Friday, June 21, 2013

Bands of New York

As you may know, Wikipedia is an incomplete work.  Huge, but still incomplete.  Their entry for the Fleischer Popeye cartoons in general, and The Spinach Overture in particular, has raised some doubts.  There is apparently uncertainty as to who voiced Popeye in this one.  The IMDb, on the other hand, seems more certain, citing Jack Mercer as the voice.  And I concur with the IMDb.  It sounds like Mercer.  Mercer seemed to be better at scat singing than Costello, anyhow, and Mercer made better spinach chewing noises, definitely.  Worthy of Homer.  Anyway, on to the cartoon, which is just kinda average...


Oh!  Before we get to Act One, though... listen to the piccolo's slight variation on the opening theme!  Well, they've put some extra effort into the music, anywho.  After the credits proper, we open on a rehearsal hall deep in the darkest heart of somewhere in the five boroughs.  And as you can see, everyone's moving away.  On account of all that racquet.  We get but a taste of the racket, as we hear the band warming up.  God, that's annoying.  We zoom in on the building, and it's a slow cross-fade to Popeye's Ensemble Orchestra.  Olive's on harp, and Wimpy on percussion.  Wimpy's the original multitasker, using his cymbal to cook hamburger patties at the same time.  There's also a floutist, and a trombone player with huge buck teeth.  Hmm!  Reminds me of a guy when I was in band in high school.  He played the trombone and had big buck teeth.  Dayamn, but those Fleischers were prescient.
And so, Popeye calls his band to attention, and they begin to play.  I only know this from the DVD commentary, of course.  They play Franz von Suppé's Poet and Peasant Overture.  Must be in the public domain.  Now, at this point, the egotist that Popeye is, he throws in a musical reference to himself, with a tap dance and a blow on his ol' corn cob pipe.  This is why he'll never get to Carnegie Hall.  Time for a close-up of Wimpy, whose hamburger patty is finally cooked enough.  And then it's time for Olive's harp solo.  This is the part with "I've Been Working on the Railroad," tee hee hee.  Subtle!  I missed it the first go-round.  At this point, Popeye conducts the clarinetist with his pipe... wait a minute!  They don't have a clarinet!!!  Oh well.


The sound of sarcastic laughter from the other room.  Popeye's pipe twirls.  Yes, Adam Sandler's screenwriters couldn't have structured this setup better.  Bluto's Orchestra laughs from the other room.  Popeye looks over, and the "camera" pans over to the other room.  Daniel Goldmark mentioned a name of someone that Bluto was supposed to be a caricature of, or a play on, if you like.  I'm too tired to look that up again.  In fact... g'night!
Okay, I'm back.  Hmm!  My links don't seem to work like they used to.  I'm unable to jump right to the part I reference.  They should strip the person of the millions they were given for that feature.  All right, so we'll proceed without the links.  So, Bluto apparently has nothing better to do than push around the little guys.  He's clearly at the top of the musical food chain.  Apparently he spends all his time in the Navy practicing the violin.  He marches himself over to Popeye's half of the rehearsal hall, takes a bow, then says "Let ME show you how!"  He then shoves Popeye in the face, and Popeye goes flying Stage Left into the wall.
Bluto begins to conduct Popeye's orchestra.  Arguably he doesn't have as much to work with on this half of the room.  There's less people, and they probably don't play as well as the Nazis... I mean, the professional musicians next door.  And then... Bluto's solo.  It's as if the heavenly choir of angels (Serafim, Cherubim, the whole nine yards) has come down to earth to give us proof of the existence of an afterlife.  It's the best day of your life stretched out to an eternity.  All is right with the universe, and all is right with you... and coming from Bluto, no less!  That just can't be right.  Plus, he flirts with Olive while playing his little violin there... oh, right, CAN'T LINK IT ANYMORE!!!  As usual, that's the part Popeye has trouble with.  The flirting part.
Anyway, Bluto finishes, and now it's Popeye's turn.  "With all due respect to the great mousetrap," Popeye mumbles as he takes the conductor's stand anew.  And then... well, needles to say, Popeye can't play the violin as well as Bluto just did.  And that's me being kind.  He downright sucks.  He makes Jack Benny sound good by comparison.  And on top of that, he breaks all the violin strings!  Popeye also kinda looks like Joe Camel as he plays, but I'll leave that for the more superior intellects among us to debate.  I do like how Popeye starts doing a yoga-type move while playing the violin... garurasana, I believe it is, if I may reference that without paying a fee.
Anyway, Popeye's orchestra starts laughing at him!  The nerve.  The lack of loyalty.  Rather than be outraged, Popeye starts blushing.  He's blown it and he knows it; there's just no two ways about it.
On to the next embarrassment.  Bluto kicks ass at the piano solo, then does a bizarre spin out of the piano chair.  Only in a cartoon could a guy like Bluto do that kind of move.  Now it's Popeye's turn at the piano, and despite Popeye's dramatic lead-in... well, it's hard to say what's worse, Popeye's violin playing or his piano playing.  Probably his piano playing, if only because he thinks he did well when he's finished.  He soon finds out otherwise as his orchestra laughs anew.  Dejected, Popeye's head sinks low, and Bluto invites Popeye's orchestra to "join a good band."  They go, of course.  But remember!  You'll probably be the first ones fired when the band company has to do layoffs!


