60s Popeye: Astro-Nut, in which Popeye just breaks the universe


Gene Deitch gets to direct this next King Features Popeye cartoon and you know what that means: I have no information about who the story’s by. The producer’s William L Snyder, though, and the production date is 1960. And now this … is Astro-Nut.

There was something glorious in the early 60s, when all you needed to join the space program was to be a cartoon character. If Top Cat and gang could be astronaut candidates just because Officer Dibble questioned their patriotism, the doors were open to everyone. I’m sure that when I get into King Features’s other cartoons of the 60s I’ll find one where Snuffy Smith joins NASA.

For this Gene Deitch production, Popeye joins the space program to do a simulated long-duration flight. Can a person survive in a tiny capsule with no human contact for sixty days? Cartoon NASA is getting ahead of its game with this test; nobody would spend sixty full days in space until Skylab 4/3, in 1973-74. (Skylab 3/2 came in about six hours short of 60 full days.) Still, better to know sooner than later, I suppose.

Popeye seems poorly briefed for the space-related mission he’s signed up for. I know, it’s to give the audience useful exposition. But there’s room to ask whether this was the actual space program Popeye was working for. I mean, Popeye’s only human contact is supposed to be one tape of his friends’ voices, that he can listen to over and over, making use of the world’s slowest rewind feature? And they didn’t check the tape to make sure that Brutus didn’t use his time to taunt Popeye about how he was going to steal Olive Oyl away? Maybe they thought this was playful teasing? Popeye did sign up for a 60-day simulated flight, after all. What did he imagine Brutus was going to do?

Popeye, in a spacesuit, looking angrily at the camera. Behind him is a reel-to-reel tape with two buttons on the player, Rewind and Play.
“What? Not one tape by The Tornadoes?”

We get a montage of Brutus dating Olive Oyl. Seems like they’re doing a lot, too. We see them swimming (he pushes Olive Oyl into the water). Going for a car ride (Olive Oyl has to hold the car up and run, a scene that looks like a separate car-themed cartoon broke out; watch this space). Going to the horse races (Brutus steals some money form her). Going to the amusement park (they ride an improbably steep coaster). All this in what we learn is just two days.

Popeye’s torn between his duty to stay in the capsule 60 days and his intense jealous need to punch Brutus. So there’s only one thing to do and I’m not sure just what it was. He swings his fist, anyway, and the capsule spins, and the instant spray spinach starts to spray and then the capsule launches from the ground, heading into space at the speed of light. This, of course, will cause Earth time to go backwards while the capsule progresses at sixty times normal time speed. And somewhere, the young Python Anghelo nods, understanding. All Brutus’s dates with Olive Oyl wind backwards and the capsule lands again. The generals congratulate Popeye for … having done a 60-day endurance test in an hour and Brutus and Olive Oyl are there and don’t undrestand how much time has passed. I feel this is a cartoon whose plot I probably understood when I was a kid. I’m too old to follow its logic anymore. We close out with a song, at least, “Through space in an hour / On pure spinach power / I’m Popeye the Sailor Man”. Also he sprays spinach into his mouth, so I guess his bubble helmet was open the whole time.

Popeye, in a spacesuit, shaking a general's very long arm. He's outside a space capsule which has a sharp bend in its midsection, and a door that bends to match that, so it's not clear how the hinges would work on that. The deadbolt-style time lock is on the hinged side of the door, instead of where it would most effectively block the door.
“Congratulations, Popeye! I, too, have no idea how that door is supposed to open on that hinge! But I also don’t know how the time lock was supposed to lock that door! I guess this is why we couldn’t get Roger Ramjet into that thing!”

So, it’s weird. It’s Gene Deitch, what do you want. There’s good bits here. Popeye sees a vision of Swee’pea in his pipe smoke, for example, while hearing his voice, and that vision’s wrecked by Brutus coming in. Popeye acts reasonably crazed with jealousy as he thinks about Brutus and Olive Oyl together. The repeated rewinding of the tape to Brutus’s sneering “I’m keeping company with poor lonesome Olive” is a good tension-builder.

But the cartoon gets stuck at the dilemma Popeye outlines. He can desert his post or he can give up on Olive Oyl for at least two months. He can’t do either and still be Popeye. Rather than break Popeye, we break the universe, and do the ending of Superman I 18 years early. It’s an interesting writing lesson: it’s easier to break all narrative logic than it is to defy Popeye’s nature.

Also, sixty times an hour is two and a half days. I know, it doesn’t matter. It’s a messy way out of the problem, but there’s not a good way.

There is no good reason for me to remember any Top Cat story. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

6 thoughts on “60s Popeye: Astro-Nut, in which Popeye just breaks the universe”

      1. You know, I actually liked the Gene Deitch Popeye and T & J cartoons. There was something very odd about them, but interesting at the same time. I also thought that the background music used for these Gene Deitch cartoons were kind of cool too, esp in Tom and Jerry.

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        1. Oh, I loved them. The strange style and strange audio and different music all came together in ways that really worked for me. There was also a nice experimental mood where the setting might be anything: a swinging-60s penthouse or a space launch or a mad-scientist castle. Even when it did go back to Boring Suburban Home at least strange things were going on. For my money far better than the Cinemascope cartoons of the 1950s, where everything felt like a remake only wider.

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        2. The sound effects were also unusual and did have that experimental feel as well in both Popeye and T & J. Would’ve been interesting if there was some sort of crossover episode between both cartoons.

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        3. Yeah, the Gene Deitch soundscape is this wonderful and strange thing that nobody else had, at least in United States cartoons. Possibly in Central Europe markets the sounds are as familiar as the Capitol Hi-Q music library.

          The idea of a Popeye/Tom-and-Jerry crossover is fun, but the trouble is thinking of something they can do, past that. Like, who’s the protagonist and who’s the guest star, and how does the guest star make the protagonist’s life more interesting? Tom and Jerry don’t really have strong nemeses that Popeye could defend them from; Spike’s too well-rounded a character for that. And there’s not much Tom or Jerry could reasonably do against the mostly-human nemeses Popeye faces.

          I can imagine going for something bonkers, like the Thimble Theatre cast gets turned into animals and Tom and Jerry somehow help them survive long enough to get back to normal. But then Tom and Jerry helping out a guest star isn’t what they (usually) do best. A good or weird enough production can make it work but I suspect the characters are just different enough that they can’t do more than have a cameo in the other’s work.

          (And yeah, I know about mega-super-ultra-crossover events where, like, every cartoon character agrees that Drugs are Bad or you should Believe In Laughter or something. But these are also awful things that we watch only because there’s no choice or we’re livetweeting the experience.)

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