60s Popeye: Madame Salami, not the fortune-telling cartoon I expected


It’s another Jack Kinney-produced and directed cartoon today. The story’s by Tony Benedict and the animation direction Harvey Toombs. Here from 1960 is Madame Salami.

Yesterday’s was a Jack Kinney cartoon that presented a standard enough plot done well. Today’s is not done as well. Olive Oyl visits the fortune-teller at the worst-attended carnival on record. The fortune-teller is Brutus in disguise, and sees a chance to break up Popeye and Olive Oyl.

From this setup I did expect a clip cartoon. That Brutus would show a bunch of scenes where Popeye had been a jerk. And Popeye would answer by showing how nuh uh, it was Brutus was the jerk all along. It would have been a cheap cartoon, but it would’ve worked. This is still a cheap cartoon. But it’s all original material. But consider: it manages to use the same footage for both Popeye and Brutus being knocked into the air to land halfway across the park. That’s some economical use of footage.

I don’t know why Brutus is working as Madame Salami, but allow that he has his reasons. He gets Olive Oyl to test Popeye’s love by commanding him to do things liable to get him killed. Bit grim but in character. Popeye has to go do unspeakable things with a lion. I mean, yes, context tells us he must be trying to stick his head in the lion’s mouth. But we never even see the lion on-screen. And all we hear is Popeye confirming that she wants “this” done. Like I say, a very cheap cartoon. Since he’s not dead yet, the next challenge is … to … walk off the edge of a downtown building? And since he’s still not killed — Brutus gets in a good quick crack about that — the next challenge is Popeye going off in a rocket. You know, in those extraterrestrial rockets that badly underattended carnivals of the 60s have. Finally Madame Salami orders Olive Oyl to marry Brutus, today, and she resigns herself to her fate. When Popeye gets back he sees Brutus running back to Madame Salami’s tent and eats his spinach, I have to suppose because he guesses that’ll help. It usually will, but why did he think this particular problem needed super-punching?

Popeye beaten and scratched up, flopped forward on his face, in front of the sign pointing to the Lion's Den.
The worst part is the Lions Den wasn’t for the animals, it was for the service organization that, like, fundraises for people who have vision impairments. Something went wrong.

I lay the plot out like that and it’s a little wacky but within reasonable bounds. It doesn’t make Olive Oyl look good, but being petty or jealous or insecure is part of her personality. And it’s not like Popeye is so reliable an attentive, involved boyfriend that the idea of testing him is obviously unreasonable. But there is something mean in her ordering Popeye to risk death over and over. We’re supposed to take it that she’s convinced by Madame Salami that Popeye needs more testing. But it also looks like Olive Oyl doesn’t understand carnival fortune tellers. The tests are odd, too. Fine to have Popeye do unspeakable things with a lion. That’s close enough to sensible that I’ll allow it. Walking off a building? That hardly seems to be from the same cartoon, never mind the same carnival. And the rocket? I guess it can be a carnival attraction but it’s still weird.

A plot doesn’t need to make sense if it’s presented well. But I don’t care for most of the jokes. The ones I do care for are side effects of the animation cheapness. For example, Brutus walking over Popeye like he’s not even there is funny but I also recognize that’s using a stock walking cycle. Being cheap doesn’t make a cartoon inherently bad. But there is something slipshod in the whole production. Consider the early exchange where Brutus asks, “What is it you would ask of me?” Olive Oyl answers, “And how will I know whether Popeye really loves me or not?” What is that “And” doing there? It makes sense if Olive Oyl had a line that got cut, but why not cut the “And” also?

An interesting bit of character, though, is that Brutus seems eager to marry Olive Oyl. When does comedy writing of this era show the man as wanting to get married? It’s refreshing, but I wonder how that got through production.

Muskels Shmuskels: all right, that’s a Popeye cartoon then


This week’s another Larry Harmon-produced Popeye cartoon, Muskels Shmuskels. I admire Jack Mercer’s ability to actually say that title out loud.

Once again I wonder about the writing of these shorts. This one’s credited to Charles Shows. Was he working for King Features or for Larry Harmon? The story feels much like those of Interrupted Lullaby or Goon With The Wind, both Gene Deitch-made cartoons which carry no writing credits. Something about the scenario being pretty well-worn, but the story basically coherent except that I’m not sure how we get from one situation to another. (How does Popeye, shot up from a cannon, end up bouncing up and down on an acrobat safety net right next to a high-dive tower?)

