When I first watched this week’s cartoon, Interrupted Lullaby, I didn’t notice the credits. So I was trying to figure out what the deal is with the animation. Finally something in the motion, and something in the sound effects — I was watching it quietly — revealed. It’s a Gene Deitch cartoon. Normally, I like these, as the Gene Deitch style has a weirdness I enjoy. This time? Well.
So here’s a question I never fully articulated: why am I watching the 1960s King Features Syndicate Popeye cartoons? The universal consensus is that they range from awful to god-awful, they were made for about $35 each, and none of them advanced the Popeye canon significantly. Why not cartoons that have some legacy, like the Fleischer or even the Famous Studios cartoons? Or, like, Popeye and Son, which tried to change the canonical center and maybe screwed things up but at least did it in an 80s way?
Partly, well, because I started doing this by accident and never really examined my decision. Partly comfort; I grew up watching these and while they may not be good, they have nostalgia’s soft pleasantness. The best reason to watch these and write about them is discovery, though. The cartoons were made under ridiculous constraints of time and budget and material. Working out how they got work done is interesting. And instructive to all of us trying to do stuff despite all the reasons we can’t.
Last week in discussing Goon with the Wind I noticed things that have to have cost money and time. Popeye and Olive Oyl in different outfits. An island of Goon-esque characters. Some slick moments of animation. Some good special effects. All that had to be paid for somewhere. … I do not know the production order of these cartoons, or whether anyone knows it. But, boy, do we have a candidate here for where the resources for that cartoon came from.
We start off, after all, with the cartoon failing to synchronize Popeye blowing his pipe in the opening credits. It’s a weirdly unnecessary stumble to the start. We get a couple repeats of the Popeye-the-sailor-man fanfare while reading in the Morning Star how Swee’Pea today “beanie [sic]” a millionaire, inheriting from “his late great granfather [sic]”. After staring at that for long enough, Popeye finally reads the news aloud. Later, Bluto or Brutus gets to see the paper for a fraction of a second; it’s like they misplaced a few seconds of establishing.
Swee’Pea being a millionaire, or thought to be one, isn’t a bad premise and I think the comic strip’s done that a few times. But all it serves for the plot here is a reason for Bluto or possibly Brutus to try kidnapping the kid. I guess we need the motivation but if all it amounts to is Swee’Pea’s given a box of “gold-wrapped” chocolates to eat? He could do that on fifteen hundred dollars.
There’s some good stuff here. Popeye beating up Bluto a couple times without even noticing it is a decent joke. Some of the scenes have actual depth to them, such as Popeye petting Swee’Pea’s back while a fly buzzes around and, behind the curtains, Bluto schemes to do them a mischief. Swee’Pea carefully reads out the letters s-p-i-n-a-c-h and takes the word to mean “Popeye”. Everything has actual backgrounds, rather than solid blocks of color.
But, gads. Nobody looks right, or even looks wrong in an interesting way. Mouth movements in limited animation are always going to be impressions of speech. But they looked really loose this time. I am not convinced that Jack Mercer read the line “That’s the first time I ever heard a fly say ‘OUCH’!” in one session, but why on earth would they have spliced in an “OUCH” from another cartoon? How did Popeye, tied up and trapped in a barrel, roll downstairs and pop out the storm cellar door?
This feels to me like a cartoon that didn’t get so much attention. The storyline is fine enough. I’d be interested in seeing money go to Swee’pea’s head, but that would be a different cartoon that they chose not to make. There are moments where they’re clearly saving budget, like holding on the newspaper for a good long time, or focusing on Swee’Pea eating chocolates instead of people around him talking. My impression is that the cartoon spends a little more time than, like, last week’s on this sort of animation cheat. Not enormously, but maybe enough to let them do nice things like Popeye’s circling around the Goon King last week.
I may be wrong. I don’t know any real detail of how these cartoons were made, including basic things like who did the writing. All I can do is make inferences, and wonder how they were made.
For someone fifty years from now wondering about these essays: Oh, I watch a cartoon, then watch it again, made a couple jibberish notes, and then the next day watch again while writing actual paragraphs. You know, about like you imagine. My budget is tight but I have never gone over it yet.