"Popeye" cartoons from this period were characterized by hilarious improvisations
in the dialogue by the series' vocal actors: Jack Mercer (Popeye), Mae Questel
(Olive) and William Penell/Gus Wickie (Bluto). The voice actors' playful ad-libbing
had a truly unique feel: Although it rarely matched the characters' lip movements on
screen, it added a remarkably distinctive complexity to the cartoon personalities.
By means of intelligent and unusually witty asides and hilarious under-the-breath puns,
the voice-actors' ad-libbing contributed to the Fleischers' renowned self-reflexive
approach to cartoon-making. In Hold the Wire (1936), for example, as Popeye is being
beaten by Bluto, Olive screams: "Popeye, eat your spinach!" Popeye mumbles: "I never thought of that!"
commenting, in the modernist fashion, on the series' own well-established conventions.
Clearly, when watching "Popeye" shorts in the 1930s, the audience did not expect to see
original new stories. The pleasure of watching these cartoons came from anticipating the
innovative, creative, and hilariously self-reflexive ways in which the familiar story would
be told. [To learn more about how cultural traditions such as vaudeville and comic strips
influenced Fleischers' self-reflexive approach to animation, consult Mark Langer,
"Polyphony and Heterogeneity in Early Fleischer Films: Comic Strips, Vaudeville, and New York Style,"
in Persistence of Vision, No. 14 (1997), pp. 65-87]. Fleischer "Popeyes" were not only self-conscious
about their storytelling principles, but also about the very artificial nature of cartoons and the film
medium itself. In Fowl Play (1937), Popeye beats Bluto out of his ink outline, while in Goonland (1938),
the actual film strip physically breaks in half and has to be stapled together by the animator in order for
the cartoon to continue. In A Date to Skate (1938), Popeye realizes that he has forgotten his spinach at home.
In a direct mode of address, the sailor then asks the audience: "Is there any spinach in the house?"
Foregrounding the medium's artificial nature:
the film strip breaks in half in Goonland (1938), saving
Popeye and his Pappy from the evil Goons. Pappy mumbles:
"That was a lucky break!"
A Date to Skate (1938)
Popeye realizes he forgot his spinach
Direct mode of address: "Is there any spinach in the house?," asks the sailorman
A spectator from the audience happens to have just what Popeye needs