ANIMATED BRAZIL — PART FOUR: TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE (CONCLUSION)

Everyone Does the “Broadway Samba”

Near the conclusion of “Samba Lelê,” Senhorita Olive Oyl blows a good-neighborly kiss to the overly timid Popeye the Sailor, whose heart, perched at the end of a collapsible wood-and-metal extension, beats so loud and so fast that it literally pops out of his chest (better that than his remaining eyeball).

Olive ends her dance (rather stiffly animated) by extending her right leg high above her head in a straight line from the ceiling to the floor. Ouch! Popeye and Bluto, like the female-starved seafarers that they are, carry on like there’s no mañana. They outdo themselves in exaggerated adoration, with Bluto pounding away on Popeye’s bottom(!) and both lads taking their dinner table for a ride around the salon— thus giving new meaning to the term “hobby horse.”

Next, the Bahian-clad Olive resumes her “Samba Lelê” routine for the boys’ personal enjoyment, this time warbling the number in an awkward English-language version known as “Broadway Samba.” She starts the song off with the following lines, but the words become more and more impenetrable in direct proportion to her Spanish accent (note the rolling “r” sounds):

Everyone does the samba, samba, Broadway Samba today

It’s proper to do the samba, in the group on the Gay White Way, oh

If you can do the Broadway Samba, then you really buffet

To get some to be solid, you must shake it the samba way

Samba Lelê, do you dig, dig, dig?

Don’t be an icky, be hip, hip, hip!

Samba Lelê, do you dig, dig, dig?

Get on the beat, be a pip!

Oh it’s Broadway, like the Bijou

All about it, like the Beacon

You’ll feel just like a king

Just when you start to take a spin

Everyone does the samba, samba, Broadway Samba today

It’s proper to do the samba, in the group on the Gay White Way, oh

If you can do the Broadway Samba, then you really buffet

To get some to be solid, you must shake it the samba way

Popeye gets so wrapped up in her performance that he wrings the tablecloth he’s holding into a knot, taking the table along with it. The resultant splinters end up on the dance floor. And so does Popeye’s elbow when he attempts to lean it against the missing piece of furniture.

At the conclusion of “Broadway Samba,” Popeye explodes in a thunderous verbal ovation. It’s a little too thunderous for the disapproving Bluto who, despite his efforts at grooming, grumbles under his breath the line, “I gotta get rid of that uncouth runt” — as if “uncouth” had no bearing on his own less-than-exemplary behavior.   

To get even, Bluto comes up with the idea of pawning Popeye off as the “champeen samba dancer of the USA,” which immediately impresses the lovely senhorita (in a reversal of a similar gag in the previous Kickin’ the Conga Round). As usual, Popeye’s unwillingness to make a fool of himself holds no water with his biggest fan. And true to form, Olive skillfully coaxes the bashful salt onto the spotlight. “The samba!” she exultantly proclaims, which leaves Popeye to his own devices.

The orchestra launches into a choro variation of the “W’ere on Our Way to Rio” theme, while Popeye’s two left-feet whirl about him in an animated facsimile of a soft shoe. In the next instant, Popeye vanishes from the scene. As the spotlight searches the nightclub for the missing sailor, it alights on the upper balcony. There, it finds Popeye with his head buried in the woodwork. “What a spot I’m in,” the would-be ostrich mutters to himself. Popeye momentarily resumes the soft shoe, but just as swiftly disappears, exit stage left.

He’s found in the arms of a mermaid. Not a real mermaid, but a statue decorating the water fountain. “Ya got me,” Popeye giggles to himself, in self-deprecating acknowledgment that “the jig is up.” He good-naturedly accepts his predicament, an all-too-common situation for our hearty sailor man. The focus shifts to the orchestra’s trumpet player and bandleader, both dead-ringers for Paramount star Bob Hope (as we revealed earlier).

