60s Popeye: College of Hard Knocks (please ring doorbell to the left)


Larry Harmon produced today’s cartoon. So that might set some expectations. One is that Paul Fenell would direct, and that the story would be by Charles Shows. These expectations are correct. Here’s 1960’s College of Hard Knocks.

Another thing I expect from a Harmon-produced cartoon is that characters are going to stand around a lot. Thes are the animators who’d create Filmation, for which I have a nostalgic affection.

The premise is solid enough. It’s easy to imagine the classic-era theatrical-short version of this. The idea of Brutus as a fake instructor is even circled around by the 1938 short Learn Polikeness, not so closely that this feels like a remake.

It makes sense Olive Oyl would go to school for something. That immediately casts either Brutus or Popeye as the professor; you then have to decide who’s the authority and who’s undermining it to have a plot. Brutus gets to be the “professor”. So it’s a story of Brutus humiliating or injuring Popeye until he has all he can stands, etc. Solid enough story, even if it is the plotting equivalent of all the characters stand around a lot. But sprinkle in some good quips and at least one fanciful bit of violence and you have a cartoon that works. And there’s some decent quipping, mostly on Popeye’s part, of course. Declaring he’s as couth as the average rowdy, or asking if Olive wants an edjamacated ignoramus. Basic jokes, sure, but good for the audience.

Something I was never sure about: was Brutus a legitimate professor here? In Learn Polikeness he’s running a scam and everybody but Olive Oyl sees through him, fine enough. Here? I mean, he’s got a building with the name carved above the entrance. That’s an enormous investment if he’s just trying to get some time with Olive Oyl. But we only ever see him with two pupils and one of them just signed up today.

And, like, what class was this? I guess maybe Brutus was giving some basic physics, or basic science, class, from his demonstrations of “the law of pressure”, the “law of elasticity”, and the “law of gravity”. I realize I’m the only person in the world wondering this, but what would Brutus have done with that toothpaste and anvil if Popeye hadn’t stuck around?

A shocked Popeye, wearing an academic cap, looking at the diploma he's unrolled to discover it's a Marriage License, showing Olive Oyl and Popeye readying to marry.
Oh, yeah, and then the punch line. Olive Oyl gives Popeye a certificate of his being an edjamacated ignoramus; it’s a marriage license with their pictures on it. This because if there’s one thing the kids in the audience know is funny, it’s how THE WIFE THEY SO BAD RIGHT.

But I say that reflects on one of the differences between these and the theatrical shorts. I grant the writer for Learn Polikeness didn’t put any thought into Bluto’s career as a teacher of manners. But you can imagine if Popeye hadn’t intruded that Bluto would have had a day that made sense. Here, if Popeye hadn’t given Olive Oyl a ride to class? So I’ll stand by my controversial declaration that this is a worse cartoon than the 1938 one it echoes.

As he’s punched out of the cartoon Brutus looks to the camera and asks, “What did I did wrong?”, in this silly French accent. It sounds like the closing line from one of the theatrical cartoons, where Bluto’s a French-Canadian lumberjack or something. I don’t know if it’s literally the same line or if Jackson Beck just recorded it in the same accent. There’s no reason to read the line like that, except for fun. The line’s also a bit mysterious unless Brutus has no self-awareness, but he is a cartoon.

I may be giving contrary directions here. I want the cartoon makers to have fun, and to throw stuff in just because it delights them. Why should I complain that “What did I did wrong?” doesn’t make sense? I should at least be consistent in my demands.

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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