The Popeye Two-Reelers Reused: Big Bad Sindbad


So if there’s any genre of story that modern pop culture has rejected it’s the clip show. The last time I remember it defended was on a Saturday Night Live hosted by whoever played the non-Tina-Yothers sister on Family Ties. She notes that clip shows were great, since as an actor you got paid for a whole show and only had to do five minutes’ work. They would let anyone get a little bit ahead of the content hole. They were probably more more tolerated before the rise of home recording. I think of the burial notice for clip shows, at least in the sorts of nerdly pop culture I like, being that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Riker has a case of poisoning that can only be cured by watching clips of the first two seasons of Next Generation. That episode has an overblown reputation as the worst thing modern Star Trek has ever produced. Even if you can’t stand a clip show, for crying out loud, modern Star Trek also did a Lwuxana Troi/Ferengi Comedy cross-over episode. And the Enterprise episode where Trip Tucker got wrist-pregnancy from a holodeck.

And as I say, clip shows used to be more tolerated. Certainly more common. The first Popeye cartoon released after last week’s topic, Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor, was itself a clip cartoon, I’m In The Army Now. And all the Fleischer two-reeler cartoons were themselves reused, later on, in the Famous Studios days. And I wanted to take a moment to look at one of these.

Big Bad Sindbad was released the 12th of December, 1952. So probably the original was out of any theaters. They could be forgiven for supposing most of the audience wouldn’t remember the action or animation well. The credited animators, for the new stuff, were Tom Johnson and William Henning. The director for the new stuff was Seymour Kneitel. Kneitel worked at the Fleischer studios forever. He ran its incarnation as Famous Studios forever too. So if you watch a lot of Popeye cartoons you see that name a lot. And he married Max Fleischer’s daughter. One imagines this made Thanksgiving more exciting after Paramount Studios fired Max Fleischer and keept Kneitel around. I can’t say from personal knowledge.

So. When I watched this cartoon, as a youngster, I was always excited and disappointed. The exciting part is the two-and-a-half-minutes of footage from Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor. Even my young untrained eye, that was also perfectly happy to watch the Filmation series of Tom and Jerry cartoons, recognized that as something special. It was just too good.

And it affected the surroundings. Popeye by this time was usually dressed in all white, an outfit he got during World War II and didn’t shake for decades. Except this. I suppose to not confuse kids, Popeye in the present-day framing story wears his classic original black-and-white-era outfit. Somehow even that just looks better.

The disappointing stuff, of course, was that it wasn’t the whole two-reeler. You got just a tiny slice of the cartoon that was really interesting, patched into a cartoon that’s already quite short. The version at archive.org runs five minutes, two seconds. And half a minute of that is credits.

Disappointing to me, now, is that none of the story of the original gets included. The original two-reeler hasn’t got much of a story to start with, but at least it has something. Here, all that’s excerpted is a couple minutes of Sindbad and Popeye punching each other. The catchy songs are missing. There’s no Boola, no Rokh, nothing. Even Wimpy only appears for a split-second. There’s no panning across any of the three-dimensional sets. One would almost think the Famous Studios ashamed by how much the old stuff would outclass their current animation. (So far as I know the Famous Studios never used the setback tabletop technique.)

And it’s not as if they couldn’t have found time. The framing device is an adequate one. Popeye takes his three then-surviving nephews [*] to a nautical museum; okay, that makes sense as a thing he might do. They encounter three exhibits, the first two of them used to deliver correctly formed jokes, the third to let Popeye tell a story. Putting aside whether George Washington can be considered a sailor, that’s all okay enough. It’s a character who has a reason to be telling this story to people who have a reason to listen.

[*] Yes, Popeye started out with four nephews. The story goes that Max Fleischer wanted to one-up Donald Duck’s nephews. But the nephews first appeared as Popeye’s imaginary children in a dream. And as Famous Studios wore on, the four nephews dropped to three, and eventually to two. The story there goes that this was to save animation cost on characters who were already visually identical and voiced by the same actor (who was already on staff and performing Popeye’s lines) to start with. This seems hard to believe, but then, why else drop one of them?

Anyway, once all that’s out of the way they could run as much of the original cartoon as they liked. Why so little? I suppose because they needed the clip cartoon to run at least five minutes. But that time after that was wasted. A shame; that makes it a little too obvious that the cartoon’s there to satisfy a contratual obligation to produce technically new animated product. A bit more story would have helped. Or if they don’t want the short to have more time, let the nephews ask impudent questions that Popeye answers. “Gee, Uncle Popeye / Did you / Get Killed?” is an adequate start but only just. At least they showed my favorite gag from the original, Sindbad knocking an endless supply of maritime stuff out of Popeye.

Though now I wonder; was there some requirement that reused material be no more than 50 percent of the cartoon? That there were pretty near two and a half minutes of old footage in a five-minute cartoon is suggestive. But it could also be coincidence. There’s more of Popeye and Sindbad facing off that they might theoretically have used, even without having to include something of Boola or the Rokh or the lions or all that.

I’m not surprised they re-recorded the voices from the two-reeler footage. Probably the original sound elements were lost and all they had was the final mix that, among other things, had the hard-to-edit-around tune of The Stars And Stripes Forever on it. I am surprised they changed Olive’s line of encouragement to “give him the ol’ onesey-twosie” from “give him the ol’ twisker punch”. Were they afraid the “twisker punch” was too slangy a term?

Wikipedia notes this as one of only two theatrical cartoons to have both Popeye’s Nephews and Wimpy in the action. The other is Popeye Makes A Movie, another clip-show cartoon using footage from the two-reelers. This short is one of six with Popeye’s Nephews and Bluto, if you count Sindbad as Bluto playing a role. Use this information only for good purposes.

Next week: back to the actual two-reelers.

Author: Joseph Nebus

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

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