Friday, May 26, 2006

SPOOKY SWABS (1957)

Spooky Swabs (Paramount/Famous Studios, 1957)
Dir.: Isadore "Izzy" Sparber
Animators: Frank Endres and Thomas Johnson
Story: Larz Bourne
Backgrounds: John Zago
Music: Winston Sharples
Cel Bloc Rating: 5/9

If you are one of those who did not like Disney's film version of Pirates of the Caribbean, you have to admit to one thing: at the very least, when they promised pirate ghosts, they gave you pirate ghosts.

And even Scooby-Doo got it mostly right when he and the rest of his Mystery Machine gang ran into pirate ghost problems; even though pirate ghost captain Redbeard turns out to be a normal creep in a disguise, he sure plays up the part to the hilt. The same can be said for South Park when Korn came in as guest stars to solve their Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery, itself a spoof on the Scooby-Doo style. 

Even knowing that, in the world of the cartoon, all of the monsters and ghosts on Scooby-Doo are really people with masks doesn't dispel the fact that the characters think they are for real (though, by a certain point, they should have picked up on the pattern). Not so in the final theatrical Popeye cartoon released by Famous Studios in 1957. In Spooky Swabs, apparently in their great desperation to cut costs, Famous doesn't even dress their pirate ghosts in traditional pirate garb. Instead, they give us a couple handfuls of ghosts who talk like pirates, but by their drab normal-ghostly appearance, they could have been animated using recycled drawings from practically any Famous Casper cartoon. (Perhaps someone out there knows whether this is true or not.)

For whatever reason, Popeye and Olive are adrift at sea on a raft. Luckily, they are equipped with the one thing that a couple cast to the waves needs on such a journey: a checkerboard, upon which they are playing as they toss up and down on the ocean, each wave causing the checkers to leap up above the board and raft, and then clink back down into place. Without sparing any action outside of the game of checkers, Popeye mechanically points out to an offscreen occurrence, and informs the neatly dressed and ladylike Olive that there is a ship in the water nearby. 

The camera cuts to a shabby-looking sailed vessel which sits completely still in the water, which is amazing since the raft was just leaping up and down not mere seconds before. Olive is overjoyed, because now she "can go home and watch television!" Popeye uses his corncob pipe as a propeller, and they speed through the water in exactly the way that Popeye should have done in the first place when they ended up adrift at sea. (He is Popeye, after all -- he can get out of any fix.) They smack into the side of the weird ship and are vaulted up and over the side. The camera pans to the bow of the ship, where the name "Sea Witch" and the date 1678 clue us in to the ghostly nature of the vessel.

Popeye and Olive call about for any "swabs" aboard the ship, and inside the ship's cabin, a motley group of ghosts wake up from their naps. "Blimey, mateys!", swears the bland ghost, trying his best to be all “piratey,” "We've been boarded!" While Popeye hoists the mizzen, he promises to take the craft back to "civili-skation". The ghosts are shocked by this turn, wanting nothing to do with civilization, and take desperate measures to win back their ship. As Olive rests in a nest of rope attached to the anchor, two ghosts throw the massive object overboard, and when the rope unravels and follows the anchor, Olive is sent spinning into Popeye, legs akimbo, and she kicks his head and neck through the hole in the ship's wheel. Olive does her best to unwedge Popeye from the wheel, but when he pops out free, she crashes into the cabin and comes out with the wheel around her midsection.

Olive fixes the wheel while Popeye pulls the anchor back in, but the ghosts have a different idea. One ghost paints the anchor rope with grease, and another knots a section of the rope around Popeye's ankle. When his hands hit the grease, the rope slips and burns his hands, so he lets go and the knot carries him down into the water after the anchor. Olive tries to pull him back in, but a disembodied handkerchief blinds Olive from behind. Popeye grabs a passing sawfish and cuts himself free, but when he returns to the ship, one of the ghosts is finally doing a pirate thing, forcing Olive to walk the plank at the point of a cutlass. The drawback? The ghost is completely invisible. 

