Monday, March 30, 2015

Peck Up Your Troubles

Our next to last Popeye cartoon is called Wood-Peckin', and some might call it a thematic tour de force.  There's certainly a case to be made for that, as it represents Popeye's gain of an environmental footprint, where normally such things have mattered only slightly, and typically not at all, as in the classic Wild Elephinks, where the chaos of nature must be tamed by man, or the classic Shiver Me Timbers! where the chaos of nature and the afterlife get both their asses kicked by Popeye.

ACT ONE

As with previous Popeye cartoons, we start with a close-up image that isn't quite what it seems to be.  In the case of Wood-Peckin', it's a boat that appears to be floating on the turbulent ocean waters... when, in fact, it's just being carried to the water over Mima Mounds-esque terrain, so that from our very specific vantage point it gives the illusion of being on the water.
Further partaking in the mysteries of world-class showmanship, Popeye drops his boat into the water, then says "Time to give it a mast!"  ...something like that.  Incidentally, the sound of the boat dropping into the water seems vaguely familiar.  It's probably a foley artist hitting a tub full of water with their hand, and it's probably been used before.  Just saying.
A lot of time-stretching in this one so far, but voice maven Jack Mercer gets to stretch his chops a little by playing a pelican with a dufus voice.  Spoiler alert: the song is "When the SWALLOWS come back to Capistrano," dude.  No pelicans allowed!!  Also, Popeye's up in the air, obeying the laws of cartoon physics, just as Elmer Fudd did in Wabbit Twouble... and yet, that upstart Wile E. Coyote is best known for it.  In Popeye's case, he falls and loses his clothes in the process... hmm!  That's been happening a lot lately.  Is Popeye turning into a compulsive nudist?  Good Lourdes.  The parts of him that we can see are bad enough as it is.
Next scene: Popeye's property proper... hmm!  I don't think we've ever been invited to that before.  Sure, we've been to plenty of boats and workplaces and apartments, and other peoples' houses... anyway, Popeye is off to find a tree worthy to be turned into a mast.  Again, the first tree he encounters isn't quite what it seems at first.  Well, if you've got a clever gag, beat it to death, I always say.

ACT TWO

And then... the next tree we get to is the one that will consume the rest of the pic.  We find a rather handsome-looking woodpecker inside putting the finishing touches on its home within the tree.  I'm suddenly reminded of Olive's typing at the beginning of the one they did about Aladdin.  I'll post the link to my old review to help boost my hit count, heh heh heh...
And so, while the woodpecker's finishing up his homemade "Home Sweet Home" sign, Popeye throws the first strike with the axe.  Now, partly to save some wear and tear on the animators, and partly because there's darn good reason to, time is stretched on the resulting reverberations from Popeye's axe.  Clearly, the opposite focus as compared to Axe Me Another.  Needles to say, the woodpecker gets all shook up once the reverberation has risen to his level.
Furious, the woodpecker looks to see what the hell's going on outside.  The woodpecker spots the intruder and, acting quickly, flies down to ground level like a bat out of hell, but sounding like a B-19.  Now, for those of you who saw that documentary about hummingbird mating rituals, this next scene just might resonate with you, so to speak.  I'm no bird nerd, but the gist of it is that the male hummingbird flies high into the air, then flies back down as quickly as it can, making a loud chirp at just the right moment.  All that to attract a mate.  The poor things work so hard.  Well, they have no beef with humans because they're one of the cute, non-threatening species we love.  Woodpeckers, on the other hand, especially the cartoon ones... they're on their own.  Anyway, the unnamed woodpecker here does a similar motion, but pecks the metal head off of the axe before flying back up into the air.  Popeye never knew what hit him.  Why, I'm sort of reminded of that scene with the crowbar in The Big Lebowski... I know, I know, I've got to take my anti-Lebowski meds again.  Anyway, Popeye's still unaware of the woodpecker at this point... and I'm just going to leave the visual gag to brighter minds than mine to psychoanalyze... okay, I'll get the ball rolling.  Boy!  That tree's been working out!
Next scene: the woodpecker speaks!  As either Wikipedia or the IMDb will surely point out, it's a bad impression of Edward G. Robinson.  Not only that, it's Bogey's line from Casablanca that the little seagull uses!  What, no "Rocky's really mad now" action?  What, is Eddie G. molded whitefish or something?  But no sooner is the woodpecker finished complaining than it's time for another axe strike... two thoughts.  One, what is the deal with this whole "no sooner" and "than" stuff, anyway?  I tried reading this website and I still can't figure it out.  And two, boy!  That Popeye can really fix an ax!
Needles to say, the woodpecker's state of mind isn't getting less angry.  The woodpecker flies down again, does more pecking at the ax, then changes its strategy of dealing with Popeye.  The woodpecker states its case to Popeye, that the tree is its home.  For now, Popeye is unmoved, claiming eminent domain and property rights and what not.  Of course, Popeye's not one for nuanced debate, and he makes the mistake of calling the woodpecker a "squatter."  "Squatter?  I'm a woodpecker!" says the woodpecker.  The woodpecker then results to a spicier flavour of physical violence against Popeye; among other things, the woodpecker pulls Popeye's hat down over his face and honks Popeye's nose-horn.  A note to all the kids out there: never honk a nose horn angry.  When you honk a nose horn, you're supposed to be out of your tiny little mind.  This woodpecker's far too sober. 
Okay, I'm just going to assume that the woodpecker's a "he" from this point on out.  Okay, maybe he's a very butch lesbo, I dunno.  Either way.  And so, the woodpecker orders Popeye to leave the tree alone.  Doubling down on his efforts, Popeye says "No woodpecker's gonna make a monkey out of me!" ...oh, wait.  That's not the right line.  He actually says "No woodpecker's gonna stop ME from gettin' a mast!"  Oh yeah, that's a much better line.  Much funnier.  And it reminds us of the plot!  And so, Popeye chops at the tree a third time, ignoring the woodpecker's advice at his peril.  For you fans of realistic audio out there, you'll like this part: the woodpecker sharpens its beak in a pencil sharpener.  Take that, Walter Murch and Ben Burtt!
And so, this time the woodpecker pecks at Popeye's kidneys, sending Popeye flying very, very high into the air.  A tree slows Popeye's descent to the ground.  Boy, barnyard humour.  Someone somewhere got the idea that, in cartoons, the sharpness of axes can split a tree in half in a single blow.  I believe Popeye did that once in Axe Me Another.  I believe it also happened in The Eager Beaver... CHUCK JONES'S WARNER BROTHERS CARTOON, that is.  Boy, some people.  Anyway, to make a long story short, Popeye cuts down practically a whole forest before landing back on his boat.
"Hey, stupid!  Is this your boat?" asks the woodpecker.  Oh dude... spit just got real.  I think it's Act Break time.

