Can 1960s Popeye be an ethical billionaire?


It’s been a month plus since the last Popeye’s Island Adventure. Maybe the series will resume. Maybe it’s done. I do not have the time to decide what to do with my Tuesday slot here. It’s somehow become a series-review day. I like that. It means once I decide what series to review I know what I’m writing. But what series? I don’t know, so I’m going to do a couple more of the 1960s King Feature Syndicate Popeyes to get myself some margin and decide later. This may prove a controversial choice. I can actually see the readership drop when the day’s post is a King Features Popeye cartoon. But, what the heck. If someone wants me to look at something they can nominate it to me.

So I’m going to do at least a couple more King Features Syndicate Popeye cartoons. This from their “Classic Popeye” line on YouTube, since I expect those videos to stick around a while. I’m skipping their Episode Two since none of those four cartoons — Hoppy Jalopy, Popeye’s Pep-Up Emporium, Baby Phase, and Weather Watchers — interest me enough. I’m going straight to some of Episode Three. I’ll start by reviewing the last of the quartet, The Billionaire. Anyone who wants to peek at future weeks can figure out the other cartoons in this just by looking. I’m guessing, though, not a lot of people are going to check.

Parody’s a weird thing. The Millionaire was this (American) TV show that ran for a couple years in the 50s. Each week a strange reclusive multimillionaire gives someone a million dollars, on condition they never ask questions about where it comes from or why. Then we watch how this screws up their lives. I never saw an episode. I know it entirely from its parodies. SCTV did a fantastic one. I’m not sure if I saw it riffed on Saturday Night Live. (I may be thinking of their parody of The Continental, another 50s TV show I’ve only ever seen in imitation, including in a Popeye cartoon.) I’m not sure it wasn’t done in a Richie Rich comic book. And, then, there’s this spoof, starring Popeye.

It starts weird. The premise is that Popeye’s a multi-millionaire and he’s living in a mansion and he’s giving out money to his friends. It seems out of character for who Popeye is. And yet … …

Part of the premise of Thimble Theatre, when it started, was that these were plays. Like, you had the recurring cast, but they’d have different parts each adventure. Each day, in the earliest strips. The comic strip settled to a basically uniform continuity before even Popeye joined the cast. But this bit where these are characters playing parts, and the settings will vary, lasted into the cartoons. Usually that just plays into what the relationships are between Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl at the start of the cartoon. Sometimes it plays into whether Popeye’s a sailor, a fitness instructor, or a short-order cook this cartoon. So Popeye as a multimillionaire benefactor shouldn’t be outside the cartoon ranges. I’m not sure why I feel like I need to argue myself into this. Maybe it’s that Popeye and Bluto and Olive Oyl usually have working-class positions. In the 50s they moved to the suburbs and the middle class and got boring. A rich Popeye seems untrue. I mean, yeah, there was the cartoon where Popeye ran for President, but that turned into working-class stuff like “can he bale hay” fast enough.

At the least, it’s weird. And weird should be expected: this is another Gene Deitch-directed cartoon. If you didn’t know, you might suspect something from the animation. The backgrounds, particularly. Look at the carpet and the chair in Popeye’s mansion, at about 17:46 of the cartoon. Try not to be distracted figuring out how Popeye’s holding that phone. I can’t do that pose comfortably, but I can do it.

As with From Way Out, the animation is loose with the character models. This is fine by me, since they’re drawn so expressively. Freeze the image at about 18:28. Popeye looks weird, not just because both eyes are open again. But it’s a scene. And Deitch’s team was doing what it could with the animation budget. Olive Oyl keeps moving, that scene. There’s no need for it, except to keep the picture from being boring.

So far as this cartoon makes sense it stops making sense at about 19:23. This is after Popeye’s given all his friends, plus Bluto Brutus, a million dollars. He’s decided to wear a costume as a sailor so he can secretly check on his friends. The cartoon immediately forgets this explanation. I don’t want to cast aspersions but I wonder if this was meant to save the cost of drawing a new walk cycle for Popeye.

Popeye’s surprised to see Olive Oyl doing exactly what she said she would do, getting a million-dollar makeover at the salon she either ran or bought. Wimpy’s bought a herd of cows so he can be forever in hamburgers. It’s not a deep character beat, although it is cute to have Wimpy discover he hasn’t the heart to slaughter them. It’s a pretty funny cow herd considering they’re the same cow photocopied many times. Good cow design. Again, freeze the video at about 20:09 and just look at how silly a picture that is.

Swee’Pea’s got a chocolate factory, and has a scheme to justify eating the entire output. I can’t say that’s wrong. I don’t know what Popeye imagined would happen. Bluto Brutus runs his car over Popeye, then backs up to punch him into a mailbox, such well-timed gratuitous violence that it’s a good laugh for me. Besides the chauffeur-driven car Bluto Brutus spent his million on buying all the spinach farms in the country and plowing them under. If you question whether a million dollars would let someone corner the spinach market and destroy it, well, this is why you and I were treated like that in middle school. It’s a weird cartoon. Roll with it.

So of course Bluto Brutus shoves some cash money down Popeye’s throat. And of course it’s good for a spinach power-up because something something spinach ink something and … huh? It’s a bunch of great facial expressions on the way to the story’s conclusion. I’m not saying to make Popeye’s face at 21:30 your new user icon for anything. I’m just saying you’ll stand out in a crowd with that.

Popeye's face, both eyes wide open, grinning goofily, with his neck extended and surrounded by a light pink glow.
My new LinkedIn picture.

Having eaten spinach-inked currency Popeye … see, it’s just weird. But we get some good violence against Bluto Brutus, and a fine bit of body horror where Popeye punches Bluto Brutus into a stack of coins. And then get an extra dose of body horror when Olive Oyl shows off her million-dollar makeover, and Popeye laughs, and she’s so furious the thing crumbles. This cartoon doesn’t reach the body-weirdness heights of It’s Magic, Charlie Brown, but it’s trying.

All that’s left is a wrap-up, Olive Oyl and company begging Popeye for one more chance and learning Popeye’s already given away his last million. It’s an efficient way to wrap up the cartoon, which was trying to hard to end Popeye didn’t even have a couplet to sing at the end. He just tells us he’s Popeye the sailor man.

It’s another cartoon where Olive Oyl and Swee’Pea have noticeably the same voice actor. Mae Questel also does the voice of Millionaire Popeye’s unseen secretary, in a performance that confuses just who’s talking and why. Jackson Beck, the voice of Bluto Brutus, does better as opening narrator Ichael-May Ants-Pay. Jackson Beck did a lot of this kind of narrator or announcer work for radio.

I’m happy with this cartoon. But I can see where a dreamily plotted spoof of a sixty-year-old tv show that may well exist only in parody form wouldn’t work for everyone. I still say they’re funny cow designs.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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