Fun fact: Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’s “Little Red Riding Hood” is my go-to song for karaoke night. This is because you can do an okay job on it if you can only hit one note, and that’s all I can do. There’s no guessing what note I will hit, but I can keep to it all right.
This week’s 60s Popeye episode is Little Olive Riding Hood. The title gives me expectations. So do the credits. The story’s from Ed Nofziger, who also did the story for Swee’Pea Thru The Looking Glass and Hamburger Fishing, besides other cartoons not obviously based on fairy tales. (And fairy-tale adjacent things, like the Alice stories.) Animation Direction is credit to Harvey Toombs, who directed Hamburger Fishing and several other cartoons I’ve already gone over. Coffee House, for example, the Beatnik episode. We’ll see more of him. As you’d guess if you’ve been around here, this is all a Jack Kinney production.
We start in Popeye’s Boring Suburban Home again. Telling Swee’Pea a story is the framing device. Sometimes Swee’Pea demands a story. This time, he’s happy Popeye is telling one.
The cartoon starts off well. Fairy tales are a pretty good starting point for a Popeye cartoon, especially one like this that has to be done quick and cheap. The audience knowing the fairy tale plot takes the burden of plotting a story off the cartoon. They can riff around scenes and still have something which makes sense. … And, yet, somehow, it all falls apart anyway.
So Olive Oyl is the Riding Hood, Wimpy her sick grandmother, the Sea Hag the wolf, and Popeye the brave woodchopper or whoever the other guy is in the Little Red Riding Hood story. It’s decent casting, although I wonder again why not Brutus. Maybe Kinney Studios wasn’t sure that Brutus was available? Or maybe they just felt
BlutoBrutus was worn out. Or maybe too much physical menace for the cartoon.
There’s good stuff early on. Introducing the characters, for example. The Sea Hag crashing into Wimpy’s house and mourning she’s gotta get those brakes fixed. Wimpy sitting up at the table, knife and fork at the ready, licking his lips and wanting ham-[pause]-burgers. Or after this, the Sea Hag sitting up exactly in imitation of Wimpy’s pose, with his hat on her head. While Wimpy is off in the forest sitting on a tree stump.
But we get to Little Olive Riding Hood encountering the Sea Hag, and doing the-better-to-eat-hamburgers-with bit. The Sea Hag jumps on Olive Oyl, and … why? Because the narrative of the original fairy tale requires it, sure. But we don’t get a hint Olive Oyl wasn’t going to give her Wimpy’s hamburgers, not yet. We get a fight, or at least the camera shaking around and zooming in and out while the uptempo music plays. This brings Popeye back to Wimpy’s house to fight. This even though Popeye can’t hit a woman even if she is the Sea Hag. But since we never see him doing anything, we can’t say he’s hitting anybody either. Maybe he’s just punching the tree he dragged into the house a lot.
Wimpy joins in the off-camera action, and the bounciest picnic basket in the world goes out the house a couple times. Finally Popeye catches it and declares the hamburgers ain’t for free, and ain’t for no stealing witch. So sure the Sea Hag shouldn’t get the hamburgers, but why not Wimpy? Riding Olive said she was taking the burgers to a sick friend who was in Wimpy’s house. If Popeye saw through Wimpy’s scam shouldn’t he have said something about it so dumb Olds like me aren’t confused?
Wimpy’s promise to pay for the burgers later is implicitly turned down, and he and Sea Hag go off to try Roughhouse’s. This yet another mention of Roughhouse and his cafe without his appearance. The King Features animators are really sure we’re going to recognize and be interested in Roughhouse when he finally appears. I don’t want to deflate their hype but all he is just “a guy who hates Wimpy but falls for his scams”. He’s basically Geezil without the uncomfortable Jewish coding.
The notion of paying for the burgers comes up again, with Popeye offering to buy some, but not getting to. And Olive Oyl eats her burgers, declaring how she loves them especially when they are paid for. It’s the punch line for a joke not set up. With the coda, in the frame, of Swee’Pea now declaring he’s hungry and wants hamburgers. You know, the way it’s funny that someone who hears a story about a particular food might decide they’d like to eat that food.
It’s weird that I can’t say the ending is bad. Just that it doesn’t fit the start. It’s close to fitting, though. Add a line about Popeye figuring out that Wimpy isn’t really sick. Drop the talk about paying for burgers. Then, yeah, you’ve got a fairy-tale riff that hangs together. It seems like it’d be easier to not write the broken version of this. What happened?
There remain great mysteries in the making of these cartoons.