We’re now up to the last of the Gerald Ray-produced King Features Popeye cartoons. We don’t get a story credit for this short. We do get a director, at least, Tom McDonald. He was also director for The Last Resort, The Big Sneeze, Jeopardy Sheriff, and Egypt Us. Here from 1960 is Baby Phase. Yes, the title has nothing to do with the cartoon besides that it’s got Swee’Pea in it.
Ah, the dream story. Everyone’s favorite way of having a bunch of wild stuff happen that would break the reality of the setting, right? For example there’s no way that in the “real” Popeye universe you could have Swee’Pea so dominated by … juggling.
As that’s the starting point here. Swee’Pea’s got a book about How to Juggle and it turns out to be excellent guidance. In no time he’s juggling random household objects from the top of a chimney, and only dropping some of them on Popeye. Popeye puts Swee’Pea safely inside the house and scolds him for this dangerous stuff. That’s shown with a nice bit of foreshortening, matched by Popeye picking up the book in the camera’s direction. It always stands out when a studio moves the plane of action.
And then, reading, Popeye falls asleep, our cue that none of the stuff to follow counts. Does that matter? I’m not sure. Whenever Popeye has a cartoon where he’s protecting the oblivious innocent — usually a runaway Swee’Pea, sometimes a sleepwalking or hypnotized Olive Oyl — the innocent is always safe. If we know how cartoons work we know that already. All that spotting this for a dream gives us is a built-in explanation for gaps in the story. How the circus is nothing but Swee’Pea, for example, or that Swee’pea’s signed a 99-year contract. The way Swee’Pea keeps finding himself in what should be more preposterously dangerous scenarios. These now become a natural nightmare progression where everything is as bad as it could be and somehow gets worse. But I’m not sure this is meant to be dream-logic as opposed to these cartoons not having the time to write a natural escalation into the story.
Popeye bobbles his spinach, which seems like the cue to viewers who missed it that this isn’t real. It’s a moment played for extra tension or a laugh in a couple of cartoons, mostly Fleischer-era theatricals. It could have been a setup for Swee’Pea to eat the spinach and save the day for the falling Popeye. But it didn’t go that way, instead waking Popeye up and having him feed spinach to Swee’Pea as the way to help him be the world’s greatest juggler. Changes of heart are nice, and Popeye supporting his kid’s ambitions is great.
It’s all okay enough, and there are a couple nice bits, like the ringmaster reassuring Popeye that they can get another juggler. I’d have liked to either commit to the reality of Swee’Pea in the circus or have the dream-peril be greater. As it is, the ending seems like just avoiding “Popeye eats his spinach and saves the day”, and where’s the fun in that?