ACT THREE

Boy!  Tough to keep this blog clean.  It just gets harder and harder to do.  Anyway, as foretold by the line of questioning, the woodpecker proceeds to destroy Popeye's boat.  Not completely, just enough to really piss Popeye off.  In Popeye's heightened state of mind, the woodpecker's able to trick him.  I'm reminded of the Third Act of the Bugs Bunny cartoon the mortals call Easter Yeggs.  I hesitate to call it a classic, as it's directed by one of the McKimsons.  You can find it on YouTube because even the copyright lawyers looking out for Warner Bros. best interests don't give a sh... crap about that one.  Of course, unlike Easter Yeggs, the woodpecker rides on Popeye's back as Popeye heads left to his doom.  Popeye ends up running through an empty log, following it all the way to its narrowed top, getting stuck in the process.  Clearly this moment in cinema is so unique that it has no equal and has spawned no imitators... oh, wait.  Probably Wile E. Coyote... yup, that classic called Soup or Sonic.  Also a similar gag in either Odd Ant Out or I've Got Ants in my Plans, one of those two.  Then of course, there's the gag that sends Elmer Fudd off the deep end at the beginning of The Big Snooze.  But I digress.  Popeye tells the woodpecker "Get me out of here!!"  The woodpecker obliges, but in the worst way by sawing off the offending part of the tree.  Well, it's less psychologically damaging than that one Tom and Jerry... SHEEEEEESH!!!
And so, once Popeye liberates himself from the teeny hunk of wood his whole body was stuffed into, that's it.  All bets are off.  Popeye changes his tree-chopping strategy drastically.  He's no longer savoring every swing of the axe.  Without the aid of spinach, mind you, Popeye launches into the tree like a Bush-era environmental protection.  The woodpecker is unaware of the vibrations from this, and is only aware once the angle of the tree starts to change... you know, from Popeye pushing the tree over.  A tug of war of sorts erupts over the tree, with Popeye pushing this way, and the woodpecker pushing that... hmm!  I must be thinking of this disturbing Sesame Street bit.  Anyway, for a while in this test of strength, the woodpecker is somehow Popeye's equal, even employing a bit of technology to help out!  But ultimately, Popeye prevails, to the relief of some in the audience, but he's a good sport and he saves the woodpecker from getting crushed by the tree.  But they both end up running out of the falling tree's way.  Reminds me of that Roger Rabbit cartoo... focus, The Movie Hooligan!  Focus!

EPILOGUE

Ah, I love a good cry.  Even though Popeye and the woodpecker can see where the tree is going to fall, they end up in one of the tree's tiny "windows," much like Buster in Steamboat Bill Jr.,  I believe it was.  The woodpecker starts mourning the loss of his home, which makes Popeye cry as well.  Of course, it's probably not as good as the big tearful finale of The Old Grey Hare, but why pit cartoons against each other?  To add to the poignancy of the moment, one of Popeye's tears extinguishes the flame of his corn cob pipe.
As for the two-state solution to appease both sides, well... I'm sorry, I mean Popeye and the woodpecker.  Well, as you can see from the usual close-up, the woodpecker's got a home, but we pan back again to see the larger context.  The woodpecker's got a home that looks like a tree, but it's sitting atop Popeye's mast!  Somehow I don't think this arrangement is going to last.  And what with this being a WWII-era cartoon and all, the woodpecker makes explicit the point that a home is worth fighting for.  So the question is, does that make Popeye Hitler and the woodpecker America?  Or does it make Popeye America and the woodpecker Great Britain?  I think the lesson is a third option: once the humans get finished fighting... the animals are next.

***1/2
-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

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