60s Popeye, Invisible Popeye: the heck am I watching?

Two cars on the top of a monorail track race toward each other. A third car races away, clinging to the underside and racing toward a support pylon.

Settle in, kids. We got a weird one. I know, I can hear you getting excited. The weird cartoons are fun even if my review just becomes live-tweeting.

It’s another cartoon from the Jack Kinney studios. Hugh Fraser gets credit for the story and for the animation direction. Here, featuring Professor O G Wotasnozzle, is Invisible Popeye.

O G Wotasnozzle, inventor, was created by Elzie Segar to give us a reason to read his other comic strip, Sappo. He migrated to Popeye, bringing the strip the occasional wacky invention. In the King Features cartoons he showed up a fair bit, usually with the time machine that Olive Oyl dusts at the start. The cartoon does nothing to explain what this is or why it would do anything, but you know? When you’re seven years old? Somehow you never need anything explained. Each year I regret I can no longer follow the plot of Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. To a kid, it makes intuitive sense. Of course Olive Oyl should accidentally activate the time machine and get sent off to … somewhere.

Olive Oyl gets a cute line about how “scientists don’t seem to mind a little dust as long as it’s cosmic”. That is such a 1960 line. It’s not that space scientists have lost an interest in cosmic dust, but when do you ever hear about it anymore? Also Olive Oyl looks back over her shoulder at the camera. For this era of cartoon, it’s a subtle movement. This is also about where everything falls apart.

Wotasnozzle comes in and, using stock footage, discovers his time machine tampered with. And in other stock footage realizes that “they’ve” got Olive Oyl. Also that “they” are an entity that exists. Who are “they” and what do they want with Olive Oyl? … Great questions.

Professor Wotasnozzle smiling wildly while patting the input of his time machine, which is this big clock face with an eye, a mouth, some computer-y grids, a light bulb, and a satellite dish.
He has fun.

Wotasnozzle phones Popeye, who’s in what looks like stock footage of sleeping. His half of the call has something to do with something being “decontaminated”. And what was contaminated? Great question. Popeye rushes over to Wotasnozzle’s lab and eats his spinach right away. It’s the sensible thing to do, but raises the question why he doesn’t start every cartoon with the spinach power-up. Other than for fear of making the cartoons too short. Then we see the time machine as its stock footage normally works. Thus the gloved mechanical hand sliding Popeye through the air while Wotasnozzle runs merrily around the machine. Given all the work Wotasnozzle has to do to make this run it’s surprising Olive Oyl could get sent anywhere without help.

The time machine sends Popeye to my heart’s deepest desire, a great domed city. Apparently it’s in space for how Popeye flies around it. But he can’t break through, so Wotasnozzle hurries him back for more preparation. The tool that will make all the difference: invisibility pills. He swallows them in a cross-section animation. I recognize it from early-60s parodies of some indigestion-relief pill. I don’t know which. All I know is the parodies.

Does the invisibility work? Sure does, illustrated by using stock footage of Popeye doing the sailor’s hornpipe but leaving out parts of the animation cells. You have to animate invisibility somehow, and Fraser goes for having Popeye just not be seen. When we the audience have to know where he is, it’s footprints. It’s a workable answer. It doesn’t explain how Wotasnozzle can follow along on his viewscope, but there is a lot about Wotasnozzle’s lab that isn’t explained. Anyway this has all been a bunch of plot. Now it’s time for the cartoon to really sit on our heads and make us beg for mercy. There’s three minutes, 15 seconds left.

Back in the future(?), Popeye figures he can now sneak past the guards. What guards? Where did they come from? Wasn’t the problem an impenetrable dome? … Great questions.

He strides past a robot(?) guard to the civic center. He pushes through a crowd made up of the robot(?) helmets, without bodies, because to walk around he’d have to take two steps to the right. He reads that Olive Oyl’s on exhibit. Off to the monorail for a ride to the Palace Circle. This is important because it sets up a monorail chase that won’t make sense later.

A giant robot statue holds a vast opaque dome. Near it, a zig-zaggy glowing line forms a bridge-of-light between two short walls, one of which is attached to a ladder. The background, however, is the panel for an interior of a spaceship, with riveted panels and windows, wholly out of scale. It's disorienting to look at.
The thing is a bridge isn’t just about letting you get somewhere you couldn’t easily get otherwise. A bridge can be about getting there in style.

