Today’s King Features Popeye cartoon is an interesting one. It’s one I like without having to apologize for its limitations. And there’s a mystery behind it.
Take It Easel is a Gerald Ray-produced cartoon. There’s no story or writing credit. The Internet Movie Database credits Bob Bemiller as director and Milt Schaffer as writer, on what basis I don’t know. Well, director I know; it’s there on the title card. It’s got a nice roster of eight credited animators, though, promising that as with most of the Gerald Ray cartoons, there’ll at least be a bunch of good pictures to look at even if they don’t move much. So here’s 1960’s Take It Easel.
This is a well-crafted Popeye cartoon. Popeye and Brutus are art students. There’s a contest in the art magazine, a thousand dollars for the best flower painting. Popeye and Brutus become rivals for the prize, and they set out to the desert. They find a lovely purple-petaled flower growing alone in the sand, and spend the rest of the short trying to paint the picture and undermine the other. Finally it all gets serious enough that Popeye has to eat his spinach. He smashes Brutus and the flower together in a canvas and presents that to the art world, which admires his bold work and lifelike nature.
There is a lot of good stuff this cartoon. Not just in the storyline but in the jokes. Some of them are throwaway bits: the letter carrier whacking Popeye in the head twice with deliveries. Or Popeye leaping from the loft window right into his car, and Brutus leaping from the same window to … right where Popeye’s car was. Some of them are fourth-wall-breaking experiences, which was always a way to make the young me love your cartoon. But they seem to echo the artists-at-work theme of the cartoon. Brutus correcting his off-center painting by grabbing the thumb in it and sliding the thing over. Popeye’s painting of a flower wilting in the heat. Brutus painting a swimming pool. In setting up the climax, Brutus painting train tracks and the rope to tie Popeye. Popeye painting his can of spinach.
And there’s a lot of good back-and-forth dialogue, Brutus and Popeye sassing the other. Which allows for a deft bit of plotting. Brutus’s undoing is always letting Popeye get spinach. Why give Popeye a paintbrush, when experience indicates that any tool will let Popeye summon spinach from the misty void? Well, because he’s sassing Popeye back. It is a really well-crafted cartoon throughout. There’s even a bonus bit of Popeye signing his rhyming couplet, about people calling him Van Gouher when he paints a flower. It’s just another nice small bit of business.
The cartoon is also a remake. In November 1956 the Walter Lantz studios released the Woody Woodpecker cartoon Arts and Flowers. The director was Paul J Smith, and the story’s credited to Homer Brightman and Frank J Goldberg. Smith directed roughly a hundred billion Woody Woodpecker theatrical cartoons. Brightman wrote about a billion of them. Goldberg is credited with this short alone. I don’t know whether this reflects him usually being credited under a variant name or whether this reflects “Frank J Goldberg” being a pseudonym summoned just for this one short. It stands out to me that Milt Schaffer was still getting story credits for Walt Disney shorts through 1956, then got a couple story credits for Woody Woodpecker, before going and joining Gerald Ray’s team.
To me, this matters. If Frank J Goldberg was Milt Schaffer, then there’s no real harm done. It’s no crime to plagiarize yourself. If he wasn’t, though, then someone deserves a surely-posthumous-by-now scolding.
I don’t know of an official YouTube channel for the Walter Lantz studios. I can share links which have Arts And Flowers, but there’s no reason to think they’re going to stay stable. So, let me know if the link rots and I’ll do my best to find a replacement. But Here’s one YouTube source for the cartoon, and here’s the cartoon from a web site I never heard of before looking this short up.
There are important differences. The animation in the Woody Woodpecker cartoon is better. Walter Lantz’s studio was a second-tier theatrical place, but second-tier theatrical was still way ahead of even ex-Disney-animator television. Woody Woodpecker isn’t established as an artist or art student right away; he seems to get interested just by peeking at his neighbor’s mail. The art contest is more narrowly defined as being for a “desert flower”. And it promises only a big prize, rather than a thousand dollars, which turns out to be a picture of a bag of money. Artful Art — I never knew this name, but Wikipedia seems to have settled on it — and Woody Woodpecker sabotage each other right away, even before they’ve reached the desert.
We get some of the same jokes, like Woody and Artful shoving their easels in front of the other. Here, it carries on until Artful falls off a cliff; on TV, Brutus is just baffled to find the flower no longer in front of him. I’m not sure which is the better joke. The Popeye version lets the cartoon move faster to the next beat.
The Woody Woodpecker cartoon has a joke dropped from the remake, in which Artful gets distracted by a laughing hyena. The joke’s better off dropped. It’s funny enough, allowing that the idea of a crying hyena is of course a sufficient joke. It’s that the story is Woody versus Artful. Why throw in a distraction character? Put this in the short where Woody is trying to paint and nature conspires against him instead.
The joke where Artful kicks Woody out of the scene, opens up his easel, and Woody’s in there is lost too. That’s a good joke but there’s no way to make that work with Brutus and Popeye. The joke of the desert daffodil shrinking into the ground and reappearing could have gone in the remake, though, and I’m curious why it didn’t. We get an undermining joke in which Brutus digs beneath Popeye and he sinks into the ground instead. Although come to it, we don’t actually see the moving flower is Woody’s doing, or how he does it. I’d just assumed, since, what else makes sense?
Most interesting, though, are two bits. In one, Woody paints an oasis. As is traditional for stuff cartoons paint on rocks, he can swim in it and Artful can’t. In the other, and most important difference, it’s Woody that paints the railroad tracks and railroad into existence. In the remake, these are tasks assigned to Brutus. To the villain. Woody Woodpecker was always a difficult protagonist. He’s supposed to be this zany agent of chaos. I think it’s telling that the stuff the audience is expected to root for in 1956 is so naturally slid over to the antagonist in 1960. I still like Woody Woodpecker, but appreciate more that he can only work if he’s harassing somebody who deserves it. Put him up against a well-meaning vague shape of protagonist dough, like Andy Panda, and Woody Woodpecker is awful.
In the Woody Woodpecker cartoon, the ability to paint things like the train into reality is set up early. Woody paints a cactus that jabs Artful. Woody paints a woman holding a vase, who hits Artful with the vase. Woody paints a bulldog into existence to bite Artful’s tuckus. But is setting that up necessary? I didn’t have trouble believing that Brutus could paint a train into existence, and given that, Popeye painting spinach into the world is fine.
So. Let me put forth the hypothesis that “Frank J Goldberg” was a one-off pseudonym used by Milt Schaffer. That Schaffer was working at Disney through 1956 suggests that maybe he had a foot in the door at Lantz, but didn’t want his name noticed before he had left Disney. This seems plausible enough. The Woody Woodpecker cartoon Niagara Fools came out the 22nd of October, 1956, with Schaffer’s name on it. This is before the release of Arts and Flowers, on the 19th of November, with I assume Schaffer’s name hidden. But that doesn’t say much about when production on the shorts got started or what whimsies of fate might have pushed Arts and Flowers to later in the year. It suggests that production of Niagara Fools started after Schaffer had left Disney, at least.
Having done all this detective work, I’m just assuming there’s an article on Cartoon Brew or Mark Evanier’s page that describes all the various pseudonyms that Schaffer used and why he used them, and that I’m twelve years late to the party. That’s all right. That is closer than I normally ever am.