Sunday, February 19, 2006

SPREE LUNCH (1957)

J. Wellington Wimpy, I've met you before. While a mere second banana in the Popeye universe, you have still proven yourself a lovable and most welcome addition to any cartoon. I have always related fully to your hamburger obsession, even while wrestling with an on-again off-again vegetarianism; and who doesn't know "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today", or extant variations thereof, the repetition of which has garnered you the largest measure of your fame?

Yes, Wimpy, I have met you before; sadly, you were in far better form in much funnier, and much earlier, cartoons than Spree Lunch, a 1957 programmer that, not coincidentally, was the penultimate entry in the Popeye series at Famous Studios. In a rehashed plot, Popeye and Bluto run rival diners, with both cooks striving for the attentions of Mr. Wimpy, who, of course, tells Bluto that he would like a hamburger, "For which, I would gladly pay you next Tuesday!" Despite the fact that it is his famous response to a menu order, it is also by far the wittiest thing said in the film. As a matter of fact, Wimpy has all of the funny moments in it, as Popeye and Bluto simply replay their usual Famous battle, with each one topping the other in their increasingly "wild" but lame attempts to move Wimpy up to their diner counter.

Finally, the film's conclusion has Bluto and Popeye throwing objects back and forth between the diners in a steady stream. Anything and everything is thrown, and Wimpy takes full advantage of this fact. He stands in the middle of the road dividing the establishments, and reaches up into the stream to grab whatever he needs: first a chair, then a table, then a table setting, then a selection of foods on which to dine. Finally, he requires ketchup, which he grabs in mid-flight, pours onto his food, and then replaces back into the stream of objects, with the ketchup bottle taking right off once it is placed into the stream. That this gag has been done before elsewhere is beside the point; the calmness and grace with which Wimpy has been imbued as he enacts this scenario is the point: in the midst of all of this chaotic but humdrum activity, the serendipitous arrival of Wimpy's lunch becomes the focal point of the story. Through lazy scripting, Wimpy steals this focus from a once great character, and with it, steals the picture with only a couple of lines and a lot of sitting around. It is the only part of the film that works, and practically by accident at that, and it comes at the end of the cartoon.

Somewhere in the Famous tenure over the Popeye series, someone forgot that Popeye was once a sympathetic and gruffly lovable character. In the Famous series, we are supposed to root him on, but for no apparent reason other than that we are expected to do so; by this point in time, his behavior is so markedly the same as Bluto's, that they are no more than the same character split into two, only with Popeye scripted to come out on top at the end, much like a wrestling match. The problem is, if both sides behave like buffoonish assholes, it's really hard to root either one on, unless you, too, are a buffoonish asshole.

And that explains why wrestling has remained so popular. Now that I have insulted most of the male half of the United States (and a good cross-section of the female half), I will let the ref tap you out. 1... 2...

Spree Lunch (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1957) Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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