60s Popeye: Old Salt Tale (the New Salt Tale’s bogged down in construction)

It’s back to Jack Kinney studios for this week’s King Features Popeye cartoon. The story is by Ed Nofziger, who’s done a bunch of fairy tale adaptations before. Animation direction is credited to Hugh Fraser. Here’s 1960’s Old Salt Tale.

We start out with Olive Oyl prancing in the ocean, and Popeye and Swee’Pea enjoying the beach. So, I too expected a beach cartoon. Nope; this is just a frame for another tell-Swee’Pea-a-story short. In this, about why the sea is salty. For a punch line we learn Swee’Pea knows the answer. It suggests Swee’Pea is asking just to show he knows more than Popeye does. Swee’Pea will go far in being a STEM-type know-it-all nerd jerk.

The explanation Popeye gives is … not quite a fairy tale. I mean, it’s a version of any of a couple North European folk tales about why the sea is salt. It gets a fair bit afield of any of these versions. But that is how a folk tale should work, isn’t it?

In the adapted story a shipwrecked (again!) Popeye lands on the Sea Hag’s island. She’s enslaved the Goons and Popeye will have none of that. (I guess none of these are really the Sea Hag or Popeye, but, c’mon.) He has his last can of spinach at a surprisingly early part in the cartoon, just 2:14 in, and tosses the Sea Hag into the … sea. The Goons reward him with a grinder that can make anything, if asked politely, and he sets off for home. His house turns out not to be the one from Little Olive Riding Hood but you see where I got confused. After grinding some spinach and presents, Popeye sets out. The Sea Hag sneaks in and steals the grinder and, impolitely demanding gold, gets an endless supply of salt instead.

The magic grinder spraying a stream of salt at the Sea Hag. The stream's just reached her, and she has her arms raised, so the Sea Hag looks as though she's being tickled.
Tickle tickle tickle! Tickle tickle tickle!

It’s good casting. Popeye doing a heroic deed and getting a magic reward makes sense. Having the magic thing come from the Goons does too. He has to save somebody with a supernatural element and that’s going to be the Goons, the Jeeps, or make something up. (Yes, I see the Popeye Super-Fan out there pointing out there’s Whiffle Birds. Give it time.) Goons, which by now in the Popeye universe are lumbering but harmless giants? Good fit. Sea Hag as the villain is also good, and better for a supernatural story than Brutus could be.

I feel dissatisfied, though. I think the trouble is that Popeye never discovers the Sea Hag’s theft. She gets her comeuppance, yes, but as the magic grinder’s doing. She is, by rights, the protagonist. But the first part of the story is Popeye’s viewpoint, so she can’t quite manage that. Shifting or ambiguous viewpoint characters can work, but it takes a really good story to do that. This isn’t tight enough to manage that.

Also Popeye, who is “always polite”, asks the grinder to make him some spinach. He never says thank you! I don’t remember if this bothered me as a kid, but it does feel like something that would.

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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