60s Popeye: A Poil For Olive Oyl (I count at least 28 poils myself)


Back today to Paramount Cartoon Studios, and the year 1961. Seymour Kneitel gets credit for direction and (of course) production. Joseph Gottlieb gets the story credit. He also had the story credits for Operation Ice-Tickle and for Going … Boing … Gone. So I’m glad to have a title from him that doesn’t make me wonder if I’m missing an obvious pun. We search now for A Poil For Olive Oyl.

The hosts of bad-movies podcast The Flop House once offered that a common bad-movie mistake is explaining wrong things. Too much time on backstory that doesn’t matter, not enough on why characters would want to do this thing now. A Poil For Olive Oyl is an example of this explain-the-wrong-things error.

Popeye wants to get Olive Oyl a birthday gift. She looks at a $12,000 mink coat and then a $5,000 strand of pearls. This setup takes about as long as third grade. I don’t mind giving Popeye a reason to go pearl-diving. But how long did we need the jewelry store owner to spend figuring out 20% off of five thousand dollars? We could have started with Popeye on the boat, saying, “And now I will collect the poils for your birthday presenk, Olive!”. We’d lose the not-quite-jokes about Popeye being a cheapskate. But the cheapskate jokes also imply that Olive Oyl can’t guess, to within four thousand dollars, what’s a reasonable cost for a birthday gift.

When Popeye gets to the oysters we have a modest but actual flight of fantasy. The beds are literal beds, oysters tucked in under blankets and all. The whimsy isn’t bad or unprecedented. Paramount Cartoon Studios was the Fleischer Studios reorganized. Surreality was the Fleischer’s greatest strength. But it has been a while since this studio put this sort of fantasy in its Popeye cartoons. I like the intent behind putting this whimsy in. But giving the oysters eyes and beds and pillows anthropomorphizes them in a way that makes taking their pearls more like theft.

Olive Oyl (seen from behind) watches a TV set showing Popeye swimming underwater.
Hey, nice of Olive Oyl to watch the cartoon along with us!

Even more like theft: the Sea Hag says Popeye is stealing from her oyster beds. Popeye insists that’s false, but … is it? I’m not asking about the actual maritime law about ownership of oyster beds. If she’s been farming oysters and she’s come out to chase off a tresspasser? Explain it to me like I’m a seven-year-old who’s accepted the folk-Lockean notions of the origins of property that every American grows up with. Because that gets the end of the cartoon, and finally some action, on a bad footing. Which is a shame. It’s the rare example of Olive Oyl eating the spinach and punching the bad guy. You don’t want that foiled by doubts about who’s right.

So there’s the problems here. We spend a lot of time justifying why Popeye would dive for pearls. But we don’t get to hear why the Sea Hag hasn’t got at least equal rights to the pearls. The cartoon counts on “she’s the villain so she must be being villainous” and that doesn’t work. My quick fix? When Popeye gets to the oyster beds, ask for volunteers to donate pearls to Olive Oyl’s necklace. Then Popeye’s not stealing from the anybody while the Sea Hag is. And start the cartoon at the oyster beds. We don’t need it explained why someone might gather pearls to make a necklace.

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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