60s Popeye: Popeye’s Testimonial Dinner and what the heck was that


Last week’s cartoon, built on the premise that Popeye’s friends have to sneak him in to a TV show in his honor, Paramount Cartoon Studios made. There were like 800 studios making Popeye cartoons for King Features in that early-60s rush. Here’s one from Jack Kinney, who’s credited as director and producer. Volus Jones gets the animation-director credit. The story’s given to Jerry Nevius, a name I don’t have recorded yet. This could mean anything. Here’s 1960’s Popeye’s Testimonial Dinner.

Why were there two let’s-celebrate-Popeye cartoons in a row, and from different studios? Maybe coincidence. Maybe, if they had as much as a year’s lead time to put cartoons together, everybody noticed it was the 30th anniversary of Popeye as a character. I had assumed King Features Syndicate was bundling these on YouTube in the order they were completed or first put into syndication. This makes the overlap of gimmick more prominent. But Strange Things Are Happening had nothing to do with any specific bits of Popeye history. This one is a clip show. That’s novel only in that I think this is the first King Features run clip show. Famous Studios’ 1953 Popeye’s 20th Anniversary was, similarly, a clip show hung around the frame of a testimonial dinner. There’s worse premises.

So what the heck did I just watch?

A clip show, sure. And the basic idea makes sense, Popeye taken to a dinner attended by Swee’Pea, Eugene the Jeep, King Blozo, Wimpy, Alice the Goon. Even some minor characters like Oscar and Ham Gravy and why is Ham Gravy suddenly turning up everywhere? But envious Brutus, uninvited even though he’s the person Popeye spends the most time with, sneaks in. When his sabotage fails Brutus complains about his lot in life. Popeye takes pity, gives Brutus some spinach and lets him take a good clean punch. Everyone celebrates Popeye’s magnanimous nature.

It’s implementing this that makes no sense. The first clip is King Blozo recounting the time the land was threatened by a dragon that Popeye beat up. That was in Popeye Versus The Dragon, a cartoon that King Blozo was not in. Also that seems to be set in Cartoon Medieval times. But, fine; it’s not like it’s impossible Blozo was part of that. But Blozo also says “I further recall a time when Popeye and Brutus were … ” Were what? This could lead into almost any clip, as though Jerry Nevius hadn’t decided or didn’t know what clip they’d be used. They ultimately used Golf Brawl, a cartoon I haven’t got around to yet. You can watch it from here, if you like. Jack Kinney’s credited with that story. They edited the clip, although to make it make more sense. There is no evidence that King Blozo witnessed any of it.

Brutus complains that “they’re making out like I was the villain”. This is a fair complaint for a clip unlike the one shown. The clip shows Brutus hitting a golf ball that bounces ridiculously off trees and knocks himself into the water. It hits Popeye in the nose, as it bounces around, but there’s no plausible way Brutus intended that. Also the clip’s sound is re-recorded, so that Brutus laughing is silent instead.

Olive Oyl starts telling about this time she was managing a store, and “this bully” came in. I don’t know what cartoon this is supposed to reference. We don’t get a clip from it anyway, just Brutus protesting and demanding to tell his side. Popeye says go ahead. Brutus does, but we fade to black and then return to him saying “naturally I had to protect myself”. What cartoon would even fit Brutus’s declaration that “so, outnumbered, I asked for help from a kindly old sea witch, who agreed to help”? As a general principle, I like the idea that we only ever see some of Our Heroes’ adventures, and they have stuff going on even when the cameras aren’t rolling. But it’s a bold move to do a clip cartoon without the clips.

Then he goes in to how he and his “girl” were sitting in this coffeehouse. It’s a clip from Coffee House, only with new sound recorded. It shows how much the animation of that cartoon depended on the mood music and finger-snaps of the coffee house patrons and such. Also, the clip is edited down to just show Brutus punching Popeye after not much provocation. Past clip cartoons with a Brutus-telling-his-side theme focused, rightly, on showing where Popeye was escalating things.

This convinces Popeye that Brutus isn’t all bad, because I guess this line was written before Volus Jones had picked out the Coffee House clip to show. So we get the unusual cartoon where someone besides Popeye eats his spinach, and the rare cartoon where Popeye gets beaten at the end of it.

Popeye sprawled on the floor, looking behind him at an empty table. Brutus is photobombing, holding up one finger on an arm he sways back and forth while singing.
Popeye is haunted by the voices of people he cannot perceive, while Brutus? Brutus just has fun.

