Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Sailorman

If one is to believe Google, and really, who else is there left to
believe ? Today is the 115th birthday of the creator of Popeye the
Sailorman. I don't know if anyone under a certain sensitive age recalls
Popeye. My guess is that the sheer violence which dominated all of his
cartoons prevents them from appearing much on television anymore. The
war time cartoons contained such racial stereotypes that I am positive
that they are hidden away somewhere (although YouTube may feature
some).The Age of Popeye has really come and gone and the truth of the
matter is, this is no great loss to anyone.

When I was a kid, Popeye was a staple cartoon for every cartoon show,
and most cities had a local show called "Popeye's Theatre" or something
similarly named, where for thirty minutes you could watch a Popeye
cartoons. In my town it was hosted by a young man named Skipper Conway
from 5:30 to 6:00 on Channel 13 (KTRK) in Houston. Skipper was one of
those guys, in early local television, who kind of hung around as
"utility men" for one show or another. He was in college during at least
part of his time at 13. Unfortunately for Skipper, the T.V. gig for
Popeye required him to wear a little white sailor suit which would have
gotten him beaten up in any beer joint on Telephone Road.

As to Popeye, I was never a huge fan. He always looked about 65 to me,
which seemed old to be a sailor. He seldom sailed, which also seemed odd
for a sailor. Mostly he roamed around town, muttering to himself until
he came upon Olive Oyl, or something he thought would please Olive Oyle
(his girlfriend who is, even today, the thinnest character in the
history of film). Then he would run into his nemesis Bluto ,who would
also be pursuing the object of Popeye's desire. Bluto would always
temporarily come out ahead in the competition, usually by beating Popeye
to a bloody pulp. Bluto appeared to be ten or fifteen years younger than
Popeye, at least a foot taller and 150 pounds heavier. As far as I can
recall, Popeye never won a fair fight with Bluto. He relied on Spinach
to do that. Toward the end of every cartoon, Popeye would be lying in
extremis somewhere, often bound so that he had not use of his arms. With
some ingenuity he would manage to get an entire can of spinach out of
his shirt, pants or over from where the can was sitting. He often
accomplished this feat with the pipe which was perpetually stuck in his
mouth. Popeye's use of his pipe was nothing short of miraculous. It
could even open a can of spinach. When Popeye had use of his arms he
could open the Spinach by squeezing the can and letting the pressure
burst the spinach through the top of the can. The spinach would fly into
the air in one big lump and land in Popeye's mouth to be swallowed

The spinach had the instantaneous affect of turning Popeye into an
unstoppable human dynamo (much like steroids do for today's athletes).
This allowed him to break free of his restraints and give Bluto a
beating which would have left any other man (at least a noncartoon man)
dead. Then Popeye would go get Olive Oyl and sing a song and toot his
pipe (which never appeared to have tobacco in it and was never lit) and
the cartoon would end. It was a thin reed on which to build a cartoon
character empire, but it has lasted in some form or another for over 75

How has it lasted ? I think that it is the simple humility of Popeye
himself. Despite the fact that he appeared to have fathered a small
child out of wedlock (Swee'Pea) you had the feeling that Popeye was a
sincere and upstanding individual, if somewhat dimwitted and ill spoken.
Of course when compared to the other male characters in the cartoon, the
afore mentioned Bluto and Popeye's best friend Wimpy, whose life
consisted of bumming money to buy hamburgers, he was bound to look good.
But even putting that aside, he was a man totally without guile. His
philosophy of life was simple. "I yam what I yam and that's all that I
yam" said it all about his character. He was decent. Of course I would
have liked him a lot better if he had been funny.


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