Sunday, March 31, 2013

Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939)

One Popeye cartoon to go!

I literally could not find a better cover image. Ugh.
Oddly, Fleischer Studios made three Popeye Color Specials and all three had to do with the Arabian Nights legends. This one proved the weakest of the three, but it still has a lot to appreciate for any fan of early animation.

More than anything else about this short, I found its handling of race most noticeable. Relative to the other Popeye shorts, this short’s racism manifests somewhat differently. Unlike the other color specials, this one actually casts Popeye as an Arab…

At least I think so from the fez and the slippers.
Here, we can’t even identify his Arabian Nights inspiration aside from his turban.
… but while Popeye—and Olive—look Anglo, the other Arabs, especially the antagonist below, appear much more stereotypical.

The Grand Vizier may have a broken hand.
Popeye and Olive look like their usual selves with different costumes, while the antagonist—the Grand Vizier, who substitutes for Bluto in this cartoon—looks like a sleazy and toothless Arab caricature. Incidentally, notice the resemblance to Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin. (Aladdin, as a film, really feels like a pastiche of this short and the first two Thief of Bagdad films.)

This idea, in fact, recurs throughout the history of fiction set in the Middle East: the protagonists look whiter and more European; the antagonists have pointed facial hair, darker skin, sibilant voices, and what Jack Shaheen describes as “bulbous noses and sinister eyes.”1 Look at this shot of the Arab countrymen in this short…

Popeye looks Nordic; the other Arabs have bulbous/hooked noses and several lack teeth.
Compare this short to Ub Iwerks’ take on Aladdin in Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, a single-reel short from 1934 that uses the same pattern in its characterizations…

None of the Arab caricatures sat well with me, but nevertheless, the Arabs don’t get the most invidious imagery in this film.

Princess Olive and her silent, subservient racial caricature guard.
The wacky blue genie spontaneously creates a servile, stereotypical blackface character.
This short proves the worst of the lot when it comes to racially-charged characters. Olive’s two identical guards and the porter there look like they just stepped right out of a minstrel show.

In general, I really like this film, but it doesn’t work as well as its predecessors. The Stereoptical process that makes the other cartoons look so distinctive doesn’t seem to show up in this short at all (although the studio acknowledges the process in the title credits). We still see some pretty background paintings, though.

These Arabian Nights films sure love to employ nighttime imagery… probably because of the title.
However onerous the imagery, the gorgeous, painterly style of this shot reminds me of The Triplets of Belleville.
This short doesn’t have animation, visual gags, or music as lively as its predecessors, either. One can tell Fleischer Studios—who moved from New York to Miami shortly before making this short—had gone through some difficulties around the time of this short’s creation.

And this gag would become funny for a whole different reason decades later.
In a departure from the other cartoons, in this one we get a metatextual frame story of Olive Oyl as a writer. This struck me as Fleischer’s way of thanking the audience for their devotion to such an offbeat franchise. By rights, a cartoon series about a one-eyed, toothless, chain-smoking sailor and his gangly, stylistically-challenged girlfriend shouldn’t have succeeded like it had, especially considering the sameness of the plots. But as the 69th short and the third one in color, the series had obvious, demonstrated success anyway.

Olive and I have more in common than I thought.
Sadly, Paramount fully acquired Fleischer Studios in 1941, forcing out the Fleischer family and starting an inferior successor company: Famous Studios. Thus, a company that once went toe-to-toe with Disney went out with a whimper.

At least the studio’s work survives to the present day, including this very cartoon, which you can and should watch here…

1 Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch, 2009. Print. Page 57.

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