60s Popeye: Operation Ice-Tickle, and I don’t get what that’s a pun for either


So, first, Stephanie Noell of the OOC Popeye Twitter feed published a new pay-what-you-will zine, The Rainbird. This collects a Thimble Theatre story from 1939-40, by Tom Sims, Doc Winner, and Bela Zaboly. Popeye, having decided at last to marry Olive Oyl, sets out to Neutopia to find the magic rainbird that controls its weather. His reasons for this make sense in context. In the grand tradition of Thimble Theatre the action peters out with the original incident forgotten. Fun, though.

Less fun: the next King Features Popeye in their YouTube channel’s order is the Jack Kinney-produced Spinachonara. It opens with Popeye offering Swee’Pea an “Oriental-type kind” of fairy story so uh yeah yikes. I trust they meant to respect that non-white-people should get to be the stars of stories too. But I’m not paid to deal with Jack Mercer, Jackson Beck, and Mae Questel doing their Japanese Or Chinese Or Whatever Accents. You want me to do 600 words on that, ask for my PayPal.


Next cartoon, then. That gets us safely back in Paramount Cartoon Studios territory. Story by Joseph Gottlieb, with direction and production by Seymour Kneitel. Here’s the 1961 short Operation Ice-Tickle.

What we have here is another Popeye-and-Brutus compete cartoon. This time not to do a job but complete a task. That task? Bring back the North Pole. This because they happen to be in front of a statue of Admiral Peary when Olive Oyl has enough of Popeye and Brutus’s quarreling. The reward? A date with Olive Oyl, you know, like the one Popeye had been on when Brutus interrupted. All right. Popeye and Brutus are lucky they weren’t in front of the Science Center’s Planet Walk model of Saturn.

The premise is a bit goofy. Brutus buys a very slow rocket from a surplus store. Popeye hits up the surplus store too, getting an 1886 hot air balloon. And somehow this is not the only cartoon that I have reviewed that’s about flying a balloon to the North Pole. What the heck?

There’s this absurdity at the heart of the cartoon. At many of the details, too. Like, Popeye takes his burst balloon, builds a replacement using an inner tire and a car engine, and catches up with Brutus’s rocket? But it’s all well-constructed. The more I think of the story the more impressed I am with its fitting together. Like, does a kid notice the absurdity of a hot air balloon catching up with, and overtaking, a rocket? That is a joke they wanted us to notice, right?

Popeye rests in a hot-air-balloon basket, which hangs from a giant overinflated rubber-tire doughnut, and propelled by a small car engine hanging off the back. Through the center of the doughnut is the candy-cane-striped North Pole. On the top of the North Pole (in front of Popeye) is a frozen Brutus.
“Now there’s something you don’t see every day, Chauncey.”

“What’s that, Edgar?”

“Lighthouse making a home delivery.”

And then there’s little bits of crafting. Like, Popeye secures the North Pole by landing his doughnut-tire airship around it. There’s some foreshadowing there, as Brutus tries to pop this second balloon but misses because his rocket slides through the hole. (I assume that’s how we’re supposed to read that scene. The animation skimps on what we do see.) Or, when Popeye’s trapped in ice? He’s freed by the little flame of his own homemade engine. That flame’s there because Brutus is stealing his balloon, but doesn’t know how to work it. That’s a good reason for Brutus to have the flame pointed at Popeye and not turn it off. And, of course, it’s a thing that couldn’t have come about if Brutus hadn’t popped the original hot air balloon.

This is in the upper tier of the King Features shorts. The premise is absurd and if you can’t get into that, there’s nothing for you here. But grant the premise and the story makes solid sense. The animation’s the typical Paramount Cartoon Studios competence. There’s a couple of nice shots, like seeing Popeye and Olive Oyl and Brutus walking together from a camera above their heads. The closing joke is a weird one, but it does get everyone out in good order.

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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