Sports are a good base for a comedic cartoon. The characters playing something automatically gives them something to try doing. The rules give the plot something to struggle against. And since it really can’t ever matter who wins a sporting event, there’s a built-in absurdity to the proceedings. The smaller the sporting event, the better, for the comic baseline. So, Popeye and Bluto playing ping-pong? That’s a secure base, I’d think. After The Ball Went Over is another Jack Kinney-produced cartoon from the 1960s heap.
In some of the King Features cartoons Popeye’s antagonist doesn’t get named. This reflected that time when they weren’t sure whether Bluto was a character created by their cartoonists or by Fleischer Studios/Paramount. Why else have Popeye call Bluto “Fatso”, “Fatty”, “Lover Boy”, “Blubber-head”, everything but his name? And then we finally get Olive Oyl calling him “Brutus”. Mystery partly solved.
Ping-Pong is a good sport for limited animation. You can use the same couple frames for a volley. And if you want the ball to do something weird, well, you draw a white circle and slide it around the frame. Combine that with the estimated 38 billion times that Popeye goes running off, in a Groucho Marx stoop, after the bouncing ball and you get a cartoon that must have come in under budget. This even with a bunch of scenes — a henhouse, the city sewers, the … dynamite shed — used for their own jokes.
This cartoon keeps trying to be bad. Particularly it just doesn’t have any story structure. Popeye and Brutus start a volley, some spot joke happens, and repeat. That shapelessness works fine for, like, Wile E Coyote. But Popeye cartoons are supposed to build in peril and tension until someone, usually Popeye, eats his spinach.
And then the cartoon skips that. It’s one of that small but noticeable set of spinach-less cartoons. And Popeye talks about that. Early on he talks to Olive Oyl about the absurdity of even having this contest, since if he’s in danger of losing he can just eat his spinach. In the end, he complains about needing a new writer who’ll put his spinach in the script. Popeye’s made cracks about being a cartoon character before. Most Fleischer cartoon characters were at least somewhat self-aware cartoon actors. But that had mostly gone fallow during the 50s.
And this attitude, Popeye barely committing to the premise that he’s in a ping-pong cartoon, elevates it. It’s exhausting to always have a character who won’t just be in the story. As an occasional thing, though? This time, at least, it works for me. I’m curious about the writing choices that went into this. I wonder if the writers decided they just didn’t have that many good ping-pong jokes after all, but needed something, and decided that having Popeye trying to no-sell the whole cartoon was the best way to be interesting about it. This would explain the oddness of Popeye, our putative hero, pulling stunts like replacing the ping-pong ball with an egg, or putting explosive into the ping-pong ball. That’s villain stuff; what’s Popeye doing acting like that? Other than, well, giving up on this.
If it was a choice to try saving a weak premise, it was a great one. At least for one cartoon. It makes forgivable much of the cartoon’s sloppiness, like … oh, the bit at about 21:40 where Popeye’s shown laughing without the sound. Or random bits of weirdness, like Brutus serving to the rallying cry of “Viva Zapata!”.
Maybe it is all just shoddily made. I won’t argue that it isn’t. But it is amiable in that shoddiness. I don’t want a lot of cartoons like this. If sometimes Popeye just isn’t going to take the cartoon’s stakes seriously, though? I can go for that.