When I first reviewed Mars Attacks Popeye I had no plans to do a series of articles about Popeye but then after watching the all rather odd movie I thought I’d check out his first ever appearance in a cartoon (which was shown on July 14th 1933 in US cinemas) expecting it to be vaguely likeable but nothing more than that. Instead it’s a really odd thing, and in certain ways quite modern in it’s absurdist style and the various adventures Popeye and co. get up to.
It starts with a song over the credits which is a rousing affair featuring an appearance from Betty Boop, who we learn is to also appear in the cartoon itself. Then Popeye sings a slow version of his famous song while walking around punching random objects, for some reason when he punches an anchor it turns in to a bunch of small anchors, and a similar thing happens when he destroys an oddly huge clock and a ship’s mast and we get smaller versions of them too, while when he smacks a picture of a fish it turns in to cans of the food substance. I’ve no idea why and it doesn’t make any sense as Popeye notices himself, but it’s amusing enough and a cute enough beginning.
It continues in an amusingly violent manner with Olive Oyl waiting for Popeye on the shore, and whenever someone approaches her (including a couple of animals, and then Bluto) she beats the shit out of them. I don’t remember Olive being the violent type from the cartoons of my childhood but she sure is here and it’s pretty funny stuff, bar a minor bit of it’s time but still shitty racism that is the only negative aspect of the piece. Then Popeye turns up, sings the title line of his song yet again for no good reason, and they walk off together, leaving Bluto angrily punching his chest. Because why should cartoons make sense, eh? Still, at least it’s not a sexist work as Olive gets to kick arse too, which is something.
A visit to a Carnival with Popeye and Olive follows where Popeye pays a peacock by stealing ten cents from Olive Oyl’s boot, and Bluto blows the feathers off the peacock and storms in. The animation is impressive for the time, and the exaggerated facial expressions of the characters makes it funnier than I’m sure it sounds. After this we see Bluto take part in a game where he tests his strength and he wins thanks to the game becoming suddenly sentient, something which I didn’t see coming and which made me laugh. The same applies with Popeye’s go on it where he destroys it because he’s just too strong, raising the ire of the sun, who is of course famous for getting annoyed when things hit him in the face. It’s absurd stuff for sure, but it works because it’s so unpredictable, and it continues along those lines when Popeye plays a ball throwing game using his muscles to throw them rather than his hands like any normal person.
It’s at this point that Betty Boop makes her cameo appearance, singing a Hawaiian themed number while wearing only a grass skirt and a necklace which conveniently hides her breasts. Popeye joins her on stage because he’s a right show off, nicking the beard from a bearded woman so that he has a skirt too, only for a nearby snake to bite him. I’d given up expecting it to make any logical sense at this point and it’s definitely the best way to watch it, though it is after this that something resembling a conventional storyline kicks in as that burly bastard Bluto decides it’s the perfect moment to kidnap Olive Oyl.
When he notices she’s no longer around Popeye canters after him, yep, literally, just like a horse in a bit which shouldn’t be funny but oddly is, and then a chase sequence ensues which is pleasingly inventive and daft. At first Bluto expresses a wish to marry Olive but he has a sudden change of mind and decided to murder her instead, tying Olive to some train tracks and then getting in to a fight with Popeye, which Popeye initially seems to be losing until he remembers to eat some spinach, saves Olive by punching the train and destroying it (and presumably killing everyone on board), and then sings the title of his song again because jesus, he just fucking loves that tune.
Before going in I had no idea what to expect, I’ve seen a few cartoons from the thirties but they tend to be fairly bland and so I was truly surprised by how much it made me laugh, if you compare it Steamboat Willie which contained the famous first appearance from Mickey Mouse it’s much much more playful and unpredictable. Apparently many of the Popeye cartoons which followed weren’t as impressive, and often followed a similar formula with Bluto kidnapping Olive Oyl, punching Popeye repeatedly, and only when Popeye ate some spinach did he win the battle, and they were far simpler than the Thimble Theatre comic strips Popeye appeared in at the time, but judging this is in isolation it’s very smart, funny and likeable stuff indeed.
You can watch the cartoon on youtube here.