60s Popeye: The Glad Gladiator and wait, is that Ham Gravy? I think that’s Ham Gravy!


This week’s King Features Popeye cartoon is another with story by Cal Howard. The only other Cal Howard cartoon I have got noted is Tiger Burger. The animation director is Eddie Rehberg, last seen doing everything on Frozen Feuds, that weird Alice the Goon picture. Jack Kinney’s the producer and ultimate director. Back to ancient days, then, with The Glad Gladiator.

Is deliberate anachronism funny? Sure, when it’s The Muppets doing it. But everybody else? I don’t mean whether it’s funny to snarkers pointing out historical inaccuracies in Hagar the Horrible. I mean to a normal audience.

This cartoon opens with the message that it’s set in Rome, 800 BC. Popeye ends up in a gladiator fight in the Colosseum. Before the eyes of the Empress, Olive Oyl. There’s a background gag where the restrooms are marked Ben Hur and Ben His. And then I come back to: 800 BC? For a Roman Empire setting?

This is not something anyone should care about. The setting is “Ancient Rome” and Popeye is there to do some stuff riffing on Roman Empire epic movies of the time. Fine and respectable enough. But then why set this to 800 BC, a time when Rome barely existed and none of the stuff that’s featured, including the Appian [Free]way Popeye riffs on, were around? Why give it a date at all? Other than to tease someone who’d know?

A historical story — book, tv show, movie — is always a battle between historical truth, story economy, and verisimilitude. (You could do a story with samurais tromping around 17th century Mexico, but would people buy the premise?) A cartoon especially has no reason to care about getting the historical details right. So why is this detail there at all? Did Cal Howard just write in an ancient-days number and not care afterward? Or was he doing this mindfully? Of course this Popeye cartoon isn’t history. But now it’s so much not history that even the seven-year-old watching it, who might know the legend of Rome’s founding being in 753 BC, would know it was off?

If he was being wry, I’m not sure it was a good joke. In part since I’m not sure a joke was meant. That’s a hazard of wryness, though. But if it were meant, it’s a very slight joke. “Ha ha, I know this quickly-made Popeye cartoon is of dubious historical integrity?” Am I making too much of an arbitrary choice? Maybe. But if something works, I like to credit it as deliberate. Even if the writer went with whatever came to mind, they chose to use that impulse, and to not edit it out. There’s judgement even in the arbitrary. And then there’s the crowd scene.

Scene of the audience in the Colosseum. The front two rows are filled with mostly minor characters from Popeye/Thimble Theatre.
Wait, but why aren’t Cole Oyl and Nana Oyl sitting next to each other? Oh wait yeah because it’s funny when husband and wife don’t actually like being around each other. Forgot.

We do get a couple glances at the audience in the Colosseum and the front two rows here are filled with minor Thimble Theatre/Popeye characters. And that is an interesting choice. I’m not sure about everybody because they’re out of their usual garb, and it turns out when you remove accessories, Elzie Segar used the same face a lot.

If I’m identifying things right, and I’m open to other opinions, in the upper row, left-to-right, are: Ham Gravy, original Olive Oyl boyfriend, who vanished after about 1930. Cole Oyl(?), Olive’s father. The Sea Hag, who’s appeared once or twice this series. Oscar, introduced to the comic in 1931 so Popeye could have a really dumb crewman. Nana Oyl, Olive’s mother. (Her name is a reference to “Banana oil”, 1920s slang for “nonsense”. Also 1920s slang for “nonsense”: any two-word phrase.)

Lower, front, row, left to right: George W Geezil(?), pawn shop broker and Wimpy-hater. John Sappo, bland protagonist of Elzie Segar’s other strip, the one that brought us O G Wotasnozzle. O G Wotasnozzle (or, possibly, King Blozo hunched down). Alice the Goon. I have no explanation for how Ham Gravy makes the cut and Wimpy or Rough House do not. Also, yeah I’m not positive whether Nana Oyl is sitting in the first or second row either.

Filling a crowd shot with minor Popeye characters? Sure. Anyone could do that. They’d put in Wimpy, Sea Hag, Alice the Goon, Swee’Pea. If you have to dig deep put in Rough House or Geezil. Someone had to think to put in Ham Gravy. Or Sappo. Or Oscar for crying out loud. Someone thought “we need a quick shot of Ham Gravy”, and had that vision carried out.

