When the world and I were young, Popeye the Sailor Man hadn’t quite left pop culture. He still got an hour each weekday on WNEW to show off all the theatrical releases plus the King Features Syndicate cartoons of the 60s. I loved them all. I had that problem of the young of not understanding that some cartoons were rather bad. But I did understand that some cartoons were better. Usually the older ones. The ones with the ship doors that slid closed were almost all better than the King Features Syndicate cartoons. And even then, I knew there were some transcendant cartoons, ones that were so much better than anything else ever done. I only ever found three of them. This is because three were all they made. I want to look at them each in turn, now.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor was released the 27th of November, 1936. It’s the first of the three two-reel cartoons. It has three credited animators, Willard Bowsky, George Germanetti, and Edward Nolan. Uncredited animators include Orestes Calpini and Lillian Friedman. Bowsky’s familiar from the Talkartoons series. He has shorts like Swing You Sinners! and Mysterious Mose and The Betty Boop Limited to his name. George Germanetti and Edward Nolan haven’t got credits for any Talkartoons. Neither have Orestes Calpini nor Lillian Friedman.
Friedman was (so far as is known) the first woman ever hired as an animator in United States animation. She worked on some Color Classics, Hunky and Spunky, as well as a bunch of Betty Boop cartoons. Wikipedia credits her for animating the two-headed giant and Popeye’s “twisker” punch. Calpini would animate about a jillion Famous Studios cartoons in the 40s, and be the uncredited animator for a bunch of shorts. Among them are Cartoons Ain’t Human, a fantastic short in which Popeye becomes an animator; and several of the Superman shorts.
The dominant motif of this cartoon is size. It is full of bigness. The cartoon is large in running time: it runs 16 and a quarter minutes before the video ends, and it still has a few seconds to go. (This cartoon, like all the 30s Popeyes, is in the public domain. This is great for accessibility. But what you can access is often a lousy print or cut in weird ways. This was the best version I found.) That’s three times the length of some other theatrical Popeye shorts. (Granted, the shortest of shorts, but still.)
It’s on a big island, that Sindbad claims to be atop a big whale. Its inhabitants are big; the lions (big cats) are small denizens. Boola isn’t just a two-headed giant; he’s two, maybe two and a half times Popeye’s size. The Rokh is so enormous he barely fits in frame. His takeoff makes me think of footage of World War II-era super-bombers. That’s only more amazing considering the cartoon was made five years before that was a pressing concern. It starts with a long braggadocio song. It’s three and a half minutes of Sindbad singing of how he’s the most remarkable extra-ordinary fellow. It has a purpose, besides being catchy. It also sets up all the minor bosses Popeye has to beat up before coming to the main battle. But then we get another minute of Popeye singing his own bragging song. That’s a more familiar one, the full long version of the Popeye the Sailor Man song, and always good to hear. Still, it means the cartoon’s plot doesn’t even set in until five and a quarter minutes in.
Did you notice that, while watching? … Well, maybe. It’s easy to get restless when the movie expects you to be awestruck. It demands attention. If you’re letting it run while also checking social media, then that first third of the cartoon is wasted. If you are watching, well, then you see what is some astounding animation. The backgrounds start out gorgeous, and then almost immediately leap past gorgeous into three-dimensional beauty. Fleischer Studios arguably topped Disney’s multiplane camera. They used a camera that could film real-life, movable sets, on which the characters would interact. Cartoons on a real-life background is as old as cartoons are. But cartoons on a movable, three-dimensional background? And a backdrop that isn’t “real”, but designed to look like the pictures do? That’s stunning then. It’s still stunning now. Just to make sure audiences were stunned then, Sindbad picks up a pile of “real” jewels and lets them fall through his fingers, about 2:25 in. By then, complaining about the bareness of the plot — considering its length — seems petty.
Also stunning, but more subtly, is the Rokh’s flight. It is hard to animate flight so that it looks realistic. It is hard to animate big things moving slowly so that it looks realistic. But here, in the Rokh attacking Popeye’s ship, we get an enormous bird slowly circling and then finally striking, and none of the motion looks false. I wonder if it was rotoscoped from footage of a real bird’s circling. I’ve also been trying to work out whether the bird’s three turns are all unique animation. I have the suspicion that it’s all the same single turn cycle, but with camera movement added so that it looks different. But that speculation I make just because it had to be hard to get it looking that good the one time; three times would be far harder. If I were directing, I’d look for ways to reduce the technical challenges here, and that seems like one of the few possible ways.
