Let Us Entertain You

Nothing succeeds like success. And to repeat a successful formula, by definition, is to profit from it. But to insist, then, that the next Latin-flavored entrée in the continuing catalog of Popeye the Sailor shorts was little more than a rewrite of previous material is to ignore the obvious differences.

For one, the sunnier ambience showcased in 1944’s W’ere on Our Way to Rio (brought to you by Paramount Pictures in glorious Technicolor), and buoyed by the tunefulness of its lively musical score (with two, count ‘em, TWO highly infectious numbers), no doubt eclipsed its 1942 predecessor, Kickin’ the Conga Round, by a nautical mile.

For another, the May 1939 arrival of a Portuguese-born, Brazilian-bred entertainer named Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, aka Carmen Miranda, to North American shores, and her subsequent 1940s incursion into Hollywood’s mainstream, spawned a host of Latinx-Hispanic imitators. It also set movie theaters ablaze with her exotic looks and sassy personality.

Now, is that what the film capital needed at this point, another spitfire in the volatile Lupe Vélez mold? Not exactly. While no pushover herself, Carmen possessed singing and dancing talent to go with her newly-acquired comedic skills. No wonder movie audiences were quick to equate her with the loopy Ms. Vélez.

True, both were short in stature, and both burned up the silver screen with, shall we say, their “bubbling effervescence.” But there was something more to Carmen Miranda’s mien than bright eyes and luscious lips, a je ne sais quoi aspect that endeared her instantly to American audiences — at least, for the duration of the war.

This was somewhat in line with what former film siren, the Mexican-born Dolores Del Rio, had brought to her own screen roles, i.e., passion, personality, and temperament. Alongside a genuine Brazilian leading man — the suavely sophisticated Raul Roulien — and the boyish Gene Raymond (the “third wheel” in this patented love triangle), Del Rio had earlier starred in RKO Radio Pictures’ Flying Down to Rio (1933), a musical-comedy landmark that served as a springboard for the dancing talents of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

By the way, that seemingly innocuous title — a Freudian slip if ever there was one — not only poked fun at Dolores’ surname, but betrayed more than a hint of the old maxim that “there’s no sin south of the border.” The point being that this, and other judiciously employed “double entendres,” were no strangers to La-La-Land, as we shall soon see.

Flying Down to Rio takes place in and around a studio-recreated Rio de Janeiro, with superimposed images shot on the sunny shores of Malibu, California; and the famed Copacabana Palace Hotel, where this author had spent his honeymoon and where both Carmen Miranda and that devil-may-care auteur, Orson Welles, were once holed up. It should be noted, too, that Welles and Del Rio carried on an illicit affair for several fractious years in the early 1940s, despite their conjugal obligation to others.

In the movie, the Astaire-Rogers duo introduce a musical number dubbed the Carioca, a word whose roots go back to Brazil’s colonial period, and that in the Native Tupi-Guarani Indian language (translated into Portuguese as o cara da oca), meant “man from the house” (o cara = man, da = from, oca = the house or hut). That phrase was soon shortened to carioca. In modern-day parlance, carioca indicates an inhabitant of Rio, implying that the eponymously titled dance had been derived from the city that gave it life.

The real issue, however, is that this purported dance number is a complete fabrication, a Hollywood invention that placed several Brazilian rhythms (maxixe and samba) into a tangy mixture of Cuban rumba laced with a shot of Manhattan foxtrot. Instead of dancing “cheek to cheek,” as the couple did in successive features, Fred and Ginger banged their heads together in a sensuous yet superbly choreographed sequence (by Dave Gould and the young Hermes Pan) that landed them in Pre-Code heaven. While the couple made screen history together, one that would eventually lead to bigger and splashier productions, the Carioca itself failed to catch on.

As well, there were subliminal nods to the glamorous Dorothy Lamour in Carmen’s lavish costumes and fruit-basket headgear — especially when Ms. Lamour, a Paramount Studios co-star by dint of her second feature, The Jungle Princess (1936), began to be paired with stand-up comedian Bob Hope and radio crooner Bing Crosby in the popular Road pictures.

What does all this have to do with Popeye and his friends? For all intents and purposes, W’ere on Our Way to Rio can be equally viewed as a spoof of Carmen Miranda and a takeoff on Paramount’s moneymaking Road series. And we can appreciate why, since both the Popeye cartoons and the Road franchise were produced by the same studio, if on opposite coasts. Note the friendly rivalry, the petty resentments, the constant one-upmanship, and the snappy banter redolent of the Bing-Bob-Dorothy threesome which, in turn, may have been borrowed wholesale from the likes of the Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto dynamic. 

Still, the fifth Hope-Crosby-Lamour product, Road to Rio, released three years later (in 1947), should have been the natural outgrowth of such an apparent association — the one paying homage to the other, and vice versa. But the film came too late to have made much of an impact. By the end of the decade, and well into the 1950s, the quality and quantity of the Popeyes and Roads had sadly declined, with both lapsing into standard formulae and a “been there, seen that” sameness — the tried-and-true turned tired-and-abused.

