So if things continued in their ordinary course, the next cartoon would have been Two-Faced Paleface. Produced by Larry Harmon, directed by Paul Fennell, written by Charles Shows. The title had me wary because Popeye does not have a good track record with American Indian characters. The story starts with Popeye mining for gold, and finding some. Brutus horns in on this, pretending to be an Indian.
Popeye protests it can’t be Indian land, “we just discovered gold here”. This would be a good, witty, dark comment on American history if I thought they meant it. But, you know? I don’t like Brutus dressing up as “Big Chief Pain-in-the-neck” of the Cha-cha-cha Indian Tribe. I don’t like Popeye joining in. And you know? I’m not going to do it. You want 600 words from me about this? I want $25 minimum. I’m on PayPal.
So let me get that taste out of my mouth by going to the next one on my schedule. This is 1960’s Swee’Pea Soup, directed by Gene Deitch. There’s no other credits, so I can’t tell you who did the story, which I quite like. Or the animation, which is a delight for being this limited. Also, we get not one but two special guest stars.
We start in media res, rare for any children’s cartoon of the era but especially for Popeye. The mob demands the removal of King Blozo. They want someone lovable, like Swee’Pea. King Blozo is another long-time Thimble Theatre character, and a great one. He rules a land that’s usually called Spinachovina. He’s really not up to the job, and would do something else if he was any good at that. He spends most of his time worrying about how bad everything is. His only solace (not seen this cartoon) is reading the funny papers. This may sound basic, but, you know? A character doesn’t need depth to be good. He needs to commit to his bit.
Blozo summons his mad scientist, Professor O G Wotasnozzle, to make him as lovable as Swee’pea is. Wotasnozzle intuits the way to do it is to make Swee’Pea soup, and kidnaps the child. This is a weird turn for Wotasnozzle, who was mischievous but not villainous when created for Sappo (Elzie Segar’s non-Popeye gig). Possibly the story writer wanted to keep the cast to known characters, and Watsnozzle had to contort to fit the part.
We get some action, we get Popeye captured under Wotasnozzle’s giant boot device. We get the mob throwing spinach that contrives its way into Popeye’s mouth. (It’s normal to have a small drain that funnels water directly into your basement.) Popeye launches the double-decker pot of Swee’Pea soup into the air, and Swee’Pea falls into Blozo’s arms. Swee’pea’s approval confers popularity on Blozo and everything can be peaceful and happy again.
This is a lot of story. And, daft as it is, it all hangs together. There’s a neat bit of storytelling that all the trouble in it comes from innocent motives. Swee’Pea brings the kingdom to rebellion just by paying a friendly visit. Blozo, a character almost as innocent as Swee’Pea, causes Swee’Pea’s kidnapping with the unobjectionable order to “make me lovable”.
I would like to know if this is a condensation of a story that ran in the comic books or the daily strip. It’s heavily plotted for a five-and-a-half-minute cartoon. It doesn’t waste time introducing characters. It has changes of fortune and a solid mix of drama and comedy. If this is all Gene Deitch or his writers, they deserve credit for doing something quite good with the form. If they condensed an original story, I’m curious what the original story was like.
The animation, too, is nicely done. It’s expressive and it’s all a little more fluid than mere needs of the story demand. Look how Popeye’s stance changes, at about 0:55, as he guesses the People are looking for a new king. He scratches his head, he pats his chest, he leans his head forward, he moves one arm down and the other up. It makes Popeye’s thinking better-shown. Look at how Blozo, walking in circles about 1:50, starts circling the opposite direction. None of this is essential. It makes the cartoon more fully animated, though. I imagine this is the budgetary advantage of animating in Eastern Europe. They can afford more pencils.
Even if the animation were worse, though, the story would likely win me over. If more of the shorts were like this the series would have a respectable reputation.