What was Bluto’s Ode to an Onion?


King Features made about 829 billion Popeye cartoons over the span of forty minutes in the early 60s. Most of them are forgettable. Some of them stick in my memory. Some of them have even kept some little toehold in pop culture. At least for those of us in the last cohort to grow up watching these cartoons in rerun on bored independent TV stations. It’s Coffee House. Oh, more Jack Kinney animation.

So what is cool? Lot of possible answers. Lot of different kinds of answers. Generally, we can say cool is “not the people grinding out animation product for 30-year-old intellectual properties down at the cartoon factory”. It has other aspects too. But there’s a microgenre of attempts to do a story based on what, honestly, square movie creators think cool is. I love them all.

Popeye, now, he started out cool. He had that great blend of kindness, resolve, and invincibility. By the 50s, he’d moved to the suburbs and got boring. The King Features cartoons shook that up a bit. He’d get into adventures going off to the Moon or chasing the Sea Hag or something. But a lot of them start, like this does, in the suburbs. Even if it is in a gorgeous Modern house. Still, Popeye was certainly losing his cool. Partly because we saw almost all his best stuff, repeated until it got dull. So Olive Oyl reinventing herself as a Beatnik has some metatextual truth to it. That has to be part of what gives this cartoon its hook.

Another part of its hook has to be when they all get to the coffee house and everybody is just chanting “cool, cool, cool, coooool”, with the occasional finger-snap. It’s such soothing, comfortable background noise. I don’t need background noise to sleep, but if I did, this wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Olive Oyl, wearing a loose green sweater and black leggings bunched up at the knees, with a beret and her hair in long, loose ends. She stands in front of a low, mid-century-modern record stand that has an octagonal plate on top of it.
Also, hey, we have that record cabinet! … And so you know what kind of hipster level cool I strive for? I’m in several competitive pinball leagues, and I’ve had an ironic record collection since the 1990s, before that was cool.

Also not a bad choice: Olive’s outfit as a Beatnik Girl. The traditional joke is asking what Popeye finds physically attractive about Olive Oyl. Something that’s his taste, of course. Beatnik Olive, though? That’s got to be more attractive to more people.

Bluto explodes into the scene, running Popeye down with a vehicle. It’s funny. It also happened in The Billionaire last week. I hadn’t realized this was such a motif of the King Features cartoons.

Bluto’s less dressed up to be a Beatnik. It opens the question of how much of this he’s really into, and how much is him trying to appeal to Olive Oyl’s current fascination. He doesn’t really break Beatnik character, not the way Olive Oyl does on declaring “it’s only you, Popeye”. But does Bluto even get into things sincerely? He recites a fantastically bad Ode To An Onion. Olive Oyl doesn’t know or care that it’s awful. How much of this is Bluto putting on an act?

Yeah, what the heck. Here’s the text to Bluto’s poem, Ode To An Onion.

O Onion, Onion
You are the gone-est
So green yet so honest

O Onion, Onion
Like, I dig you the mostest
O green and lovely hostess

Hip! Hip! Hip! And crazy-daisy
Like, your breath just leaves me hazy

O brave and noble Onion
Green stem and creamy bunion
Your personality is hallion

Live! Grow! Breathe!
O gracious scallion!

I truly admire the craft that went into writing that. Bluto’s toast “To art, the beauty of the soul” comes close to sounding like something too, and I like that.

Popeye, wisely, figures his best approach to this is to go along with the gag. And does the Sailor’s Hornpipe in the middle of the coffee house to exquisite awkwardness. Also to the same languid background music the rest of the scene had. It reads like someone in production forgot there was supposed to be music there. This hurts the cartoon, especially when the scene repeats after Popeye’s had his spinach power-up and does the same dance but this time is loved.

You have to love Popeye’s fighting technique of holding out his fist and letting Bluto run into it.

What do I know about cool? I’m the guy with multiple books about the history of containerized cargo. Look to someone else for good advice. My read on it, though? You’re cool if you have your Thing. And you’re not creepy about it. And you look like your Thing is comfortable and easy for you. Which brings to mind one of Popeye’s great quotes, trimmed down for the close of this cartoon: I am what I am and that’s all what I am.

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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