60s Popeye: Rip Van Popeye, maybe the second Popeye bowling cartoon


The story today is from Joe Grant and Walter Schmidt, names who I have recorded as offering two stories I wasn’t sure were written for Popeye. Those were Popeye the Popular Mechanic and then Popeye the White Collar Man. They have a new animation director this time, Ken Hultgren. Jack Kinney remains the director and producer. From 1960 here’s Rip Van Popeye.

If you’re like me, you remember the Rip Van Winkle story like this: Rip falls asleep for twenty years, and wakes up to find the town’s sure grown a bunch. Also at some point he goes … bowling with … dwarves? Who make thunder? Turns out that in Washington Irving’s original story there’s not a whole lot more. It’s a slender story to have become such a popular referent. And something adapted into five billion cartoons, including a theatrical Popeye short. Maybe because there’s no story? You have to send your protagonist into The Future but don’t have to hit any plot points or anything. This adaptation of Rip van Winkle, then, skips the whole “tossed into the future” thing. Instead we get bowling while drinking, or as it’s known in the trades, “bowling”.

The story’s framed as Popeye explaining thunder to a frightened Swee’Pea. It’s a reliable setup. The close gets spoiled by not having a punch line. Popeye explains “so thunder ain’t nothing but a game of bowling!” I guess that’s what you’d say to your kid, if you were telling this story, but as the close of a cartoon it feels like the rough draft.

The transition into the framed story is nice. Popeye takes a book off the shelf and I noticed how many animators’ names were on book spines there. Rip Van Popeye stretches out, his feet going outside the borders of the book’s picture, as the story starts. I liked that, so I’ll call it clever, but I’m not positive it wasn’t an animation error. Sometimes error works.

Rip Van Popeye flees Olive’s nagging to the top of a hill, that turns out to be in the clouds. Brutus’s bowling up a storm and the ball floats around Popeye. Brutus shares his Spinach Squeezins, a thing mentioned about every eight seconds for the rest of the short. And then we really get into this dreamy logic. The squeezings reach out and pinch Popeye’s nose. Drinking them gives the Popeye-the-Sailor-Man fanfare, but Popeye doesn’t seem particularly powered up. He is up for “that game with the iron ping-pong balls”, which seems an odd way to describe bowling. Olive Van Winkle scolds Popeye from her house, which is the same one Popeye and Swee’Pea live in, in the future. Brutus calls her a “ludicrous nonentity”, giving Popeye a reason to punch Brutus, who’s otherwise been friendly the whole short.

Scene of a book depicting Rip Van Popeye and his dog lying against a tree. Rip Van Popeye is yawning, stretching out, and as he does his feet stretch out past the edge of the picture he's in.
I’m sorry the animation is so sloppy that this is plausibly a mistake. (I mean, when Brutus talks off-screen, Popeye’s mouth moves. That’s not being careful.) I like the visual cue of Rip Van Popeye stretching out of the picture frame as his story starts.

Brutus passes out unconscious under the spinach squeezings, and Rip Van Popeye worries he’ll drown. He’s not so worried as to move, but that’s all right, as Brutus gets the Popeye-the-Sailor-Man fanfare, tilts, and rockets out of frame. He rolls the barrel of spinach squeezings at Popeye, and it falls over, knocking out Olive. Who also gets the spinach squeezings poured into her mouth, something Popeye does not worry will drown her. Maybe he supposes Brutus’s experience will carry over. It does. She gets the Popeye-the-Sailor-Man fanfare, and rallies. She goes to a rock wall and tosses the same two rocks into the sky, over and over, building a lightning bridge to race up to her good-for-nothing husband. Once up there she decides this is nice, let’s stay and bowl.

I warned we were entering a zone of cartoons where it’s hard to tell what’s going on or why. What’s going on is not too hard to label here. Why it’s happening is harder. The plot summary is a string of events. Apart from Rip Van Popeye climbing the hill, and Olive Van Winkle throwing rocks at him, I can’t say why anyone did anything that short.

I don’t have quite the same doubts this was written for Popeye, rather than having his name slapped on. I guess because the Spinach Squeezings are mentioned so much and so relentlessly. That’s curious, though, since the story would work as well if they were corn squeezings from Snuffy Smith’s relatives. Maybe there have been enough Popeye-tells-a-story cartoons that this seems in-character.

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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