60s Popeye: Tooth Be Or Not Tooth Be, with extremely little Popeye


Before I get to the cartoon here’s a bit of Popeye news. Stephanie Noell, who runs the Out Of Context Popeye panels Twitter feed, put together an e-book. It collects the Spinach Juice Springs story from Thimble Theatre. This was the first full storyline after Elzie Segar’s death, and the story by Tom Sims and Doc Winner seems to have gone uncollected before. It’s available from Gumroad.com as a pay-what-you-will download. Sims and Winner here put forth a couple neat ideas that they shuffle around a while before running out of stuff to do, then toss in a new idea and shuffle that a while, before finally everyone agrees the story is done. So they kept that Elzie Segar vibe pretty well at this point.


Tooth Be Or Not Tooth Be is another Gene Deitch-produced cartoon. So, good luck finding who’s responsible for story or who the animators were or all that. It is dated 1962, the first time I’ve noticed that late date in one of these.

This extends the streak of Gene Deitch cartoons that inspire the question, “the heck am I watching?”. In this case, not because the story is playing with a weird idea. More that the cartoon is disjoint.

Really it’s two cartoons. One is Poopdeck Pappy babysitting a teething Swee’Pea. Swee’Pea goes wild chewing things. Thumbs, most often, but a phone book, a table, anything he can get near his mouth. It looks like the premise is Pappy trying to keep up with Swee’Pea’s devouring the world. That seems viable enough for a five-minute cartoon to me. You can imagine the Tex Avery, or at least Dick Lundy, cartoon built on that.

But just as that’s settled — with a cute bit where the dentist examines Swee’Pea through binoculars, out of biting range — we shift to a different plot. This one’s the story of the Sea Hag kidnapping Poopdeck Pappy so she can steal his teeth. Pappy’s able to escape, thanks to a campaign of expert biting. This, too, seems like it could have been a five-minute cartoon. So why smash these two premises together?

Might be they couldn’t figure a way to extend either premise to the five-and-a-half minutes needed. In which case, yes, better to do two half-cartoons they have inspiration for. But that pushes the question to why they had a pair of tooth-themed premises going at once. Did someone have the idea for the title and then they pitched ideas to fit it?

Also, why is this a Poopdeck Pappy cartoon? Like, why wouldn’t it be Popeye watching Swee’Pea teething instead? (Which would make the non-emergency dentist visit less odd.) I guess Pappy’s willing to punch the Sea Hag, when Popeye never would, but it’s not like Pappy punches her this cartoon either. It allows for a punch line, Popeye coming in to see Swee’Pea brushing his teeth. But that could be done just as well if (say) Olive Oyl came in to see how he was doing. The side effect is this is another candidate for the title of Least Popeye in a Popeye Cartoon.

Part of me wonders, not completely facetiously, if this started out as a public service cartoon for dental hygiene. The repeated instructions about brushing teeth and going to the dentist fit there. As does Pappy telling a story where good teeth saved the day. And Swee’Pea doing a closing rhyme of “They’ll last to the finish! If he eats his spinach! And brushes them twice a day!”

This might even explain the sketchiness of the animation. I don’t think Popeye’s ever been animated on ones, and by this era it certainly couldn’t be animated on twos. Here I estimate them as animating on the eighteens. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Could be the Deitch studio was running out of the time and animation budget and they had to put out something. It’s a shame if the answer is all that dull, though.

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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