In the best shot of the film, Popeye grabs the plank and swings it back into the ship, but he does this in the style of a 3-D film, so that it becomes a perspective shot with Olive moving first out towards and then back to the ship. She lands facedown in a bucket of water, and when Popeye dredges her out, her eyes are full of water, but as she spits the water out, her eyes drain until we can see her pupils. When she is picked up by invisible hands, and then the ghosts materialize as they drag her, a shocked Olive tries to run off the end of the ship. Popeye grabs her and swings her back in the nick of time.

Obviously one step ahead of the sailor man, one ghost flies to the top of the mainsail and cuts the fabric with a cutlass. When Popeye protests to Olive that ghosts do not exist, the mainsail ghost drops the cloth on top of Popeye, and Olive freaks out! She conks Popeye with a baling peg, and several bumps are atop his noggin when he reveals himself. Suddenly, the ghosts take up arms and attack the couple, yelling semi-piratey things and sea dog slogans, but Popeye, seemingly without spinach of his own, runs into the cabin to check out the supplies. He finds a jar marked "Ye King's Spinach", and if you ever wondered what 279-year old spinach can do to the human body, well -- it pretty much does to Popeye what all spinach does to Popeye. It makes him unstoppable, though with a different result than normal. Perhaps it is actually "ghost spinach", for once it hits the bottom of his feet, it turns him into a completely invisible whirlwind. 

He easily cuts a swath through the crowd of swabby phantasms, and he punches each of them into the side of the ship's cabin, where they turn into nothing more than fabric. Olive sews the lot of them into an enormous sail. With Popeye at the wheel, Olive sings: "The ghosts you did finish, 'cause you ate your spinach!" Then Popeye joins her for his concluding line, "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!", as we see the ship sail into the sunset with the entire cadre of not-so-piratey ghosts catching a breeze to send the couple back to "civili-skation."

Not to be too blunt about it, this is the sort of cartoon that makes me want to rid myself of "civili-skation". It is the downfall of humanity to settle for the merely humdrum, and while humanity was spared any more of these latter-day Popeyes after this point, the fact that the series remained so popular for so long in such disparity serves as a sad reminder of how easy it is for people to merely settle. Why push buttons, why court logic, why dare show originality? Instead, take a once daring series and tie its legs together like a rodeo calf. Take away its edge, wilt away its wit, and drain away every trace of what once made the series great. And did anyone notice by that point in time? Did anyone care?

I know there are apologists for each and every film made in the history of the cinema, and there are plenty of people out there who would say that I am being far too harsh. Many of these same people also settle for the television Popeye series, often stating, and I'm collectively paraphrasing here, that "maybe they aren't quite as good as the early ones, but they are still OK." This is usually attributed to the fact that anything that stars their hero Popeye can't be all bad. Well, people, send me your favorite Popeye doll, and I will take a healthy dump on it and send it back to you. Then, without cleaning it up at all, you write me back and tell me that you still love your Popeye doll just as much as you did before. That is exactly how I feel about the last few years of the Famous Popeyes, and that is how I have felt since I was a kid about the sub-sub-sub-standard television Popeye pablum, and that is how I feel about any attempt to modernize the Popeye mythos.

As for the pirate ghosts (or are they ghost pirates? -- as the members of Korn argued amongst themselves in the South Park episode), it is the most telling aspect of the cartoon that the filmmakers couldn't even commit to paying more than lip service to the pirate concept in the film. And when push comes to shove, it takes only one punch for each ghost for Popeye to subdue them. Punch? Aren't they ghosts? Intangible spectres? Even with whatever properties Popeye took on from the ancient spinach, it should have taken far more than that to take them out.

Hell, as it turns out, these are apparently some real pirate ghosts that even Scooby-Doo could have captured...

...and even without a wayward jackhammer...

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