60s Popeye: Tiger Burger, which you can go ahead and join in progress


I came pretty near noping out of another King Features Popeye cartoon this week. I’m not saying you’re wrong if you do. Tiger Burger, another from the Jack Kinney studios, has a story by Cal Howard and animation direction by Harvey Toombs.

It is set in “Darkest Injia”. This is bad. But the use of “Injia”, as though Popeye’s quirky pronunciation were the “correct” thing, cut the bad down a little. The start of the cartoon is all like that. If you want to get to the part of the cartoon that doesn’t need excuses? Start from about 19:30 and proceed from there. My embedded link will be the whole cartoon, though.

So. Yeah. The first two and a half minutes of this are stuff you have to rationalize to keep watching. It bottoms out about 18:08 when we get the sign “You are now entering Puka-Puka, Fastest Growing Slums In Kasha County” which ugh. This is undercut, not swiftly enough, by going to the sign for the Optimists Club. If this cartoon were aimed at adults, this could be a wry comment on the misery of society. And how some people refuse to acknowledge that, a thing both good and bad. The cartoon is not thinking deep enough to get away with that. Not 60 years on, anyway.

The village of Puka-Puka doesn’t look great either. Not crazy about Popeye wondering about the native hospitality, but at least he does address everyone as “sir”. The cop that Popeye talks to is given a British accent and puffs a Churchill-class cigar, icons that are … oh, a bunch to unpack. They do seem to me to be things that would, to a white middle-class American audience of 1960, signify “civilized” and “respectable”, so there’s that. If the cop had been Jackson Beck trying to do Apu I might have dropped this whole series never to touch it again.

Anyway, all this — all this — is to establish that Popeye and Wimpy are hunting Gonga the man-eating tiger. (Yeah, I see the reference.) Gonga’s given a big build-up as “the most vicious, cruel, meanest, low-down, ferocious, good-for-nothing, low-down, fiendish man-eating tiger in all of Injia”. We don’t see a lot of Gonga’s fiendishness. He just yoinks Wimpy off of their turtle. But since Wimpy’s been whining the whole cartoon about wanting to eat hamburgers it’s hard not being on Gonga’s side.

A tiger has one paw wrapped around Wimpy's shoulder, and looks at the camera, with one eye drooping. Wimpy, both eyes open just a tiny bit, is holding up one finger while looking off-camera and apparently whispering.
Look, let them have their time together.

Monomania usually works great for comic characters. And Wimpy is almost the definition of a monomaniacal comic character. I’m not sure why it doesn’t work here. Possibly because there’s so much of him talking hamburgers with nothing else going on. Wimpy can’t interrupt the action with his little thing if his little thing is all the action.

It’s hard to sell me on a Popeye-hunts-an-animal cartoon. While he’s far from consistent, his “always be kind to children and dumb animals” philosophy is a great statement of goals. There’d be some respectability in the plot if he were protecting the village from a menace. I guess that’s the point of the cop’s declaration of Gonga’s wickedness. But Popeye and Wimpy didn’t know about this tiger going in. And we didn’t see Gonga doing anything particularly wicked. So it’s hard to get past the impression Popeye’s being a jerk here.

There’s a couple bits that try to salvage the cartoon. Popeye challenging Gonga to “come out and fights like a man” and Gonga calling back, “come in and fight like a tiger”. Popeye answering how he didn’t come to India to eat hamburgers which, yeah, I wouldn’t. Or the wacky choice to have Popeye and Wimpy riding on a turtle, rather than an elephant. It seems to have been done for the silliness of a howdah on a turtle. And to let the cartoon stop on a joke about how turtles are slow. And if we just stick to that the cartoon is all right. But it’s not much salvage and it comes after a lousy start.

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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