This, yeah, is the sort of deep focus I get into as I look for what’s interesting in the cartoon. We get Popeye in a Vaguely Roman-ish makeover for his sailor’s suit. It’s a nice look for him. But I expect being on a different model like that to require the rest of the animation to be cheaper. That expectation holds up; there’s a lot of characters sliding around or disappearing. And the story is all a lumbering push to have Brutus and Popeye fight each other in the arena. The opening credits for the cartoon run at 16:59 in the YouTube video link. They actually start fighting about 20:57, for a cartoon that ends at 22:45. And it’s not like we’re stuffed full of a lot of gags about contemporary America recast as Ancient Rome. The sign for the intersection of Columbus Circle and XXVIII Street is about it. That and — get ready to laugh — a guy twirling pizza dough! Shows how mores have changed. As a child of the 70s and 80s I know it’s sushi that’s the instant-laugh zany food. Not pizza. Pizza is boring.

And that’s my trouble with the cartoon. It has a few fleeting moments of personality. But it’s mostly a slow march to a small fight. The title card that maybe heightens the anachronism humor, and the attempt to identify all the bit players in the stands, is about all I’ve got.

What You Need To Know To Understand February 21


Today is Friday, February 21, unless you are reading this on the wrong day. Go back and re-wind your calendar if this has happened. It is the 52nd day of the year, which is why most people don’t think it worth gathering in monstrously huge crowds in Times Square to ring the day in, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a pretty good day if it’s your birthday or if you’re celebrating the birth of John Rawls or something.

This date is observed as Washington’s Birthday by people who never reset their computer’s time zone from that visit to New Zealand and who haven’t noticed that they’re running a day ahead of their friends because they don’t vary their daily ritual nearly enough.

The Moon is now six days past full. It should be sniffed and passed to a trusted friend to “smell this and tell me if it’s funny” before being drunk. Funny in this case means peculiar as only the minor planets smell funny ha-ha. The moon should be spotted around dawn with Saturn to its left, and Mars and Spica to the right, but do not point. Jupiter may be seen after sunset, but do call ahead as it must finish its chores before it is allowed out. Capella will be passing overhead, which should not be a matter of concern, as it rarely spits and you can’t stop it anyway. Arcturus will be rising in the sky for what it insists is the last time eve as you keep taking it for granted; pay no attention. It does this every year at about this time, and it almost always comes back, since we started keeping the folder of Arcturian understudies in a prominent location.

People born on this day include singer Mary Chapin Carpenter, astronauts Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly, and the Bavarian politician Franz Xaver Josef von Unertl, although not all of them on the same day. Persons not born on this day include cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, actor Lucille Ball, city namesake Jim Thorpe, and 19th century superclown Dan Rice. Such is the balance of all things.

The day was celebrated as Feralia in ancient Rome, in order to celebrate the Manes, which marked the end of Parentalia, which doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere and is the sort of thing the ancient Romans were all busy about when they weren’t occupied with destroying Carthage. The festivities included arranging wreaths, sprinklings of grain and salt, and scattering bread soaked in wine and violets, although if you mixed up the orders of things it wouldn’t seem out of place. You could sprinkle bread soaked in salt and wreaths or arrange some violets and grain and not seem too out of place, which should be valuable if you find yourself in ancient Rome on the time of Feralia Parentalia Manes, which is a pretty catchy name all told.

February 21st is Language Movement Day in Bangladesh, which is why your friends in Dhaka and Chittagong have called to ask if you’ll help Bengali move its fold-out couch up three flights of stairs. Be tactful in making excuses. On learning how it connects to Bangladesh’s national identity and independence from Pakistan we feel a little bad even making that joke, and it isn’t much of a joke. It’s more kind of a “huh” followed by shrugging.

On this date in 1972 the International Atomic Energy Agency Verified that Canada was making peaceful use of nuclear power in Ontario, but we can’t help noticing that it didn’t say a word about what they’re up to in New Brunswick. Meanwhile in 1881 Winnipeg’s telephone system was sold to Bell Telephone, if you were worried about that.

On this date in 1992 the Internet ran out of IPv3 addresses, which were never in use but which were kept around just in case they could be useful sometime. The last block of addresses was used to prop the vegetable crisper up in the refrigerator so that it didn’t slip out of the tracks quite so easily. It did anyway. Several IPv3 addresses are kept as curios, but the bulk were harvested for their valuable horns, which were ground up to make a folk remedy for slow DSL connections.