This week’s 60s Popeye cartoon is another one made by Paramount/Famous Studios. For a change, Jack Mercer doesn’t have a hand in the story. The story’s by Joseph Gottlieb instead. The director is again Seymour Kneitel. So here’s Scairdy Cat.
I may sound like I’m slighting the cartoon to put so little focus on the story. It’s a decently organized story. Brutus finds a potion to induce cowardice in someone, and he sees this as his chance to crush Popeye. Sensible work there. He sprays Popeye with the fear gas, using the chance to throw away Popeye’s spinach. Again, good thinking there, Brutus. And he humiliates Popeye in front of Olive Oyl, which, again, good work. Brutus slamming the door shut causes the spinach can to roll into Popeye’s hands. It makes the structure better tragedy: Brutus causes his own undoing. It does mean Popeye doesn’t really have anything to do with his own story, but that’s all right. The story hangs together sensibly throughout.
What caught my interest was — knowing this was a Famous Studios short — the first scene. The establishing shot of the library. The building itself is rendered in three colors, as I make it out, including the shading used. Granted a library of this vintage might have a marble front, and not need many colors, but that’s still sparse. The whole scene, counting the background, is five. It’s a deeply stylized, UPA-style rendition of the building.
This continues throughout the short. Brutus’s kitchen is a (speckled) mustard yellow surface, with a red quadrilateral for a stovetop and two white rectangles for cabinets and counter. Olive Oyl’s living room is a similar mustard yellow expanse, with a white box, a purple chair and a purple wall hanging in the background. Many of these details are even lineless, or nearly so.
The UPA style, with its flattened shapes and colors and great abstraction of space, isn’t one I cared for as a kid. I liked lush, photorealistic watercolored backgrounds where possible. These days, I better understand the appeal. Not just why animators would want to depict something with as little drawing as possible, but why they’d admire doing that.
Famous Studios was, usually, not a visually inventive studio. It’s easy to read its greatest animation as things left over from Max and Dave Fleischer. For much of their history they drew things in a basic, photo-realistic, functional style. This isn’t a bad thing. I understand the animators wanting, sometimes, to try a stylistic experiment, though.
Famous Studios had done this before. There’s some cartoons from late in the theatrical run of Popeye, such as Parlez-Vous Woo or Spooky Swabs, with a similar style. Later in the 60s the studio would become much more experimental, as animators like Shamus Culhane and Ralph Bakshi were put in charge for short whiles. It’s not that they couldn’t do more innovative work; it’s that they only sometimes took the chance.
And some stray thoughts. Brutus finds the Fear Gas recipe on page 13 of Ye Olde Reliable Witche’s Cook Book. I like the Olde Thyming of that title. Page 13 is the left-hand side of the page. I think that’s an extra subtle joke, mostly because the surplus ‘e’ in Witche’s convinces me they were looking for chances to do that.
Brutus tests the Fear Gas potion on himself. This seems dangerous. If the cartoon had a higher budget he probably would’ve had a cat to test on and send running from a mouse.
When he’s first Fear Gassed, Popeye grows a nice yellow streak up his back. And then the word ‘YELLOW’ appears across in what seems like too similar a shade. But I remember this seemingly-low-contrast color choice reading cleanly enough on the black-and-white TV of my youth. So to sum up, there is no excuse for any web site to have light grey text on a dark grey background.
The Fear Gas works on Popeye, the first time, for only a couple minutes. This doesn’t seem like enough time to make him, as the spell promises, your slave. Or does Popeye just metabolize fear that quickly? I think he might just metabolize fear very quickly.