He arrives at a giant robot statue holding an enormous dome. It looks like the cover that snooty waiters use to bring food to the Marx Brothers. And then we jump to the completely wrong background. We’re supposed to see Popeye trying to figure how to get over a moat to the Olive Oyl exhibit. But since what we see is a giant interior of a monorail car. So good luck figuring out why Popeye can’t walk across what looks like as open a plaza as anything on the Brutalist college campuses I attended. Also how do we know this is Palace Circle? How do we know Olive Oyl is here? Where do those two guards blip to when they disappear? … Great questions.

Popeye frees Olive Oyl from her captivity, a chair that doesn’t have armrests. Also a ball and chain. He tears off the ball and chain, throwing it at the guards to get them fighting. His invisibility starts to wear off, giving him the chance to use the sailor’s hornpipe stock footage again, this time with bullets shot at him. Then he swallows the other invisibility pills Wotasnozzle gave him for just this sort of emergency. There’s a curious glow around where Popeye’s chest should be here. It’s a neat effect, suggesting maybe that he’s supposed to become visible again. But there’s so little of this cartoon that seems like it was animated on purpose. I can’t rule out that it’s a long-lived compression artifact in the YouTube file. The glow starts about 20:46, though, which probably means it’s just some weird effect.

Two short robots shoot bullets at the feet of Popeye, whose legs are the only visible thing in frame. Popeye is doing the sailor's hornpipe dance. There is a weird patch of light about where Popeye's chest would go.
Even allowing that they’re shooting at an invisible guy it seems like they shouldn’t be missing.

Popeye ties the guards’ antennas together, which starts them electrocuting each other, which seems like a design flaw. Olive Oyl warns they’re calling out the guards and what do you know, but the giant robot statue in the Palace Circle orders the guards called out. Also the statue is itself a robot, I guess. It could be the robot king. Who knows?

They make a getaway in the monorail, which is brilliant except for being stupid. It turns out that cars behind and ahead of them converge on Popeye’s car. Popeye declares that he’ll “bam-bobble them with me invisible muscles”. By this he means he’ll have his car go on the underside of the monorail, which is a thing that monorail cars can do. The pursuing cars collide. Also Popeye’s car crashes into the robot statue back at the Palace Circle, which is an occurrence that makes sense. Popeye and Olive Oyl climb out from right where they started and Wotasnozzle remembers he can just bring them back now.

Popeye’s got one of the robot(?) helmets stuck on his head. Still, he knows they’re home safe and sound. While sneezing, Olive Oyl inhales two invisibility tablets right off the counter, which is a thing that happens, and she blips out of the cartoon. Well, she kisses Popeye some. The Sailor Man declares, embarrassed, “this invisibility has ruined my visibility”. The declaration seems like it meant something to somebody at some point.

Two cars on the top of a monorail track race toward each other. A third car races away, clinging to the underside and racing toward a support pylon.
Try this one weird trick to make your railroad friend hate you!
… Of all possible features for Future Space Robot Mars why is the church the one we can make out?

This cartoon invites us to ask many questions, but most of them are versions of “the heck am I watching?”. It’s not that this has to be an incoherent story. The premise is good, and up to Popeye’s return to the future it’s presented well. But then we’re hit with what seem like missing scenes, such as establishing that there’s a guard for Popeye to get past. Or that the giant robot statue is not just decoration but can bark out orders. Or that the robots even speak: they’re mute for so long that it’s weird when the robot starts to speak. Add in the animation glitches and what should be a straightforward cartoon loses coherence.

It’s also a disappointing vision of the future. It’s basically a domed city, a monorail, and the light bridge. These are good props but there’s not much done with them. And the background error makes the introduction of the light bridge seem pointless. Certainly having Olive Oyl get lost, and Popeye get sent after her, demands a good chunk of the five-minute run time. But why not have Popeye interact with a local instead of push his way past a crowd they don’t want to really draw? Popeye having a false start and having to return to Wotasnozzle is a nice bit of business, but would the cartoon have been better if we met the Future Robot(?) King instead?

But if they didn’t have some good jokes about of future-life to, it’s better not to force it. I’m content with a weird cartoon where everything falls just short of being motivated. It’s better than Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Brutus doing their usual routine in a Suburban Boring house that also has computer buttons. Which, you’ll trust me, they could do.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

3 thoughts on “60s Popeye, Invisible Popeye: the heck am I watching?”

    1. Thank you so. I honestly did try tracking it down, but couldn’t figure a useful set of search terms. I still haven’t, but I’ve found Bufferin ads from close enough to this era that I’m convinced it’s the thing being spoofed.

      Like

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