60s Popeye: Timber Toppers, another lumberjack cartoon


We’re back at Jack Kinney studios for today’s 1960 Popeye cartoon. This one’s got Noel Tucker credited for the story. We’ve seen his name before, for Popeye Revere and for Popeye and the Giant. The animation direction’s credited to Osmond Evans, of Popeye’s Picnic and Popeye the Fireman. Here’s Timber Toppers.

The four cartoons I mentioned, in which Noel Tucker or Osmond Evans did stuff, were all weird ones. Stories that more riffed around an idea, or that turned dreamlike in the flow of events. This continues that tradition. The premise is that Popeye’s a lumberjack, something done in like 84 cartoons in the Fleischer or Famous Studios runs. He seems to be in it for himself, or at least to show off for Olive Oyl. Brutus comes in stealing the trees Popeye fells. And then they get into fighting. Less fighting than you’d figure, since Popeye spends about three hours of the cartoon stuffed into a hollow log, with Olive Oyl tied to the outside. Brutus gets stuck too. Once that’s sorted, he ties Popeye and Olive Oyl to a log moving into a circular saw and we get the ending you’d expect. Apart from the reference to nose cones, because 1960 was a good time to fit rocket stuff into your story.

Brutus, this short, doesn’t seem to know Popeye, possibly because Popeye’s out of his sailor suit. That’s all right. Popeye seems unable to see Brutus pulling the log that he’s clinging to, possibly because Brutus is out of camera frame. I’ve joked that cartoons which get the characters in non-standard clothing have to cut costs somewhere. I’m not sure it’s a joke. I haven’t added up all the time this five-and-a-half-minute cartoon spends just showing stock footage of Brutus laughing, but I believe it’s over eighteen minutes. Also we see a lot of that one shot of Popeye chopping down a tree, although at least it’s mirrored some to look different. Same with the trees falling.

There’s a lot of small, strange moments. I like small, strange moments, generally. Popeye looking for a missing tree underneath a leaf, for example. Or just how long Popeye walks around stuck in the tree log. I understand Brutus laughing at this. The freed Olive Oyl, at the end, saying how the saw almost ruined her coiffure. Popeye pointing to the bump he somewhere got on his head saying he almost wrecked his.

Brutus and Popeye stuck to opposite sides of a long hollow log. Olive Oyl's tied around the midsection. Brutus is standing up, swinging the log around his body. It's already knocked down one tree, although an animation error had them forget to include the just-knocked-down tree trunk. The Brutus-log-Olive-Oyl-Popeye contraption is swinging into the camera so it's a bit more three-dimensional than necessary.
You’d think this is an inefficient way of cutting down trees but notice they cut that rightmost tree down so well it won’t even appear for another quarter-second after this shot.

There is also a lot of this cartoon where I can’t tell you just what happened. (Other parts where I could only barely make it out; it was my fourth watching, I think, when I finally saw just how Popeye got unstuck from the log.) Like, when they first fight, Brutus punches a tree. Then he’s far enough away to throw a boulder at Popeye. How did Brutus get there? It doesn’t much matter; we can imagine his escaping Popeye’s counter-punch and getting to the rock. But I’m confident that if this were a fully-animated short, we’d see that on-screen. Part of what makes limited-animation work is moving complex actions off-camera. They happen either physically out of frame, or temporally, happening during a cut between reactions. Telling those moments in the story becomes the viewer’s job, not the creator’s.

That’s not all bad. For one, it does engage the viewer, whose narrative sense now has to explain how these things happened. I wonder if part of the appeal of limited-animation shows is how kids are encouraged to fill in parts but still enjoy the whole cartoon. And whatever someone interpolates will be satisfying, at least. Certainly well-timed.

Did Noel Tucker have an idea how Brutus got off to the boulder? My guess is no, just because that would demand fleshing out the story more than was needed to make the cartoon. It’s enough to have the major points. I’m curious whether the Kinney studio writers were encouraged to set out big points and let exact details slide. It would explain the dreamlike nature of so many of their shorts, where we go from one scenario to another without a clear transition.

When he has Popeye and Olive Oyl in front of the circular saw, Brutus recites “Two for the show … and off we go!” What happened to one-for-the-money and three-to-get-ready? Of many weird moments this short, this is one of them.

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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