60s Popeye: Forever Ambergris (it’s actually less than three minutes of ambergris)


Jack Kinney’s back in the producer’s chair for today’s 60s Popeye short. Eddie Rehberg is listed as director; the story’s credited to Ralph Wright. Here’s the 1960 short Forever Ambergris.

The title alludes to Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 novel which sold 480 kajillion copies and inspired a 1947 movie. The cartoon somehow has nothing to do with the novel’s plot of a woman who seduces or marries her way into post-Restoration English royal society.

What we do have struggles to be one of the Popeye-tells-Swee’Pea-a-story cartoons. It takes almost forever to get there, though. At least a minute and a half, in a cartoon with a five-minute run time, not counting credits. Olive Oyl’s going out, and wants a babysitter. Popeye tries to flee, calling babysitting not-manly. It’s a bad look for him. Yes, I know he’s expressed similar attitudes, like once finding Olive Oyl’s dog too sissy for him to walk. It was a bad look for him then, too. I guess it’s needed-for-plot, so that Olive Oyl can use her perfume to make Popeye babysit. And then so Popeye has a reason to talk about ambergris, which goes into perfumes. But did we need to justify Popeye watching over Swee’Pea? If he’d just announced he was going to tell a story about finding some ambergris, would it have jarred too much?

But time spent getting to Popeye’s story is time they don’t have to spend on Popeye’s story. Which may be needed; there’s not much to it. While at sea Popeye spots some ambergris and he, Brutus, and Wimpy collect it. And then put it in a treasure chest. And lock the treasure chest. And guard the treasure chest. This allows for a pleasant pattern of Brutus declaring, say, he’s going to lock the treasure chest, and Popeye declaring “me too” and Wimpy “I also”. The many repetitions give it an appeal this action wouldn’t otherwise support.

Three people coming across an unexpected treasure makes me think of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Or at least the many spoofs I’ve seen rather than the actual Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The cartoon doesn’t go for this, though. So why is Wimpy in this cartoon? He’d have been great in a Sierra Madre scenario descent into paranoia. He naturally plays people against one another; that could feed a real story. Instead he seems to be an unneeded buffer between Popeye and Brutus, who swipes the treasure when the ship crashes somehow into Paris.

Popeye standing, but his head is lowered in weariness, and his body is drawn all jaggedy, as though he had been crumpled up and quickly straightened out again.
2021 is treating us all just great!

Brutus carries it up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Popeye follows and punches the treasure chest, which falls into a cement mixer. “And ever since, that street in Paris has been forever ambergris”, Popeye explains, an ending that makes Swee’Pea mad. I’d thought that was fair — Popeye’s story feels like a shaggy-dog story with a punch line not related to the setup. But, on review, Popeye did claim only to be telling the story of the time he found some ambergris. So it is a shaggy-dog story but at least it was about the dog he promised. Olive Oyl gets home as Swee’Pea’s crying, and won’t hear any excuses, so she crashes a jar over Popeye’s head. It’s not a good look for her, either.

The cartoon frustrates me. I’m not satisfied with it. But I also can’t point to anything it’s doing wrong. Like, Wimpy doesn’t have a reason to be there. But he doesn’t have a reason to be in Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor either, and that’s not a problem there. Popeye’s ambergris find comes to nothing, but what did I expect it to? Him finding something that would make him rich forever would break the loosely-defined basic setup of Popeye. Him finding enough to buy a new car (or something) is maybe plausible but too boring to make a story. He has to end up getting nothing, or near-nothing, out of it. That nothing being a great-smelling sidewalk in Paris satisfies that. But it feels like something I acknowledge is funny in principle without laughing at. (I concede a lot of my own humor-writing is stuff that is only funny in principle.)

I think Olive Oyl smashing her perfume jar on Popeye’s head was a bad ending.

Popeye facing off against a very 1960 Robot


Is there a comic minigenre funnier than early-60s Old People complaining about The Beatles? Arguably, it is early-60s Old People trying to make fun of Elvis. Let’s watch Mueller’s Mad Monster. This is a Larry Harmon-produced cartoon; Paul Fennell directs.

There was a cartoon attitude popular in the 1950s and 60s that I grew up liking. Call it Cartoon Existentialism. This is where characters do some role, not because they have reason to. They just know they have this role and they’re going to play it. You see this in any of the little home-appliance animals in The Flintstones, who shrug that it’s a living. Or fairy tale stories starring, like, Huckleberry Hound, where the characters shrug that this blue dog is messing up their routine.

Mad Mueller is such a creature. He’s introduced as the mad scientist at a nice spooky storm-ridden castle. He’s building a monster because what else does a mad scientist do in such castles? It’s a robot because, what the heck. It’s 1960. That the cartoon is soaked in this attitude of “what else are we going to do” predisposes me to like it.

I still do. It’s barely an animated cartoon. As the monster Irving carries off Olive Oyl, Popeye lets off a fair bit of trash-talking and daring bragging. Almost anything as long as he doesn’t have to walk over there. I have days like that. There’s one real moment of life in the cartoon, around 9:09 as Popeye and Irving get into a good fight cloud. It’s fun and has a nice sound effect to it. We could wish there were more of it. But there is something that amuses me in the fight being such a short sequence so repeated. It’s almost an extraction of what makes a cartoon fight cloud.

