You can tell a cartoon came from a different time when its cover image depicts Bluto in blackface and a horde of half-naked dark men advancing on two established white cartoon heroes. You can see the racial commentary plain as day right here. “Can Popeye and Olive Oyl survive the cruel onslaught of the dark hordes of… dark-skinned Bluto?!”
I’ve done a lot of studying of animation at the hobby level. With that has come an understanding of two fundamental truisms…
- The early days still have value, and every student can learn a lot from them.
- To learn from them, you have to remain mindful that the early days had a lot of bigotry too.
The early days of animation had a lot of racism. A lot. The full extent thereof falls way beyond the scope of this review of a two-reeler, but suffice it to say that other Popeye cartoons containing racial caricatures have both preceded and followed this one. Take a look at his first animated appearance, “Popeye the Sailor,” his second animated appearance, “I Yam What I Yam,”1 and perhaps most infamously, a bit of wartime propaganda known as “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap.”
Arabs in Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves
If I can say anything for this short, I can at least say it didn’t keep me waiting…
|At least the skull doesn’t look like a racist caricature of a real skull.|
In Bluto, we see the quintessence of the “savage” Arab stereotype.
|Scimitar, headdress, a horse that looks like a camel… I almost get the feeling the animators designed Bluto with blackface just to see if they could offend two minorities at the same time.|
|At least they look happy.|
The filthy Arab stereotype gets play too, with Bluto sloppily wolfing down his feast.
|Yes, I do eat more politely than that… although I too lift my left arm for no reason.|
|This waiter went on to star in every fifth NYC movie to feature street food. His English hasn’t improved.|
|Popeye somehow protects the water against the Arab invaders headed his way on land.|
|How she doesn’t get a sunburn, I do not understand.|
As an object, Olive’s lanky form also becomes the butt of this gag where Popeye uses her as a camel.
|Olive “Object” Oyl.|
Of course, Olive inevitably gets kidnapped. Notice the parallel with Raiders of the Lost Ark: the kidnapping victim in a giant pot.
|The least surprising plot twist imaginable. Sorry for the spoiler.|
|Considering this cartoon came out in 1937, she’d probably live for these “wifely duties” if she did them for a white husband.|
|Of course the thieves all fight like nameless, sluggish lemmings.|
|The white heroes have the swarthy bad men chained and forced into labor. For laughs.|
Looking Past the Racism (or Trying)
I admit, grudgingly, that casting aside my annoyance with the racism, sexism, and Orientalist scaremongering, I really like this film for its animation. I should probably feel more aggrieved than I do, but when I can find it in me to set my revulsion therefor aside, Max Fleischer really did make some of the best shorts the animation world has ever seen. The film also stars the Popeye voice dream cast: Jack Mercer, Mae Questel, and Gus Wickie, all ad-libbing left and right.2
I love the use of old-school techniques such as stretch & squish. A lot of the better old-school cartoons have dramatic lines of action that give the characters a sense of nonverbal momentum. Look at the forward arcs of both these characters. The animators aimed their lines of action straight at each other, suggesting an incipient battle of wits, brawn, and egos.
|Even if you don’t know Popeye or Bluto, you know from this shot that they don’t like each other.|
|Wimpy found the safest place he could to eat: inside the thieves’ loot.|
|Popeye refuels his camel with gasoline: the spinach of camels!|
Max Fleischer’s brilliant invention, an animation layering technique called the “Stereoptical process,” preceded the multiplane camera and allowed for stunning, dynamic backgrounds with an authentic parallax effect. The resulting “sets” almost seem operatic in their detail and secondary function to the foreground.
|This shot contains amazing coloring and miniature work in context. Also notice the clarity of the characters’ body language.|
|Fleischer Studios built a real-life miniature cave set on a Lazy Susan, mixing with animation to breathtaking effect here.|
|Without a doubt, the most inutile traffic light of all time.|
As for Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves, as the second Popeye Color Special and Popeye’s 54th animated short, this two-reel short does an excellent job showing Fleischer Studios’ mastery of animation as regards the Popeye characters. I recommend you watch it and judge for yourself. Since it’s fallen into the public domain, you can actually watch it on the free at the Internet Archive!
Prefer YouTube? Then you can watch it here instead…
I really do recommend this short. If you can look past the racially invidious content, there exists some good animation and an excellent cross-section of Fleischer Studios’ cartoon acumen in there!
To Learn More…
If you have any interest in early animation, check this stuff out when you can…
- You can find this short on the Popeye the Sailor Vol. 1 DVD set. I have this, I used it for this post, and I love it. It contains some amazing commentaries (and I usually find commentaries boring), cool featurettes, and great video and audio in all the shorts. I strongly urge any and all Popeye fans to grab it and the other two volumes! They don’t cost that much money and I know I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of them! In particular, the Popeye Color Specials have amazing colors that you simply won’t see in their full effect on YouTube.
- I personally loved the Robert Altman Popeye film. I thought it bridged the gap between the strip and the cartoons perfectly, plus it had endearing characterization and absolutely stunning production design. Awesomely enough, the setting—Popeye Village—still exists in Malta as a tourist attraction and open-air museum!
- You can also find all of E.C. Segar’s original Popeye strips reprinted in six volumes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). I have all six and I love them. Segar’s ink-work looks beautiful, inviting, and inimitable. His stories have a charm that time could never erode. Buy them to see Popeye’s evolution into an unlikely leading man and one of the direct inspirations behind Maakies!
- Fans of old Popeye cartoons absolutely must read Out of the Inkwell, a touching, informative, and very affectionate biography of Max Fleischer by his son, Richard.
- A number of animators consider Advanced Animation by Preston Blair the best book ever written on learning animation. It teaches old school animation, the kind you see in the Popeye shorts above. Buy the most recent edition here.
- No animator or fan of early animation should go without owning a copy of The Illusion of Life by two of Disney’s Nine Old Men. You can see in this heavy, gorgeous, colorful book everything behind what makes these old cartoons tick.
Anyway, I personally have all of these and I love everything here. Basically, if you like old cartoons, you have a lot of stuff you need to check out!
1 Incidentally, I firmly believe the Native-Americans-hiding-as-foliage gag in this cartoon inspired the one in Disney’s Peter Pan.
2 If you’ve never seen a Popeye short, as you may have noticed, the characters’ mouths almost never sync with their voices. The cast did a lot of ad-libbing during the recordings, adding their own personal touches to the characters. It really helps make these shorts something special!