Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (1937)

Cinephiles like you and I know that cartoons didn’t always fixate on and extol the magic of friendship. Some of them got a bit… well, racist.

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.
If you think about it, these ideas hold true for most arts—including film—and really all of history. Even democracy itself has proven a wonderful idea that took us Americans hundreds of years to come close to getting right.

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.
The very first shot of the film has a silhouette of perennial Popeye antagonist Bluto—playing rapacious thief “Abu Hassan” (the film’s version of Ali Baba)—and his ululating bandits riding along the horizon. We can tell within seconds that we will soon see Popeye characters layered over an Arabian Nights tale featuring rapacious “savage” Arabs.

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.
His minions lack the bright red nose indicative of minstrelsy, but they look pretty stereotypical in their own right.

At least they look happy.
Bluto sings a song about pillaging and kidnapping women and children to the cheers of his men. Bluto’s song communicates one of the most deleterious kinds of negative stereotyping: he threatens the white man’s women and children. You’ll notice that in these stereotypical depictions, the white man never fears minorities; he’ll just eradicate them with his superior “master race” mind and male machismo. Instead, he worries that these dark-skinned men will rape his wife or kidnap his children to either use as slaves or simply stare at as baubles. Indeed, this short exemplifies the “less intelligence/greater concupiscence” stereotype.

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.
Aside from the titular thieves, we get the persistent foreigner-you-can’t-understand stereotype later on in the form of this waiter, who speaks in random vowels and velar and alveolar gibberish disguised as Arabic. Since he doesn’t pose a threat—but he still doesn't have white skin—the cartoonists make this waiter character a coward, hiding in a potted plant at the first sign of trouble.
This waiter went on to star in every fifth NYC movie to feature street food. His English hasn’t improved.
We first see Popeye protecting a dock as his signature almost-patriotic theme song blares. Notice that Popeye works for the coast guard, thereby characterizing the American military in direct opposition to the pillaging Arabs we just saw.

Popeye somehow protects the water against the Arab invaders headed his way on land.
Look closely and you’ll see that Olive Oyl has a pallor that makes even Popeye and Wimpy look swarthy. In its subtle way, the film characterizes her as the “pure white woman” who needs protection.

How she doesn’t get a sunburn, I do not understand.
This “pure white woman” stereotype does damage of its own, mind you. Any such valuation implies that the person has an intrinsic value as an object—not as a person. As a perennial damsel in distress, Olive indeed spends the movie as a glorified object, albeit a famously ductile “object” voiced by the amazing Mae Questel.

As an object, Olive’s lanky form also becomes the butt of this gag where Popeye uses her as a camel.

Olive “Object” Oyl.
This one doesn’t seem so nocuous on its face: Olive has a lanky form; the three of them have found themselves dying of thirst in a desert; as animation gags go, it makes perfect sense. Bear in mind, though, that aside from the objectification inherent in Popeye dragging Olive Oyl on a leash… Anyone who’s seen a Popeye cartoon knows Bluto will nab her eventually. Making her a camel, even for one shot, serves to increase her perceived appeal to the stereotypical Arabs about to bear down on this group.

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.
The animators then pull off a two-fer, showing a miserable Olive forced into a “woman’s-work” role by stereotypically sexist Arabs.

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, as with every Popeye cartoon, our hero wins the day by eating a can of spinach and beating the crap out of these evil Arabs. In keeping with the idea of linking patriotism to the white hero’s exploits, we hear “Stars and Stripes Forever” as the background music.

Of course the thieves all fight like nameless, sluggish lemmings.
Once again, Popeye has quelled the audience’s fears by quelling the Orientalist threat for another day, and just for a final cherry on top of racism, we get to see the villains punished by enslavement.

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.
Max decreed that in his Popeye shorts, every shot must have at least one gag. Sure enough, in the entire run-time of the film, every shot I remember seeing contained some kind of gag. According to John Kricfalusi on the DVD commentary, even after storyboarding, director Dave Fleischer (Max’s brother) “would go from animator to animator and add gags along the way, even if the story was already storyboarded.”

Wimpy found the safest place he could to eat: inside the thieves’ loot.
Popeye refuels his camel with gasoline: the spinach of camels!
Max never shied away from a challenge. In “The Paneless Window Washer,” we see the animators deftly execute intractable angles and layouts. Have you ever noticed that modern traditional cartoons rarely have extreme bird’s eye or worm’s eye shots with moving characters? Fleischer tackled them head-on.

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.
The Stereoptical process also allowed for the animators to use live-action miniatures alongside the animation.

Without a doubt, the most inutile traffic light of all time.
Under the direction of Max’s brother Dave, the cartoons also had both excellent music and excellent integration of music into the cartoons. Look at “A Clean Shaven Man” below for a great example. Notice how Olive Oyl’s song underpins the entire narrative.

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!


  1. You suck dick it is a cartoon of a different era and to this day I can find on any cable channel things more racist than this you must not have any life or girl friend to spend this much time trying to destroy my child hood but you will never win my kids will be raised on these cartoons they teach us to be strong and not to be taken advantage of

  2. Oh my god! This was one of the most famous episodes. I simply loved it. I must find the series because soon my kids are going to finish watching shows by Andy Yeatman on Netflix and I will have to line up some more shows for them. Popeye is also going to teach them good things.