60s Popeye: how to be a Matinee Idol


Suggested soundtrack: Sparks, Academy Award Performance.

This week’s King Features Popeye cartoon is, it happens, directed by Gene Deitch, and produced by William L Snyder. There’s no story credit to it. Matinée Idol Popeye, another in the microgenre of cartoons where Popeye makes a movie.

Though I’ve called it a microgenre, there really aren’t many cartoons where Popeye is making a movie. At least one of the times he is, it’s a clip cartoon recycling one of the two-reelers. The benefit of doing a let’s-make-a-movie cartoon is you can put Popeye in any scenario without needing any setup or resolution. But, then, when have we ever needed a reason that Popeye should be in Ancient Egypt? It’s old-style cartoon characters. They could just do that.

The setup is Popeye and Olive Oyl making some Anthony-and-Cleopatra film. Brutus is director, sensibly enough. I’d wondered if this was a riff on the infamous Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton Cleopatra, and it seems … unclear. That movie, released 1963, had started production in 1958. So a 1960 cartoon could riff on it. But apart from its five-million-dollar budget what would stand out, in 1960, about the project? Probably it’s more generically a riff on that era of epic-style filmmaking.

We get early on some nice visual jokes. Popeye turning into a ham when Brutus accuses him of being one, that sort of thing. It reflects one of the good lessons of limited animation: if you can’t show complicated action, at least show a bunch of funny pictures. Brutus tries to woo Olive Oyl, taking out of his pocket a heap of flowers bigger than he is; that’s better than anything which would make physical sense.

The premise of the cartoon becomes that Brutus wants Popeye out of the way, but can’t fire him, so he has to get Popeye to quit or die. Bit gruesome, but, makes sense. We get the gag of Popeye’s head caught in a lion’s mouth, and him puffing his pipe to make the lion release him. That’s been done before; in the Famous Studios Tops in The Big Top Bluto even puts a slab of meat on Popeye’s head to ensure the lion tries to eat him. Here it’s just luck for Brutus that the plan starts to work. It’s a missed chance to make Brutus more villainous, but on the other hand, do we want Brutus to be that mean?

Popeye's head is caught in the mouth of a slightly annoyed lion. Popeye's arms are raised as he figures to maybe do something about this.
Popeye: “Why does this keep happening to me? … All right, it’s only happened maybe three times? But when you consider how often this happens to anyone else that’s still a lot.”

Brutus chuckles “that’ll be good for the end title” when a vulture rests on Popeye’s head. It is, and it’s a missed resolution that the end of the short doesn’t have the vulture on Brutus’s head. We get some nice and really exciting music as the elephant comes in. It raises questions about what the filming schedule for this film was supposed to look like. I wouldn’t want to try to shoot a lion and an elephant and a crocodile scene on the same day. Obviously Brutus is throwing stuff together in the opes of getting Popeye to quit, but he does seem to be filming all this. Without giving Popeye direction of what he should accomplish in the scene, though. If this were an actual film it would be a heck of an avant-garde piece. It’d have some weird verite-like style anyway. Brutus is optimistic to think this will win an Academy Award, but it will have a good shot at being a cult classic.

Brutus finally turns to just grabbing Olive Oyl, because he has not learned how people work yet. Popeye does a slick bit of crushing his can open by dropping a beam of wood on it; that gets us to the fight climax. More time’s spent on Popeye making a sphinx of himself than the actual fight. I’m curious whether they were trying to limit the violence or whether Deitch (or storywriter) thought that punching was the least interesting thing Popeye did. Before we know it, Brutus is harnessed and hauling Popeye’s chariot. This seems like it should violate a Directors Guild rule, but we have reason to think the production is outside proper channels, what with how there’s no other crew.

This isn’t a lushly animated cartoon and after the initial business with the ham it doesn’t get too fanciful either. It does well with what animation there is. And it avoids having too many scenes that look like police lineups. We get a lot of close pictures of characters’s faces, or from chest up. Not so many of them standing in a line viewed from afar. I regret that it doesn’t show off the experimental energies I was talking so much about yesterday. But sometimes a cartoon’s just executed successfully after all.

