This is an unusual one! Fleas a Crowd is one of ten Popeye shorts produced by Gerald Ray. He produced more of the Beetle Bailey shorts, and far more of King Leonardo cartoons. If I haven’t missed, I’ve only done two other Gerald Ray shorts before, Popeye’s Junior Headache and the fascinating and mysterious Take It Easel. Bob Bemiller is listed as director again. There’s no story credit and the IMDB doesn’t try to guess at one. Here’s the cartoon from 1960, in any case.
This is a weird one. I like it, although I don’t know how much of that liking is that I like any weird cartoon. It’s the rare Popeye cartoon in which Popeye and Olive Oyl, though both present, never directly interact. She just watches him on stage; he never shows awareness she exists. Olive Oyl is on a date with Brutus, and stays on a date with him, too. Brutus and Popeye barely interact either. They aren’t even on screen at the same time until 5:19, and that for a moment. Popeye’s fleas beat up Brutus. There can’t be another cartoon where the main triad all appear but have less to do with each other.
So we have Popeye as ringmaster to a flea circus at the Thimble Theater, a joke admirably not dwelt on. It’s just there for everyone who spotted Ham Gravy hanging around a couple weeks back. Jealous of how Olive Oyl looks at Popeye’s flea mastery, Brutus sets a wind-up dog to steal the fleas. Then it’s mostly a Popeye-in-pursuit cartoon. Like those cartoons where he’s following the Jeep or the sleepwalking Olive Oyl or something.
The story’s solid if routine. But creative bits keep poking out, regularly enough I stay interested. Popeye’s fleas, for example, are named Damon and Pythias. When Popeye realizes “I’ve been flea-napped”, Olive Oyl passes out, as though in a Victorian melodrama spoof. The fleas leave a “Dear John” letter for Popeye. “We regret to inform you that due to circumstances beyond our control we are forced to continue leading a dog’s life. PS: heeeeeeeeelp.”
All of this could have been done with plainer but still functional dialogue. They chose to be interesting in the small stuff. For example: the fleas perform the Damon and Pythias Waltz. There is nothing waltz about the dance, and nothing waltz about the tune (Swanee River). Another and great example of this is when Popeye lets the dogs out of the dogcatcher’s wagon. Not the elephant jumping out, although that’s a great absurd moment. Notice that the dogs are not all the same model. I don’t think there’s any two that look quite the same. The joke would have been just as good if it were ten duplicates of the same dog and then the elephant. That Gerald Ray’s animators did more than they had gives the cartoon a higher-quality look.
In 1978 Peter Pan Records released a 7-inch disc adapting the story to audio. The adaptation ends up a good bit longer than the original cartoon and I don’t recognize any of the voice actors. Apparently, they were all the same guy, Harry F Welch, who possibly played Popeye in a couple of theatrical cartoons. Nobody’s sure. It has some delightfully clumsy moments of characters saying what they’re seeing. But as an old-time-radio enthusiast, I have to say: not the clumsiest. The comparison also gives some insight into how much value the pictures, even of these cheaply-made cartoons, adds to the story. Also how much the amount of time available for the same beats affects the story.
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