60s Popeye has his Skyscraper Capers

I’m looking today at the Jack Kinney-produced 1960 short Skyscraper Capers. The credits scrambled my anticipation. Not affecting my expectations at all: the story was by Nick George. I don’t know the name yet, but I’ve only just started tracking these things. Lowering my expectations: that the animation director was Rudy Larriva. You may remember his name from the roughly 112,316 Wile E Coyote cartoons that Warner Brothers subcontracted out in the late 60s, made with a budget of $46 and nearly six bars of background music. He did a couple of those regretted Daffy Duck/Speedy Gonzales cartoons too, on similar terms. I’m not saying he didn’t do well given the constraints, but do you like the cartoons? And these King Features Popeye cartoons were made on the same constraints.

Raising my expectations, though: the title promises a skyscraper cartoon. I don’t know which animators first realized that skyscraper construction is a great background for a cartoon. The setting promises imminent danger, giving the cartoon that tension good for slapstick comedy. A big construction project implies great planning and sequencing, and thus something massive that the characters can rebel against, or at least mess up. (Note that multiple studios noticed skyscaper construction set to orchestral music produces great cartooning.) And you can even give the animators a chance to prove they can draw, with just one shot of the girder structure in perspective. So which expectation panned out?

This kind of cartoon chooses to explain why Popeye’s building a skyscraper. Probably the audience would have accepted it if he were just there; it’s not so baffling that BrutusBoss is just there, or that Wimpy is just there. Having Popeye read out the help wanted sign certainly fills time without needing so much animation, though. It’s interesting Popeye likes the idea until he actually sees a height, and shies back entirely once he’s asked to sign a contract. That he does it for fear of being called yellow is not a great look for him, but I can’t say it’s false. I’m interested that Brutus gives a contract that’s a real actual document. I can read enough of it to see that it’s some kind of purchase agreement rather than an employment contract, but that could not possibly matter. Also it means some animator had the job of designing Popeye’s signature.

Supervisor Wimpy guiding Popeye to his job with the tones of an elevator operator is a good bit. Also a good bit is his lightly Greek Chorus role of commenting on Popeye’s latest mishap. The attitude’s good enough to almost distract me from trying to work out what exactly he said, after dropping the bricks. I keep hearing, “that [ there? ] was a faux pas, sir”, which is good at least so far as I did hear it.

BrutusBoss does demand to know whether Popeye’s trying to get him killed. It’s a good question. The setting demands people get hit with bricks or get steel girders in the gut and stuff. The casting demands that Popeye instigate these things, though. BrutusBoss is in charge, and Wimpy laboring isn’t Wimpy. So this demands either Popeye be incompetent or be following incompetent direction. The cartoon goes for making Popeye incompetent. Although we could blame management here; after all, someone chose to send Popeye out on bare girders with a wheelbarrow full of bricks and no clear direction. And Popeye can’t be blamed for the rope pulling BrutusBoss up spontaneously fraying and snapping.

Brutus sitting at the window ledge, chin on his hand, mouth wide open and eyes nearly closed; it's meant to be a taunting move but can be mis-read as a come-hither look.
Hard to know whether to be more distracted by BrutusBoss’s come-hither look or how his fist seems to get in-between his beard and his chin.

There’s a lot of understatement lines I like here. Wimpy tut-tutting that “you shouldn’t have done that” after Popeye drops BrutusBoss from the hook. BrutusBoss declaring “I want out!” after being driven in to the ground by sacks of concrete. Wimpy’s whole “faux pas” line whatever it exactly is. The whistle bellowing “LUUUUUNCH!” and later, “WOOOOOORK!” is also a nice bit and I don’t know whether it’s original to this cartoon. My hunch is it was done in earlier workplace cartoons.

Popeye needing his whole lunch break to unsuccessfully open a can of spinach I’m still thinking about. It’s absurd, sure. Is it funny enough to justify ignoring the, like, 194 earlier cartoons where Popeye just squeezed his can open? I guess, but I think I’d have liked a comment from Popeye about how he doesn’t understand why this is so hard today.

So there’s much I like here. Or find fun, at least. Not the animation, though. That’s all fairly boring stuff except for when it gets baffling. There’s a couple of decent sequences of action, all of which require props or characters to teleport into place. BrutusBoss pulls the sides off Popeye’s ladder, leaving him to climb the rungs hanging in midair; solid enough joke. Popeye keeps running up and BrutusBoss is on top of the building’s mast somehow? And Wimpy looks down to follow this action because … ? Well, because they don’t have the budget to animate Wimpy looking up, but still.

We end with everybody quitting because, eh, the short’s over and that’s enough.

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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