60s Popeye: Popeye’s Used Car, and the return of Milt Schaffer jokes


Popeye’s Used Car is another 1960, Jack Kinney-produced cartoon. The story’s credited to Milt Schaffer, of that fascinating Popeye-versus-Woody-Woodpecker showdown. The direction is credited to Hugh Fraser who’s got a lot of credits already here.

After several peculiar cartoons it’s almost a comfort to have a slightly boring one to write about. Boring’s not a fair terms, really. There’s a reasonable pace and flow to Popeye’s Used Car. It’s just that after a couple weird ones, a basic competent narratively-linear cartoon feels less exciting. It’s a basic, easy-to-follow plot. To keep up with Brutus, Popeye buys a car, and doesn’t really know how to drive. There’s no threat of breaking the time barrier here.

What I do like is the decorations put on this structure. There’s some fine little visual jokes, such as the freeway sign warning, “Enter at your own risk”. Or, on the dashboard of Popeye’s car, buttons for drift, draft, droop, and drip. A traffic signal working as a slot machine.

Ridiculously overcomplicated car dashboard, with many buttons and dials and switches and levers, including buttons for the Curb Feelers, the drift, the draft, the droop, and the drip. Popeye has pressed the 'Snack Bar' and the car is producing from a slot in the dashboard a coffee cup and a hamburger.
Who says they didn’t have cupholders in 60s cars?

Better is the dialogue, though. Popeye describes his bouquet of flowers as “a bit of fragrant frivolity perhaps, but they’re from my heart”. It’s a complicated way to say what he’s doing, and that’s good. It’s got personality, if not for Popeye then for the cartoon. People put things in funny ways throughout the short. When Popeye crashes his car into Olive Oyl’s bedroom she scolds, “Your manners are atrocious!” An angry driver yells at the too-slow Popeye, “Move it or milk it!” This is a funny enough image that I’ll probably use that next time I encounter someone doing 35 mph on the Interstate. Popeye’s traffic-school certificate graduating him “magna cum louder”, which could be the certificate or Popeye being silly. Popeye speaking of how Olive Oyl’s “heart is swayed by the glitter of chrome and whitewall sidewalls”.

Wimpy gets cast as the used car salesman. It’s hard thinking of Wimpy as having a job, but this feels close enough for him. His spinning that out into offering driving lessons feels weirder. That seems like more of an effort than I expect from Wimpy. He’s not as fun a driving teacher as I’d hope. I could see this work. Wimpy moving with an airy indifference to the chaos around him should make for good driving jokes. This might be the point where Milt Schaffer ran out of writing energy.

I do like the charming casualness with which Olive Oyl and Popeye take his smashing his car into her bedroom. They’ve been through this sort of thing before, and they know they’ll be through it again, and it’s not worth getting upset about.

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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