Popeye versus The Phantom. Not *that* The Phantom


Popeye fears only one thing: ghosts. He can’t punch ghosts. I believe this was said explicitly, maybe as far back as Elzie Segar’s run that created the character. There are other inconvenient things, like the Sea Hag, who can’t be hit as she is a woman. But ghosts hold a special terror.

Let’s watch Popeye and the Phantom, from 1960 and Jack Kinney’s directorial eye. Again, not that The Phanom.

The promising opening is of a dark and stormy night. And a newscaster with the news that The Phantom is loose. The warning is what I’d expect for a notorious criminal breaking loose. Maybe a lion escaping from the circus and hiding over at Tom and Jerry’s place. Instead(?) I guess it’s a ghost. I would think that The Phantom’s a ghost being worth a mention in the news flash. Maybe also that ghosts are provably real things that torment the living. I hope when the TV station came up for its license renewal, someone mentioned this failure to serve the public interest.

Maybe not though. When The Phantom does appear he’s really not menacing. He looks vaguely like a Harvey Comics character. I don’t think it’s just that he wears a hat that looks like a quickly-drawn hamburger. But it’s also that his haunting amounts to little, faintly comic stunts. Like, so little that Popeye is certainly not going to turn his head and look at them. Then we get a solid 50 seconds of Popeye ducking almost far enough to avoid the … ghostly boats and giant wooden shoes and cars that The Phantom is driving? And that goes on until Popeye declares this is geting embarrassing, I assume for the Phantom. Popeye’s handling it with such casual disinterest that embarrassment can’t possibly stick to him.

The Phantom swipes Popeye’s spinach, which isn’t bad on his part. We do then get a solid minute and 40 seconds of Popeye trying to grab his spinach back from the ghost, missing when the ghost dematerializes at the last second. There’s some good stuff here. Popeye gets some funny looks of exasperation. The comic timing of the Phantom bapping Popeye on the head with the mallet is good. Popeye waving his flag of surrender and the ghost appearing as a butler is fun too.

Structurally though it’s about the same as those too-many cartoons where Popeye can’t outwit an animal. I think it works better than, like, Popeye not outwitting a gopher. The gopher’s just trying to eat. The Phantom is messing with Popeye and Olive Oyl. And The Phantom can be ridiculous in ways an animal can’t.

And then we get Popeye declaring these are friendly ghosts, an adjective and a plural not supported in the text. Popeye invites The Phantom to a game of bridge. I know three things about bridge and the second of them is that it’s a four-person game. I guess we have to suppose there are more than one ghost bothering Popeye and Olive Oyl. We only see one at a time. I guess that checks out. But it would be clearer if we saw a second ghost, even if it were the same model. The baffling moments keep coming. In the last seconds of the cartoon Olive Oyl, having been bothered by this ghost or ghosts all night, and played bridge with them for hours, declares she doesn’t believe they’re real. Things brings on a new round of ghostly laughter from a bodiless mouth. All right.

I know these cartoons give the impression of being written and animated in less time than it takes to watch. At least they give the impression of being done on a single draft. This one has a lot of things that could be fixed with quick tweaks. A moment of seeing a second ghost, for example, at the end particularly. The news reporter talking about The Phantom Gang and saying that they’re ghosts. … Really, that alone would at least make the storyline make sense. It would take more plot surgery to fix where Popeye doesn’t do anything for the first two and a half minutes. But we could let that slide. They were making about 750 Popeye cartoons a month. It’s refreshing if he doesn’t drive the plot in all of them. And maybe a story is better if it has some rough edges.

Still, it’s a cute Phantom design. I suppose we never see him again, which is a tiny shame.

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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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