60s Popeye: Egypt Us, a cartoon that needs a better name


Ugh, that title. I’m sorry. I was considering skipping this cartoon altogether. Besides the title, it’s also got a plot which depends on The Natives picking up a white woman as their priestess/human sacrifice. There’s bits suggesting the cartoon means to teach the audience that the premise is nonsense. It’s a weak case, though. If you decide you don’t need to deal with this in your recreational reading, you’re right, and we’ll catch back up later.

Pushing me toward giving this 1960 cartoon any attention is that it’s a Gerald Ray-produced short. The Popeye Wikia lists only ten Ray-produced cartoons, the fewest of the five studios roped in to the project. So I’m slower to throw it out, although I’m not sure that’s right.

Tom McDonald is listed as director. There’s no story credit. Here’s the cartoon, though.

What keeps me from skipping this cartoon altogether is attitude. Driving the plot is that a “tribe” of “Egyptians” kidnaps Olive Oyl with intentions of human sacrifice. They don’t seem to be taking the sacrifice all that seriously, though. The Leader, questioned by Popeye about why they’d sacrifice their own priestess, shrugs and answers “Doesn’t everybody?” This all fits in line with that era’s Cartoon Existentialism. Think of all the Flintstones animals who work as appliances because “It’s a living”. It takes some edge off if the characters seem to be going about it because they’ve got to do something, even if they know it’s ridiculous.

There’s a pleasant ridiculous air to the whole thing. Even the voice acting feels lighter and more playful than usual. Things like Popeye calling Olive Oyl “a venison of loverliness”. His mangling of loveliness would have been enough, but the whole line is better still. The cartoon starts with a nice underplayed joke that they’re in Egypt because they got lost driving to Coney Island. The car’s overheated; there’s a quick glance at the dashboard being silly and breaking down. Olive Oyl calls the Sphinx the funhouse; she puts on a bathing costume like you’d joke about for the 1890s. Wimpy finally nags everyone into letting him start making lunch; in seconds he puts together a hamburger stand.

Popeye is dragged, one person on each arm and leg, into the underground temple where Priestess Olive Oyl sits on an elevated throne, surrounded by worshippers.
Popeye has had lower-drama girlfriends, but this kind of mess is part of the appeal.

And, well, the “Egyptians”. They speak in “hieroglyphs” that I’m going ahead and assuming are fake. But they’re spoken in word balloons, as though this were a 1910s cartoon. After Popeye calls for subtitles, the “hieroglyphs” even translate to English. Popeye has always been a cartoon that breaks the fourth wall. Part of what makes the black-and-white cartoons so appealing is the sense that Popeye’s chatting with us about the artifice around him. Having a character’s word balloon be on-screen, and tangible, is an unusual sort of joke, though. There’s precedent, in the theatrical shorts where Martians kidnap Popeye, and he learns what’s going on from reading the subtitles for the audience. It’s still a kind of joke that works for Popeye and its rarely done.

In an 'Egyptian' temple the leader of the 'Natives' smugly declares, 'DOESN'T EVERYBODY?' in a squared-off word balloon. Popeye has his head turned away from the camera to read the word balloon.
I am thinking of pulling out this screenshot next time I’m in a conversation thread that just Will. Not. End. in the hopes of confusing everybody long enough to make my getaway.

The cartoon also has a plot tick that reliably entertains me. Popeye keeps running back from the “Egyptians” to remind Wimpy not to eat without them. It’s the plotting equivalent of a spinning-plates act. This isn’t many plates. Nothing like in Barbecue For Two, which had a nice stretch of Popeye trying to keep even with things. It’s enough, though. It lets the Olive Oyl plot advance without having to explain why anything is happening now. Popeye can just come back to find she’s over a fire pit or whatever. It also must have helped production that they didn’t have to show things happening. Popeye can ask what’s going on and it doesn’t seem out of place.

It’s the unusual cartoon to feature a full-body morph for Popeye too, as he turns into a bowling ball to knock down the “Egyptians”. It also features Popeye starting his rhyming couplet too “soon”, and Wimpy delivering the closing lines. Lot of fun stuff here. Shame about the embarrassing stuff.

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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