’t skimp on that. I like to believe the work that’s gone into that makes the action funnier. But I admit I’m also amazed they didn’t build models of a railway and use pictures of that for the foreground railroad. That would have to have looked at least as impressive.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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