Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Color of Spinach

If you watch the classic cartoon network Boomerang, you've probably seen the bumper featuring a Popeye cartoon in which our sailor-hero is trying to put his four nephews to bed, except that as soon as Popeye leaves the room, they leap up and keep playing a raucous Dixieland-style tune. The slamming of the bedroom door and the snoring of the nephews is integrated into the rhythm of the song, which is executed with whip-crack timing; it's a truly delirious piece of work.

I had been fortunate enough to see this entire episode on Boomerang once, which features the nephews - Poopeye, Pipeye, Pupeye and Peepeye - playing music on whatever is handy, including a radiator, a hot water bottle, a pair of suspenders, etc. Recently I found a collection of Popeye classics on Netflix, which my son Mark (who would rather watch a Popeye cartoon from 1938 than a lot of the cruddy cartoons they're making today) and I began watching together. When I noticed there was an installment titled "Me Musical Nephews," I got excited, figuring this had to be the one. And it was, except... it was in black and white.

I knew the first time I had seen this, it was in color. The Boomerang 30-second bumper, obviously, was in color. Yet it was also obviously the same cartoon. Did someone colorize it? Was the Netflix version taped off a black-and-white broadcast from Channel 32 in 1966?

It turns out that "Me Musical Nephews," which was released in 1942, was remade, shot for shot, in 1950 as "Riot in Rhythm." (As an aside, 1942 seems awfully late to be releasing black-and-white cartoons, but that's what IMDB says.) I've watched both of them, and I'm sure they didn't just color in the cels from the first version; there are small, subtle differences. For instance, in "Nephews," Popeye stomps a radio, then crushes the tubes that were inside it; in "Rhythm," there are no tubes inside that radio.

But the scenarios, dialogue, everything is pretty much the same. You'd have to watch them back-to-back to notice any difference. Which brings up the question: Did the animators really re-create an entire seven-minute cartoon from scratch? Did they at least reuse the soundtrack, which is nothing short of incredible? I feel sorry for them, at this late date, if they had to re-record all that music.

And of course, the big question is, how often did this happen? Were other B&W cartoons remade in color? I am hardly enough of a cartoon expert to answer that. But I do know that if you're going to make new versions of black-and-white cartoons, "Me Musical Nephews" is a good place to start.

I know you don't want to watch a B&W cartoon, so here's "Riot in Rhythm." You'll never know the difference.

1 comment:

  1. There exists 2 different color versions of "Me Musical Nephews". The earliest, "Riot In Rhythm," was not a word-for-word, shot-for-shot recreation, but does feature the same type of plot and some animation recycled from "Me Musical Nephews". You may also notice the music and voices are different if you listen carefully. The later version, the one you probably witnessed on Boomerang, the same one used in the bumper as well, comes from the late 80s. While Ted Turner was in the midst of computer colorizing black and white films, he apparently was too cheap to do the same for cartoons at the time, so when he got a hold of the Popeye library, the cartoons were sent to Korean animators for them to trace over (lazily) and color each cel and background of the original, which proved to be a downgrade especially in the Fleischer Studios Popeyes that had rotating model backgrounds; in the color versions they are reduced to still paintings, which also causes some errors in timing. But I digress, the point is this late 80s colorization, done for TV, whereas "Riot In Rhythm" was done for theaters, was exactly the same as "Me Musical Nephews," from the titles to the soundtrack. The obvious difference is that the black and white version has more detailed animation.