60s Popeye: Swee’Pea Thru The Looking Glass

My plan to pay attention to the credits is paying off! In this Jack Kinney production I see the story is by Ed Nofziger. Earlier this month Hamburger Fishing had him adapt a fairy tale to the Popeye setting. The title here implies a fairy-tale-based cartoon. So here’s Sweapea Thru The Looking Glass. As you see, I disagree with the title card about how to spell Swee’Pea’s name.

The establishing shot, of Popeye’s Boring Suburban House, lowered my hopes. I was expecting another Popeye-reads-to-Swee’Pea frame for the story, and was glad to see that it wasn’t. The cartoon decides to have Popeye go golfing, which I was not glad to see. Golfing is what comic strip artists do when they start getting boring. Olive Oyl is off to a card party, which surprised me as she’s usually sent “shopping” when they need her out of the cartoon. But these are thoughtful choices: it foreshadows what Swee’pea encounters through the looking-glass. Switching from croquet to golf is probably a good way to Mid-century-Americanize the story without losing the whole hitting-balls-with-birds motif. So, as with Hamburger Fishing, good on Ed Nofzinger for thinking out the adaptation some.

Eugene the Jeep makes a good excuse to get Swee’Pea through the looking glass, but he’s not explicitly used. Swee’Pea makes a wish, and the cuckoo clock that’s been sitting in the background all cartoon tells him to try. The cuckoo’s answer to Swee’Pea’s skepticism, “cuckoo, cuckoo, you will if you do” has a satisfying gentle comic logic to me. It has that nice Yogi Berra charm.

Inside the looking-glass the world’s upside-down, which doesn’t fit with how mirrors normally work but which at least clearly shows it’s a strange land. Eugene gets a voice once he’s through the looking-glass. It’s this high-pitched squeaky thing like every voice this cartoon, which isn’t my favorite thing. But it does at least seem consistent with his normal jeep squeak. Right through there’s a huge-eared rabbit, a kangaroo, and an elephant late for their golfing. I’d thought the rabbit and kangaroo were meant to evoke Popeye and Olive Oyl, but that seems wrong. There’s nothing Popeye in the rabbit. All the kangaroo brings to things is a red shirt and a hat that I falsely thought Olive Oyl had been wearing this cartoon. I swear she wears it other cartoons, though.

Eugene declares he’s late, as it’s “two hairs to a mole”, which is a line I’m sure I didn’t understand when I was a kid. It’s got to be the punch line to a joke about checking the time when you’ve forgotten your watch. But there’s no setup. This gives it a nice dream logic; the line makes no sense, except that you can work out a context where it would make sense, and when you have, things have moved on. And it’s bold to condense a joke just to its punch line, especially in a cartoon for kids.

Swee'Pea and Eugene the Jeep, upside-down, on a matching upside-down landscape. Right-side-up (to the viewer) is a huge-eared blue rabbit with a golf bag over his back.
Whenever a cartoon does this upside-down business outside an enclosed space I worry about how the characters can have a consistent “floor” line. Also, is that rabbit resting his golf bag on his tail? That hardly seems possible. Also his paws look like he has too-long sleeves.

There is a strong dream feeling to this short. The surreal setting, certainly. The way Eugene and other nonhuman characters repeatedly chirp short sentences, often repeating the final word until it fades out. Slightly unsettling things like the golf course flags chanting “this way out that way out no way out”. You’re taking an Alice in Wonderland/Through The Looking-Glass project seriously if it’s feeling this close to a nightmare.

The Sea Hag’s the obvious casting choice for the Queen of Hearts. Brutus gets cast as her husband, which is all right, although it leaves them short for who to cast as Jack, the guard that goes after Swee’Pea. Maybe Wimpy could have been cast as the King. Bernard the Vulture gets cast in the flamingo role. You can fault the King Features cartoons for many things, but they did bring a lot of the comic strip cast to animation.

In the end, Swee’Pea and Eugene get back to reality as Popeye and Olive Oyl return. Popeye scolds Swee’pea for telling fibs. This doesn’t seem like a wise choice on Popeye’s part, especially once Olive Oyl finds you can just step through mirrors, it’s easy. It is the odd cartoon where Popeye gets a cameo role, and spinach even goes unmentioned.

I like this cartoon. It gets nice and weird and commits to it. I could wish that the animation were better, but the storyline has a solidly bizarre flow to it, in all the good ways. Shall have to watch for this Ed Nofziger fellow in future works.


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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