Sorry, I’m just extremely thrilled that the Institute for Pop Culture Research has awarded me a grant to study how it is Filmation never made a funny-animal version of The Bob Newhart Show. Over a decade of theory tells us they should have made one, most likely around 1979-81, probably with the central character as a flustered domestic cat named Bob Mewhart.
The Institute were very impressed with my hypothesis that Filmation might have had a hard time thinking of a funny animal name for Bob Newhart’s secretary, because in the days before search engines and the Internet Movie Database it was hard to think of what exactly her name was. “Marsha” keeps getting in the way of remembering, and that’s not the name of the character, that’s the name of actor Marcia Wallace remembered wrong. If anyone had at the right moment whispered “Carol Kestrel” to Norm Prescott all pop culture history could have been about the same, really.
You can argue that I’m vamping on starting my next project here. But I’m also using this gathering of links to all my 60s Popeye cartoon reviews as a chance to better-organize my tags on them, and to discover where I missed a cartoon in my reviewing. I may come back around to them.
So here are the Larry Harmon-produced Popeye cartoons. If you’re curious why this list is in this order, it’s because I’m using the order given at the Popeye Wikia. Why they have that order I don’t know. Maybe production order or production code corder? Maybe original airing order? Maybe in order of when they discovered one of these cartoons? I have no way of knowing. It is going to take me forever to do the Jack Kinney and the Paramount cartoons.
Muskels Shmuskels — Popeye has to not fight. King Features took the original video of this one off and I haven’t got around to finding a replacement, sorry.
Hoppy Jalopy — the racecar cartoon, one of the last ones of my project here.
Dead-Eye Popeye — not reviewed! I had complained of this as too boring to review, back then, and I can’t imagine that stopping me from having thoughts about it now.
Way, way, back, when I started reviewing the King Features Popeye cartoons of the 60s I skipped this bundle of cartoons. I had said none of these cartoons interested me enough. Well, I’m running out of 60s Popeyes to review, and I’ve built up a tolerance for not-interesting cartoons. I think I can say something about them now.
So this is another cartoon produced by Larry Harmon. You know what that means: it’s the future crew of Filmation. The story’s credited to Charles Shows and the direction to Paul Fennell. From 1960 here’s Hoppy Jalopy.
There’s obvious affects the tiny budget, in money and time, have on these shorts. There have been good animation bits, but never a scene that captures the imagination like overflowed in the 30s and filled a bunch of the 40s cartoons. The scope of the plots also diminishes. Popeye cartoons never have big casts, but they could at least give exits to the other competitors in the car race, or not introduce anyone but Popeye and Bluto/Brutus. That they were introduced, but not excused from the story, must reflect a lack of time to think the story through and rewrite it to a smooth finish.
But the subtler effect is to give the cartoon this weird, formalistic structure. Popeye and Brutus are racing, fine, of course they do. Is anyone else racing? Why not? Who cares what happens to them if they aren’t main cast? Olive Oyl’s scooped up in Brutus’s trunk, a thing she could only avoid by trying in any way. Why doesn’t she try in any way? Because it’s a Popeye cartoon, what is she doing in it if she isn’t abducted by Brutus? (Or being Popeye’s cheerleader, as in Swimmer Take All or Hot Air Aces.)
I know this is the result of not having the animation cells to spare, to have Olive Oyl try and get away. But the effect is seeing things happen because they’re the things supposed to happen in a cartoon like this. And, in that regard, it’s fascinating. I am not proposing that the team which would, eventually, give us the animated adventures of Gilligan and the Skipper in outer space was experimenting with the audience’s concept of narrative. I mean that they ended up, somehow, creating a cartoon that works fine if you watch it while distracted and becomes odd if you pay attention.
I know I watched this — every King Features — cartoon a lot when I was a kid. I don’t remember ever wondering about why anything was happening. Yes, part of that is that the target age for this cartoon is not renowned for critiquing stories. But I wonder if it’s also that the roles of Popeye and Brutus and Olive Oyl are clear enough that as long as everyone is doing roughly what makes sense, the whole cartoon does. Or at least it looks enough like a cartoon that makes sense to pass.
Abominable Snowmen were in the air, in the late 50s and early 60s. It’s reasonable enough to send Popeye after one. The premise seems clean enough so it’s odd there’s so much setup. Olive Oyl’s never-before-seen Uncle Sylvan gets introduced like he should play a bigger part in the plot. Claiming to finance things is about all he does that Wimpy couldn’t do as well. I also can’t make out a pun on Sylvan Oyl’s name, which makes him a real anomaly in the Oyl family. Maybe it was the company Larry Harmon got his heating oil from.
At the Explorers Club Popeye keeps asking when it’s time to eat, and when they can eat. I’ve seen this food-obsessed version of Popeye before, although I can’t find just which cartoon did that. I think it was another Larry Harmon-produced one. After maybe two minutes of setup we finally get to Popeye chasing the Abominable Snowman, which is where I’d have started the cartoon.