Popeye seems to be enjoying himself, finally. He picks up his spontaneous dance routine where he left off: at center stage. Once more unto the breach, he goes. And exits, stage right — running smack, dab into the jutting platform where Olive has just performed. The whole place erupts into gales of laughter.

Oh, senhor, you’re so funny,” she adds. Popeye lifts his weary head to gaze sheepishly at the girl. As for Bluto, he’s gone into virtual hysterics, guffawing in baritone-like belly-laughs that all-but drown out the audience.

On cue, Popeye whips out a freshly-opened can of spinach (with 17 points of muscle-building iron, according to the label). He empties the contents in one gulp, which turn his hands into enormous chocalhos. Popeye’s prepped for action. As a lesson to bullies everywhere (that you can’t shove us Yankees around), he’s ready to teach movie audiences that laughing hyenas such as Bluto need their comeuppance. This sequence highlights an expertly rotoscoped display of superior dance moves, to the flashy orchestral accompaniment of “Samba Lelê.”

Popeye takes the obliging Olive into his arms and, together, they take over the salon. In retaliation, Bluto tosses out one of the pandeiros in an effort to disrupt his pal’s performance. But Popeye recovers nicely by hurling the pandeiro into the air with his feet, head and buttocks. He then flings the pandeiro at Bluto’s noggin, which utterly fails to beat some sense into it.

The couple approaches the dance platform, where behind the curtain Bluto plots his next move: he operates the lever that, once again, juts the platform out at Popeye. Bluto’s hopes for tripping his buddy up flop as Popeye, reminiscent of a similar move he made in Kickin’ the Conga Round, deftly up-ends himself by dancing with his hands while his legs and feet continue the arm movements. Nothing can stop this samba-swaying fiend, that’s for certain.

Our hero drags the reluctant Bluto out of his hiding place. Yanking him by his bristly beard, Popeye coaxes the blubbering Bluto onto the dance floor. Despite his entreaties, big bad Bluto gets pulverized with a punishing right and a kick to the chin. He lands in Popeye’s arms, which spin him around as if he were a human maraca. Bluto finally gets launched head-first into the giant pandeiro.

When the stage platform shoves Popeye into the waiting arms of Senhorita Olive, the two wind up spinning about the nightclub like oversized tops. In the whirlwind-like haze, Popeye manages to swap clothes with Olive. He’s now dressed in her Bahian outfit; she’s wearing his sailor outfit, complete with kerchief and hat. But the last “word” belongs to Olive as she lets out a couple of toots on her newly acquired pipe.

We return to the opening Paramount Pictures logo for the final band flourish. OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah. Ta-DAH!

A Song By Any Other Name  

Whew! There’s so much frenzied action and outcome in this second portion of W’ere on Our Way to Rio that one hardly knows where to begin. We can start by recapping some of the highlights from Kickin’ the Conga Round, which basically (ahem) “kickstarted” the whole Good Neighbor series.

We mentioned before that the unnamed Rio café where Popeye and Bluto visit, and where Senhorita Olive performed her samba routine, is a stand-in for Cassino da Urca. In a comparable manner, the Café La Conga, pictured in Kickin’ the Conga Round, could have been a cartoon replica of the real-life La Conga Club, once situated on Broadway and 51st Street in Manhattan, where such legendary Cuban-jazz musicians as Mario Bauzá and his brother-in-law, Machito (aka Frank Grillo), played and prospered. By 1937, the club became “wildly popular,” to put it mildly.

Such coincidences abounded in the 1940s. But in this case, there’s reason to believe that some of those transplanted New York writers and cartoonists, “serving time” in the Fleischer brothers’ Miami headquarters, may have based the animated Café La Conga on their nighttime excursions to the fabled La Conga Club. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, given that their old New York City hangout had once occupied space — first at 129 East 45 Street, and later in the Studebaker Building located at 1600 Broadway — near the Times Square theater district. Take it from this former New Yorker: that’s a stone’s throw away from 51st Street, comparable to a short one-station subway ride.  

