Dear Straight Dope: Why is Popeye’s nemesis sometimes called Brutus, and other times called Bluto? MikeHutson@juno.com
The short answer: lawyers. For the long answer, we need to look at some history.
E.C. Segar was assigned to draw Thimble Theater for King Features Syndicate in 1919. Popeye was introduced in 1929, and quickly became the protagonist. Bluto, introduced in 1932, was one of many villains Popeye faced, but had the good fortune to appear in the strip at the time that Max Fleischer, riding the success of Betty Boop, made the decision to animate the strip. The first cartoon, “Popeye the Sailor” (1933), featured Bluto as the heavy (with a cameo by Betty Boop herself), in the now-familiar “Bluto harasses Olive until Popeye, under the influence of spinach, whomps his butt and saves the day, then sings his song” formula.
Forward to 1956. Fleischer Studios, later Famous Studios (under the auspices of Paramount Pictures), having produced 234 films, began to realize that they had really played out the formula. They decided to cease production, but, trying to squeeze some blood from the Popeye stone, they sold the syndication rights to Associated Artists Productions. To their amazement, the TV ratings went through the roof in most major markets. King Features, who owned the print rights to Popeye et. al., did not make any money from the syndication of the Popeye films, and so they decided the best way to capitalize on Popeye’s TV popularity was to produce a new series of cartoons, and fast. In 1960-61, King Features produced 220 new shorts, in five separate studios. In these new cartoons, the tall heavy villain with the beard was called Brutus.
Why? Well, King did some sloppy research. They were operating under the misapprehension that Bluto was created for the Fleischer cartoons, and that Paramount had exclusive rights to the name. The first King cartoons, in fact, (e.g. “Barbecue for Two,” 1960) had the character referred to only as “neighbor.” Hastily, they issued a press release, claiming they were “going back to the original … in the first newspaper comics the villain was Brutus.” False, as we’ve seen. In any case, it was soon decided that Brutus was actually a whole new character, and his appearance and demeanor were altered, albeit not enough that anyone would notice.
Brutus was only around for two years on screen. When Hanna-Barbera produced “The All-New Popeye Show” in 1978, the character’s name reverted back to the original Bluto. It remained so for the short-lived “Popeye and Son,” 1987-88. And, of course, the Robin Williams film “Popeye” it was Bluto, not Brutus. In print, Brutus lingered for some time, primarily under the direction of Segar apprentice Bud Sagendorf, who drew the strip, comic books, and designs for merchandise until 1986. Bill London, who took over from Sagendorf, preferred Bluto, but sometimes reverted back to Brutus, even within the confines of a single story (cf. “Witch Hunt,” 1992).
Really, a fascinating tale, even if it is ultimately the result of boneheadedness. As an aside, most aficionados think of the King episodes as hastily thrown together, and inferior in quality to the earlier Fleischer (now Associated Artists Productions) films. In other words, if you’ve got a Brutus episode, it’s probably not the top-of-the line, but if you’re seeing Bluto, now that’s good watchin’! For further reading, see Popeye: An Illustrated History, by Fred Grandinetti, 1994.
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