Imposing a quirky restriction on a character — they Must do this, they Must Not do that — can be a good way to generate stories. Particularly comic stories. Particularly comic stories where the setup’s been done a lot. By my count the Popeye-and-BlutoBrutus-fight-at-the-midway plot had been done at this point some 4,647 times, going back to the first-ever Popeye cartoon. But it’s a fair enough starting point, giving plenty of reason for Popeye and BlutoBrutus to show off feats of strength and get to punching each other.

So doing a midway cartoon, with Popeye under a compulsion to Not Fight, should be good. We can have the fun of Popeye finding ways to technically not break his promise. Or to sneak in a couple punches when Olive Oyl isn’t looking. Maybe to sneak in a full fight while keeping up the pretense when Olive is looking that he’s being innocent. Why it’s so important to Olive Oyl that Popeye not fight today is left underdeveloped, but that’s all right. The cartoon forgets that he is supposed to not be fighting. Like, why does Popeye figure he can just throw that great weight at Brutus at about 8:00? Right after Olive Oyl reminded him not to fight? It only parses if he throws the weight before Olive Oyl reminds him, but that’s not what he did.

It’s half-baked, which is something that kept bothering me this cartoon. Like, Brutus having set up a dumbbell weight that’s bolted to the ground, so no one can lift it? That makes sense as a setup: Brutus as a performer would want people to try it out and see how impossible his stunt is. But then how does Brutus lift the dumbbells? I suppose I’m being a bad audience in this, taking too literally the way the weights are bolted to the stage. But I don’t get how the showmanship is supposed to work if there’s no way Brutus could lift the weights either. (And in little half-baked moments: as the cartoon starts, do Olive Oyl and Popeye know who Brutus is or not? Popeye starts out, around 6:40, just calling him “Mister Strong Fella”, but Olive Oyl knows her name soon after. And Brutus knows Popeye’s name somehow.)

There’s stuff I do like. Brutus suggesting “a date for a late tête-à-tête” at about 6:25, which must have been fun for Jackson Beck to record. Popeye’s angry huffing and puffing right after. Its echo in Brutus puffing on a cigar at 10:55. That good old Larry Harmon Fight Cloud at about 10:30. And that moment of Fleischer-esque body mutability at about 10:42, when Popeye puffs his fist up into a great mitt to slam down on the high striker.

Still, it would have been so much more fun if they could have reliably remembered Popeye was supposed to not be fighting.

Amusement Parks For The Apartment Dweller


I thought I’d take a break from my Betty Boop cartoons, since it’s July and that’s really amusement park season at least where I live. Especially since it’s the Fourth of July weekend. I don’t know about you. I couldn’t even swear whether you’re there right now.

So I went looking for amusement park-themed cartoons and realized there’s not so many as I figured. Some of the ones that are around I’ve already shown off. I’m as surprised as you, since the gag potential for amusement parks seems obvious. But one that came to mind was a Betty Boop and Grampy cartoon after all: Grampy’s Indoor Outing.

The story’s simple. Betty Boop and Junior are looking forward to the carnival. After a merry opening song, though, it rains. And Grampy — or here, Professor Grampy — comes to the rescue. He works up several amusement park-type attractions out of household gadgets. They look strikingly plausible, too, the way the best cartoon contraptions do. The cartoon is less about fake-outs and diverted expectations than the earlier Grampy cartoons, though; it’s more about cleverly turning the ordinary into wonderful gadgetry.

The sets are lovely, as ever. Look especially at Grampy’s kitchen, painted so as to look like it’s got a narrow depth of field. It makes the cartoon so much more solid.

The final stunt, the utterly impractical one, is also where the Fleischers break out their 3-D sets and the combined animation-and-live-action filming techniques. It’s for a good effect, too. The roller coaster rolling around the edge of a building looks wild, and like the sort of cartoonish excess that would never happen in the real world. If you’re willing to count Florida as part of the real world, and I have my doubts, something reminiscent of its building-hugging, twisty paths might be built soon. The PolerCoaster design might also be built in Georgia, which I suppose is a slightly more real place than Florida. The cartoon version, and for that matter the proposed PolerCoaster, are still hair-raising to consider.

Incidentally, the YouTube page from which I got this video, and many sources, identify this cartoon as starring Betty Boop, Grampy, and — as the kid — Little Jimmy. The kid is clearly named Junior by both Betty and Grampy, though. However, I see where people are coming from by calling him Little Jimmy. I figure to discuss that later.