Statistics Saturday: Wikipedia Categories Classifying Maureen O’Sullivan


  • 1911 births (5,526 entries)
  • 1998 deaths (5,019 entries)
  • 20th Century Fox contract players (140 entries, one subcategory, Shirley Temple)
  • 20th-century Irish actresses (64 entries, one subcategory, “20th century actresses from Northern Ireland”)
  • American film actresses (8,036 entries, three subcategories)
  • American stage actresses
  • American television actresses (6,876 entries, three subcategories)
  • Irish emigrants to the United States (146 entries, three subcategories, plus some extra links whose purpose I don’t understand)
  • Irish film actresses (148 entries, two subcategories)
  • Irish stage actresses (141 entries, four subcategories)
  • Irish television actresses (164 entries, two subcategories)
  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract players (251 entries, one subcategory, Shirley Temple)
  • People educated at Woldingham School (23 entries)
  • People from Boyle, County Roscommon (6 entries)
  • People with acquired American citizenship (400 entries, one subcategory, “Fictional people with acquired American citizenship”, which doesn’t list Nero Wolfe who I thought was born in Montenegro?)

Statistics Saturday: An Arbitrarily Indexed List Of Some People Who Do Not Look Like Russell Crowe


Person Who Does Not Look Like Russell Crowe Arbitrary Index
Alice Ghostley 83
Angelique Pettyjohn 38
Ellen Weston 39
Frank de Vol 11
Jack Gilford 7
Mel Brooks 26
Robert Karvelas 91
Ted de Corsia 73
Tom Poston 21
William Schallert 22

Omitted from the list: Leonard Nimoy, Richard Gautier, and Larry Storch, on whom I can kind of see a resemblance there.

Robert Benchley: A Romance In Encyclopedia Land


I haven’t featured a Robert Benchley piece in a while, so I’d like to return to Of All Things and a short story that can only come from falling into an endless research spiral.

A ROMANCE IN ENCYCLOPEDIA LAND

Written After Three Hours’ Browsing in a New Britannica Set

PICTURE to yourself an early spring afternoon along the banks of the river Aa, which, rising in the Teutoburger Wald, joins the Werre at Herford and is navigable as far as St. Omer.

Branching bryophytu spread their flat, dorsiventral bodies, closely applied to the sub-stratum on which they grew, and leafy carophyllaceae twined their sepals in prodigal profusion, lending a touch of color to the scene. It was dear that nature was in preparation for her estivation.

But it was not this which attracted the eye of the young man who, walking along the phonolithic formation of the riverbank, was playing softly to himself on a double curtail, or converted bass-pommer, an octave below the single curtail and therefore identical in pitch and construction with the early fagotto in C.

His mind was on other things.

He was evidently of Melanochronic extraction, with the pentagonal facial angle and strong obital ridges, but he combined with this the fine lines of a full-blooded native of Coll, where, indeed, he was born, seven miles west of Caliach Point, in Mull, and in full view of the rugged gneiss.

As he swung along, there throbbed again and again through his brain the beautiful opening paragraph of Frantisek Palacky’s (1798-1876) Zur böhmischen Geschichtschreibung (Prague, 1871), written just after the author had refused a portfolio in the Pillersdorf Cabinet and had also declined to take part in the preliminary diet at Kromerice.

“If he could believe such things, why can not I?” murmured the young man, and crushed a ginkgo beneath his feet. Young men are often so. It is due to the elaterium of spring.

“By Ereshkigal,” he swore softly to himself, “I’ll do it.”

No sooner had he spoken than he came suddenly out of the tangle of gynmnosperms through whose leaves, needle-like and destitute of oil-glands as they were, he had been making his way, and emerged to a full view of the broad sweep of the Lake of Zug, just where the Lorze enters at its northern extremity and one and a quarter miles east of where it issues again to pursue its course toward the Reuss. Zug, at this point, is 1,368 feet above sea-level, and boasted its first steamer in 1852.

