60s Popeye: Motor Knocks, where Popeye loses his car inside a covered bridge


Here’s a 1960 Paramount Cartoon Studios short. As usual the director is Seymour Kneitel. The story’s credited to Al Pross, a name I don’t see mentioned before. Pross is credited as an animator for nine shorts, but has story credits only for this and for a 1963 short called Harry Happy. And a quick warning before getting seriously intoMotor Knocks. Popeye’s rhyming couplet at the end includes a verb derived from a slur against Romani people.

Is Brutus a songwriter? This cartoon, I mean; I embrace how his background is whatever the premise of a short needs. But he presents himself as a service station owner whose real ambition is songwriting. He reels off funny bad titles to an impressed Olive Oyl. Is it all a line to impress her, or is this a bit more personality than Brutus needs for the cartoon?

Steve Bierly, author of a delightful Popeye fan page, wrote a book extolling the Famous Studios cartoons. He includes some mentions of the Paramount-produced King Features Syndicate cartoons, this one among them. It’s a nice change to be in dialogue with another critic. One of Bierly’s themes — writing about this cartoon and others — is how often Famous/Paramount cartoons have Olive Oyl be genuinely interested in Bluto/Brutus. She’s at least listening to his flirting here. She stands up for Brutus when Popeye’s ready to slug him. When Brutus is towing the car, she accepts the logic that it’s safer for her to ride in the tow truck cab while Popeye rides in the car.

I’m not sure how to evaluate that, though. I suspect Olive Oyl’s just impressed, as many of us are, with people who know how to Do Things. And Brutus does present himself as knowing how to Do Things, at least with cars. Could be anyone … except that Brutus/Bluto ends up being the guy who (seems to) know how to Do Things a lot. Some of that because if anything’s going to come between Olive Oyl and Popeye, well, who else you cast? Wimpy? (Watch this space.)

Olive Oyl, in the car, sits with her eyes fluttering and her hands held up together to her chin, dainty and flattered by the attention. Brutus is leaning way over the door of the car and smiling while talking to her.
So, gas station mechanic who plays guitar and composes silly songs that woo the ladies … if this short were made three years later I’d say it was starting to spoof Elvis Movies. How is Brutus somehow anticipating a Generic Elvis Movie role?

Bierly also points out this is one where Popeye is, first, doing something with Olive Oyl and, second, jealous of Brutus’s attention on her. Often Popeye seems barely interested in her and doesn’t notice the wooing until Olive Oyl tells him off. Plot requirements — that Popeye has to wait until he’s all he can stands before swallowing his spinach — tend to make Popeye look passive. That’s avoided, but at the cost of making him look more like a patsy. But he can’t be blamed for taking Olive Oyl’s advice to pretend Brutus’s shenanigans were an accident, for example. Or respecting her desire to ride in the tow truck cabin.

Much of this cartoon is what you’d expect from Paramount. The story’s all reasonable, reasonably constructed throughout. The animation’s all smooth and steady enough. There seem to be more jokes than usual, or at least they land better. There’s even sign jokes too, like Brutus’s garage offering “expert windshield wiping”. Brutus’s song titles, whether or not Brutus means them in earnest. Or Brutus claiming he ran across the stranded motorists while he was “just going mushroom-picking”. Also, wow, gas was a dollar a gallon back when this cartoon was made in 1960. Imagine that!

Bierly’s book, by the way, is Stronger Than Spinach: The Secret Appeal of the Famous Studios Popeye. Much of it overlaps Bierly’s web site, but they are different creatures. And I do quite like Bierly’s web site and its enthusiastic writing.

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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