60s Popeye: that time he tried being Popeye the Fireman

It’s another Jack Kinney-produced cartoon this week. This one gets a story by Osmond Evans, a new name around here. Osmond Evans is also the animation director, which means I go in with no idea what it’s going to look like. Or what the story will be like. So here, then, is 1960’s Popeye the Fireman.

So this … this. It is a good idea for a cartoon. Popeye as a fire fighter? Sure, why not, as long as he’s not sailing he might as well be. He’s done it before, but that was hundreds of cartoons ago. We can revisit an idea. Popeye rescuing Olive Oyl from a high-rise hotel fire, and it turns out to all be Brutus smoking a cigar and punching? Yeah, that’s a reasonable skeleton. Hang some extra incidents, a couple jokes, maybe a little action and you have a competent cartoon.

You see where my opinion is going. The cartoon appeals to me right away, as the title card becomes the action. It’s a good start. We get a very stick-figure animation of Olive Oyl, but that could be forgiven. Then it turns out the cartoon really wants to be that cheaply animated all throughout. It’s no crime to be cheap, or even to look cheap. But there is a point where it’s distracting how little animation is going on, as for example Wimpy at about 18:00, chewing by having two frames swap out, once a second. That looks bad. When it gets cheap enough we have to infer what’s meant to go on? Here, I mean Popeye sliding down the ladder at about 21:03. It looks like the ladder is folding up. No; it turns out Popeye’s supposed to be sliding down it, breaking each rung.

But I can’t write this off as a sloppily-animated short. There’s a couple pieces where the animation gets really interesting. The most striking part is, like about 20:15, where the camera zooms in and out as Popeye, on the ladder, moves up, and the background moves alongside that. It’s a complicated shot, for all that it really is just sliding cells. It conveys a lot of movement, and a lot of three-dimensional movement. It’s not as lush as the equivalent scene would be in a late-30s Fleischer Popeye. But it evokes that, and within the budget and personnel constraints of these 60s cartoons. There’s a little bit around 19:47 where Popeye wheels the fire truck’s ladder around and to the front. That’s again movement in three dimensions. It’s startling. It’s great to see something leave the plane of the stage that so much of the action’s confined to.

Popeye holding on to a ladder that's elevating past skyscrapers. He's seen from in front.
Also I notice a lot of this cartoon sees Popeye with both eyes closed, which maybe balances out those cartoons of this era where Popeye has both eyes open all the time.

Yet again I wonder about the makings of the cartoon. It’s easy to imagine that this was Evans getting a director’s credit, and focusing his time on a couple of choice moments while letting the rest slide. I don’t know this, though. The IMDB doesn’t even list this short among his credits. It does say Evans was a segment director for the Mr Magoo version of 1001 Arabian Nights, and a couple of shorts in the 50s. So he can’t have been completely inexperienced. But perhaps he was new to the severe constraints of limited-animation tv of the 60s.

There are a couple interesting filigrees in the writing. Little bits like Wimpy considering it wasteful, at the fire call box, to have to break the glass and pull the lever. Or a bit so small and weird that it seems like a production error. The fire’s reported at the Hotel Star (see 18:38). When Popeye gets there, it’s the Hotel Ozmund (see 20:05). Is it meant to be something sharp-eyed viewers notice and chuckle at? I can’t tell. But all this is all along the way of a very slow story. It takes about twelve minutes for Popeye the Fireman to hear about the fire, and then another 34 minutes of rolling through traffic to get the fire truck to the Hotel Ozmund Star. There are a few jokes along the way, but there is a lot of easy-to-animate padding too.

As I say. It’s a good idea for a cartoon.

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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