“Well,” he sighed, as he gazed upon the broad area of subsidence, “if I were now an exarch, whose dignity was, at one time, intermediate between the Patriarchal and the Metropolitan and from whose name has come that of the politico-religious party, the Exarchists, I should not be here day-dreaming. I should be far away in Footscray, a city of Bourke County, Victoria, Australia, pop. (1901) 18,301.”

And as he said this his eyes filled with tears, and under his skin, brown as fustic, there spread a faint flush, such as is often formed by citrocyde, or by pyrochloric acid when acting on uncured leather.

Far down in the valley the natives were celebrating the birthday of Gambrinus, a mythical Flemish king who is credited with the first brewing of beer. The sound of their voices set in motion longitudinal sound waves, and these, traveling through the surrounding medium, met the surface separating two media and were in part reflected, traveling back from the surface into the first medium again with the velocity with which they approached it, as depicted in Fig. 10. This caused the echo for which the Lake of Zug is justly famous.

The twilight began to deepen and from far above came the twinkling signals of, first, Böotes, then Coma Berenices, followed, awhile later, by Ursa Major and her little brother, Ursa Minor.

“The stars are clear to-night,” he sighed. “I wonder if they are visible from the dacite elevation on which SHE lives.”

His was an untrained mind. His only school had been the Eleatic School, the contention of which was that the true explanation of things lies in the conception of a universal unity of being, or the All-ness of One.

But he knew what he liked.

In the calm light of the stars he felt as if a uban had been lifted from his heart, 5 ubans being equal to 1 quat, 6 quats to 1 ammat and 120 ammats to 1 sos.

He was free again.

Turning, he walked swiftly down into the valley, passing returning peasants with their baa-poots, and soon came in sight of the shining lamps of the small but carefully built pooroos which lined the road.

Reaching the corner he saw the village epi peering over the tree-tops, and swarms of cicada, with the toothed famoras of their anterior legs mingling in a sleepy drone, like so many cichlids. It was all very home-like to the wanderer.

Suddenly there appeared on a neighboring eminence a party of guisards, such as, during the Saturnalia, and from the Nativity till the Epiphany were accustomed to disport themselves in odd costumes; all clad in clouting, and evidently returning from taking part in the celebration.

As they drew nearer, our hero noticed a young woman in the front rank who was playing folk-songs on a cromorne with a double-reed mouth-piece enclosed in an air-reservoir. In spite of the detritus wrought by the festival, there was something familiar about the buccinator of her face and her little mannerism of elevating her second phalanx. It struck him like the flash of a cloud highly charged by the coalescence of drops of vapor. He approached her, tenderly, reverently.

“Lange, Anne Françoise Elizabeth”, he said, “I know you. You are a French actress, born in Genoa on the seventeenth of September, 1772, and you made your first appearance on the stage in L’Ecossaise in 1788. Your talent and your beauty gave you an enormous success in Pamela. It has taken me years to find you, but now we are united at last.”

The girl turned like a frightened aard-vark, still holding the cromorne in her hand. Then she smiled.

“Weenix, Barnaby Bernard (1777-1829),” she said very slowly, “you started business as a publisher in London about 1797.”

They looked at each other for a moment in silence. He was the first to speak.

“Miss Lange, Anne,” he said, “let us go together to Lar —– and be happy there —– happy as two ais, or three-toed South American sloths.”

She lowered her eyes.

“I will go with you Mr. Weenix-Barney,” she said, ” to the ends of the earth. But why to Lar? Why not to Wem?”

“Because,” said the young man, “Lar is the capital of Laristan, in 27 degrees, 30 minutes N., 180 miles from Shiraz, and contains an old bazaar consisting of four arcades each 180 feet long.”

Their eyes met, and she placed her hands in his.

And, from the woods, came the mellow whinnying of a herd of vip, the wool of which is highly valued for weaving.