Sunday, May 30, 2010

Popeye the Sailor: “The Mighty Navy” (1941)

In honor of Memorial Day, and Fleet Week here in New York, here’s one of my three favorite Popeye cartoons. It might actually BE my favorite. If not, then Fightin’ Pals” (1940) is, with “A Dream Walking” (1934) in the third spot.

The Mighty Navy” is significant in a number of ways.

First, it is THE cartoon where Popeye changes from his old-time black sailor suit to Navy Whites – a look he would keep for the rest of his theatrical shorts and the 1960s made for TV cartoons. Though, oddly, in the newspaper comic strip and the Dell and Gold Key comic books (all by Bud Sagendorf) his outfit would never change from that originally designed by creator E.C.Segar.

Having never before seen this (or most of the other WW II Era Popeye cartoons growing up), I simply assumed that the change in outfit was a simple “redesign” that long-running animated characters occasionally go through. Consider the Daffy Duck of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, and you'll understand what I mean.

But, no! Popeye’s change wasn’t a routine redesign, but the change was because he actually JOINED THE UNITED STATES NAVY, and would remain a navy man for an appreciable period of time. Donald Duck would also be drafted into the ARMY in his shorts of this period.

The hook here is, despite being a “sailor” all his life, Popeye has a great deal of trouble adjusting to the modern navy of the 1940s – and frustrates his commanding officer no end. The Commander appears to be voiced by Warner Bros. cartoon writer Tedd Pierce, who co-wrote this cartoon and was credited as “Ted Pierce”. Pierce used a similar voice to that he sometimes used for the various “Bud Abbott Characters” (cat, rat, etc) that would appear in certain Warner cartoons.

Another item of note, unlike some of the, perhaps unfortunate, cartons that followed, the enemy here was UNNAMED. Their flag even says: “Enemy – Name your own!” That’s because this cartoon was released on NOVEMBER 11, 1941 – less than a month before Pearl Harbor Day, and was certainly worked on for long before that. I suspect the feeling of the time was that we KNEW we were going to war. Just not where and when.

This is a superb way to get around that sticky situation, and true, hardcore Popeye fans could even imagine that the attacking nation was “Nazilia” or “Tonsylvania”.

Notice too, the “conventional sailors” on Popeye’s ship all have the basic look of Max Fleischer’s design for SUPERMAN, another of his theatrical short series. (1941-1942)

This one also has MY VERY FAVORITE VERSION OF THE POPEYE THEME that, unfortunately, only lasted for a short time.

The ending of this carton was so great that I broke into involuntary applause when first seeing it in 2008!

Enjoy Jack Mercer as Popeye in a Max and Dave Fleischer masterpiece, “The Mighty Navy”.


Kneon Transitt said...

Wild! I never knew that was a short in which he first donned the white suit. Like you, I just assumed it was a design change. Thanks for pointing that out!

Now, do we have a short where Bluto legally changes his name to Brutus...?

joecab said...

They showed this cartoon as part of the regular rotation of B&W Popeyes when I was growing up in NYC. Even then I thought that ending was pretty cool.

I didn't know this was basically produced before WWII actually began; I always thought that enemy gag was a comment about how it doesn't really matter who you are as long as you're against us and attacking.

But I did like that slight dig with the sailors flipping through the manual for the gun coordinates. They're getting shot at while they're still refining their aim until Popeye comes in and literally takes matters into his own hands.

Joe Torcivia said...


Watching a series in order on DVD, and listening to the commentaries, almost always gives me some perspective I never had before. Like the uniform change. And, I’m fairly “up” on such things. It just seemed “business as usual” for a long-running animated character – but I’ll always enjoy learning that there was a reason for it. The entire WW II era is on POPEYE THE SAILOR Volume Three.

There was another rights misunderstanding regarding the Bluto / Brutus thing that resulted in the name change for the ‘60s TV cartoons. …Or maybe he just did it to screw with us. He’s that kind of guy, after all!


Joe Torcivia said...


It’s a funny thing about the time I was a kid. As a nation, we were still just a bit on either side of 20 years from WW II (I was 10 in 1965, to place it for you), and I wonder if the programmers at WPIX and WNEW may have purposely held-back on some of the wartime stuff. I wouldn’t see some of these until the eras of VHS video and Cartoon Network.

A few of the more “harmless” war-era Popeyes were in regular rotation on WPIX, like “Baby Wants a Bottleship” and “The Hungry Goat”, but I don’t’ recall this one or any of the subsequent Japanese stereotypical shorts.

Same goes for the Warner Bros. cartoons on WNEW. You never saw “Daffy the Commando”, “Draftee Daffy”, “Herr Meets Hare”, and especially “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”.

Even PIX’s run of The Three Stooges seemed to lack many of the WW II shorts found on
The Three Stooges Volume Four (1943-1946). In fact, by odd coincidence, the Three Stooges set. Popeye the Sailor Volume 3 (1941-1943) and Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 6 ALL were released around the same time on 2008 – and all contained an abundance of WW II material – some of which I’d NEVER seen before, and some I’d simply not seen during my childhood. …Go figure.

And, yes… that was a great bit about the ineffectual modern sailors and their bewildering modern weaponry.


Chris Barat said...


This short is a stylistic hermaphrodite! Contrast the realistically drawn "clone sailors" (does each one come with his own ID number?? Probably) and ships with the semi-cartoony commander and the "Indian circle" and "retreating dog carrier" gags. You can definitely see the influence of the concurrent SUPERMAN shorts sneaking in there, but it's still recognizably a POPEYE short. An interesting mixture!


Joe Torcivia said...


Great observation! Yes, it seemed to be a simultaneous harkening back to the “Old Fleischer” style (anthropomorphic objects like ships) and an affirmation of the “New Fleischer” style (Greater realism as in Superman and Gulliver’s Travels).

The sailors’ “clone-like” appearance was probably also a way to contrast their ineffectualness with the more “rugged individualism” of Popeye.