Nevertheless, alert audiences may have noticed (if you happen to look fast) that the band leader, conducting the orchestra at the Café where Olive performs her samba routine, bears an uncanny resemblance to Bob Hope — right down to his ski-sloped proboscis. How’s THAT for paying homage?

Once again, Jack Mercer captures Popeye’s guileless grasp of the situation with his self-deflating asides (“I don’t do no sambo dancin’” and “Senhorita, this is embarraskin”). Speculation about who did Olive’s voice continues to this day. Was it Carmen Miranda, or her little sister Aurora? Was it good ole Margie Hines, who voiced Olive from 1938 to 1943; or maybe Mae Questal (Betty Boop), who did it from 1944 up until 1957 when the series ended? We will explore this aspect, along with a few others, in Part Three of the series.

Dave Barry does double duty as the superb singing and speaking voice of Bluto, Popeye’s bosom buddy and all-too-frequent contender for Olive Oyl’s hand. In all, Barry provided the voicework for six Popeye shorts, all of them uncredited: 1942 – “Kickin’ the Conga Round”, “Alona of the Sarong Seas”, and “A Hull of a Mess”; 1943 – “Seein’ Red, White N’ Blue” and “Too Weak to Work”; and 1944 – “W’ere on Our Way to Rio” (Barry’s final contribution).

After the usual introduction boasting the Paramount and Popeye logos (with the familiar theme of the sailor’s hornpipe starting things off), we begin this cartoon feature with a third title card. After years of watching, one can easily overlook the fact that “We’re,” the preferred contraction for “We are,” is presented in a most unusual form: W’ere. It’s an aberration few viewers may have noticed, but that immediately draws one’s attention from the start.

Where did this peculiarly non-standard contraction derive from? In an online blog entry, one of the contributors indicated that “ ‘W’ere’ is commonly seen in some French-Canadian publications.” I have been to Quebec province, and specifically to Montreal, with a close friend who grew up and studied there. Neither he nor I could ever have imagined that the English phrase “We are” could be contracted as “W’ere” in French-Canadian. The Quebecois, as they are called, speak a variant of the French language that can still be considered as legit français. But the natives do speak English, with most road signs printed in both languages (at least, they were when we last visited in the early 1980s).

The point is this: No matter how you look at it, “W’ere” is definitely off the beaten path. Perhaps this was an unforced error, an unnoticed misstep on the producers’ part that has never been properly corrected. One possible explanation could be the use of Ye Olde High English in place of the Modern Standard variety. A strong possibility, though not a practical one. But that’s for philologists to decide. Surely, to most audience’s minds (and to mine as well) this grammatical faux pas need not detract from our enjoyment of this worthwhile feature.

As the story opens, our boys are once again en route to shore leave. They are riding what appears to be a modified version of a Brazilian bull. This is an odd choice for public conveyance, one more typical of the rural Northeast (for instance, Bahia and Recife) than of the burgeoning cosmopolitan metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. To most eyes, Popeye and Bluto are seen passing through a tropical jungle, a huge stretch by any measure.  

Consider that Rio, as portrayed in this 1944 cartoon — a place exploding with people, buildings, stores, buses, bicycles, automobiles, and other physical attractions — looks nothing like the European-styled city as depicted in photographs from the period. Obviously, the animators must have gotten carried away with the tropical exuberance of the setting; or perhaps they were guided by other ideas, that is, overly inflated notions about what Rio may have been like. Whatever ideas they were, they certainly had little to do with the mid-twentieth century.

No matter. The boys lapse into song, with music and lyrics provided by veteran arranger Winston Sharples; a rousing duet that instantly touts the familiar themes of romance, companionship, and (for now) the thrill of having a good time:    

Bluto & Popeye: I’m on my way to Rio

Popeye: To love and laughter and soft guitars

Bluto: It’s always gay in Rio …

Popeye: With lovely ladies, meet the stars

Both: Each neighbor should try to be good

Bluto: And I’ll be good, so have no fear

Bluto & Popeye: Tell all the girls in Rio

Singly & Together: That Popeye and Bluto are here

There’s a camaraderie present between the two salts that, as true fans of the series know, will be short-lived. Sitting back-to-back on their mount, Bluto steers by way of the bull’s horns. Popeye sits with his legs crossed while strumming a guitar. They start things off in unison: “I’m on my way to Rio.” Then, Popeye looks up at Bluto and momentarily growls the line, “To love and laughter and soft guitars.” But as Bluto mouths the words, “It’s always gay in Rio,” Popeye picks up his instrument and caresses it with his hands, giving off a visual clue as to his intentions at the line, “With lovely ladies, meet the stars.”

