Monday, February 20, 2006

POPEYE FOR PRESIDENT (1956)

You would think that the guy who voiced Popeye for the majority of a 22-year run (at the point of this film's production) would have a batch of story ideas piled up that he had always wanted to try with the character. Surely, after reading and speaking nearly every line that Popeye had ever said, Jack Mercer had better things in mind than this sloppily slapped-together hodgepodge of half-baked ideas. And certainly, he had far more in mind for a cartoon titled Popeye for President, which potentially could have presented some interesting plays on political issues of the day, all solved by the power of a miracle can of spinach. Instead, we get the backdrop of two candidates vying for voters, still a promising idea (for an example of a far more witty and sharply satirical version of this, see Ballot Box Bunny), but the follow-through is poor as the film devolves into yet another "winning Olive's favor" plot, albeit with the purpose to win her vote instead of her heart.

Popeye represents, naturally, the Spinach Party; Bluto is stumping for his eponymous Blutocratic Party. The first part of the cartoon involves the typical rival-business plot of the Famous Popeyes, with the boys doing anything to steal voters from each other, with the top moment coming when Popeye rips out and picks up an entire sidewalk of people and moves it in front of his stage. A news ticker then announces that there is only one person left to vote in the entire country, and that person is -- wait for it -- a Miss Olive Oyl. The boys race to Olive's farm, where she refuses to go off to the voting booth until all of her chores have been finished. Bluto obliges first on each chore, including chopping wood, plowing Olive's field (not that way...), and putting a huge cart of hay into the loft; Popeye outdoes Bluto on each task with amazing displays of strength, enraging Bluto more and more each time, but winning Olive over to his side gradually.

Bluto finally traps Popeye between the rungs on the top of a long ladder, rips the ladder in two, causing Popeye to fall to the ground below, where Bluto socks him in mid-air and sends the sailor crashing through the guts and out the front of Olive's tractor. Bluto kidnaps Olive to force her to vote for him, and heads off with her to the city. But spinach again comes to the rescue, as Popeye downs the delicious stuff (yes... I said "delicious" -- one of my favorites since a child; ask my mum), and takes off after them with his legs operating like tank treads. The camera cuts to the voting booth where Bluto is dragging Olive in to vote, but through the curtain comes the hammering fists of Popeye, which knocks Bluto across the street and into an election sign, where he spins until he is completely wrapped up... and clearly out of the race. Popeye is elected, and as their limo rides off in the victory parade, Popeye and Olive hug to close the story.

Truthfully, if there had been even a couple of decent gags, even this lackluster effort could have salvaged itself from the uneasy conglomeration of what is clearly two different halves of films glued together to make one bland cinematic time-filler. But there aren't a couple of decent gags, the difference between the two halves practically has a DMZ laid out between them, and there is only one halfway amusing line. Popeye tells his eager audience that he promises "bigger elephants in the zoo". I find this intriguing, because if trying to figure out to which real political party the sailor man would belong, this line could mark him clearly as Republican (the "-cratic" attached to Bluto's name might be a giveaway, too). Of course, "bigger elephants in the zoo" could also mean "better men in Washington", but this might be giving the otherwise dull screenplay far more credit than it deserves.

What I am really intrigued by, and why this paltry film is even more disappointing, is the idea of Popeye, one of the first superheroic figures in comics, as the leader of our country. Of course, such absolute power in the hands of one already so powerful could easily corrupt absolutely. But imagine if he were in charge of things; we could send the Commander-in-Chief over to Iraq to clean up his own damn mess as his own Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines -- without the loss of both thousands of lives and billions of dollars, and the only expense would be for a single can of spinach. The problem inherent in this scenario is that every other country in the world would get wind of his spinach fix, and we could end up in an escalating Spinach War. Spinach would replace nuclear power and biological agents as the weapon of choice, and we would spend all of our espionage budget on seeing what certain whackjob despots were having in their salad.

That's all we need -- that nutsack Kim Jong Il on an all-spinach diet...

Popeye for President (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1956) Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 4

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