60s Popeye: The Whiffle Bird’s Revenge and Rough House’s Screen Debut


Journey with me now back to 1961 and a Paramount-produced Popeye cartoon. The story’s by I Klein and direction, of course, by Seymour Kneitel. The Whiffle Bird’s Revenge is aware there’ve been a bunch of werewolf movies recently. Let’s see what it has to say in response to that developing genre.

And here, finally, it is. 91 cartoons in, and something like 81 of these reviews in, and we finally see Rough House. He and his diner have got some mentions before. This is the first time we’ve seen him in animated form. I don’t know whether this was the first cartoon produced with him in it.

I know, you’ve got questions, the most prominent of which is: so what? Yeah, fair enough. He’s been in the comic strip since 1932, or a year longer than Swee’Pea, if that helps. He runs a cafe and sees through Wimpy but kind of tolerates him. Yeah, he’s basically Geezil without the bad ethnic coding. For whatever reason the Fleischers never used him. Nor did Famous/Paramount Studios when they were making theatrical cartoons. The King Features cartoons, though, they tend to run a little dull. Bringing up the extended roster of Thimble Theatre characters is one of the thrills.

And we get a double dose of the extended roster, as the Whiffle Bird returns. And she’s called ‘she’. She’s not given a name; in the comic strip, she’s Bernice. Also in the comic strip, she does not have the power to speak or bestow lycanthropy on people. But you always change stuff in adapting to new mediums.

In Rough House's Diner, Were-Wimpy holds up a stunned Popeye in one hand while he swallows a tray full of dozens of hamburgers held in the other hand. Rough House looks on, startled.
[ Record scratch ] “Yup, tha’s me! I bets youze is won’nering how I gotsk meself into this sit’chee’ation.”

The plot is a simple one. A hungry Wimpy catches the Whiffle Bird. Since she’d rather not be eaten, she punishes Wimpy by making him turn into a werewolf whenever he says ‘hamburger’. As a werewolf he semi-effectively harasses Rough House’s diner, and Popeye, until Popeye can beg her mercy. There’s good stories to make of that. It’s not a deep plot but it’s got a clear enough fairy-tale logic. Also I like stories with a weird werewolfism trigger. I blame my watching too much Fangface at an impressionable age.

It’s not quite a good cartoon. The plot outline is working hard to make this all come together, and it keeps almost doing so. The animation is also doing its job. It’s your typical Paramount Cartoon Studios work. Everybody’s drawn precisely, and they move rigidly but in well-defined steps. Look at Popeye strolling in at the start of the cartoon; his pace about matches what his walk cycle is actually doing. It’s a small but clear bit of craft.

There’s story logic problems, none of which bothered me as a kid. Like, what caused Were-Wimpy to turn human? The first time he just changes, after walking away, exhausted. The second time it’s after eating a plate of hamburgers. I don’t need the rule explained but I would like to feel confident there is a rule. The tougher problem to me is that Wimpy’s change is set off by his saying “hamburger”. If you knew you’d turn into a werewolf on saying “hamburger”, and you didn’t want to be a werewolf, why would you say “hamburger”? The first time, sure, he’s testing. I understand that. Why ever after that? The Whiffle Bird’s curse doesn’t make sense. This is why usually the transformation is something the werewolf can’t control, like the moon or splashes of water or something. If Wimpy can’t even hear the word “hamburger” then his friends become a threat.

Which is probably something you’d need a longer cartoon to do. More story time, anyway. Five and a half minutes minus the credits doesn’t give room for a complex story. So maybe this is the most intricate werewolf Wimpy story that the series could support.

Whiffle Bird standing, with a wing raised, atop the unconscious Were-Wimpy.
“Funny thing is now I can’t remember how I thought turning Wimpy into a werewolf was going to solve any of my problems. Well, live and learn.”
[ Boop. ]

The bigger story problem: what does Were-Wimpy know? He’s hungry, sure, but so is Wimpy. He’s more aggressive than Wimpy, although we don’t see him actually being stronger. He just has less body fat. This seems strange for a werewolf. But if he is stronger as Were-Wimpy then the Whiffle Bird’s punishment is weird. “To punish you, you’ll sometimes become much bigger and stronger than you otherwise are.” Wimpy seems to be aware he’s Were-Wimpy, and seems embarrassed by the fact. Is it that he dislikes taking food when he should be cadging it?

The cartoon’s a showcase for Jack Mercer’s voice acting. He’d always done Popeye and Wimpy. To my ear, he’s also doing the Whiffle Bird. It also shows, unfortunately, that Mercer couldn’t think of a way to monster up Wimpy’s voice without doing Popeye. Jackson Beck at least gets a few lines in, as Rough House and I believe the news anchor. (Beck was always getting cast in narrator/news anchor voices.)

I’m probably asking too much for a five-minute cartoon. As it is, the story’s sensible, or close enough to sensible for most folks. If you ever wanted a magic bird to turn Wimpy into a wolf, your choices are this or my DeviantArt gallery. But I can feel the premise trying to be a better cartoon than this.

Any amount of Fangface is probably too much Fangface.

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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