And so, Popeye sits at the piano alone.  Utterly alone.  Olive Oyl has abandoned him once again... I've lost track of how many times it's been now.  With this level of depression, most musicians or composers reach into the chandelier for that hidden bottle of booze.  Not Popeye, though, say what you will.  However, he does have a can of spinach hidden inside the piano.  He takes a bite.  And lo and behold, he can suddenly play the piano with his left hand!  Another mouthful of spinach, and his right hand takes over!  A third bite and he's able to bridge the gap between left hand and right hand, something I still struggle with as a dabbler in piano; I hesitate to call myself an amateur, as it implies some competence.  Anyway, Popeye is suddenly a terrific jazz pianist, even though he hasn't paid enough dues to play Carnegie Hall yet.  I'd like to link to the Fleischer's other cartoon The Kids in the Shoe, whose raucous third act kicks off with some hot piano licks, BUT APPARENTLY IT DOESN'T WORK LIKE THAT ANYMORE!!!!!  Sorry to shout.
And so, Popeye finishes up his study in the Orchestra Chamber of Solitude.  Time to venture out into the larger world to strut his stuff.  As Bluto did earlier, Popeye twirls out of the piano chair and into Bluto's half of the orchestra pits.  He gives Bluto a good punch and sends him into the wall, sans hairdo.  Popeye claims Bluto's hairdo as his own and begins to conduct the hell out of the new hybrid orchestra.  It's all terribly epic.
Meanwhile, Bluto comes to and starts trying to fight back, and in the most childish way possible, of course.  First up: Bluto hurls a tuba at Popeye.  The tuba falls on top of Popeye, but Popeye ain't out of it yet, folks!  He conducts the orchestra with the tuba still on him by moving back and forth.  Then he takes a big breath (you can hear him do it) and plays the tuba.  The tuba unfurls and flies back at Bluto.  Popeye goes back to conducting.  He conducts with his big toe, for God's sake!  Back to Bluto, who's got a new hat made out of a smooshed-up tuba.  Lol.  Next up: the xylophone.  This reminds me of the finale of Shoein' Hosses.  I don't know why.  Bluto tries throwing the individual xylophone pieces at Popeye, but after Popeye's able to reassemble the xylophone, Bluto pushes the whole xylophone at Popeye.  Pathetic.  For his own third act, Bluto approaches with a trombone.  He tries swinging it at Popeye like a baseball bat, but to no avail.  Popeye's able to pull his head into his chest like a turtle, and lift his legs up to dodge Bluto's obvious attempts to hit Popeye.  Maybe Bluto should have tried to aim for Popeye's chest.  Oh well.  Popeye takes the trombone and uses it to make Bluto his bitch... so to speak.  Literally, I mean.  Popeye stoops to Bluto's level briefly and gets wrapped up in two Fist Tornados with Bluto, but the fight's basically over.


One last big punch sends Bluto into the orchestra proper.  The orchestra was resting on a multi-level platform, but Bluto's bulk causes the orchestra to slowly deflate like one of the Stooges' cakes.  Popeye wraps up the song with his own theme song, and he loses Bluto's hair at the last second.
...okay, I'll give this one three and a half stars, even though there's no 3D background.

-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

For a better analysis of The Spinach Overture, listen to the DVD commentary by historian Daniel Goldmark.

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