THE BOOTLEG FILES: “POPEYE MEETS THE MAN WHO HATED LAUGHTER”

Unless you were watching Saturday morning television in the early 1970s, there is a good chance you’ve never seen or heard of “Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter.” This animated production was part of “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie” line-up, which presented a series of one-shot, one-hour cartoons of dubious quality. Two earlier entries from that series have previously been featured in this column: “Daffy Duck and Porky Pig Meet the Groovie Goolies” and “The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park.”

Compared to “Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter,” however, those previous films look like “Battleship Potemkin” and “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

So who is the Man Who Hated Laughter? He’s Professor Morbid Grimsby, an evildoer who has won six consecutive Meanie Awards for being such a horrid person. He wants to go for an unprecedented seventh Meanie, and to do that he decides to kidnap all of the comics and hold them prisoner in the dungeons of his South Pacific island castle. This way, the world will be without laughter – and Professor Grimsby (as the title suggests) hates laughter. Assisting him in this chore is Popeye’s bearded nemesis Brutus, who is inexplicably wearing a turban (and it sort of makes him resemble the Danish newspaper cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, but that’s another matter).

Now the comics being targeted are not Bob Hope or Jackie Gleason. Instead, the victims are the stars of the funny pages: Popeye, Brutus, Olive, Wimpy, Swee’pea, Blondie and Dagwood, the Katzenjammer Kids, Hi & Lois, The Little King, Snuffy Smith, Beetle Bailey and Sarge, Jiggs and Maggie, Little Iodine, Tiger, and Quincy. Quincy is the sole African-American comic and he gets to be the butt of some inappropriate humor (at one point he is served a “soul food burger” for dinner).

Professor Grimsby tricks these characters into boarding a yacht called the S.S. Hilarious that takes them to his island. When people realize these characters are missing, the President of the United States calls on superheroes Steve Canyon, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Lothar and Flash Gordon to go out as a rescue party.

As cartoons go, this is not really a bad idea. What is a bad idea, however, is putting the characters into wholly inappropriate situations. We first discover Popeye in the nude – actually, in the bathtub, but still out of his sailor suit. Beetle Bailey and Sarge first turn up in a Chinese restaurant, where the portly sergeant makes a pig of himself by building a nauseating mountain of Chinese delicacies that he devours with a spoon. Beetle and Sarge later go swimming, and they do not look very good in Speedos.

Things get worse once everyone gets to the yacht. Quincy can’t get over he’s going on an integrated voyage (what???). Wimpy eats a shuffleboard puck, mistaking it for a hamburger. Snuffy Smith’s horse Sparkplug eats a guitar. Olive Oyl performs a cabaret act by singing “Don’t I Look Dreamy in My New Bikini?” The Katzenjammer Kids react to Olive’s flaunting by throwing a telescope at her.

The rescue party doesn’t help much. Flash Gordon hovers above the Earth in a blatantly phallic spaceship (obviously borrowed from Flesh Gordon). The Phantom shows up with the young blonde Tim Tyler at his side, and that doesn’t quite look right given that the Phantom is a muscleman shoehorned into a pink bodysuit and black Nancy Sinatra boots (young blonde boys should not hang around men who dress like that – unless they are getting paid very well!). Mandrake the Magician only uses his magical powers to conjure up Prince Valiant, who scares Brutus; why have a magician if he doesn’t do tricks?

As the rescue party cannot rescue anyone (they are taken prisoner immediately), the funny folks try to make Professor Grimsby laugh. Popeye acts as the emcee of a talent show, and he does terrible Ed Sullivan imitations (yes, he says “A really big shoe”). None of the acts are particularly funny: Blondie and Dagwood’s dog Daisy does lame tricks, Sarge pretends he is a dog, Little Iodine falls on her ass while singing and Quincy improvises an inept rap while dancing in balletic steps.

Professor Grimsby eventually laughs when he accidentally sees himself in the mirror. He relents and allows everyone to escape in his yellow submarine (which is not the more famous Yellow Submarine of a better animated film). Brutus inexplicably dresses in drag to get in the submarine first, then he dresses as a child. Popeye ties him up in yo-yo string to stop his foolishness. The submarine gets lodged between boulders under the sea, but a quick ingestion of spinach allows Popeye to free the trapped vehicle. It all ends on the White House lawn where the cast (including Professor Grimsby) are waiting for a luncheon that is delayed because the President has to finish reading the funny pages.

In case you are wondering why some better known comic strip heroes like Charlie Brown or Broom Hilda or Dick Tracy are not here, that’s simple: nearly all of the characters were part of the King Features Syndicate. Only Steve Canyon was a loan-out, licensed from Field Enterprises. The animators get their money’s worth on that licensing deal by having Olive Oyl make an erotic pass at Steve Canyon. He seems to have eyes for the Phantom, however. Most of these characters were already well past their peak their popularity by the time this film was made, which only enhanced the sense of staleness.

As with all of the films in the “ABC Saturday Superstar Movie” series, this one played during the 1972-73 TV season and then was withdrawn from release. I don’t believe it was ever shown on TV again; there was certainly never a call for its broadcast return. It was never released on home video and there is no reason to believe it will turn up on DVD in the near future.

Finding a bootleg of “Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter” was a challenge, since the major collector-to-collector services don’t have it. I was able to locate a private collector with an extensive TV animation treasury and this rare title existed as a 16mm print. Most of the original commercials were missing from the print, although a couple of weird Cap’n Crunch advertisements were found (including one where the heroic captain blows up his pirate nemesis Jean LeFoot with dynamite before enjoying a bowl of his sugary breakfast cereal).

Is “Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter” worth finding? If you are a Popeye fan, yes – it is the rarest film starring the spinach-obsessed sailor. If you are old enough to recall “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie,” it could provide some nostalgic pleasure (I could actually recall most of the film, which I had not seen in 33 years).

But for the rest of the world, this is not exactly a bootleg priority. More fun can be found reading Garfield or Hagar the Horrible or Mallard Fillmore. Okay, maybe not Mallard Fillmore. But you get the idea.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on February 24, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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