60s Popeye: Oil’s Well That Ends Well, and how is that not Oyl’s Well?

We’re back on Paramount Cartoon Studios territory here. Oil’s Well That Ends Well, from 1961, is credited to Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer for the story and Seymour Kneitel for direction.

My favorite old-time-radio podcast last week ran an episode of The Saint, starring the beloved Vincent Price as Leslie Charteris’s beloved-I’m-told rogue adventurer. It was some stuff about a silver mine that the assayer was very clear was worthless. Well, turns out, it’s worthless if you don’t count the cinnabar (mercury) deposits. Was the assayer in on the scheme? Or was he somehow unaware that cinnabar was a thing also mined? The plot’s wrapping-up here’s-why-stuff-happened scene never explained.

So this is a cartoon about Brutus selling Olive Oyl a fake oil well. Except the punch line is that it’s a gusher. Brutus told us the viewers that the oil field had been dry for fifty years. That seems like a big mistake for whoever owned the field to make. This can all probably be rationalized but it says something that I’m wondering about it. What it says is there were reasons they treated me like that in middle school. These are not reasonable responses to the cartoon.

The story’s all reasonable enough. Olive Oyl wins $10,000 on the Get Rich Quick show. Brutus, watching at home, needs a good honest swindle to get that money. This cartoon it feels like Brutus doesn’t know Olive Oyl, but then why does he bother shaving to put on the persona of Sumner J Farnsworth? But if he does know Olive Oyl why is there never a moment of shocked recognition? Well, there’s a nice joke where Brutus discards the shell game as “not too good” and armed robbery as “too dishonest”. He settles on oil stocks which he thought were worthless. Which leaves another nagging thought for me: did Brutus legitimately own the oil field? Or did he buy worthless stocks from someone else? Or did he just figure the time he’d spent making fake oil stocks was wasted but never got around to throwing them out?

At an oil field, an angry Popeye holds up a barrel labelled 'OIL' and the hand pump squeezing oil out of it. Olive Oyl looks shocked and horrified by this.
Well of course she’s offended. The barrel should read OYL, or at least OYL OIL.

Brutus rigs up some oil to spurt on command; salting mines is a respectable enough way to pull off this kind of scam. But Olive Oyl also says she can go pick out any oil well she wants. How’d she pick the right one? This isn’t a plot hole, though; it’s reasonable to suppose Brutus is nudging her to the one he’d prepared. Forcing (in the stage magician’s sense) a choice is a skill of the con artist. I’m intrigued that this is something that would be taken without question, by a naive enough viewer. Then doubted as implausibly by a more skeptical viewer. And then accepted as self-explanatory by a sophisticated enough viewer. There’s some lesson about how people engage with their stories in there.

Brutus runs his car over Popeye, twice. It’s a startling moment and I can’t say why. Maybe it lacks the absurdity of most Popeye-versus-Brutus violence.

After Popeye punches Brutus into the oil well it starts gushing again. Assuming Olive Oyl’s title is good and the oil doesn’t run out in ten minutes that’s great for her. She showers Popeye with a flurry of kisses drawn from the 1954 Fright to the Finish. Why have stock footage if you’re not using it?

While pitching Olive Oyl on the oil well Brutus talks about doubling, tripling, even quadripling he “mazuma”, a reminder of the 20th century’s many odd slang terms for money. Which comes back around to Jackson Beck, voice of Bluto/Brutus/etc. When the voice actor’s friend Alfred Bester wrote The Demolished Man he named one of the cops Jackson Beck. Part of the typographical chic of the novel was using, for example @ as shorthand for ‘at’, so ‘Sam Atkins’ was rendered as ‘Sam @kins’. When the story first appeared, Bester tried writing the name as $$son Beck, trusting that readers would connect $$ to “money” to “jack”. They did not. The spelling of Jackson was normalized in subsequent editions.