At the next phrase, “Each neighbor should try to be good,” the massively shaped Bluto smiles openly and widens his eyes as he looks down on his smaller partner. “And I’ll be good,” he emphasizes, “so have no fear.” He completes this sentiment with a knowing wink. Popeye glances up at his companion with a dubious glare — he gives notice that he’s ready to rumble, but recovers sufficiently to resume his position. With a wave of their arms (and lifting their chins closer together), Popeye and Bluto join voices (and do likewise with their heads) at the chorus, “Tell all the girls in Rio / That Popeye and Bluto are here.”

Compare this number to “We’re Off on the Road to Morocco” by composer-songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen and his lyricist, Johnny Burke, from Road to Morocco, released by Paramount on November 10. 1942. You’ll recall that Hope and Crosby are seated atop a fake camel. Their song provides a melodic backdrop that is stylistically “similar” to Popeye and Bluto’s opening ode. But the lyrics to our animated sailor boys’ paean are nowhere near as biting, nor as comically satirical, as those of their human counterparts. Two cynics lost in the studio desert, as opposed to two sailors on dry land.

The mood changes somewhat with the arrival of a parrot on Popeye’s finger. The sailor greets the colorful bird with a hearty, “Hiya neighbor,” the first hint of the U.S.’s Good Neighbor policy put into practice. Borrowing the sailor man’s trademark pipe, the green, red, and orange-tinted parrot repeats the phrase, “Hiya neighbor.” The parrot giggles uncontrollably in a facsimile of Popeye’s little laugh. They both smile at each other as Popeye continues on his way.  

Next, the boys pass under some banana trees, with fruit that’s ripe for the picking. Bluto takes advantage of the bounty by grabbing hold of a banana and peeling it. He downs the fruit in one voracious gulp. Meanwhile, Popeye peels a banana of his own, but there’s something unique about this banana. Instead of the succulent fruit, a thin red tongue emerges. Popeye’s jaw drops in alarm, but “have no fear.” The protruding appendage and the yellow beak that accompanies it belong to a multicolored toucan, a neotropical denizen of the Brazilian rain forest.

As the bird flies safely away, we’re given a lush, nighttime vista of a picturesque Guanabara Bay near Copacabana Beach. There’s a full moon out, too, which anyone familiar with Universal Pictures’ classic horror films of the period will tell you, is a clear indication of trouble to come.

The camera pulls back to reveal a modern beachfront community (at last!), a rare glimpse for North Americans of a ravishing Rio de Janeiro, with Sugar Loaf Mountain (or Pão de Açucar) prominent in the background. Lighted buildings and sprawling high-rises dot the landscape. The only sights that are missing are the smaller Urca Mountain and the lofty Corcovado peak with its emblematic Christ the Redeemer figure on top. (Note to Readers: Corcovado, a Native Indian word meaning “the Hunchback,” could not possibly have been seen since, as this “tourist” can attest, the mountain with Christ’s statue is physically situated in the exact vantage point where Popeye and Bluto happen to be.)

Oh, boy!” Bluto blurts out.    

Rio!” shouts Popeye in accompaniment.

Their trip will take them through a winding path down to the beach. The bull stops momentarily to shake its rear end at the audience (which must have gotten a big guffaw in the theater). Huge palm fronds and vegetation are viewed at left as the boys make their descent. With a repeat of “Tell all the girls in Rio / That Popeye and Bluto are here,” the story proper can take place.

Barely a minute and 44 seconds have transpired, yet we have only scraped the surface of what’s been shown. Talk about innuendo, this brief sequence, when watched one frame at a time, is filled with hidden meaning: from the subtle hints and sideways glances of the two sailors, to the various phallic symbols on display, represented for the most part by the plethora of bananas and birds, and specifically in the song lyrics.

This was not so out of bounds as might be thought. A year earlier, in December 1943 to be exact, 20th Century-Fox released The Gang’s All Here, a Carmen Miranda picture, directed and choreographed by the military-minded Busby Berkeley, and starring Alice Faye, Phil Baker, Charlotte Greenwood, Edward Everett Horton, and Eugene Pallette. This lavishly staged production cornered the market in archetypal Freudian imagery.

The most notorious number of all, “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” involved the use of literally hundreds of rubber bananas, hung upside down, right-side up, and every which way; along with xylophones layered with bananas as keys, enormous banana bunches swung this way and that (many in the shape of erect penises), in addition to supersized, overripe strawberries that opened and closed to the rhythmic thrust of the bananas — movements that left nothing to the imagination.   

There is no way on this good earth that any of the participants involved in the making of this classic Popeye short, or Busby Berkeley’s picture, could have known that, years later, Rio would become a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, or that Carmen Miranda herself would be turned into an icon of gay culture. She would soon be joined by the likes of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Sal Mineo, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, and others of their standing.  

The moral is: Never underestimate the ability and ingenuity of Hollywood to state the obvious. And, try as they might, the movie studios’ artists, writers, designers, and craftspeople could never completely hide or escape from their intentions — not from sharp-eyed viewers, they couldn’t.

(End of Part Two)

Read Part Three Here:

Copyright © 2023 by Josmar F. Lopes



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