60s Popeye: Searching for the Foola-Foola Bird (it’s easy to find)


New Year, new old Popeye cartoons to watch. It’s another Larry Harmon-produced cartoon here, this one written by Charles Shows. I don’t have him on record yet, but these records are still quite young things. Going in, I don’t expect great animation — again, see the Hal Sutherland/Lou Scheimer credits — but I’d expect a couple of interesting figures at least. And a solid story makes up for a lot of animation flaws. So here from 1960, it’s Foola-Foola Bird.

We open on a picnic that certainly doesn’t look at all like it’s setting up stock footage that could frame any story. I like the way they’ve drawn grass, though. Popeye and all are tuned to KPLOT-AM radio, where Jackson Beck is doing his Jim Backus impersonation. It’s an adequate way to set up the premise, if you don’t just want to have Popeye and Olive Oyl sailing to Foola-Foola Island and explaining the plot to each other.

The National Birdwatchers Society is offering a million dollars for a Foola-Foola Bird. Nobody says what they want it for, but, given the era … I mean, this was made before Rachel Carson proposed that covering the earth eight feet deep in neurotoxins to save the cost of road crews cutting brush back from highway signage was bad, actually. I have concerns about the well-being of any animals in captivity. But that’s outside the scope of the cartoon. Popeye knows where to find a Foola-Foola Bird: they’ll be on Foola-Foola Island. You’d think more people would try looking there. But I like that Popeye knows where to go. It suggests he’s picked up sailor’s lore, and I like when he gets to be a sailor.

There’s a neat little dissolve, between Brutus and a sneaking Popeye, at about 1:40. And then we get “the last” of the Foola-Foola Birds, although I don’t know how Popeye’s so sure this is the last of them. The bird’s pretty good at taking care of himself, at least.

Popeye does this cheery little song about how “I will fool-a the Foola-Foola bird”. I don’t know why I liked this so. It seems playful, like the way Jack Mercer’s improvised mutterings in the 30s did. I’m curious whether the line was written or whether Jack Mercer just spruced up a dull moment in the recording studio. Or replaced a boring line announcing what Popeye was doing with this.

The Foola-Foola Bird passes out when Popeye “scientifically” sprinkles salt on its tail. Why? I know the legend is that you catch a bird by sprinkling salt on its tail. But, like, I’ve seen every Woody Woodpecker cartoon and he was never taken by that, except when he was going along with a gag. Is the Foola-Foola Bird going along with Popeye’s nonsense to see if this leads anywhere interesting?

So after Popeye walks through the slowest snare trap in the world and gets caught, Brutus takes the Foola-Foola Bird, then drops it to tie up Olive Oyl. The Foola-Foola Bird gives Popeye his spinach, because … why? I’d like to think the Foola-Foola Bird has figured out the moral landscape here, but I don’t see that the bird has reason to. Popeye said he was going to give the Foola-Foola Bird a nice new home, but the bird already has a home.

There’s a perfunctory fight between Popeye and Brutus. If it counts as a fight when only one person throws a punch. And then we get Popeye and Olive Oyl sailing home, deciding to leave the Foola-Foola Bird alone: why? It’s a plausible change of opinion, yes, but why did either of them make it? One line of Olive Oyl regretting the trouble they’re causing the bird would carry a lot of work here. And give Olive Oyl a use in the cartoon. We have the cute ending that the bird’s followed along, and even dragged Brutus with him. Nice enough, although I don’t know why Popeye talks about the Foola-Foola Bird being there as if it were a problem.

So a question for me: why did the cartoon make up the Foola-Foola Bird? The Popeye lore already has the legendary and rare Whiffle Hen. Your tiring friend who wants to Well Actually things will tell you how the Whiffle Hen’s lucky feathers were the original source of Popeye’s indestructibility. There are King Features cartoons that feature the Whiffle Hen, a creature from the original comic strip. So I’m curious whether Charles Shows didn’t know about the Whiffle Hen, or didn’t think he could use it, or whether there was some draft where the Whiffle Hen would have been definitely wrong and something new had to be brought in.

The story makes sense, whether you’re a Whiffle Hen partisan or not. And Brutus talking so much about “getting the bird” or “giving me the bird” sure sounds like somebody was supposed to say something to camera. The animation is all rote stuff, though. There’s some good backgrounds, such as the first look at Foola-Foola Island, but nothing that moves looks all that interesting. It’s altogether a cartoon that’s all right.

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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