When discussing Popeye, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the three Technicolor two-reelers that came out in the thirties. Interestingly, all three were based on tales from the Arabian Nights, and I’m not sure why. I can think of a few likely reasons, though. These stories were popular sources for films at the time, and the first one involved a sailor, hence making him somewhat of a sensible match for Popeye. And while I don’t know that this was conscious on the part of the creators, there’s a certain amount of patriotism involved as well. Not that these cartoons bash the old legends, but they do show a character from American popular culture triumphing over their characters. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Yankee Doodle” were often used to accompany Popeye’s spinach-fueled fights, but they take on a bit more significance in these particular cartoons. Anyway, the mixture ended up working well, as it allowed them to combine the typical plot of the sailor saving Olive Oyl from a villain with some more fantastic settings and foes.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor – We begin this one with Sindbad, who looks and acts pretty much exactly like Bluto, so I guess you could say Popeye’s usual enemy is playing a role. He sings a song about his accomplishments, referencing some of his actual exploits from the old legends. The island on the back of a whale, the diamonds protected by snakes, and the roc (spelled “Rokh” in the credits) were all authentic parts of the Sindbad saga as we know it. The two-headed giant isn’t, and I can only figure Boola was inspired by Sindbad’s encounter with an enormous cyclops, who in turn was based on Polyphemus from the Odyssey.
The two legendary sailors even defeated the cyclopes in the same way. Much of the humor with Boola involves the two heads arguing with each other, something we would later see with the Two-Headed Monster on Sesame Street and the three-headed guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I don’t know how it started. Anyway, Sindbad is interrupted by Popeye singing his own song, and sends the Rokh out to wreck our hero’s boat and capture Olive. (Hey, he IS still essentially Bluto, after all.) Popeye comes to shore with Wimpy in tow, and the sailor’s ever-hungry friend proceeds to chase a duck around with a meat grinder. Kind of dark, really. Popeye’s fight against the Rokh and the two-headed giant contain some memorable gags, including the sailor cooking the giant bird in a volcano, resulting in what looks like an enormous plate of chicken.
Also funny is how Boola basically knocks himself out by throwing Popeye into a tree; as active a character as Popeye is, it can also be quite amusing when his strength is applied passively. Everything is wrapped up with the final confrontation between the two sailors, Popeye being victorious with the aid of his trusty spinach.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves – It’s a popular misconception that Bluto plays Ali Baba in this cartoon, and it’s understandable based on the title.
It’s really quite common for people to think Ali Baba was the leader of the forty thieves, but he was actually someone who stole the thieves’ treasures back from them. As we find out in the opening song, Bluto’s character as leader of the thieves is actually named Abu Hassan, even though the thief captain doesn’t have a name in the original story. He does, however, disguise himself as a merchant named Cogia Hassan, and someone must have confused this with another merchant in a much more obscure Arabian Nights story named Abu al-Hasan. I doubt it originated with Popeye, though; these stories were common subjects for pantomime plays, and some of the previously anonymous characters received names in these. I can’t find any proof that such is the case with the thief Abu Hassan, but it seems likely. And the name works for the cartoon because it allows for Popeye’s line “Abu Hassan got ‘em anymore.” Anyway, this time Popeye is serving with the Coast Guard, and goes after the thieves after hearing about them on the radio. The thieves proceed to steal everything in the village in which the sailor has arrived with Olive and Wimpy, but not until after we see some clever gags. One of my favorites is the waiter folding up the menu written in scribbles (presumably meant to be Arabic, although of course it looks nothing like Arabic) so that it reads “Bacon and Eggs 45¢”, not just because of the gag itself or the reminder that food was pretty cheap back in the thirties, but because an Islamic restaurant serving bacon is pretty unlikely. Also amusing is a scene where Popeye gases up a camel (“Boy, you eat up an awful lot of gas for only a two-cylinder!”) and his use of “Open, sez me!” to access his can of spinach, which of course allows him to beat the thieves and save the day.
Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp – This one is a little different as it has a wrap-around story, with Olive writing a script for an Aladdin movie. She casts herself as the princess and Popeye as Aladdin, but Bluto is nowhere to be seen, the villain instead being a generic evil magician type. In many ways, this is actually a pretty straight but simplified retelling of the Aladdin tale, although of course there are plenty of gags.
I have to suspect there was some pretty direct influence on Disney’s Aladdin, especially considering the similarity between the genie coming out of the lamp while shaving in this cartoon, while Disney had him coming out while taking a bath. Memorable lines include Popeye’s “I’ve never made love in Technicolor before” and Olive’s “Popeye–I mean Aladdin–save me!” And the “new lamps for old” bit has Olive’s servant trade the magic lamp for a flashlight. Popeye/Aladdin eats spinach several times in this one, as well as once summoning the genie with a spinach can.
This will probably be my last Popeye post for a while, although who can really say what tomorrow will bring?