Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (Dave Fleischer 1936)

Max Fleischer's Popeye on a brand new DVD!

I Yam What I Yam

Max and Dave Fleischer took E.C. Segar's popular cartoon character "Popeye the Sailor" and ran with it, creating a series of shorts from 1933 to 1942 that rivaled Disney's Mickey Mouse in popularity--which was amazing, considering Mickey was a cute little mouse with big eyes and a squeaky voice, and Popeye was a balding, one-eyed roughhouse who spoke questionable grammar with a growl.

Perhaps the peak of the Fleischers' achievement (and possibly peak achievement of animated art, period) were three two-reeler shorts lasting almost twenty minutes, and in full color (Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936); Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1937); Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939)), and perhaps the best of these was Popeye the Sailor meets Sinbad the Sailor.

From the opening upward pan, following a winding path as it crosses ever more fearsome chained animals and monsters (tigers, gorillas, dragons, etc.) to a castle on a mountaintop, to Sinbad's gruff entrance through the castle doors ("Popeye" regular Bluto, playing the legendary sailor) slapping down a pair of chained lions on either side of him and demanding "WHO'S the most re-MAR-kable extra-OR-dinary fellow?" the short is a masterpiece of characterization. Sinbad rants and roars, walking across his island kingdom and showing off trophies from various adventures, including a roc (a legendary bird the size of a B-52 Bomber) and a two-headed giant; the animals roar in reply, fearfully agreeing with him.

Sinbad's kingdom is rendered all the more amazing by the Fleischers' "stereoptical" process, basically cardboard cut-outs and models on a turntable, the camera at table's edge shooting through a pane of glass where the animated figure is placed; the result is 3-D images with more depth and solidity than is possible with even Disney's multiplane camera (a system where the camera shoots through several layers of glass, developed for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)). The illusion of depth is reinforced by lights shifting along with the animated figure, creating shadows that move as the figure moves (the lights are colored, adding to the fabulous atmosphere and sense of mystery). Island and song establish Sinbad as a legendary and powerful adventurer, master of all he sees, challenged by none--only suddenly, from far away at sea, someone is singing.

Popeye's song compared to Sinbad's is simpler: he introduces himself, tells of the source of his strength (spinach), and says he'll fight only those who aren't on the "up and square." There's some bragging, but it's the brag of a man with a reason--to warn others to "keep on good behav'or"--not necessarily to promote himself. The exchange is reprised later, when Sinbad again goes into his arrogant rhetoric, all the island's animals responding in chorus ("WHO's the most phe-NO-menal extra-SPE-cial kind of fellow?" "YOOSE--Sinbad the Sailor!"), only on Sinbad's umpteenth refrain, Popeye inserts a different answer: "Popeye the Sailor!" Extravagant bombast trumped by direct response; Sinbad slaps his face in frustration.

There are Popeye episodes that are more experimental ("Wotta Nitemare" 1939), more thrilling (Lost and Foundry (1937) and What--No Spinach? (1936) come to mind) and perhaps funnier (Hospitaliky (1937), with its twist on the classic situation where Popeye beats up Bluto), but I'd say none were as beautiful (the background drawings here include trees with eyes and a screaming mouth), or made as expressive use of animation, including Fleischer's "stereoptical" process (Popeye walks through an underground cavern that glows with jeweled light; an extra-long "3-D" shot includes a giant rock in the shape of a skull); none set up a villain as memorably or magnificently as Bluto's Sinbad, complete with a menagerie of singing beasts and his own theme song (music by Sammy Timberg, who sings the song himself).

It's possible to read Sinbad as representing all that is exotic and threatening about the East--an anti-Oriental bias if you like--but with Bluto playing him, the interpretation (or accusation) doesn't quite hold: Bluto's too loud, with too much swagger to him--too "American," with all the negative connotations that word implies. Popeye on the other hand represents America's best aspects, one-eyed homeliness and all; think of bulldogs and mastiffs, of grizzled men mangling the English language, of all that grit and leather hiding a heart of gold. And if Popeye is able to cut through Sinbad/Bluto's bull, that's plainspoken American honesty cutting through pretence with the help of a leafy vegetable (Superman hails from another planet, Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider; Segar's is the only superhero to celebrate the relatively more realistic virtues of good nutrition). Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor represents for me the epitome of Yankee ingenuity and imagination and spirit--easily the greatest piece of American animation ever made.

(First published in High Life Magazine, October 2005)

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