60s Popeye: William Won’t Tell, because in this one, William is Popeye, that’s why


Have we entered a new round of Seymour Kneitel-mania? … Almost! It’s a Paramount Cartoon Studios production this week, so yes, he’s the producer. And the director. The story, though, is given to Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer. So here is 1961’s William Won’t Tell.

I’ve mentioned the curse of competence. It’s not hard to write about great cartoons. It’s easy to write about the fabulously incompetent. William Won’t Tell is mostly a good enough idea done well. But I’ll try to give some decent attention to a cartoon that sets a reasonable ambition and does it pretty well. It shouldn’t be neglected for that.

It’s a fairy-tale setting, like a fair streak of King Features cartoons are. This one doesn’t have a narrator, or any kind of framing device. It doesn’t need one, although that does raise the question why any of these cartoons ever need one.

The town crier reads from a long scroll. He's a skinny, narrow-faced person, with a shaggy, Brutus-like beard.
One of the first bit parts played by Shaggy before he landed that Scooby-Doo job. In his memoir Shaggy admitted the Brutus beard was a strange choice and nobody remembers who suggested he wear it.

The story’s inspired by the legend of William Tell. Popeye Tell pauses in his day of doing good deeds to help the Queen replace her broken wheel. She gives him a kiss on the forehead, that he has to keep secret from the jealous King and the no-less-jealous Olive Oyl. The King learns of this anyway and demands all men pass before him with their hats off. When Popeye refuses the King forces him to shoot an arrow off Olive Oyl’s head. He does, but the trick arrow that makes this easy also knocks his hat off, revealing everything to everyone. The Queen saves the day, with a well-timed explanation and birthday gift for the King, and we have a happy ending.

I don’t have a national-identity attachment to the legend of William Tell. So I don’t mind the shifting of events and motivations and all. There’s a solid logic behind the whole story, too. We get Popeye to be heroic to start with, and for that resolute good nature to get him in a fix, and for that virtue to be what brings the last-minute save. It fits well enough I only noticed later that nobody brings up spinach.

A stubborn and annoyed Popeye blows 'NO' out of his pipe.
Saving this reaction shot for every e-mail I have to answer this week.

There are several nice fangles in this, mostly in the animation. Popeye refusing the King’s order by blowing his pipe to spell out ‘NO’ in smoke. Popeye felling a tree by using arrows that spiral around each other and do the work, the sort of stunt often done in the theatrical shorts. The King trying out and rejecting two apples before putting the tiniest one on Olive Oyl’s head. These all add vitality to the cartoon, and also reward watching. They lift the cartoon beyond the illustrated-radio default.

I bring up again how well I find the story structure. When I look at the other cartoons credited Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer I find one that I thought well-structured (Who’s Kidding Zoo) and some others with decent premises done okay (Messin’ Up The Mississippi or The Baby Contest, for example). I’m curious what happened to make everything come together this time.

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: William Won’t Tell, because in this one, William is Popeye, that’s why”

  1. Interesting that last time “they” (actually a different they) did a William Tell Popeye cartoon, Popeye met William, rather than being William. I remember it being a rather funny one, though it’s been a while.

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    1. Yeah, that cartoon, which I think was just titled Popeye Meets William Tell, was a great one. It was from the last years of the black-and-white run, a period that hasn’t got enough attention. The cartoons got quite zany and high-energy, and I don’t know what caused such a big change.

      If I knew of a reasonably reliable link for videos of the theatrical cartoons I might turn to reviewing those once I’m done with the King Features shorts. It’s weird that it is easier to find these than the 1930s cartoons, though.

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