There is a fair bit of dialogue. And it’s trying to be funny. Many of the jokes work for me, at least a bit. Mad Mueller telling the camera, “I push the little button. That looks like a good button,” for example. That really captures the Cartoon Existentialism of the piece.

The dialogue wants to be funny. So if you find something amusing in the idea of a Frankensteinian monster named Irving, you’re in good shape. If you like the idea that a spooky castle is in a neighborhood named Horrors Heights? Yeah, that works. Or this doesn’t do anything for you and the cartoon is wholly lost. I grant the premise that “Irving” is a funny name for a monster isn’t a strong joke. Or that Mueller can’t quite name Worcestershire sauce as he tries to whip up artificial spinach. Better, I think, is the casual way that Popeye speaks to Irving “as one monster to another”. Olive Oyl picks this up too, telling Mueller about how “your monster is beating up my monster”.

Popeye doesn’t have his spinach on him. Why? Well, so Olive Oyl and Mad Mueller have something to do in the end of the cartoon. Popeye smashes Irving to pieces and then rebuilds him. Why? Well, because you don’t want a mad scientist going around without a monster. Popeye rebuilds Irving into a figure who looks like Elvis Presley, Olive Oyl tells us. (I only see it about half the time.) Why? What else are you going to do? It’s a cartoon from 1960, you gotta do something.

Bob and Ray and the Campaign Microphone


I feel like listening to something today. Here’s an October 1959 episode of Bob and Ray Present the CBS Radio Network. As often for these shows it’s a set of several sketches, all done by Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. None of the sketches really involve one another so if you don’t care for one premise — a Broadway actor going over the failure of his musical; a political-news interview with a possible candidate for the upcoming presidential election; the Bob And Ray Trophy Train arrives in Memphis — you can zip ahead a few minutes and enjoy the next. I wouldn’t.

While listening to the Vic And Sadecast, an hourlong podcast about Vic and Sade, my love assessed that I have a love for wordy humor. Not puns, mind you, or jokes that consist only of putting a word where it doesn’t belong. More humor in which there is wonderful care about picking words so that they are just odd enough to be funny even if you can’t point to a specific laugh line. I think my love’s right in this as with so many regards. Bob and Ray sound rambling and improvised; it’s part of their charm. I don’t know how much Bob and Ray and their writing staff got done by editing and rewriting into shape and how much they got done by being really good writers and improvisors. It’s hard to pick any line, though, and find a variation that would be better. You can make lines more obviously meant to be punch lines, but then the whole sketch would be lessened. Anyway, do enjoy, please.

Some Stuff About Stan Freberg


The Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper I managed decided one semester the front page of the first issue should be devoted to an essay dubbed “Embracing the Doom: A First-Year Unhandbook”. Its thesis was that we are all basically, deeply doomed, and while it was easy to deny this or despair from this, we were all better off embracing that doom and carrying on proudly. At the time I thought it the stupidest thing we could have printed and almost ridiculously playing to our paper’s stereotype as made by people just educated enough to be idiots about everything. I was wrong. I’ve come to realize there’s wisdom in accept that even if we are in the long run doomed, that doesn’t mean we can’t be satisfied and see a lot of sunny days while we get there.

This brings me to Stan Freberg, the humorist and satirist and voice-actor and advertising-creator whose death was reported yesterday. His style was almost definitive of a kind of humor that I associate with a particular circa-1960 smart set: literate, absurdist, cynical but not dismissive, dropping out of a wry detachment when there’s a belly laugh just about set up. It’s the voice of people who noticed they might just be the smartest person in the room, but are worried that they’re not all that bright themselves. I might try to call it cartoon existentialism, since many of the most accessible examples of it were cartoons made with that Rocky and Bullwinkle spirit, and for that matter of the better Hanna-Barbera cartoons from when the writing had some edge: characters who know they’re in adventures and who know the stories don’t really make sense, but who embrace it because someday the cartoon will end and you can either be entertaining while you get there or not, and the entertaining side has a better time of it. In short, there’s doom to be embraced.

After a lot of voice-acting work and comic records — incidentally crystallizing the Dragnet quote “just the facts, ma’am” in a spoof of that program — and supporting parts in other shows Stan Freberg finally got the dream job of producing a half-hour radio comedy for a major network, CBS, though as the gods of irony demanded he got the chance in 1957, when the major networks had decided to shut down original scripted programming on radio in favor of television. Freberg’s show would probably always had a hard time on commercial radio, as its style of humor fits in the Fred Allen/Henry Morgan/George Carlin vein that makes advertisers wary and network vice-presidents worried about what he’s going to say on their program; the program ended up being a “sustaining program” — no advertising, no sponsors. That’s normally a mark of a program being broadcast as a public service, or as an experiment developing the state of the art. Freberg didn’t want the show to have a single sponsor, and didn’t want tobacco advertising either, and four months after the show debuted, it was ended.

Archive.org has a set of all fifteen episodes of this show, and I recommend it as a way to sample Freberg’s work, and to taste this particular era of comedy: it’s knowing, sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes silly, offended by the madness of the world but unable to disengage from it, the sort of thing that will merge the folly of Las Vegas casinos with the threat of atomic war. (The show also makes use of many of Freberg’s comedy records from the 1950s, sometimes in revised form, so you also get a taste of how he got to be someone noteworthy enough to have a half-hour comedy program.) We might all be characters in a mad, doomed story, but it can be fun along the way.