After the one punch, at about 16:20 in the video, Popeye lands. His friends start singing this “Popeye, you’ve done it again” earworm. They had previously sung it at the start of the night, where it made no sense. (My notes had a line “why not For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow?”.) But they credit him with saving the day, cheering about how he marshaled his might to turn wrong into the right, while Popeye looks around at the empty table behind him. Also Brutus does this wonderfully hilarious conductor’s dance. Fade to black and then … about 16:38, we just start over again, Popeye landing from the punch. His friends start singing this “Popeye, you’ve done it again” earworm again. This is so baffling that I thought at first it was some weird YouTube-related file error. But there’s no possible upload error that made this play once with empty tables and one with everyone at the tables.

I understand why you make a clip cartoon. You have to deliver so much content, you have only so much time, and you have only so much budget. This fills that content hole, cheaply and quickly. Maybe it also gives an animation director some experience and credits in a production with lower stakes and lower demands. So why is this such a mess? I’m open to hypotheses.

What was Bluto’s Ode to an Onion?


King Features made about 829 billion Popeye cartoons over the span of forty minutes in the early 60s. Most of them are forgettable. Some of them stick in my memory. Some of them have even kept some little toehold in pop culture. At least for those of us in the last cohort to grow up watching these cartoons in rerun on bored independent TV stations. It’s Coffee House. Oh, more Jack Kinney animation.

So what is cool? Lot of possible answers. Lot of different kinds of answers. Generally, we can say cool is “not the people grinding out animation product for 30-year-old intellectual properties down at the cartoon factory”. It has other aspects too. But there’s a microgenre of attempts to do a story based on what, honestly, square movie creators think cool is. I love them all.

Popeye, now, he started out cool. He had that great blend of kindness, resolve, and invincibility. By the 50s, he’d moved to the suburbs and got boring. The King Features cartoons shook that up a bit. He’d get into adventures going off to the Moon or chasing the Sea Hag or something. But a lot of them start, like this does, in the suburbs. Even if it is in a gorgeous Modern house. Still, Popeye was certainly losing his cool. Partly because we saw almost all his best stuff, repeated until it got dull. So Olive Oyl reinventing herself as a Beatnik has some metatextual truth to it. That has to be part of what gives this cartoon its hook.

Another part of its hook has to be when they all get to the coffee house and everybody is just chanting “cool, cool, cool, coooool”, with the occasional finger-snap. It’s such soothing, comfortable background noise. I don’t need background noise to sleep, but if I did, this wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Olive Oyl, wearing a loose green sweater and black leggings bunched up at the knees, with a beret and her hair in long, loose ends. She stands in front of a low, mid-century-modern record stand that has an octagonal plate on top of it.
Also, hey, we have that record cabinet! … And so you know what kind of hipster level cool I strive for? I’m in several competitive pinball leagues, and I’ve had an ironic record collection since the 1990s, before that was cool.

Also not a bad choice: Olive’s outfit as a Beatnik Girl. The traditional joke is asking what Popeye finds physically attractive about Olive Oyl. Something that’s his taste, of course. Beatnik Olive, though? That’s got to be more attractive to more people.

Bluto explodes into the scene, running Popeye down with a vehicle. It’s funny. It also happened in The Billionaire last week. I hadn’t realized this was such a motif of the King Features cartoons.

Bluto’s less dressed up to be a Beatnik. It opens the question of how much of this he’s really into, and how much is him trying to appeal to Olive Oyl’s current fascination. He doesn’t really break Beatnik character, not the way Olive Oyl does on declaring “it’s only you, Popeye”. But does Bluto even get into things sincerely? He recites a fantastically bad Ode To An Onion. Olive Oyl doesn’t know or care that it’s awful. How much of this is Bluto putting on an act?

Yeah, what the heck. Here’s the text to Bluto’s poem, Ode To An Onion.

O Onion, Onion
You are the gone-est
So green yet so honest

O Onion, Onion
Like, I dig you the mostest
O green and lovely hostess

Hip! Hip! Hip! And crazy-daisy
Like, your breath just leaves me hazy

O brave and noble Onion
Green stem and creamy bunion
Your personality is hallion

Live! Grow! Breathe!
O gracious scallion!

I truly admire the craft that went into writing that. Bluto’s toast “To art, the beauty of the soul” comes close to sounding like something too, and I like that.

Popeye, wisely, figures his best approach to this is to go along with the gag. And does the Sailor’s Hornpipe in the middle of the coffee house to exquisite awkwardness. Also to the same languid background music the rest of the scene had. It reads like someone in production forgot there was supposed to be music there. This hurts the cartoon, especially when the scene repeats after Popeye’s had his spinach power-up and does the same dance but this time is loved.

You have to love Popeye’s fighting technique of holding out his fist and letting Bluto run into it.

What do I know about cool? I’m the guy with multiple books about the history of containerized cargo. Look to someone else for good advice. My read on it, though? You’re cool if you have your Thing. And you’re not creepy about it. And you look like your Thing is comfortable and easy for you. Which brings to mind one of Popeye’s great quotes, trimmed down for the close of this cartoon: I am what I am and that’s all what I am.