Wednesday, March 29, 2006

THE ANVIL CHORUS GIRL (1944)

I have spent a good deal of time ripping apart the Famous Studios' Popeye films of the 1950's, which I will admit is sometimes an easy thing to do, given the ramshackle state that the series was in during its dying days. But, it wasn't always that way. The Fleischer series, too, suffered from a downswing in quality before Famous famously swiped the studio from Max and Dave. (I say downswing, but on a whole, these films are still miles ahead of the latter day Famous stock.) Famous Studios, for the first few years anyway, made a noble attempt at keeping the series fun and imaginative, with several films being particularly high in quality, even though Famous would often take older Fleischer films and give them a Technicolor scrubbing and reoutfitting, not so much remake them per se, as they were reconfiguring them for a wartime and postwar world which would take on a decidedly brighter outlook on life than the Depression era crowds who took in the originally Fleischer shorts.

Basically, the Famous remake of Shoein' Hosses (1934), The Anvil Chorus Girl finds our two eternally-on-leave sailors, Popeye and Bluto, strutting manfully down a sidewalk. They pass under an awning, and the impression is that they are in front of a restaurant with possibly, due to the shape of the door and awning, a lucky horseshoe motif. There is even a sign, but instead of the Day's Specials, it has instead written upon it "Sale on Horse Shoes - No Coupons Required". Clearly, it is a blacksmith shop, but with a decidedly feminine touch to the decorating. This is proved when Bluto and Popeye do a doubletake when they look into the shop. Inside, working strenuously but to little success in smithing, is Olive Oyl. They first see her bending over to pick up a heavy box; as she strains to carry it across the shop, she passes in front of the fire, where she ends up getting backlit so that her scrawny figure's silhouette is devastatingly apparent through her skirt. The boys, who have undoubtedly been at sea for waaaayyyy too long, lose it. Their pants roll up from their ankles; they fall flat on their backs; they pop back up; and they give a wolf-whistle. In a line that would have completely different meaning about 40 years later, Popeye shouts, "Oh, boy! A she-male blacksmith!" Bluto just has to throw his dirty little two cents in with "Yeah, she can park her horseshoes next to mine anytime!" She then nudges Popeye in the ribs twice, which gets a scowl from the Squinty One.

Olive continues to have trouble with her blacksmithing. Everytime she hammers on a horseshoe, it flips up and over her head, landing on the bun of her hair, and then slides down onto her shoulder and back onto the table. Then, in her frustration, she ends up sitting in the fire, and then has to resort to placing her bum in a tub of cold water to ease the burn she has just received. "What I need is a good strong man around here!" The boys need no more invite than that, and they are quickly in her face, peddling their strongman wares to her. "Muscles like iron!", Bluto brags. "All brawn and no brain -- that's me!", and then he picks up two straight pieces of iron and bends them by hand over an anvil into a pair of horseshoes. He taunts Popeye into doing better, and Pops grabs a long piece of hot iron from the fire, uses his head to shape six horseshoes into it, and breaks them off to form three pairs, and there is a surfeit of poker jokes thrown about in this action. This kicks off a wild round of superblacksmithing, with each of the sailors trying to outdo the other one over and over. (Since Bluto goes first each time, it is no surprise that Popeye will outdo him.)

Bluto bends an iron bar around a wheel, and then wedges it to the wood using only his teeth like a riveter; Popeye outdoes this by grabbing some more hot iron, this time twisted in shape, and uses his fingers to straighten the burning metal. He then throws it at a jacked-up wagon in the corner, where the metal instantly wraps about one of the wheels, and then a lone lugnut dashes into place and sets the wheel to the wagon for good. Bluto takes two horseshoes and punches both the shoes and the nails onto the back hooves of a horse; Popeye ups the ante by spitting nails into four horseshoes, dispersing them into four spots on the floor nails-up, and then grabbing a very surprised horse, which he flips up and over himself and onto the four horseshoes.

