Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves
In 1935, a poll of school kids revealed that their favorite cartoon character, ranking even higher than Mickey Mouse, was Popeye the Sailor. One of the great comic strip characters (introduced by E. C. Segar into his strip "Thimble Theatre" in 1929), Popeye had been a hit with audiences the moment he walked onto the screen in a 1933 Fleischer Studios Betty Boop cartoon. Paramount distributed over a hundred Popeye cartoons produced by the Fleischers between 1933 and 1942. All were black-and-white one-reel shorts but for three exceptions: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (1937), and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939). These three cartoons were special two-reelers shot in Technicolor.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves opens with the startling sight of a live-action desert landscape rolling by the camera; it was one of several tabletop miniatures built by Fleischer as a an elaborate background substitute (billed as a "Stereoptical Process" in the credits). The dreaded desert bandit Abu Hassan (played by Popeye's usual nemesis Bluto) is traveling with a band of forty thieves and singing a jaunty song about his exploits ("When things get quiet / I'll start a riot / When I pass by"). At a Coast Guard station, Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy hear a radio warning and Popeye sets off in a gunship, which takes wing and crashes in the desert. The trio treks for miles, as Popeye (voiced, as he was for decades, by Jack Mercer) mutters under his breath, "I wished there was a boardwalk on this beach..." Wimpy jumps at what appears to be a table set for food, but as Popeye tells him, "That's just one o' those inviskible garages that you can't see on the desert..." The trio reaches a village, but it has been nearly deserted. The thieves beset the village and Popeye takes on Abu Hassan, showing little regard for Arab ways: when Abu Hassan produces a scimitar (traditional curved sword), Popeye says "Hey--your pen-knife's bent" and obligingly straightens it! The thieves strip the village clean, taking along Olive (hiding in a pot) and Wimpy (hiding in a stove). Popeye pursues on camel, but has trouble entering a hidden cave because he doesn't know the magic words "Open Sesame!" He does, however, open his can of spinach by saying "Open Sez Me!"
This two-reel Popeye epic was released just one month before Walt Disney's landmark feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and the moviegoing public was clearly more than ready for the long-format cartoon. Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves was enormously successful at the box-office, and like its predecessor the previous year, it was advertised as the main attraction of the evening's bill by many theater owners and exhibitors. Careful attention was paid to color design for the two-reeler, particularly because the numerous miniature backgrounds built for the production (including desertscapes, village streets, and the interior of the thieves' treasure-strewn cave) had to be matched by the traditional painted backgrounds.
Producer: Max Fleischer
Director: Dave Fleischer; Willard Bowsky (animation director, uncredited)
Cast: Lou Fleischer (Wimpy (voice, uncredited)), Jack Mercer (Popeye (voice, uncredited)), Mae Questel (Olive Oyl (voice, uncredited), Gus Wickie (Abu Hassan (voice, uncredited).
by John M. Miller