Still the cartoon makes some mistakes. Not just that it’s 9 minutes, 25 seconds before Popeye and Sindbad are even in the same frame. There’s reasons it takes them that long to meet. (And how long antagonists spend directly facing each other is basically irrelevant to how good a story is. Until it’s pointed out, do you even notice in The Wrath of Khan that Kirk and Khan are never in the same room?) They’re littler things. The one that bugged me as a kid, and still bugs me today, is when Popeye asks who Sindbad is. This gets a quick reprise of Sindbad’s “most remarkable, extraordinary fellow” song. But with none of the island residents actually singing “Sindbad, the sailor”. The animals all mouth it, twice, but the actual answer to Popeye’s reasonable question is omitted. Maybe the Fleischers figured the audience would be singing along? (And there’s some animation the cartoon definitely reuses. At the end, they do cry out “Popeye, the sailor”.
And here’s a subtler one: why is Wimpy in this cartoon? Well, there’s an obvious reason. J Wellington Wimpy is this wonderful character. He might well have taken over the Thimble Theatre comic strip if Popeye hadn’t secured his position in charge of the strip first. Just the other day my love and I were discussing his character. Whether he is actually a mooch with refined, intellectual inclinations. Whether he affects that persona as part of his eternal petty scamming. He can add this subtle, otherworldly bit of nonsense to any story he’s in. He can offer this surreal moment of drifting into and out of frame, in search of hamburger. It’s reminiscent of the way Harpo Marx would crash through a plot scene and crash back out again, without the now-awkward part where Harpo is chasing down terrified women.
So that’s a great setup. Wimpy trying futilely to catch a duck? Perfect running gag. It’s used that way just the once, though, interrupting Popeye’s and Sindbad’s first encounter. Popeye even asks “how did you get in here?”. And then that bit ends, with Wimpy no more part of the story.
But I could be wrong to call that short use of Wimpy a mistake. I’m trying to think of another moment where Wimpy could wander through without spoiling the flow of action. He can wander through a tense moment fine; the distraction is great when it’s two people glaring at each other. But to drift through actual punching? That would flow weird.
Something I’m not at all sure was a mistake: Sindbad’s island is filled to the brim with good-looking monsters. Big (of course) cats, serpents, dragons, gorillas, vultures, all that. This seems like a setup for a battle royale of Popeye lost inside a massive fight cloud. He’d done that before, in cartoons where he was washed, shipwrecked, onto a jungle island. (For as good a sailor as we’d like to think he is, Popeye opens a lot of cartoons shipwrecked. But, he does survive those shipwrecks, so that’s some skills.) Maybe the animators thought that would be too difficult to animate. Maybe it was too difficult to fit into the storyline; would such an all-animals battle royale come after Boola, after the Rokh, after Sindbad? It seems to me Popeye’s previous battle-royale wins were after he’d eaten his spinach; that’s got to come as he’s had enough with Sindbad. So maybe there’s just not a good time for the dragons and all to get into the action.
I am disappointed these figures didn’t turn up in other cartoons. I suppose the Popeye cartoons were moving away from being able to support talking animals or mythical creatures in them. At least except creatures that came from inside the comic strip, like Eugene the Jeep and Alice the Goon. (And even they got only a few appearances.) I think some of the dragons appeared in Betty Boop cartoons like Betty Boop in Blunderland. Maybe the characters — almost all of whom look interesting — got work in other Fleischer series, ones without recurring characters.
As with the Talkartoons series, the main dialogue is pretty bland stuff. Functional, but not that interesting. The characters have asides, though, and those range between good and great. For my money, the best is Popeye declaring that Sindbad “you can push me just so far”. But there’s plenty to choose from. My favorite throwaway gag is Sindbad beating up Popeye, who stays in place while a heap of nautical equipment falls out of his clothing. It reminds me again of the Harpo Marx bit where all the stolen cutlery in the world falls out of his sleeves, one spoon at a time. But again, there’s all sorts of funny little throwaway gags in this short. Enjoy the buffet.
The short was nominated for an Academy Award for best cartoon. It was the Fleischer Studios’ first nomination. They lost, to Disney’s The Country Cousin, a version of the Aesop’s Fable about the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Disney studios won the Academy Award for Cartoons every time it got awarded in the 1930s. Fleischer Studios would never win an Oscar, though it would get nominated four times. Its successor Famous Studios wouldn’t even get nominated. Animation historian Jerry Beck found lists of cartoons considered but not nominated, and Famous Studios, and Popeye, got considered, at least.
Popular acclaim has it that this was the best of the Popeye two-reelers. But then, what does everybody who takes cartoons as a subject worth thinking about know that I don’t?
Also hey, it turns out this is my 2,001st post around here. I’m as surprised by that fact as you are.