I’m taking this week to build myself some margin in the Popeye’s Island Adventure series. I’m doing that by filling in a week with an older cartoon. This one, Plumber’s Pipe Dream, is part of the notorious 1960s series. In that, King Features made over two hundred short cartoons over the course of about three years to fill television with a heap of content. Doing this required hiring, like, everybody who could hold a pencil. This is a short that I thought King Features had on their official YouTube channel. They have a couple dozen of that run. So I’m posting a copy I can find. If you find it’s been removed, please let me know. I’ll try to find a replacement. It could be King Features will have added it to their official channel by that time.
This cartoon, at least, I can give credits for. It was made by Jack Kinney Productions. Jack Kinney worked for Disney in the Golden Age — he directed sequences in Pinocchio and Dumbo. And he worked for UPA Studios at its peak too. You could get that idea from the stylish title card. By 1960 he had his own studio doing television work, King Features cartoons among it.
This is not a good cartoon. It is one I enjoy watching. It’s weird that those go together. A strain in pop culture, especially on the Internet, celebrates bad stuff. It’s been celebrated so long that we can forget that this is a strange choice to make. What’s fun about a bad cartoon, or movie, or book, or story?
I think it’s something you have to grow into. You start out taking in stories (cartoons, movies, whatever) and accepting them as stories. Then you get to knowing stories well enough. You can tell good from bad, and maybe why some are good and some bad. Most of us then stick to the good stories, and live a happy life with our entertainment choices. But some of us, in what feels like a nerdy thing to do, break that. I think some of us get so obsessed with studying stories, and why they work and why they don’t, that we overthink it. Like, we notice that most good stories follow (sensible) rules. A genuinely bad story, though? That won’t follow rules. Or it follows a weird distorted idea of the rules. It surprises in a way that a well-made story can’t. The surprise and novelty is great if you’ve consumed so much of a particular kind of story that normal ones are boring. And it’s great for showing by its mistakes how good stories come together. And, yes, a good story that defies rules and breaks expectations is also cherished. But there’s probably more ways to make a bad story than a good one.
So how does this hypothesis matter to this cartoon?
We start with Olive Oyl having a leaky faucet. Good premise. Plumbing cartoons are usually fun. Leaking water gives things a sense of urgency, and that often builds comic energy well. Swee’Pea suggests having it fixed, something Olive Oyl never thought of, even though they have the same voice actor. Olive Oyl insisting she wouldn’t have thought of that, and looking up “plumbers” under “P as in Plop”, are a couple cute throwaway dialogue jokes. They’re not quite laugh lines, but at least they’re cheery.
Popeye’s the designated plumber, and mentions how this call roused him from a snooze. There’s a weird momentary fade to black at about 1:31, before we see Popeye’s face making some weird expressions. This turns out to be plot-important, but you only know that in retrospect. Popeye’s first attempt only makes the leak worse and he rushes to the basement to turn the water off. This by the way takes about as long as a whole Popeye’s Island Adventure does. So I appreciate how much story compression has to go into those shorts.
Popeye can’t remember which apartment he needs to turn off, so he breaks that pipe too. So he figures now he has to go to the water main and runs out to the city sewer. Here, given the direction to turn the wheel right he turns it back and forth until it breaks off, sending even more water loose. You have get to wondering whether Popeye was always this incompetent. Boring Suburban Popeye, the character he mutated into in cartoons of the 50s, had a lot of problems. (And yes, this is Popeye in the city. But it’s the way he acts when the cartoon makes him the owner of a boring home in a boring suburb.)
Now the apartment is flooding to the point it looks lost at sea. Popeye needs to get to the city mains before a J G Ballard novel can break out. He hails a taxi, that gets there on distinctly dry streets, and calls out, “The City Water Works!” The shocked driver asks, “It does?” and so help me that makes me laugh every time. This is because I am a nerd. That a phrase might have more than one meaning is always funny to both nerds and four-year-olds. Four-year-olds it makes sense. They’re delighting in the discovery of how language works. Nerds, I don’t know. Might be we so like having things explained and sensible that a sentence which resists mono-meaning is delightful.
Now the water comes, with the city streets flooding or flooding more. Popeye swims toward the water works, only to find the water’s risen so high that it threatens to extinguish the Statue of Liberty’s torch. You know, the torch that has never been a literal fire.
There’s some spinach floating by, that Popeye grabs happily and eats. He gets his power-up fanfare and … water squirts out of his muscle bulges. Well, he puddles to the drowned shutoff valve, which opens a drain, threatening to suck him down. And then what do you know but it’s all a dream, and he’s still getting another call from Olive Oyl. He rushes to Olive Oyl’s apartment and once again forgets to turn off the water. The end.
Lay out the storyline like that and it seems workable. Making a small problem ever-worse is a standard comic method. It’s standard because it works so well. And there are a bunch of funny little drawings. Popeye asleep in his chair looks weird, but in a funny way. The taxi driver has some nice bugged-out eyes when he sees the flood coming. There’s more nice casual jokes than I remembered were in this short. It isn’t quotable, but that’s because all the jokes depend on their context to be anything. And a cartoon doesn’t have to be quotable to be good.
But what’s bad. Mm. Well, little things. Every scene takes a few seconds longer than it needs. The music was done by hitting shuffle on the King Features 1960s Background Themes playlist. I’ll give them a pass on how much animation gets reused within this short. They had like $20 and a heap of Green Stamps for an animation budget, and as many as twelve minutes to draw the thing. But did a third of all the dialogue have to be Olive Oyl crying out “Heellllp” in an endless repeated chant? (I likely find this more annoying than other people because the same chant gets used in many of the 60s cartoons. I recognize it like I recognize the exact same gunshot sound effect in half of all the M-G-M Tom and Jerry cartoons.)
For the most part, this cartoon is boring. Or it’s annoying, when Olive Oyl is crying out “Heellllp” in a sound clip they used in every King Features Popeye. It’s going a bit loopy, with the speed and magnitude of the flooding. But it’s not until 3:55, it changes. This is when Popeye notices the Statue of Liberty is almost drowned. Now the cartoon is not only bad, but great bad. Making the flooding worse by fixing it? That’s a normal line of action. That’s the plot thread that you could make a good cartoon around. Making the flooding “Oh, and it’s going to extinguish the flame in the Statue of Liberty’s Torch”? That’s not a logical thought. The cartoon leaps into some surreal, dream-logic territory. It’s surprising and weird. The rules of plot logic that we’re used to fail and that’s thrilling. Plus there’s a nice alarmed look on the statue’s face.
That it’s all a dream is … eh. The cartoon could as easily have had the big drain open up and let the city dry. Making it all a dream retroactively excuses Popeye making dumb mistakes, at least. And it sets up the here-we-go-again punch line. The cartoon manages, at least for a while, to be a great bad cartoon.
Next week I should get back to Popeye’s Island Adventures with a fresh essay at this link. Now watch as King Features double-crosses me and doesn’t post a new cartoon this week. Well, I have 219 other 1960s cartoons to look at. Plus they’ve posted episodes from Popeye And Son. I can wait them out.