So this is a weird one. It’s back to the Jack Kinney studios, with a cartoon produced and directed by Kinney himself. The story’s credited to Dick Kinney and Al Bertino. And it’s dated 1960, in a title card that sure looks like the copyright was superimposed later. The credits warn that it’s going to be a cartoon to pay attention to. The production credits are given this striking rhombus background, for one thing. And the music is abnormally long for the King Features run. We’ll get into more of these peculiar things in Barbecue for Two.
So if you’re not alert to the subtleties of animation production, like, if you’re a kid watching these cartoons, you maybe realize something’s strange about this. We settle in to Popeye’s suburban home, although it’s not his usual Boring Suburban Home from Kinney productions. But the real giveaway is our first look at Popeye. He’s not in the white, Navy-derived sailor suit. He’s back in black/navy-blue, like in the comics and the 1930s cartoons. Also he looks … somehow more squished and angular at once.
The Popeye Wikia says this was “the pilot” for the King Features Popeye cartoons. The Internet Movie Database says it was the first short made for TV, but that Hits and Missiles became the pilot. Who’s right? Clearly, impossible to know. But this sure reads as the pilot, particularly for having different models for all the characters. And for how studiously they avoid naming Brutus. The closest we get is an admiring Olive Oyl saying of Popeye’s neighbor, “What a handsome brute [ something ]!”
The premise is that Popeye wants to have Olive Oyl over for a barbecue for, well, it’s there in the title. Brutus intrudes, becoming obsessed with getting in on the action. This would be obnoxious except Popeye starts the aggressions here, swiping petunias from right under Brutus’s nose. Wimpy joins the action because he can smell the hamburgers. Swee’Pea jumps in because he’s very young and should have some adult at least within screaming range. Brutus starts hitting on Olive Oyl by singing the rock-and-roll she loves. His lyric, “Don’t drop no mustard on my clean white shirt, baby”, is just wonderful, and his swaying, like he’s me trying to dance, is an extra nice goofy bit.
Olive Oyl rejecting Popeye’s square music evokes Coffee House, the Beatnik cartoon, certainly. The other Jack Kinney cartoon this makes me think of, though, is Popeye’s Car Wash, for its plot structure. Particularly for the way Popeye has to run between several stations — hamburgers to Wimpy, the swing for Swee’Pea — before getting back to fighting Brutus, or trying to.
I like this short, but have to admit it’s a complicated liking. The models for the characters are weird. Our first view of him is the skinniest Wimpy apart from the weight-loss cartoon I’m sure they did. There’s some snappy lines in it, such as Olive Oyl declaring, “If there’s nothing I like the least, no-gentlemen is the most”, or observing, “What’s that? A plane? A train? A rocket? It’s Wimpy!” Or there’s weird lines. Thinking here of Brutus taking off Olive Oyl’s shoe and dropping lumps of sugar in. Less good, and more baffling, is Brutus’s rage at being called Junior. I cannot see how this is a “sissy” name and I wonder if some other name got changed to Junior in the recording. His declaration “My name is … ” before Popeye punches him across the continent (and knocks the world off-axis) is a funny bit for everyone who noticed the avoidance of Brutus’s name.
Much of the music sounds, to my ear, like leftover Famous Studios sound cues. This makes sense for a pilot. There are a few bits where Popeye huffs his pipe. It’s a faint thing, softer than the huffing he does in other shorts.
It’s always easy to like the first, or first couple, episodes of a series. They tend to be weirder, and that stands out. I suppose if the whole cartoon series were like this then this one wouldn’t stand out. As a one-off, showing a way that Popeye might have been animated and wasn’t? It’s compelling.
Popeye’s still being a jerk about those petunias, though.