60s Popeye: Spoil Sport (sorry, I don’t know who’s spoiling what sport here)


This week brings us back to Gene Deitch-made cartoons. So, as traditional, I don’t have more detailed credits than that. The Internet Movie Database credits Stepán Konícek for music, although I have to say a lot of it seems like stock background. In any event, from 1961, here’s Spoil Sport.

There is something fascinating in these 1961 Gene Deitch-made shorts. They have felt more ambitious, bigger in scope, than most of the King Features 60s cartoons. This is a case in point. Popeye disappoints Olive Oyl with his new scooter being one of those little foot-powered toys you see in cartoons and Back To The Future. Brutus thrills her with his new sportscar. She goes riding with him, that goes badly, Popeye rescues her. It fits a particular style of Popeye-and-Brutus-compete cartoon, often done in theatrical cartoons. Making it about a great car versus … not … is also evocative of the 1936 short The Spinach Roadster, a solidly fun one.

I think it’s unfair to call this a remake of The Spinach Roadster. But it’s riffing on the same melody. There’s no competing with the earlier cartoon for animation smoothness or detail. The short makes some wise choices to compensate. There’s the magazine pictures Olive Oyl’s looking at to start the short. Or her long wardrobe of identical dresses that she needs to pick from. And, in the most impressive animation choice, highlighting the danger of going too fast on this mountain road with a bit of parallax scrolling, showing the cliff’s edge and the valley far below. This last is a particularly good use of the limited animation budget.

There are shortcomings. Brutus’s sports car jumps over Popeye in a way that looks like a bizarre animation error. It’s easy to imagine the 1930s version of this, where it’s clear this is done on purpose to set up Popeye’s evaluation that “that’s not a car, it’s a grasshopper!” But Popeye’s scooter faling into an open manhole, and popping back up without his movement being interrupted? That’s a joke that plays as well as the Fleischers would have done.

Brutus, angry, is in a sports car sitting on top of a mountain peak. Olive Oyl's in the car beside him. Popeye has set a fence post out to reach the peak, and he, on his scooter, reaches his hand out to help Olive Oyl out of the car.
I get that Popeye doesn’t want to eat his spinach until it’s really dire but this might have been a case to eat his can, dig underneath the car, and toss it back to the main road. Am I wrong?

As Brutus drives up the mountain he’s going too fast for the road width. That’s given; he’s a cad and a villain, at heart. But they don’t crash off the road until after Olive Oyl grabs hold of Brutus’s head. She does that a bunch this short, including when Popeye’s trying to rescue her. Later, her scarf gets in his face so he drives the scooter off the cliff. That’s all within the bounds of normal carton character choices, doing things that make the situation worse. A thing missing, that would have been there in the theatrical version of this, is Brutus’s heel turn. He doesn’t try grabbing at Olive Oyl and forcing her to snuggle or whatever it is he thinks he’s doing. My guess is this reflects some rule about how villains can treat women in made-for-TV cartoons rather than limits on time. It does cause a shift in the blame for the ultimate mess, though. It’s not one that spoils the cartoon. Brutus still gets to be the heel, punching out a Popeye who’s rescuing him from a mountain peak. And essential to Olive Oyl’s character is that she’s high-maintenance. I just note how it changes the impression of who to blame here. Could be that Olive Oyl is a more nervous passenger than Brutus was a driver, and if she didn’t grab his head they wouldn’t have gone off the edge.

Another point is this is a well-edited cartoon. Most of these 60s shorts have indifferent pacing and timing. Here, each joke or plot point moves right to the next quickly. Some of these shorts have dialogue where each line sounds like an isolated island in the middle of the ocean. It’s jolting to hear the characters talking to each other so. The only long, slow piece is Popeye pedalling his scooter up all four loops of that mountain road, and that’s a shot that’s funnier the longer it goes on.

I haven’t done a systematic study. My impression is that I’ve enjoyed these 1961 Deitch cartoons, on average, more than any other bunch of these shorts. I’d love to know if the shorts had more time, or money, or less pressure, or what that’s given them an edge.

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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