This week’s Popeye’s Island Adventure has the title Plumbing Problems. It set my expectations high. Plumbing has been a really good theme for cartoons. Plumbing Is The Pipe, from 1938, was another of the masterful Fleischer-era Popeye cartoons. Famous Studios did one as Floor Flusher, in 1954, and that was pretty solid despite the layer of general boredom that settled on Popeye cartoons of that era. When King Features cranked out 286,000 shorts in twelve minutes in the early 60s, one of them was Plumbers Pipe Dream and while I can’t call that one good, it is certainly deeply weird and unpredictable and thus interesting. I may do a separate review of just that carton because it is so … so … very much itself.
So how was Plumbing Problems?
I didn’t like this one. I mean, not so much as I liked Popeye the Painter. Nor some of the other plumbing cartoons. The storyline seems too scattershot for me. What I think gives most plumbing cartoons their comic energy is how they normally have this nice, built-in ratcheting of comic tension. Water is coming, and then more water is coming, and everything done to stop the water makes the problem worse, until things get truly dire. I don’t insist that all jokes can be explained as releases of tension. But there are many jokes which do work that way, so this is a good platform to build on.
It’s a competent start: Olive Oyl tries to make tea, but there’s no water. Leaks appear all over her house. Popeye tries plugging them up, first with an umbrella. I liked the umbrella handle spewing water; that’s a good bit. Olive Oyl and Popeye take miscellaneous objects, a lot of them clam shells, to stuff into the leaks, which works for the moment that comic timing requires. The sink becomes a geyser, and Olive tries to make emergency repairs. This fits in line with her Island Adventures characterization as a tinkerer.
Popeye hands Olive Oyl a heap of miscellaneous things. After stuffing them all in the drain, the leak’s stopped for a moment. It doesn’t last, which says exciting things about Olive Oyl’s water pressure. The geyser returns, shooting all this kitchen stuff into the air.
And here — 59 seconds in — Bluto finally enters the short. He’s minding his own business, a nice change of pace for the villain. He’s startled by the fork landing in front of him, and cringes when he sees Olive Oyl’s kitchen flying toward him. The dining table, chairs, plates, and candlestick land in perfect shape, another good bit of business. And that’s ended well with Olive’s flower-in-a-shoe landing in Bluto’s face. And Bluto gets an idea.
So Bluto presents himself as a plumber. His fee: a can of spinach. This fits a long history of Bluto being smart enough to understand the importance of spinach, but not smart enough to just buy it himself. (Although since we’ve seen Popeye canning his own spinach maybe there isn’t an island grocery.) And this gives Popeye the idea of trying to use spinach to fix the leaks. This fits a long history of Popeye not just eating spinach early enough to head off his problems. Stuffing some spinach into the drain, for a wonder, doesn’t work. But it does give Bluto the chance to swipe the rest of Popeye’s spinach. I credit the cartoon for subverting my expectations. But: is this all that funny? It makes sense Bluto would use an opportunity like this to make mischief. It makes sense Bluto would try stealing spinach. But this means he’s skipping out on the main plot tension of the water in order to swipe spinach. I don’t think the short has enough time — two minutes, fifteen seconds — to make that change of plot focus work.
Popeye and Olive Oyl realize Bluto’s trick. Popeye eats his remaining can of spinach and turns into … I’m not sure. He looks a little like your classic Von Braun Man-Will-Conquer-Space-Soon style rocket. Or maybe an anchor? Neither quite makes sense, since he uses the geyser from the sink to launch into the air. Popeye grabs a windsock, and wraps up Bluto before he’s gotten all that far. Seems like Popeye could probably have caught him by running, too, although then where would the windsock have come from? The water floods out of Olive’s house, and Popeye has the idea to replace all the leaking pipes with empty spinach cans. This works right up until Olive Oyl tests it, when instead of water, spinach pours out of the faucets. This is what happens when you pay attention to your own needs more than those of the friend you’re doing the work for.
So none of these are bad ideas. But the short feels episodic, a bunch of good starting points for jokes. The storyline felt scattershot, as if the writer couldn’t think of a funny thing to do with Olive’s house leaking. Or a funny reason for it to have started leaking. It’s among the weaker of these cartoons.
I’m doing my best to review all these Popeye’s Island Adventures. Essays about them should be at this link.