60s Popeye: Popeye And The Polite Dragon, with a shocking revelation about Popeye’s ancestors


We’re back to the Jack Kinney studios for a Popeye cartoon featuring a dragon. No, not Popeye And The Dragon, although there’s some resemblance in dragons there. No, this one is a completely different 1960 Jack Kinney-produced cartoon about Popeye and a dragon. This one is Popeye and the Polite Dragon.

This one has story by Joe Grant and Walter Schmidt and animation direction credited to Rudy Larriva. Producer is, of course, Jack Kinney. Let’s watch, then compare notes.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Jack Kinney studios found a great premise that they did as little as they could with. All right, but it’s so. Popeye adopts a prissy dragon. How can you not at least look at that story and see what it’s about?

OK, so it’s technically not Popeye, but his great-great-grandpappy who looks just like him and also eats spinach and fights the evil Brutus. Lop off a couple seconds at the beginning and end and you have the cartoon where Popeye adopts a dragon.

It’s possible that, in a moment of sloppiness, the studio forgot this was a framed story. There’s bits where Jackson Beck steps in as the narrator, when nominally the cartoon is Popeye telling a “dragon story” to Swee’Pea. I know, it’s hard to imagine sloppiness in a Jack Kinney cartoon, but there it is.

An infant purple dragon, holding his tail over one arm, holds his other arm out and looks away, eyes closed, to reassure Popeye's great-great-grandpappy.
Huh. Wonder what this character’s like, there’s so many ways this pose could be read.

So desperate mother Darlene Dragon leaves infant Percy on Popeye’s doorstep. (Popeyes are always discovering foundlings on their doorsteps.) He takes up the child and is surprised that he talks, somewhat posh, despite being an adorable infant. Later, Percy grows larger than the house, so Popeye sends him out in the world with a can of spinach to make his way. Percy’s way turns out to be into the Elite Dragon Inn, a trap set by dragon exterminator Black Brutus. Popeye, missing his son, finds Brutus and gets thrown in the cage with Percy. He eats Percy’s spinach and rallies the dragon’s fire to burn Brutus out of town. For a Jack Kinney cartoon that’s a pretty solid, well-motivated plot.

For all that stuff happens for good reasons the cartoon still feels underwritten. I understand there’s not the time for fully-developed character arcs. But then at the climax, after the spinach-eating, Popeye tries to rally Percy’s courage? Initiative? Pride? Something, to get him to breathe enough fire to get them out of this fix. That’s a good resolution to Percy’s quest for self-actualization or whatever. It’s also the first moment we get an idea that Percy wasn’t embracing his dragon self. Or whatever the issue was. I understand, Percy’s introduced with that name, and with that Odie Cologne voice. We’re supposed to think of The Reluctant Dragon. With that outside information we have a full storyline, but with what’s in the text?

Popeye stands, looking stern, and pointing at a large purple dragon who's sitting sheepish and depressed in front of him.
Like, where did that confident, self-assured dragon cub go? But then Percy’s had a lousy day, having to leave home and immediately getting captured. It’s fair to spend some time moping.

It’s not like allusion is an unfair way to build stories. Especially when we’re constrained for time or space. I mean, a Looney Tunes cartoon draws the mad scientist as Peter Lorre and we understand his deal right away. But that’s about setting up the mad scientist character. It’s not about his whole business. These feelings may reflect that there’s a lot in this cartoon designed to appeal to me. Popeye. Dragons. A Reluctant Dragon type. Popeye stating his thesis that you should proudly be whatever you are. It’s a story I want done well and I notice where this isn’t put together right.

A couple stray observations. Popeye takes a couple books off the bookshelves. Other books on the background include stuff by Volus, or from Larriva Publishing, or an author named Kinney. They’ve used this bookshelf before and I would swear I mentioned it at the time, but I can’t find that. The cartoon’s title promises a polite dragon, but all we get evidence of is “educated”. And, if — as the joke at the end suggests — we’re supposed to take this as having literally happened … you know, Popeye’s great-great-grandpappy doesn’t seem to have any kids besides Percy. Are we to assume that the Jack Kinney version of Popeye is, at least partially, a dragon? Because that would be cool.

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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