Jack Kinney provides the story for one of these cartoons, for the last time in this progress through the King Features Syndicate shorts of the 60s. There’s one more Jack Kinney-produced cartoon, though. And the animation direction — as the other Kinney short will be — is credited to Volus Jones and Ed Friedman, names I’ll be sorry to see the end of. Here from 1960 is Popeye’s Pep-Up Emporium.
Years ago the Flophouse podcasters talked about common mistakes of bad movies. One was explaining the wrong things, over-explaining the simple setup and not giving enough screen time to the counterintuitive implications. This short starts with a pretty long advertisement for Popeye’s Pep-Up Emporium, the gym where he promises to help with any body type. There’ve been theatrical shorts where Popeye runs a gym (Vim, Vigor, and Vitaliky and Gym Jam particularly), and they got the idea established much faster.
Spending so much time setting it up isn’t necessarily wrong. The advertisement sets the tone, sure. And it lets the short toss in a couple of jokes, admittedly at things like Brutus’s very fat body. We might try to be a little less body-shaming today, but the jokes are set up well enough. Having the commercial at the start also sets up that there’ll be another commercial made during the short, giving the cartoon what little plot structure it has.
Again I don’t fault the short for mostly being a bunch of spot jokes. Gymnasiums are good for a string of disconnected jokes. The cartoon comes close to that, with stunts like Olive Oyl getting tied up in knots after a little bending. Or Wimpy pulling a table toward himself and pushing it away again. Here we do have what’s got to be a Kinney Classic animation error. When the table’s nearby he chews in the air in front of a pile of hamburgers. Someone has to have been meant to draw a hamburger falling off the pile into his mouth, but too late for that now. Maybe for the remastered Special Editions.
So we get to the commercial, done live in a gymnasium, a transmitting challenge especially for 1960 that I’m glad I don’t have to master. Think of the audio quality. A butterfly lands on Popeye’s dead weights, and he drops the extra load through the floor, bringing an irate Brutus up and into the short. Thing is, Brutus is right to be angry. The — let’s call them 2000-pound dead weights — just crashed through his ceiling. And this after a commercial body-shaming him.
But the parts the cast is in requires Brutus to be the villain. So he lecherously tries to get Olive Oyl out of that … wall thingy she’s trapped in. He’s stomping on Popeye’s head while he does this, so Popeye pulls out the spinach and there we go. If you look at the Popeye-Brutus interactions this is pulling on the spinach way too early. It’s only justified by Popeye knowing the cartoon is almost over. I know, we don’t need much justification. Popeye and Brutus have a history we’re supposed to take ambiguously seriously. And the guy is stomping on Popeye’s head. And anyone watching a lot of Popeye cartoons comes to wonder why Popeye doesn’t pull out his spinach at the start of the trouble. (A problem endemic to most every show with a super-power-up gimmick.) Maybe if Brutus has been part of the class, and ever more trouble, then things would have balanced better.
Though I started my essay talking about mistakes of bad movies, I don’t think this is a bad short. It’s got the usual weaknesses of the King Features Popeye cartoons, including the drifting narrative of so many Jack Kinney-produced shorts. It’s got a good setup, though, and good jokes along the way. The worst it does is take such extreme narrative economy, to get Popeye to eat his spinach, that the writers seem not to have noticed Popeye doesn’t need to have eaten spinach here. Olive Oyl getting fed up waiting for rescue and eating spinach herself is a good solid ending. They could have got there with a better use of Brutus.