Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Popeye Don't Get No Respeck

Promotional ad for the Popeye comic strip (1929-1938) drawn by his creator E.C. Segar. (Image: Mouse Heaven)

Ahoy. Though I've effectively left this blog to moulder (with the exception of the odd DVD review) I thought I might as well commit to it some random thoughts on the subject of a Popeye animated feature. I didn't even know one was in the works until the fall of 2014 when Genndy Tartakovsky (of 'Samurai Jack' and 'Hotel Transylvania' fame) posted a test reel of how his version of (a CG) Popeye would look. There was a lot wrong with it * (and the self serving 'biography' at the start bode of potentially worse to come) but I figured it was a done deal and  I braced myself for the inevitable 'Ice Age' starring Popeye to railroad into production. For some reason though it was pulled back into development where, I read, it still lives.

Part of the problem with adapting Popeye is where to go. Since the death in 1938 of Popeye's creator E.C. Segar the character has had many authors and has evolved multiple times over the decades. During the 1950's, for instance, the animated Popeye was reimagined as a suburban dweller wandering  landlocked pre-fab homes in a sailor suit. In the comic books of the 50's Bud Sagendorf brought in elements of juvenile fantasy such as aliens and space ships (as did the animated cartoons) and generally moved Popeye in a more 'kid-friendly' direction. Both are worthy of praise, and discovery, for their  exceptional artwork but, character wise, Popeye had become somewhat neutered from what he once was. By the 80's Olive had got herself a track suit, a la Olivia Newton John, and had a son with Popeye in the execrable , in every sense, 'Popeye and Son'. What seems to have been lost in the second half of the 20th century was the creative voice of the Popeye. The fact was only one person could ever truly claim to know what Popeye was thinking: Segar.

Bud Sagendorf drew a really appealing Popeye in his early comic book work but the edge had come off the stories from Segar's day.

A Popeye "Soakie" (bubble bath container) from the 1960's.  

then this happened.

Deviation from the original comic strip started early and was born of necessity. When Fleischer Studios convinced King Features that the character could work visually in animation (by producing the test film 'Popeye The Sailor' in 1933)  they quickly realized it would be necessary to simplify. Seven minute shorts could not support the kind of character development and epic story arcs that imbued the comic strip and the assembly line nature of animated cartoons meant settling on a steady cast of characters of knowable quantity. Looking at the image at the top of this post gives you an idea how routinely Segar introduced new characters. Thus Bluto became the recurring heavy only because  Segar's 'The Eighth Sea' story (in which Bluto was only an episodic villain) happened to be in progress at the time the animated series was launched. The other main difference was spinach as the source of Popeye's strength which was only intermittently noted in the strip. But despite these simplifications the Fleischer cartoons retained the gritty, even freakish, look (and feel) of the Segar original. More importantly they retained, and even built on, the presence of an essential unseen character: the depression itself.

Popeye's domicile in Fleischer's 'For Better or Worser' (1935)

panels from the "A Sock For Susan's Sake' continuity (1937)

Popeye is nothing if not the story of economically lower middle class and poor characters. For me, this is something that got loused up with later iterations.   In Segar's comic strip the characters are always losing any money they gain through their adventures only to return at the end to their original economically deprived state. This often would motivate the start of a new story. The Fleischers likewise depicted Popeye's world as impoverished: not necessarily as a motivation to plot but, in my opinion, almost an existential comment on the world as it existed in the 30's.  I think it's safe to say that the initial appeal over other less class conscious comic strip characters of the day was it's ability to speak to the circumstances of the broadest segment of the audience: working people and the poor.  The secret was the genius skill with which both comic strip and animated cartoon were able to turn such grim material into humour without coming off as simply cruel or somehow supercilious.  People existing in those circumstances would surely have recognized, and found relief,  not only from the irony of the humour but from the scrappy character of a fighter who lived by his (not always so sharp) wits.

Castor, Olive and Ham Gravy lose their winnings from Dice Island (in the story that introduced Popeye) to a couple of crooked stock brokers (Mr. Glibb and Mr. Blabber). 

Popeye wanders a depressed neighborhood (so poor the hydrants are held together by rope!) in 'I Eats My Spinach' (1933)

As animated cartoons go Fleischer's Popeye series proved to be tremendously popular and, thanks to television re-runs, continued to win over successive generations not only due to their humour but also their excellent production quality which made competing low budget made-for-TV fare seem pale by comparison. Kids could tell the difference in quality then...and many still do when they see the Fleischer Popeyes today. In fact, for the majority of the world Fleischer Popeye is Popeye - spinach can and all.

