For the fifth week of my reviews of the three Popeye two-reelers we get to the last, and longest: Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp. It’s got four credited animators: David Tendlar, Nicholas Tafuri, William Sturm, and Reuben Grossman. Tendlar animated everything the Fleischers and Famous Sudios ever did, and then went on to Terrytoons, Filmation, and Hanna-Barbera. Tafuri first animated for the Fleischers in 1934 with the Popeye cartoon The Two-Alarm Fire. He’d stick around until Famous Studios closed. Sturm did a number of Popeye cartoons and then went off to Jam Handy Films; if you’ve seen the Handy Studio’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer you’ve seen more of his work. Grossman seems to have this as his first animation credit. He’d do some more Fleischer/Famous Studios work through 1945. Then he seems to disappear until the late 50s, doing TV animation for Felix the Cat, Linus the Lion-Hearted, and The Mighty Hercules.
It premiered the 7th of April, 1939, more than a year after Popeye met Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves, and about eight months before the studios’ first feature-length movie, Gulliver’s Travels. It’s more than a year since Disney shocked everybody with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And it’s about ten months before Disney would release their second feature-length movie, Pinocchio. I offer this for context about what long-form animation was like.
Now. The best print I can find of the short is on YouTube and therefore subject to vanishing at any moment. I suspect it’s just ripped from the Popeye DVDs released last decade and that when some copyright-holder notices they’ll file a claim. The original short is in the public domain and that’s on Archive.org, so should stick around forever. I’ll include that too, but the prints on Archive.org are the horribly faded ones that you found on every public-domain videotape in the 90s. So they’ll be around, but look like used chewing gum.
And a small content warning. The short’s set in Cartoon Arabia. There are some minor characters who’re black and drawn in that “Hey! African people sure have lips, don’t they?” style. Blink and you miss it, but, how do I know when you’re going to blink? There’s also a quick bit where a character salaam-ing make the first wordplay joke you’d think of.
The cartoon opens with a framing device. Olive Oyl’s writing treatments for Surprise Pictures. Why?
Well, so they have a punch line for the end of the cartoon, sure. It sets up for a joke so obvious (“if it’s a good picture, it’s a Surprise”) that Wikipedia’s fooled into thinking it’s in the short. The joke hanging, unresolved, for twenty minutes makes it much funnier than it would have been in a one-reeler version of this cartoon. But … so what? What would we lose if the framing device were chopped off?
I’m not just padding my word count. The choice to frame the cartoon action was made for reasons. But what? SCTV demonstrated the brilliance of framing everything as a movie-of-the-week production. You could write only the parts of the sketch that you liked. Skip the boring stuff and the audience can follow along. As a draft movie script Olive Oyl has an even bigger advantage. If some part of the story doesn’t make sense (“But why does the Vizier turn into a fish?”) that’s fine. It’s something they’ll iron out in rewrites. But apart from the one intertitle, at about 4:10 in, the short doesn’t do that. And the intertitle, that great silent-movie innovation explaining the stuff that couldn’t be conveyed by expression, action, and the audience having a lick of sense, could have been in an unframed short anyway.
So what does the framing get us? And the best answer I can see is that it gives a reason for Popeye to be playing the character of Aladdin. Popeye had by this point done 69 cartoons, but always as Popeye. Perhaps they didn’t realize that he could be Popeye inhabiting another role.
Which is an historical irony. In the earliest years of Thimble Theatre — long before Popeye made the strip interesting, and even before it became a serial adventure strip — Segar cast the strip as, well, a nightly theatrical production. The framing device was that Olive Oyl, Ham Gravy, et al were characters. They’d be set up with a card about today, Olive’s the wife of Ham (or whatever) and here’s the evil mortgage-holder, and then they’d do the joke. Next day, here Olive’s the attractive waitress and Ham and some other character are customers and all that. It’s a cute pretext and if some web comic isn’t using that, they should. But for daily jokes it’s way too much overhead. It would work better for serial storylines and maybe that’s how Thimble Theatre transitioned into being a serial-story comic. I don’t know; I haven’t read examples of the strip in its transition.
You see an (unintentional?) echo of this in the way Popeye shorts start with the basic characters but scramble their relationships. Here Popeye and Olive Oyl are all but married and Bluto threatens to break them up. Here Popeye and Bluto are old friends and they’re enchanted when they meet this waitress. Here Popeye and Wimpy are roommates and Olive Oyl tries to invite Popeye over for lunch. But they’re always Popeye and Olive Oyl and Bluto and Wimpy. To date, only Bluto’s arguable roles as Sindbad and Abu Hassan have had him as an actor playing a part.
It seems a strange lack of faith in the characters that they’d let Popeye play Aladdin only with an excuse. I think they could have gotten away with it had they skipped the framing and just had everyone say of course Popeye is Aladdin. But I have the advantage of hindsight; nobody could know what the cartoon would play like before it was made. And I grew up watching Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol and its spinoff series The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo. I had the idea of cartoon characters playing other roles presented in a good, accessible way early on. It’s hard to say whether Mister Magoo was more born to play Ebeneezer Scrooge, Victor Frankenstein, Don Quixote, or Puck.