Returning to that catchy number that Olive sings and dances to — and the central theme of this last of the Fleischer’s Miami-based cartoon features — we’ll be providing an English-language equivalent which must be prefaced by some explanatory material.

First of all, the word Lelê (either upper- or lowercase) is an expression that describes a person who is nuts, crazy, or obsessed about something or with someone (usually, oneself); an individual who thinks he or she is the best at what he or she does, the king of all they survey. There’s an equivalent expression in Portuguese, o rei da cocada preta (“king of the black coconut”), which, if you’re familiar with healthy-looking coconuts, tend to be a solid-brown color on the outside and a milky-white one on the inside. Note that the color “black” is nowhere to be found. In other words, you’re the king of something that doesn’t exist, as in the American expression, “He’s a genius in his own mind.”

So, a person who’s “Samba Lelê” is, in their mind, the best at what they do, and that is singing and dancing the samba. Yet the song itself is a commentary on how one-sided that view tends to be. This is exemplified by the chorus: “Samba Lelê tá (short for estádoente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada-da,” loosely translated as “Crazy for Samba is sick-sick-sick, his head is a little screwed up-up-up,” which is as close to the original meaning as one can get.

Putting it all together, here’s how this slang-filled ditty sounds in English:

I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me

I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me, oh

I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me

I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me

Chorus

Crazy for Samba is sick-sick-sick, his head is a little screwed up-up-up

Crazy for Samba is sick-sick-sick, his head is a little screwed up

I’m the best at samba dancing

I’m not here just for the asking

I’m the king of all that’s crazy

Sound the drumbeat, I’m not lazy

I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me

I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me, oh

I entered into the samba, samba, crazy for samba, that’s me

I’m really good at the samba, let me show you what’s right for me

All right, I’ll admit that I’m no Stephen Sondheim. And I know the above lyrics cannot possibly compare to what Messrs. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or George and Ira Gershwin put out in the halcyon days of Tin Pan Alley. But I’m sure you’ll agree they provide a much better context for non-Portuguese speakers than the spurious “Broadway Samba” lyrics do.  

Speaking of which, the “Broadway Samba” version of “Samba Lelê” originally appeared in a 1941 Paramount Pictures musical short, entitled Copacabana Revue, directed by Leslie M. Roush (BW, 10 min., released Nov 21, 1941) and which pre-dated both W’ere On Our Way to Rio and the earlier Kickin’ the Conga Round. Apparently, Paramount had the number in mind since they owned the rights to the English version, safely locked away in its vaults.

Here’s another bit of trivia. There’s a plethora of African-based words, phrases, and nonsense syllables in Brazilian Portuguese, many of which pop up in songs of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and throughout the 1960s and well beyond. Idiomatic expressions from those periods are also prevalent, some associated with the genres of choro, samba, samba-canção, bossa nova, Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), and especially Tropicália.

Take, for instance, the word Pelé, which happens to be the nickname for one of Brazil’s most celebrated soccer players, Edson Arantes do Nascimento. In essence, there’s no real meaning attached to this word. It’s basically a nondescript substitute used to differentiate it from pele (without the accent on the final “e”), the Portuguese word for “skin.” So in essence, Lelê is no different than Pelé, except Lelê has more substantive significance.

Incidentally, the Carnival-based “Samba Lelê” was written in 1939 by composer and pianist Paulo Roberto. According to author Ruy Castro, Paulo Roberto “was a famous radio man and songwriter (he was also a respected medical doctor!),” and the “brother of Luiz Barbosa, who introduced the hard straw hat as a rhythmic samba instrument, and of the great comedian Barbosa Junior, who recorded several duets with Carmen Miranda.”

Equally incredible is that “Sambalelê,” formerly an unrelated nursery rhyme, was also a traditional children’s song. The existence of this second “Sambalelê” (as one word) was an extraordinary discovery, in that this simple tune happens to be the predecessor to the one used in the Popeye cartoon. It’s also the one that Paulo Roberto appropriated for his more rhythmic variation.