Then the war begins... Bluto throws an anvil at Popeye, who catches it and gets sent crashing through the floor. Bluto shows off by picking up two horses, one in each hand, and holding them over his head. Popeye maintains that he can't top that, but he says this as he is holding Bluto and the horses over his own head. The boys start punching each other, and Bluto smacks Popeye clean into the fire. He grabs Olive and puts his moves on her, howling like a wolf as his head turns into the very look of one. "You wolf in ship's clothing!", Olive screeches as she tries to break free of his grip. Suddenly, we see Popeye sitting casually in the fire, for all the world a devil, calmly stirring a tiny fork in a now heated can of spinach. He takes a huge bite, and his hands turn into sledgehammers which clang repeatedly on his anvil-shaped biceps.

One solid punch from the spinach-packin' sailor sends Bluto crashing hard into the wall across the shop. Bluto picks up a bellows and loads it with nails. He spits the nails at Popeye as if the bellows were a machine-gun, but Popeye turns the assault on the bruiser by picking up a section of bent piping and sending the nails straight back at Bluto, who pulls himself up and out of their path by grabbing an overhead box of horseshoes. The nails jab into the wall in the shape of Bluto's body. Bluto and the box of shoes come crashing down, and Bluto starts throwing them rapidly at Popeye. However, Popeye punches each one back in Bluto's direction; the tune that his punches creates ends with "Shave and a haircut" and this is exactly what the last few horseshoes do, cutting a strip straight up the middle of Bluto's head.

Bluto fires another barrage of horseshoes, but Olive gets in the way and receives a neck-stretching series of horseshoes, which are finished off with two shoes landing inside her mouth, stretching her lips out wildly and giving her the stereotyped appearance of an African native. Next, a score of horseshoes are caught on each of Popeye's mighty arms, which he then whips back at Bluto, who gets each of his limbs and his neck shoed to the wall for good. The delirious Bluto has no defense as Olive convinces him that he is "Mama's little helper" and is the perfect man for the job of taking care of the shop. The film cuts to Bluto cleaning up the mess from the battle, and Popeye bids his rival adieu in a very polite fashion. Bluto returns the mannered favor, but then does a doubletake when he sees that Olive is going our on the town, via horse and cart, with Popeye. "So long, Strongman! Don't strain your brain!", she taunts as Popeye drives them off into the sunset. Bluto places his head on an anvil and starts banging a pair of hammers on his noggin.

A good deal of fun, and as I said, not really a remake, but more of a re-rigging of am already very fast ship. So much of the problem, besides the lack of imagination in the gags, with the latter Famous Popeyes is the pacing. Popeye and Bluto fight best and funniest when the action is fast and furious, so that there is little time to breathe before the next punch lands. But so many of the later shorts are too slow and labored in the battle scenes that must, inevitably, come to the fore when Popeye and Bluto meet. The one-upsmanship is there as it should be, but so many of the films never develop that frantic pace to which the best of the earlier Popeyes build. Here, that buildup is nearly perfect, with a steady progression that also never takes it out of its cramped blacksmith shop setting, with each gag growing logically out of the materials at hand. It is a solidly entertaining effort, and it shows the Famous Studios crew, both animated and real, at the top of their game.


That there is a weird sexual subtext to this episode doesn't really detract from it. But Popeye said it earlier, and I have to ask: what if Olive Oyl is not really a woman? What if she is some sort of tranny playing with the affections of two guys who need to step onto shore a little bit more? In more than one film now, Popeye and Bluto have used the term "shemale" to describe her, uh... him? Olive does seem to have a remarkably boy-like figure, and both of them seem to go ga-ga over it. I don't want to upset the purists, but is there something more at play in the Popeye realm than just two guys having an epic war of the affections of a lady? Is she more -- lady... boy?

The Anvil Chorus Girl (Paramount/Famous Studios, 1944) Dir: Izzy Sparber
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

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