This week takes us back to 1960 and a cartoon with a baffling title. It comes from the Jack Kinney studios. The story’s by Gerald Nevius and the animation direction by Volus Jones. Here’s a short titled, for some reason, Uncivil War.
I don’t get the title at all. I expected it to be maybe a historical short, but more likely something where Popeye and Brutus have to share the housekeeping. “Popeye instructing Swee’Pea in good driving habits” would have been my maybe fourth guess after “Popeye fights with a squirrel”.
Instead, we’ve got a safe-driving short. The idea seems oddly pitched for the audience, which would be mostly kids a decade away from driving. There were plenty of theatrical shorts pushing safe-driving messages, such as the excellent 1950 Goofy short Motor Mania, directed by some guy name of Jack Kinney. But that’s aimed at a general audience where some of the people are driving home from the theater. Also, the jokes were bigger, bolder. The jokes in “Uncivil War” are more mundane, more educational. There’s a preposterous pileup of cars, caused by Popeye stopping to read the signs too carefully, but that’s about all. The cartoon might have had more surreal jokes if it were just a short about Olive Oyl learning to drive or Popeye trying out his new car. It has a curious shift in structure. It starts out looking like Brutus is trying to woo Olive Oyl with his cool car and Popeye proves himself superior by being a more thoughtful driver. But then that evaporates and we get instead a string of jokes where someone drives badly and then the rest of the cast calls them stupid.
A choice I think I like here is that Brutus isn’t always the bad driver here. (Nor is Olive Oyl, a welcome avoiding of stereotype.) Everyone shuffles the roles of being the good and the problem driver. It helps spread out the laugh lines. It also conveys a subtler message that everyone is a problem driver in some way or another. I can’t imagine that many kids watching this came away thinking of how just being a Good character, like Popeye, doesn’t mean everything you do is right. But it is the sort of lesson one should have. It feels like an inefficient way to do it, is all.
I’d love to know why the Kinney studios chose to make this cartoon, of all the premises they could. Were they thinking of great how-to-drive shorts of the past, including Motor Mania? Was it some sense that they should have some cartoons with socially constructive messages? And how did “Uncivil War” get attached to it as a title? Would like to be able to give you an answer.