Here's an example of a Popeye film outside of the normal Famous formula, close to the end of that studio's reign of oppressive domination over the character, that actually works, despite its pedigree. Insect to Injury, released almost a year to the day before the end of the Popeye series at Famous, is not great, it's not even that good, but it is good enough to be basically pleasant and also to allow Popeye to burst free of the bland ghetto of laziness in which the studio had trapped the world's most loveable sailorman.
As plot devices go, it's hard to mess up termites. The protagonist has a house full of wooden furniture; the termites show up and eat a chair in almost magical fashion, like a swarm of bees though the buzz is more like that of a tablesaw; the hero does his best to combat the menace to his house and home; wooden things that the hero tries to use to stop the termites will disappear as they are being used; and so on until the end of the picture when some compromise is usually reached. I wouldn't say that termites are funnier than ants or bees as antagonists (the word itself rife with social insect punnery), merely that they lend themselves to wilder sight gags due to their propensity for speedy furniture mastication. [For just one example of a much better termite film, see The Pest That Came to Dinner with Porky Pig, from the studio who named their working offices Termite Terrace, Warner Brothers. They should know...)
Popeye is seen at the beginning of the film building a chimney in typical working-happy sing-songiness, with Jack Mercer finally embellishing Popeye's voice the way that he used to do back in the Fleischer days, scatting and punctuating his actions with nonsense syllables. "Now me house is finich-ked!", the sailor proclaims, and he climbs down to paint his name proudly on his new mailbox. A cloud of tiny black dots moves along the ground towards him, and then the post for the mailbox disappears! Popeye is then worried that the creeps will eat his fence and he goes to block it, but they devour first the gate around him, and then chew up the planks to his walkway leading towards the house. Popeye misleads them by changing the course of the walkway. Popeye then traps the cloud of pests inside of a small garbage can, but they form the shape of a jack and crank the lid up and escape.
The termites then set about eating the entire fence from around Popeye, but form the shape of a large exclamation point as he runs towards them with a large surface roller. He gives chase after them over a bridge, but they turn direction around a tree, and on the trip back over the bridge (wooden, naturally), and, of course, Popeye ends up falling in the creek. The soaking wet hero runs back to the house and digs a moat about the place, filling it up with water, and foiling the pests' entrance into his abode. But not for long... the termites use a tin can as a makeshift vessel and float across the moat; entering the home, they eat the furniture piece by piece from around Popeye. They then set to eating the walls and then, finally, the floor, and Popeye crashes into a bathtub that now lies on the bottom of the concrete basement.
Luckily, because he is Popeye, there is spinach stored in the basement, and downing a can of the wet leafy stuff (yum!) turns him into a whirlwind of building activity, and when he turns back to normal, there is a house entirely made of steel where the wooden structure once stood. The termites attack it, but they are foiled and a closeup is shown of the bent and bedraggled teeth of the exhausted bugs on the windowsill. Popeye is victorious, but only briefly; Popeye puts his pipe in his mouth, and the termites seize the moment, and buzz the pipe away. But Popeye is one up on them, and replaces it with a pipe fashioned from the same steel as the house, and he puffs his trademark closing double toot-and-puff to end the cartoon.
My only gripe is that the film goes too far in before we get a close-up view of the obnoxious invaders. When we do, the film is already at the point where they are trying to cross the moat, and by this point it is too late to build up any recognition with them; it is a storytelling flaw that we are not given better visual details for the termites earlier in the film. We already know that they are termites, so there is no mystery to their actions. If you want us to react to their handful of closeup moments later in the film, you should allow us to get comfortable with their goofy little pointy-toothed faces in such a way that we accept them as rival characters in the film, not just some unstoppable force. If you just wanted "Popeye vs. An Unstoppable Force", then don't show us the faces of the bugs at all. Leave them a complete mystery.
Truly, the only mystery is why Famous couldn't do this not just more often, but all the time. Why resort to such stale, restrictive formulae? Why lock a staff with some clearly very talented artists into a factory lockstep? Was it merely a love for the easy buck that caused the producers at Famous to not allow their artists any creative freedom? The reason Popeye flourished at the Fleischer Studio was that Max and Dave were relentlessly creative people and inventors, who constantly sought new ways to present their characters, and who rarely allowed their films to lapse into easy formula (when they did, like the later Boop films, however bland they seemed against the original ones, they still came up with new concepts here and there, and at least had a variety of ways to present the safer version of the girl). This film is not all that great of a film, as I said before, but it is good enough against the surrounding films in the series to make one wish that they had broken out more often.
Of course, Famous probably reacted to this like Popeye does to the termites in this film: they probably saw that one film had broken out of their mold, and so they encased their precious formula in steel to keep the series on the straight and narrow. That is, the straight and narrow to oblivion, as this series would meet its doom within the year.
Imagine what would have happened if Famous had taken the Raid to it...
Insect to Injury (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1956) Dir: Dave Tendlar
Cel Bloc Rating: 6