It's hard not to think of this thoroughly enjoyable short as a sequence in a long line of classical-music inspired cartoons: first Walt Disney's The Band Concert (1935), then this one, followed by Disney's feature-length Fantasia (1940), followed by a huge list of Warner Bros. Looney Tunes too numerous to mention here.
Here, though, as in the later Looney Tunes, the music is mainly a springboard to some very inventive gags lampooning said music's pretentiousness. The cartoon begins with Popeye conducting a rather undignified orchestra, with Olive Oyl essentially doing Harpo Marx (she even uses one of her spindly legs to reach a string at the far end of her harp), and Wimpy doing Ringo Starr (he uses his cymbal as a "frying pan" to baste his omnipresent hamburger).
It's not surprising that this makeshift crew might be the target of some derisive laughter. What is surprising is that the laughter comes from a nearby orchestra led by Bluto (in a Leopold Stokowski wig)! Did Bluto get a brace of culture at some point when nobody was looking?
Bluto plays first on the violin, then on the piano, and then he challenges Popeye to do the same. (Because as any concert-goer knows, a conductor has to be ready to improvise on an instrument should one of his orchestra members call in sick.) Popeye fails miserably, to the surprisingly derisive laughter of his usual followers Olive and Wimpy, who go off with Bluto to join his ensemble. (Olive, honey, you're belittling Popeye after playing a harp with your foot??)
A dejected Popeye reaches into the piano and finds an errant can of spinach, which he munches on unthinkingly. Next thing he knows, he's playing like Duke Ellington and scat-singing like Ella Fitzgerald. So after all this time, he couldn't have figured out beforehand that the spinach might pep up his musical outings?
In a grand finale, Popeye plays and conducts flawlessly, gets a bout in with Bluto for good measure, and squeezes in a mock-classical version of his theme song for a "strong-to-the" finish. Bravo!!
© 2007, Steve Bailey.
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