And there’s more reason to be sad they didn’t try an unframed story. Leslie Cabarga, in The Fleischer Story, mentions that while preparing their first feature-length film the studio considered having Popeye play Lemuel Gulliver. I don’t know why they didn’t go with that; possibly it was fear that Popeye as a character would be too weird for a feature-length movie. Would that have been a better movie? With everything else the same but the more charismatic Popeye at its center? … Probably. And “casting” Popeye would have made the rest of the story different.
So that’s eight hundred words on the short they didn’t make. What about the one they did?
Well, for one, it’s a short made without the three-dimensional set-back process that Sindbad the Sailor and Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves used. Why not? It can’t be that the process was getting too expensive; they were using it for pretty near every regular short, both color and black-and-white, at the time. Possibly they couldn’t think of a good place to use the process. Except, like, they already had a cave set built for Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. Why not have the magic lantern be in that cave, alongside jewels left over from Sindbad the Sailor? They were apparently considering it. FleischerStudios.com has a 1939 Popular Science short about how animation works that shows off scenes from the making of this short. It includes, about 3:45 in, footage of the setback process being used for Aladdin. It shows off a nice three-dimensional castle and a reappearance by the Rokh from Sindbad. No idea why that was cut; perhaps they felt the sequence too long or too discursive. Or maybe the setback scene was staged for Popular Science with sets and cells they happened to have around. (I’m not sure that Olive Oyl is drawn, in the Rokh’s claws, as the Princess rather than as she was dressed in Sindbad.) Maybe the Fleischers felt that pulling out the three-dimensional sets would break the “reality” of the Aladdin story being a movie. Maybe Surprise Pictures didn’t go in for location shooting.
It’s also made without Bluto, or a character who looks like Bluto. This makes more sense. The evil Vizier — I guess he’s just called the Villain here — needs to suggest cunning and devious wit. The one scene where he’d really need it, coaxing Aladdin into the Secret Cave, is disposed of in a title card. But the character has to be believable in his scheming. Bluto has might to him, but scheming? Not so much. Wimpy — another missing character — could scheme very well. But his schemes are devoted to more petty grifts. Swiping free food? Sure. Killing Aladdin, stealing the kingdom, and marrying Olive Oyl? Too mean, and too much work, for him. Of the regular Popeye characters the only one who’s really got the combination of cunning and evil and ambition for the role would be the Sea Hag. That would be some interesting casting. But it’d be hard to do the marrying-the-princess story in 1939. And the Sea Hag never got animated by the Fleischers (or Famous Studios), sorry to say. Maybe Poopdeck Pappy could have done the role but that would also have complicated the story.
It seems to me like Wimpy could have been cast as the Genie. Don’t know why they didn’t. I guess they better liked their impression of That Guy I Keep Thinking Is Ed Wynn But Isn’t. You know. I’m having no luck pinning down who I do mean.
More exceptional stuff about this short. Unlike the other two-reelers the villain isn’t introduced with a song. Or gets a song at all; only Popeye does, the right solid “What Can I Do For You”. There’s no long lazy introduction to the scenery, either. It’s all introduced quickly, with the story moving along at a steady, solid clip. And the characters finally get to have dialogue. I mean, they say stuff that’s got personality and that’s reliably funny. It’s even playful, teasing the fourth wall (Popeye’s riff about having never made love in Technicolor before) or the short’s continuity (the new lap exchanged for the old being a flashlight).
This is the longest Popeye short, and his longest appearance in theaters until Robert Altman’s work. 21 minutes in all. I don’t blame TV syndication for not showing it too often. It also makes three two-reelers. Among them all, that’s just under 55 minutes of stories, all from the 1001 Arabian Nights, or at least adjacent to them. It’s got me wondering why they didn’t make another two-reeler cartoon, set up some framing device, and then release it as a Popeye motion picture. Add another twenty-minute short on and you have something near enough the length of the movie they did release, Gulliver’s Travels (76 minutes) and Mister Bug Goes To Town (78 minutes).
In the climax — and it’s a fantastic climax — Popeye eats four cans of spinach. I believe that’s the most he eats in any short; the only possible ties are clip cartoons where a bunch of his daring-escapes get featured. It’s a great climax, four rallies of the Popeye-the-Sailor-Man theme in slightly higher keys, followed by a really long rendition of The Stars And Stripes Forever. A lot of action. A lot of great action. It also set a record for Coolest Looking Dragon That Gets Disappointingly Instantly Foiled which stood until Rankin/Bass’s 1985 adaption of L Frank Baum’s The Life And Adventures of Santa Claus.
There may, inexplicably, have been no three-dimensional footage for this short. There’s still great moments. The long zoom into the Secret Cave is one. The Princess’s diamond sparkling so brightly that it forms a spotlight, and panning out to Aladdin on his horse, is another. Often Fleischer cartoons have a sort of rambling, jazzy quality, where it feels like they didn’t work out the storyline much before filming. And that’s great for giving a cartoon a spontaneous, out-of-control feeling. But this one is well-crafted. Consider the moment where the Vizier, having lost the lamp, sits miserably at a table sipping coffee, while Aladdin as the prince zooms past. In a moment this scene tells everything about that the Vizier was doing, and how his understanding of everything has changed, and it sets him back into action, all the while that Aladdin’s storyline is moving toward romancing the Princess. It’s tight, efficient writing that doesn’t feel like it’s forcing the plot along. It’s a foreshadowing of the Superman cartoons the studio would make in the 1940s, in being these beautiful and, generally, well-scripted and awesome affairs.