60s Popeye: now let’s watch Popeye the Piano Mover

This week we’re back to Jack Kinney-produced short. Harvey Toombs gets credit for both the story and for animation direction. I didn’t have Toombs’s name mentioned before, but that’s because I was slow to start tracking that. He was the animation director, among other things, on Coffee House (the Beatnik one), Popeye’s Car Wash, and Hamburger Fishing. The Internet Movie Database credits him with story only on Popeye’s Car Wash, although obviously that listing is incomplete. Well, here’s Popeye the Piano Mover.

Pianos are funny. They’re things someone would plausibly need moved. But they’re bulky and heavy awkward and difficult to work with. And they make a funny sound of frustration when they get banged.

And the Sisyphean task of moving a thing up an enormous flight of stairs is funny. Laurel and Hardy combined the piano with the enormous flight of stairs to win an Academy Award. The Three Stooges did much the same with ice, albeit to less critical acclaim.

So why is this cartoon dull? I don’t think it’s just that I know there’s better versions of this premise. I think the short just doesn’t develop the premise. It’s odd since there’s a couple ways it could go.

Like, we open with Popeye and Brutus going to Olive Oyl’s suspiciously open, vacant apartment to move her piano. That we didn’t see Olive Oyl here made me suspect a setup for Popeye and Brutus having gone to the wrong apartment. They went to apartment 1665 and why couldn’t that have been apartment 1695, with the 9 rotated? But, no; we don’t see Olive Oyl because she’s just moved to her new cottage is all.

The piano can’t fit through the door, inviting the question of how it got in the apartment at all. But Brutus has the idea of lowering the piano out the window, which made me suspect we were in for a bunch of jokes with the piano and Popeye and Brutus dangling above the city. And no again. We get the piano falling, and Popeye falling, and then everything’s all right and the piano’s ready to deliver.

We get an enormously long stairwell for Popeye and Brutus to drag the piano up. Here anyone knows how the story unfolds, with many attempts that get the piano close to a level surface, and all of which fail. Nope; we get one attempt, and then Brutus knocks the piano downhill again, without even really meaning to. At least he was trying to kill Popeye earlier.

At least we finally get some good comic action with the piano running loose on the city streets, with Popeye chasing. And, for some reason, Wimpy as the offended traffic cop. The plot does need a traffic cop, at least if the piano isn’t going to be supernaturally skilled at avoiding Popeye. But, Wimpy? As a traffic cop who takes his job seriously? Yeah, you have to cast somebody, and Brutus already has a role, and the rest of the Thimble Theatre regulars are even worse fits. Maybe it’d be easier if the piano were better at evading Popeye on its own.

There is some good stuff. Popeye riding on the piano as it goes through several stores, and he gets dressed up as a baby or in a tutu shedding flowers or such is funny. The resolution, the piano sliding perfectly into place, and Brutus landing on top, and getting ticketed by a confused Wimpy, has the sort of solid punch line I’d expect from a silent or early-talkie one-reeler. Good model to live up to. But these are some small high points in a cartoon. Otherwise it mostly feels like there are a bunch of good directions the cartoon could go, none of which it does.


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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