60s Popeye: The Mark of Zero, and the mystery of the Mark of Zero


We continue in the wilderness of shorts for which King Features’s YouTube collection includes no credits. The style of the title card gives away that it’s a Paramount Cartoon Studios production, from 1961. Seymour Kneitel is the producer and, per the Internet Movie Database, director as well. Irving Dressler has a story credit. He seems to have gone without mention here before. Here, now, learn the mystery of The Mark of Zero.

Zero, here, is the hero of a bedtime story Popeye tells. He’s a dashing, sword-wielding force standing against Brutus and his gang. There’s a good bit to like in Zero’s story. For one, he’s got a lighthearted tone. Zero quipping about how he’s kind of a cut-up is the sort of joke Jack Mercer would mumble if this short were made in the 30s. And that includes some nice cleverness, such as by disarming Brutus’s band of thugs by using a magnet.

Also, Brutus’s band of thugs is well-populated, especially for this era, and by more than one character model and voice. And his battle of wits with Zero develops. It’s got a proper introduction, build, and climax. Brutus declares “dames is Zero’s weakness,” on grounds not evidenced on-screen, and puts on a dress to catch Zero by surprise. The framing device excuses Brutus giving Zero the precious bit of spinach. This is the rare bit of suspense where you know how things are going to go the hero’s way.

It’s all done in the lumbering, steady pace of a Paramount cartoon, of course. Look at when Zero’s caught in a barrel with Brutus sitting on top. We get a good solid reminder that Zero has a sword, before he swipes Brutus’s rear end. The joke setup is sound. Set up the action and pay it off. What it’s not is fast. With better pacing the cartoon could be twice as good.

Brutus, wearing a dress, whips off the wig and mask he wore to conceal his identity and holds his sword out on Popeye-as-Zero's chest. As Zero, Popeye's wearing a loosely Robin Hood-like outfit, with a nice purple cape.
By the way that’s a look that works for Popeye. I’m not being snarky here. He fills it out well.

So the mystery. It’s not why frame this as a bedtime tale. It’s why tell the tale to Deezil Oyl? Why not Swee’Pea? Deezil was a character created for the 60s cartoons, I think to have a kid who could be more rambunctious and chaotic than Swee’Pea could be. (Also to be a companion in case the plot needed two kids.) The closing scene, with Deezil having zero-swiped her whole bedroom, would be unusual for Swee’Pea, but I don’t feel it’s out of character. There’s no need to set up telling Swee’Pea a bedtime story either.

She never got to be a regular in the cartoons, and as far as I know never appeared in the comic strip proper or another Popeye series. So I don’t want to cheat her of her few appearances. I’d like to know why she got this, though. Maybe they were looking for things to do with Deezil? But you get a lasting character when they do something someone else in your cast can’t, and “hear a bedtime story” is well-covered already.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

2 thoughts on “60s Popeye: The Mark of Zero, and the mystery of the Mark of Zero”

  1. Olive (and Popeye?) must live in an apartment complex, from the length of that hallway and the repeating furniture!

    Interestingly, I have a similar reaction to these early ’60s King Features “Popeye” animations that some Trailheads have to the new version of “Mark Trail.” That is, I appreciate the original Fleischer Studio animations so much more, with their superior animation effects. Sure, those earlier Popeye stories got really formulaic and repetitive (with some exceptions). And I liked Popeye’s sotto voce asides. But when I first saw the King Features “Popeye”, I got really depressed over the poor animation. It was taking Popeye out of the 1930s and sticking him the sitcom neighborhood of “Leave it to Beaver” or “Ozzie and Harriet”.

    Ironically, in this particular King Features “Popeye”, we have an “amazing chase & escape” that mirrors the implausible car chase and escape Mark has been going through this week. Here, Deezil Oyl suddenly escapes and hides right in front of a pursuing Olive. Of course, Olive isn’t as inept as Professor Bee Sharp and Diana Daggers and quickly catches the kid.

    Otherwise, I agree with your explication of the animation. And as you noted, where is Swee’Pea?

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    1. I was a kid in the late-70s/early-80s, so I grew up watching just all the Popeye cartoons in this great undifferentiated stew. I was too young to feel disappointed by the animation;there was a while I couldn’t get enough of Deputy Dawg either, for crying out loud. But I knew and appreciated that the King Features ones had worse animation and were generally less good cartoons than, like, the Famous Studios shorts, and those were generally less good than the black-and-white ones. And that everything was worse than the Fleischer color two-reelers, with that impossible use of real-world backgrounds. I don’t remember noticing the difference between the different King Features studios, at the time, but it’s hard for me to imagine not noticing at least the different ways the title cards looked.

      What I did like about the King Features shorts, then and now, was the greater variety of cast. The Sea Hag’s an unquestioned strength and it’s amazing they never used her theatrically. The return of Eugene the Jeep and Poopdeck Pappy. Professor Wotasnozzle. Alice the Goon. Any of those and I would likely be happy with the cartoon that came out. Lesser characters too, like the Whiffle Bird or King Blozo or Toar were welcome. I’d like to think I’m more sophisticated than that now, but it’s still pretty much the case that if the short has an obscure character in it I’m going to like it, even if it’s dumb.

      Deezil Oyl’s escape by running off-screen is in line with a bunch of examples that I am awake too late tonight to categorize, where something becomes undetectable as soon as it’s off-screen. If the cartoon had a bit more budget they might have put a doorframe or a hallway corner in the way, so there’d be some visual excuse for Olive Oyl to lose her view of Deezil. Or if the animators had changed her facial expression we might have had Olive humoring Deezil while knowing exactly where she’d gone.

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