Something new has been added: Popeye's famous Spinach Can was a unique addition of the Fleischer  cartoons (as seen in 'I Wanna Be a Lifeguard', 1936)

So then, after so many decades of Popeye where should the character go from here?  That was the problem when Jules Feiffer, a former assistant to Will Eisner and long time cartoonist  of The Village Voice, was assigned the task of writing an original screenplay to a live action version of Popeye in the late 70's (the film was released in 1980) for director Robert Altman.  Feiffer, who long preferred Segar's vision of the character found himself at odds with  director Altman (and producer Robert Evans) who insisted on elements familiar to audiences through the Fleischer cartoons. This resulted in characters such as Pappy, Bluto and Spinach being introduced in oddly prosaic fashion. Popeye's epic search for Pappy had taken months in Segar's strip making the reveal of "the Commodore's" identity in the film underwhelming by comparison. Castor Oyl, a major character in the strip, was also severely neutered and was played in a manner similar to the Kent Dorfman character played by Stephen Furst in 1978's 'Animal House' (Castor was played by similar type Donovan Scott). Still, Feiffer was able to get the period of the film correct and suitably depressed surroundings, lack of food, money and amenities (an important satirical element of the Segar original) were all depicted and pop tunesmith Harry Nillson was able to add some good songs. Audience response was, however, mixed. Leonard Maltin suggested in his review that movie goers: "Tune in a few hours' worth of Max Fleischer cartoons; you'll be much better off".  He had a point since technology did not yet exist to properly depict the wild comic violence of both strip and animated cartoon, an essential element of Popeye, within live action parameters. Those scenes in the live action Popeye were clumsy indeed.

Neither fish nor fowl the 1980 live action Popeye had some good and not-so-good elements. It's since found it's audience on home video, DVD etc.

The problem with the live action film underlines an intrinsic problem with adapting Popeye to the big screen: how to keep the characters vital while meeting the needs of many audiences: fans of the comic strip, fans of the animated cartoons  and audiences new to Popeye.  Nowadays this is usually done by numerous script doctors tasked with putting a percentage of the film towards 'fan service' and a percentage towards 'general entertainment' (generic elements of contemporary block busters) for a result which usually comes off as highly clinical.  That is the Popeye we are most likely to see.  If not  from Tartakovsky then somebody else.

Model from 'Puppet Love' (Image: Popeye Animator's Blogspot)

But is it even worth it? As far as I'm concerned the best animated Popeye has been done already: by the Fleischers.  Thankfully those were issued on DVD so we can at least have easy access to them: a door which was closed and locked for decades. But what is there to add that hasn't already been tried in the 87 years since Popeye's birth?  There have already been too many Popeyes.  Personally I can only see one path that's even worth exploring: a faithful cinematic adaptation of a Segar continuity.

Popeye's iconic first words ever were a wisecrack.

That is one hell of a tall order by the way. The fact is that no Segar continuity contains every element that audiences would recognize from the animated cartoons. Wimpy is not in 'The Eighth Sea'. Bluto is not in 'Plunder Island' (though Wimpy, Alice the Goon and The Sea Hag are).  Both are missing from Popeye's first story.  Popeye does not consume a can of spinach in any of them. Yet what is working beautifully is the storytelling. Here is an area ripe for cinematic treatment. Popeye's comic strip adventures were epic in scope and often lasted many months. They're real 'page turners' too as Segar introduced supernatural elements, strange mysteries, treasure hunts and all manner of adventure. There's enough material here already for a half dozen feature films. It would take, however, a screenwriter of considerable talent to convert comic strip to screenplay without steamrolling over Segar's carefully crafted narratives and, importantly, satiric dialog.  If Fleischer elements (Bluto, Spinach Can etc.) must be added they would need to be done so with great care.

Segar's 'Plunder Island' was the first story to feature Alice The Goon (image: Heritage Auctions).  

Mind you it's possible a story like 'Plunder Island' might work just fine without Bluto or the spinach can so long as stylistically the animation, design and everything else were to hew to the look and feel of the Fleischer cartoons: the look most audiences associate with Popeye ***.  In this instance CG could be used as a tool  but the film would need to have a dimensionally hand drawn and painted look.  This is one hell of an order too since no-one has successfully been able to fully replicate the Fleischer style, en masse, in the modern age. Part of this is due to the fact that much of what the Fleischers did has been 'trained out' of commercial animators today. Yet, applying the balletic approach of a Disney ** (or the 'zippy' style of a Powerpuff Girl) looks totally wrong on the brutish and weird world of Popeye. However there are people out there who have both the professional experience and lifetime love of Fleischer to handle such an order providing the budget existed.  And skilled drafts-people can always adapt assuming they have the right direction, time and tools for the job. Besides, audiences might be primed for something that looks different from the pack. Just a theory.

A rare appearance of Geezil in a Fleischer cartoon ('A Clean Shaven Man', 1936)

There have been many animated Popeyes over the years but never a faithful one. For me this is the only path worth taking for a new movie Popeye. It's the only offering yet to be made that actually adds to the legacy of the character. Otherwise better to create original characters to go with new situations rather than awkwardly shoe-horning something old into something new. Naturally I understand that is not what is going to happen if Popeye ever gets back out of development hell.  Personally I'm OK if that's where the project stays. To quote Leonard Maltin: "Tune in a few hours' worth of Max Fleischer cartoons; you'll be much better off".

(toot toot)

*-Wrong for Popeye not wrong in general. Powerpuff Girls or Samurai Jack, for example, would look wrong were they done a la Fleischer. Apples and oranges. 

**-Shamus Culhane points this out in his autobiography in reference to 'Popeye Meets William Tell'-a cartoon he directed after returning from Disney. Don't misunderstand my use of the word 'balletic'. Disney's best work were ballets IMO, and nobody did it better, but this approach isn't right for everything
***- Not all of 'Plunder Island' is fit for adaptation. A couple of the Sunday strips contain stereotyping which, obviously, would have to go.