Gene Deitch directed this week’s 60s Popeye cartoon. It doesn’t carry story or animation credits, but this was when he was working in Prague and also doing the Tom and Jerry cartoons that everyone regards as “really weird”. I love them, not just because they are very weird. This week’s cartoon, Sea No Evil, is not structurally a pretty normal cartoon. Still, I like it.
The short starts, like the old writing advice goes, as late as it possibly could, moments before parties unknown steal every piece the boating equipment, one at a time, from under Popeye and Olive Oyl’s noses. It’s Brutus’s work, and he takes the stuff to his boating supply store to sell back to Popeye. There’s a fairly extended sequence of Popeye listing all the items he needs, and Brutus bringing it up from behind the wet wheelbarrow behind the counter. It may take longer to establish this than needed. But it does establish a rhythm. It makes the sequence feel like a running gag. It helps the comedy land better. It’s particularly good for appealing to the kids the cartoon’s aimed at; I could remember the sequence decades after the last time I’d seen the cartoon. Also, I would have sworn there were at least three cycles of Brutus stealing all the boating gear and Popeye buying it back.
It’s a good premise for a cartoon too. It’s obvious why Brutus might be pulling this trick, and why he might think Popeye and Olive Oyl are good marks. Popeye’s apparently willing to write off the first loss of five hundred bucks’ worth of boating equipment as bad luck (!), but he’s not going to fall for that long. And then it’s chase Brutus, see Brutus getting away, find the spinach, and punch things to a conclusion. I have the impression that Deitch cartoons bring things to an end pretty fast, once Popeye eats his spinach, but I’m not feeling energetic enough to check that.
There are some of the common traits of Deitch-directed cartoons of this era here. Character movements are kept simple, and transitions between motions are implied or off-panel altogether; look at about 16:27, when Popeye stands motionless in a sinking boat for a solid eight seconds, to punch a Brutus who’s appeared somehow through, I guess, the hole in the boat, and punches him. Brutus goes from flying up into the air to being in the water, held by an anchor, swimming with all his might in a transition we have to imagine. And there’s a loose adherence to character models. I don’t mind this. Some choices almost seem artistically thoughtful. Like, in the boating store, Popeye’s hips and legs being these dwindling things make him look puny in the face of Brutus’s might, which matches where the character is at that moment in the story. Other weird bits are probably artifacts of trying to make what movement there is available look better in motion. If you freeze a frame at about 16:36, where Brutus is in the water swimming and anchored to what’s left of his boat, you can see him with an elephant’s trunk of a left arm that looks awful; but, that’s one frame of a swimming cycle that looks fine.
I am charmed that Popeye spends a couple sends waving his fingers to the beat as the soundtrack gets to the “I’m strong to the finich” couplet. There’s no diegetic source for this music; somehow, the radio is the one stolen thing Popeye didn’t buy back. Which is also a fun bit of business as the background music cutting out when Brutus steals the radio is how Olive Oyl and Popeye learn the cartoon has started and they need to do something. It’s always the little things that tickle me particularly.