Popeye: so why is this cartoon called Mississippi Sissy anyway?

For this week? It’s another 1960 Jack Kinney cartoon, Mississippi Sissy. I don’t care for the title, but only the “Mississippi” part has anything to do with the cartoon. Fun title card, too.

I’ve said how the original Thimble Theatre premise was that these characters were actors, who’d take on the role that fits the story. This faded out of the comic strip as it became a comic-adventure, even before Popeye came in to take it over. We had some trace of that in the cartoons, which were always comfortable starting with Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl in different settings and different relationships. Mississippi Sissy embraces this. Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy are all in and playing parts in a riverboat melodrama. It all fits together well.

So we start out with Popeye strumming a banjo and narrating a story. I think he’s supposed to be singing it? That he starts with a rhyming couplet suggests that. But if he is supposed to sing nobody told Jack Mercer that. Or nobody had at least a temp track for the music to be. It’s usually a flaw in the cartoon if the viewer can’t tell whether something core is being done on purpose.

There’s a sloppiness to the whole cartoon. Of course there is. They didn’t have the time or budget to be careful. There’s plenty of animation glitches this cartoon, moments where Popeye’s pipe ends not particularly near his face, or where a character grabs something that isn’t near their hands or whatever. But here, it feels more like the cartoon is casual and relaxed about its business. I suppose that’s because I’m already enjoying the cartoon. You don’t complain about the mistakes in something that’s entertaining you.

Popeye at the cabin door. An angry Wimpy is holding a revolver at him while Olive Oyl holds Wimpy back.
I suppose it’s also weird to cast Wimpy as a person who’s done a thing and who, for that matter, is owed something. But again, who are you going to go with? Geezil would make character sense but … You know, there are reasons that Hy Eisman has ignored Geezil in his run of the Popeye comic strip. I’m not saying that you can’t use him, but I am saying, you want to go in more carefully than they were probably able to do in the 60s.

And there’s good stuff too. Particularly I’m impressed that the animation has Olive Oyl and Bluto drawn in perspective, rounding a corner. That’s more work than the usual trot from one side of the screen to the other. It’s clearly paid for by things like Olive Oyl holding the envelope noticeably in front of her mouth to speak, and that’s fine. It’s good priorities. No normal person will notice a scene of talking about a letter, however good the animation on it is. They will notice a good complex line of action as the camera zooms in. There’s also a nice bit where Popeye is pulling Olive Oyl out of the river, running up the anchor chain, and he pulls up the chain behind him. It would have been very easy to just have him run up the chain; lifting it as he moves make the cartoon look better.

There was an interesting design choice in making the story a riverboat melodrama. Who among the kid audience would know what was being spoofed? Heck, who as an adult would know that? What riverboat melodramas have you seen? Maybe your high school production of Show Boat, if that counts, and what? It’s a genre that exists entirely in parody, as best I can tell. (Periodic reminder that silent movie villains did not tie women to railroad tracks.) It doesn’t matter. The Popeye characters are cast well enough that the character types they represent are clear. Well, Wimpy as Olive Oyl’s father is a bit weird. But any choice for Olive Oyl’s father is going to be weird, unless you get into the obscure Thimble Theatre characters like, uh, her father Cole Oyl.

That the characters are playing to archetypes, even if we maybe don’t know what they are, does well at excusing the action. Taken literally, there’s no good reason for how Olive Oyl keeps changing her mind over whether Popeye should take the letter. Maybe in the kinds of story being spoofed here there’d be reasons for her to change her mind. Doesn’t matter. Fickleness is built into Olive Oyl’s character, as is Popeye’s willingness to put up with her nonsense.

It all comes together unreasonably well. It’s made one of the best of the 60s series that I’ve looked seriously at.

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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