A combination lullaby and bedtime number, it starts off slowly with the same melody as the section, “Samba Lelê tá doente-te, tá de cabeça quebrada-da.” Only here, the main verse in Olive’s version differs at the second syllable of “le-LÉ” and the third syllable of “do-en-TE-TE” which, instead of rising to an A flat at the phrase “Samba Le-LÉ ta doenTE-TE” (with “” and “TE-TE”), falls on the lower F sharp in the children’s song. This results in a softer, subtler, less edgy declamation, as it would be, naturally, for a kid’s tune. You can hear this slower version on YouTube, performed by (among others) the Canadian-Armenian singer-lyricist Raffi, who gives it an unnatural Caribbean-calypso beat.

And while we’re at it, let me mention that Castro referred me to the original Victor (Brazil) 78-rpm, 10-inch, double-faced, October 26, 1939 recording, made in Rio (matrix 033245), of “Samba Lelê,” sung to perfection in an exceptionally clear and rhythmically precise interpretation by the Argentine-born, Italian-descended Brazilian singer Carlos Galhardo (real name Catello Carlos Guagliardi).

The handsome, dark-haired Galhardo, who resembled a cross between John Barrymore and Herbert Marshall, was part of a group of talented radio and nightclub performers from the so-called “Golden Age” of Brazilian popular music. Some of Galhardo’s contemporaries included the likes of Chico Alves, Orlando Silva, Silvio Caldas, and Mario Reis, all of them gifted beyond their years.      

You can savor the flowing tone of Senhor Galhardo’s superbly placed tenor voice, as it rises and falls in all the right places. His expert delivery of the text, crisply enunciated and beautifully captured by the elementary recording technique, is a wonderful testament to his artistry. Make note, too, of his deliciously rounded r’s, so marvelously natural, as well as his infectiously buoyant personality.

On a personal note, Galhardo’s 1941 recording of the Carnival march hit, “Alá-lá-o” (by Haroldo Lobo and Antonio Nássara), was one of my family’s favorites.  

And it’s thus that we end this study of the Fleischer brothers’ South of the Border cartoon outings. It’s fitting, then, that in the finale to W’ere On Our Way to Rio, both Olive Oyl and Popeye exchange their clothes. Why fitting? Because Carnival demanded it!

When, during the prior year, could the average Brazilian, especially in Rio, play the role of a pauper or a king, to become, in make believe, a woman in a US Navy sailor outfit, or a man in a Bahian headdress and skirt? Why, during Carnival, of course! That’s the power of the celebration, of the Carnival spirit taking over your person, the very essence of what it is, of what it once used to be — and how it has been preserved in animated form.  

Credits: Released April 21, 1944, Duration: 7:43 (or 7:51), #125 in the Popeye series. Produced by Famous Studios / Paramount Pictures (by arrangement with King Features Syndicate). This was the last cartoon produced in Miami, Florida. Direction: Isadore “Izzy” Sparber; animators: James “Jim” Tyer, Ben Solomon, William “Bill” Henning; additional animators and in-between artists: Tom Inada, Abner Kneitel, James Tanaka (all uncredited); producers: Dan Gordon, Seymour Kneitel, I. Sparber (all uncredited); associate producer: Sam Buchwald (uncredited); story: Jack Mercer, Jack Ward; voices: Jack Mercer (Popeye), Dave Barry (Bluto), “Olive” (unknown); musical arrangement: Winston Sharples; songs: “W’ere On Our Way to Rio”; “Samba Lelê” – recorded in 1939 by Carlos Galhardo, and “Broadway Samba” in 1941.

Many thanks to author/biographer Ruy Castro, to Carla Guagliardi (the daughter of Carlos Galhardo), and to my brother Anibal Lopes for their invaluable assistance in providing additional material for this piece.

Copyright © 2023 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

 

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