60s Popeye: Popeye Thumb, the most Seymour Kneitel-iest of cartoons


There are a lot of King Features Popeye cartoons that do fairy tales, yes. But how many of them have a story by Seymour Kneitel, and direction by Seymour Kneitel, and are produced by Seymour Kneitel on top of that? You’d think there was no one else at Paramount Cartoon Studio in 1961 to help with Popeye Thumb, our cartoon for the day.

There’ve been a bunch of Popeye fairy-tale cartoons. Most of them seem to be framed as Swee’Pea demanding a story. Here’s one with a bespoke frame, though, in which the fairy tale is supposed to illuminate some problem on Swee’pea’s part. I like this as structure for a story. It must take a bit more work to introduce a bunch of generic kids playing baseball and for Swee’Pea to have woes with them. It does slow down getting into the “real”, fairy tale, story. But we open with Popeye walking along, scatting, so they can’t have been too pressed for time. It’s not the full scat, though. Just an abbreviated version.

The fairy tale itself is a version of Tom Thumb, like the title suggests. Popeye’s cast as Tom. Poopdeck Pappy’s cast as the father. I don’t recognize Popeye Thumb’s mother. She’s circling around the Sea Hag character design, but not, you know, ugly or anything. Olive Oyl’s cast as the Good Fairy who hears their wish for a son. They don’t make the wish aloud, but I suppose fairies don’t have to hear only what you say. Pappy did neglect the part of the fairy tale where he wishes for a son, even if he were only as large as my thumb. So giving them a tiny son seems like a weird passive-aggressive bit of spontaneous wish-granting on Olive Oyl’s part.

Scene of Poopdeck Pappy, dressed as a farmer, in a rocking chair; he and his wife are thinking of a son, who's Popeye in overalls with Elvis hair holding up a bushel of apples. Olive Oyl, as a fairy princess, watches over and waves her magic wand at this scene.
Writing challenge: 30 minutes writing a story to fit around this image. Advanced level: explain why Popeye is Roy Orbison.

That’s an unimportant quibble. What gets me about this tale is that Popeye Thumb doesn’t have any real conflict. I mean, in the original fairy tale, Tom Thumb spends his days getting swallowed by stuff. In the 1958 George Pal movie, he has some adventures at a carnival and saving his mother from the guards and whatnot. Here? He plants a spinach seed, and uses the strength from that to plow the fields, and uses the profits from that to buy his parents a castle with a TV and a butler who turns the TV on. I guess it’s nice having a story where everything works out well. It seems like it undercuts the value of it as a parable about not letting small size stop you from achievement, though.

No matter. Swee’Pea takes the hint, and Popeye’s spinach, and intrudes into the baseball game to hit a home run. Everyone loves this and wants him on the team and we’ll never see the baseball players again.

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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