FRIEND OR PHONY (Paramount, 1952), directed by Izzy Sparber (probably Bluto) is a prime example as to what happens of Popeye when confronted by his advisory, Bluto, without the use of his spinach. With the exception of flashback sequences lifted from earlier episodes, "Tar With a Star" and "I'll be Skiing Ya," which involves Popeye and Bluto's past encounters, there are no other characters as Wimpy or Olive Oyl involved in this seven minute cartoon, making this virtually a Popeye and Bluto showcase.
For the benefit to those totally unfamiliar with the overly familiar structure of this long running cartoon series introduced to the comic strips in 1930 and theatrically in 1933, the stories are simple, in fact, routine, since its humble beginnings. Popeye, the average size character with an old-man face, a pipe sticking from his mouth and one eye shut, the other opened, hence his name, while Bluto, the extremely tall muscular sort sporting a beard, both sailors, sometimes portrayed as friends, yet often rivals, especially when it revolves the affections of an overly skinny gal in 1920s attire called Olive Oyl. It's uncertain what these two guys ever saw in her, but once they either meet, or get together for an outing, trouble lurks as both these guys vie for her affection while attempting to get her alone through the use of tricks and childlike pranks before leading to physical blows, fist fights and violent acts. When Popeye feels he's had enough, or winds up in a situation where he's weaken and unable to defeat his advisory, he conveniently takes out or obtains a can of spinach from the inside of his shirt pocket, gobbles it down, and acquires enough super human strength and giant muscles to beat his advisory or other villains and win both defeat and his girlfriend.
After nearly two decades and more than a hundred Popeye escapades, the creators have decided to switch channels again by making Popeye the victim and give Bluto his moment of glory as earlier done in HOW GREEN WAS MY SPINACH. FRIEND OR PHONY opens with Popeye sleeping on a boat floating in his water bed. Moments later Popeye receives a telegram that reads, "Am dying from last beating. It's your fault. Goodbye forever. Bluto." Popeye rushes over to Bluto to find him in his apartment covered with bandages, lying in his death bed. His last request to Popeye is to throw away his can of spinach spinach. As Bluto recollects the beatings he's acquired from Popeye via story flashbacks, Popeye, tells him this was all done in self-defense. (By this time, viewers are fully aware of Bluto's set-up, more so after looking over our direction, blinking his eye to us viewers.) As Bluto feigns weakness, he "dies." Popeye, now moved to tears, fulfills Bluto's last request. He throws away his can of spinach from an open window where it lands onto the back of a moving pickup truck. As the sobbing Popeye turns around, he is met with the surprise of his life. Yes, Bluto is very much alive. Dah!! Before he can react, Bluto crashes his bed over him, forcing Popeye to pop out from the center like a Jack in the Box with bed springs coming out of ears. Popeye, aware he's been duped, must face the punishment of his life as Bluto grabs hold of him through the neck and shrieks out his vicious laugh, much to his victim's horror. One final punch has Popeye flying out the window before landing feet first into a little hole on the ground in a construction site. Bluto then takes control of the crane where he pleasures himself by hammering his advisory on the head, and little by little, deeper into the ground. Before being buried from the neck down, the semi-conscious Popeye makes one final attempt in saving himself by puffing out "SOS" smoke signals through his pipe. Will this be the end of Popeye? Will Bluto actually win this round after all? How will Popeye save himself without the use of his spinach or outside interference? Watch the remaining minutes of this cartoon to find out.
FRIEND OF PHONY might have been totally satisfactory had it not been for its far-fetched climax that needs to be seen to be believed. It would have worked better had Popeye been one up on Bluto. Instead, Popeye is presented as being vulnerable this time out, while Bluto shows no remorse for his vengeful deeds. Obviously he's no Christian. Yet there were times when Popeye's the instigator, setting Bluto to a ranging fit and beatings Popeye obviously deserved. Unlike previous efforts, Bluto garners little or no sympathy this time around. However, cartoons of this nature were both common and popular, with violence expected, and are even more acceptable today compare to newer and much toned down Popeye cartoons made after the 1960s and 70s. While many of these theatrical cartoons were originally geared for adults, some youngsters might feel a little uneasy watching their hero falling victim to a bully, especially those who accept these caricatures as real people rather than drawing images come to life. No matter the circumstance, these cartoons are not to be taken seriously, since cartoon characters never die anyway. Just seriously injured. Don't watch this one if pruned to headaches.
This and many more Popeye adventures, formerly shown cable networks of on TNT and the Cartoon Channel, can now be seen on Boomerang, dedicated entirely to classic cartoons for baby boomers.
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