60s Popeye: The Leprechaun, a title that gives away the last scene


The title of this week’s King Features Popeye had me expecting a Jack Kinney short. Somehow it felt like a story built around a “real” legendary creature fit that studio’s style more. Nope; this is Paramount Cartoon Studios. So director and producer credits go to Seymour Kneitel. The story’s credited to Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer. From 1961 let’s see Popeye tangling with The Leprechaun.

This is not a funny cartoon, which does not bother me. This is an adventure cartoon instead, a striking lot of story for five and a half minutes of animation. The Sea Hag has a plan to set her up for life: catch a leprechaun and steal his gold. Popeye spots her — in a neat and surprisingly smooth bit of animation, at about 33 seconds in — and decides he needs to be in the cartoon too. The Sea Hag finds the leprechauns on an island so lush it has detailed, even shaded, backgrounds. Her not-bad plan: beg for help from a kindly leprechaun, and to repay him, offer him tea. It’s laced with truth serum so he can’t not tell the location of the leprechauns’ gold.

The other leprechauns banish him for this. This doesn’t seem fair of them. I don’t know much about Irish mythology but from what I have learned, the only thing more dangerous than accepting a stranger’s offer of food and drink is not accepting. They should have sympathy; it could have been any of them. Popeye runs across the poor leprechaun, “banished forever” until their gold is returned, and he catches the Sea Hag at the docks. She uses her Evil Eye Whammy. He uses his spinach to punch it back at her, knocking her out. I guess this doesn’t break his resolve to not hit a woman, but it’s a close thing. The gold’s returned, Popeye’s made an honorary leprechaun, and I’m not sure we ever hear the victimized leprechaun’s name.

A leprechaun lifts the unconscious Popeye's nose ahead of pouring 'Shamrock Juice' into his now-open mouth.
I’m not the only person who expected a mention that Shamrock Juice contained a squirt of spinach, am I? Really expected that, possibly as the way Popeye would get his spinach power-up. Maybe if they had a full seven minutes for the short.

As said, this isn’t a funny cartoon. I’m not sure there’s even an attempt at joking. Doesn’t matter. There’s a story here, and a well-constructed one. For example, when Popeye first challenges the Sea Hag her buzzard sneaks up and knocks him out. This balances with Popeye sneaking up on and knocking out the buzzard at the end. The kind leprechaun finds the knocked-out Popeye and helps him; this establishes his nature before the Sea Hag can take advantage of it. And while we know Popeye would help a sad-looking fellow, it gives him a stronger reason to try and help the banished leprechaun.

And there’s some production bits. The bit with Popeye looking through his telescope and turning his head, for example, a bit of animation so good I expected them to reuse it at least once. Maybe it’s put into the Paramount stock library and turns up in other shorts. Or there’s the great children’s-book illustration of the forest. It’s got so much depth as to make the other backgrounds look chintzy. It gives a suggestion of the forest as this magical, more-real-than-real setting. Or maybe it reflects the background having been designed for a theatrical cartoon and getting pressed into service here. I don’t know, but I love the decision to use this.

I bet Popeye gets a lot of mileage out of being an honorary leprechaun in future cartoons. Can’t wait for next week.

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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