Sunday, September 14, 2014

Eugene the Jeep

This is probably my favorite of my many favorite cartoons from the first Popeye series of  the early 1930s. Long ago, my children got fascinated with these (they came on TV at about 5:30 in the morning, so I  videotaped them and we watched them together), and at one point I sent my 8-hour collection someplace to have them transferred to DVD. I never saw them again. But a few years ago, I happened upon a cleaned-up, pristine, re-released boxed set and was in Popeye heaven. I was a bit surprised to see these in glorious black and white, as the ones we saw back in the '80s were in colour. Later I found out they had been sent to Korea to be badly colorized, probably by Ted Turner. (Why Ted Turner was forgiven for all that atrocity amazes me, but he was, and his name now proudly stands for Turner Classic Movies, a bastion of cinematic purity with no interruptions, no edits and no commercial breaks. How did he pull that one off?)

Considering what an adorable creation Eugene the Jeep is, it surprises me that Fleischer only used him in two cartoons. In this one, he rescues Swee' Pea from certain death by taking Popeye on a wild Jeep chase. The second one just doesn't have the same charm. In the kind of cruel boondoggle I came to expect as a sullen, embittered little girl, the animators decided to un-make him and start all over again, having him delivered in a mysterious box (a gift from Olive - ?) to Popeye's door.

But it doesn't really matter what Jeep does - it's all adorable. He's a sort of magic teddy-dog with the ability to dematerialize, walk through walls and foretell the future. His tail makes a sort of jingly sound, and every so often he goes, "jeep, jeep".  But all this is barely touched on in these two cartoons - in fact, in the second one he hardly has any mojo left at all. .

Like all the Popeye characters, Eugene got his start in the "funny papers", in a highly eccentric 1920s comic strip called Thimble Theater. Popeye was probably the least likely of them to get his own cartoon franchise. Since the Jeep started off as a static comic strip character, the animators would have had very little idea of how he was supposed to move. I think they did a delightful job with him, with his spins and twirls.

This is a particularly neat sequence, and an example of what Fleischer and his animators did best. Labyrinthine chases that double back on themselves are a standard feature, usually involving Popeye risking life and limb. (This is one of the very few cartoons in which he does NOT eat his spinach. Even spinach is no match for the power of the Jeep.)

A superb moment!

Though Popeye doesn't eat his spinach, Eugene eats his orchids. I just had a thought as to why he only appears twice. Cute as he is, it would be hard to think up "business" for him. He has to be the centre of the action, with all that spooky magic power, so he can't just be a faithful Jeep trotting along at Popeye's heels. But what sort of action, when Popeye cartoons are usually of the knockdown-dragout variety? Where would Bluto fit in? Or Wimpy, for that matter? Most of the Thimble Theatre characters were dumped when Popeye went animated. For the most part, the whole cartoon series revolved around that eternal triangle: Popeye, Bluto and the raven-haired wench who holds them in her fatal spell.

I just remembered something about this ending, which only appears in the first few cartoons. When we were watching them on VHS tape, we only saw a tiny flash of "something" that looked like an inkwell. The people who colorized the cartoons had so adulterated the animation that this logo almost disappeared, or was reduced to a fraction of a second. So the game was to pause the tape at the exact moment when that frame or two appeared. We also acted out a dramatic version of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, but I doubt if either of them remembers it. Oh, the memories.

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