60s Popeye: how to be a Matinee Idol


Suggested soundtrack: Sparks, Academy Award Performance.

This week’s King Features Popeye cartoon is, it happens, directed by Gene Deitch, and produced by William L Snyder. There’s no story credit to it. Matinée Idol Popeye, another in the microgenre of cartoons where Popeye makes a movie.

Though I’ve called it a microgenre, there really aren’t many cartoons where Popeye is making a movie. At least one of the times he is, it’s a clip cartoon recycling one of the two-reelers. The benefit of doing a let’s-make-a-movie cartoon is you can put Popeye in any scenario without needing any setup or resolution. But, then, when have we ever needed a reason that Popeye should be in Ancient Egypt? It’s old-style cartoon characters. They could just do that.

The setup is Popeye and Olive Oyl making some Anthony-and-Cleopatra film. Brutus is director, sensibly enough. I’d wondered if this was a riff on the infamous Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton Cleopatra, and it seems … unclear. That movie, released 1963, had started production in 1958. So a 1960 cartoon could riff on it. But apart from its five-million-dollar budget what would stand out, in 1960, about the project? Probably it’s more generically a riff on that era of epic-style filmmaking.

We get early on some nice visual jokes. Popeye turning into a ham when Brutus accuses him of being one, that sort of thing. It reflects one of the good lessons of limited animation: if you can’t show complicated action, at least show a bunch of funny pictures. Brutus tries to woo Olive Oyl, taking out of his pocket a heap of flowers bigger than he is; that’s better than anything which would make physical sense.

The premise of the cartoon becomes that Brutus wants Popeye out of the way, but can’t fire him, so he has to get Popeye to quit or die. Bit gruesome, but, makes sense. We get the gag of Popeye’s head caught in a lion’s mouth, and him puffing his pipe to make the lion release him. That’s been done before; in the Famous Studios Tops in The Big Top Bluto even puts a slab of meat on Popeye’s head to ensure the lion tries to eat him. Here it’s just luck for Brutus that the plan starts to work. It’s a missed chance to make Brutus more villainous, but on the other hand, do we want Brutus to be that mean?

Popeye's head is caught in the mouth of a slightly annoyed lion. Popeye's arms are raised as he figures to maybe do something about this.
Popeye: “Why does this keep happening to me? … All right, it’s only happened maybe three times? But when you consider how often this happens to anyone else that’s still a lot.”

Brutus chuckles “that’ll be good for the end title” when a vulture rests on Popeye’s head. It is, and it’s a missed resolution that the end of the short doesn’t have the vulture on Brutus’s head. We get some nice and really exciting music as the elephant comes in. It raises questions about what the filming schedule for this film was supposed to look like. I wouldn’t want to try to shoot a lion and an elephant and a crocodile scene on the same day. Obviously Brutus is throwing stuff together in the opes of getting Popeye to quit, but he does seem to be filming all this. Without giving Popeye direction of what he should accomplish in the scene, though. If this were an actual film it would be a heck of an avant-garde piece. It’d have some weird verite-like style anyway. Brutus is optimistic to think this will win an Academy Award, but it will have a good shot at being a cult classic.

Brutus finally turns to just grabbing Olive Oyl, because he has not learned how people work yet. Popeye does a slick bit of crushing his can open by dropping a beam of wood on it; that gets us to the fight climax. More time’s spent on Popeye making a sphinx of himself than the actual fight. I’m curious whether they were trying to limit the violence or whether Deitch (or storywriter) thought that punching was the least interesting thing Popeye did. Before we know it, Brutus is harnessed and hauling Popeye’s chariot. This seems like it should violate a Directors Guild rule, but we have reason to think the production is outside proper channels, what with how there’s no other crew.

This isn’t a lushly animated cartoon and after the initial business with the ham it doesn’t get too fanciful either. It does well with what animation there is. And it avoids having too many scenes that look like police lineups. We get a lot of close pictures of characters’s faces, or from chest up. Not so many of them standing in a line viewed from afar. I regret that it doesn’t show off the experimental energies I was talking so much about yesterday. But sometimes a cartoon’s just executed successfully after all.

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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