They crash into Mount Idiot. Why is it Mount Idiot? At Sylvan’s urging, Popeye yodels. The echo scat-sings back. Getting the wrong thing back from an echo is a solid joke starter. But all I get from the “Mount Idiot” name is the worry that if Charles Snows explained to me exactly what the joke was I would be offended. The Popeye Wikia says the name is “because the mountain can never make correct echoes”, which is consistent with what we see, I guess. But with one example it’s not clear the “idiocy” isn’t just scat singing.
Popeye falls through the ice and meets the Abominable Snowman, who’s tiny and vaguely cute-shaped. He’s been sick, he explains, in a Wallace Wimple-esque voice. The Internet Movie Database credits only Jack Mercer and Mae Questel for this episode, so I suppose it must be Mercer doing the Snowman’s voice. And we get to the Abominable Snowman’s Gift Shop, where Popeye can get all sorts of trinkets including a “life size” snowman suitable for the Explorers Club. The idea of the Abominable Snowman supporting himself on gift shop sales is, again, a good joke starter. It doesn’t work for me and I can’t pin down just why.
Popeye pays for a “life size” snowman doll with a spinach sucker, the only spinach that gets eaten. It gives the tiny Snowman energy and vitality and good cheer. I’d have thought it would also restore the height he lost due to being sick.
Back at the Explorers Club, Uncle Sylvan talks up his heroism in bringing back the creature and conceding that Popeye assisted. So Popeye, in the doll’s mouth, growls and makes threatening noises. Once everyone’s scared he pops out and reveals it’s all in good fun here. It’s an odd ending. It feels like the ending to a different draft, one where Sylvan had more clearly annoyed Popeye.
Larry Harmon produced today’s cartoon. So that might set some expectations. One is that Paul Fenell would direct, and that the story would be by Charles Shows. These expectations are correct. Here’s 1960’s College of Hard Knocks.
Another thing I expect from a Harmon-produced cartoon is that characters are going to stand around a lot. Thes are the animators who’d create Filmation, for which I have a nostalgic affection.
The premise is solid enough. It’s easy to imagine the classic-era theatrical-short version of this. The idea of Brutus as a fake instructor is even circled around by the 1938 short Learn Polikeness, not so closely that this feels like a remake.
It makes sense Olive Oyl would go to school for something. That immediately casts either Brutus or Popeye as the professor; you then have to decide who’s the authority and who’s undermining it to have a plot. Brutus gets to be the “professor”. So it’s a story of Brutus humiliating or injuring Popeye until he has all he can stands, etc. Solid enough story, even if it is the plotting equivalent of all the characters stand around a lot. But sprinkle in some good quips and at least one fanciful bit of violence and you have a cartoon that works. And there’s some decent quipping, mostly on Popeye’s part, of course. Declaring he’s as couth as the average rowdy, or asking if Olive wants an edjamacated ignoramus. Basic jokes, sure, but good for the audience.
Something I was never sure about: was Brutus a legitimate professor here? In Learn Polikeness he’s running a scam and everybody but Olive Oyl sees through him, fine enough. Here? I mean, he’s got a building with the name carved above the entrance. That’s an enormous investment if he’s just trying to get some time with Olive Oyl. But we only ever see him with two pupils and one of them just signed up today.
And, like, what class was this? I guess maybe Brutus was giving some basic physics, or basic science, class, from his demonstrations of “the law of pressure”, the “law of elasticity”, and the “law of gravity”. I realize I’m the only person in the world wondering this, but what would Brutus have done with that toothpaste and anvil if Popeye hadn’t stuck around?
But I say that reflects on one of the differences between these and the theatrical shorts. I grant the writer for Learn Polikeness didn’t put any thought into Bluto’s career as a teacher of manners. But you can imagine if Popeye hadn’t intruded that Bluto would have had a day that made sense. Here, if Popeye hadn’t given Olive Oyl a ride to class? So I’ll stand by my controversial declaration that this is a worse cartoon than the 1938 one it echoes.
As he’s punched out of the cartoon Brutus looks to the camera and asks, “What did I did wrong?”, in this silly French accent. It sounds like the closing line from one of the theatrical cartoons, where Bluto’s a French-Canadian lumberjack or something. I don’t know if it’s literally the same line or if Jackson Beck just recorded it in the same accent. There’s no reason to read the line like that, except for fun. The line’s also a bit mysterious unless Brutus has no self-awareness, but he is a cartoon.
I may be giving contrary directions here. I want the cartoon makers to have fun, and to throw stuff in just because it delights them. Why should I complain that “What did I did wrong?” doesn’t make sense? I should at least be consistent in my demands.
For today’s cartoon it’s one of the handful of Larry Harmon-produced cartoons. The story’s credited to Charles Shows and the direction to Paul Fennell. Here’s 1960’s Bullfighter Bully.
I opined once that (American-made) bullfighting cartoons are always on the side of the bull. This rule, like all, isn’t quite right. The staging of a plot can overwhelm how much the bull is set up to be the aggrieved party. The main bull for this cartoon, though, is a calf, a rather cute and innocent-looking animal. Popeye’s been cast as anti-bullfighting before. That earlier one and this cartoon gave me the impression Popeye was always strongly anti-bullfighting. This because I forgot things like 1953’s Toreadorable. Well, here’s a list of Popeye cartoons with a bull in them. You figure out his personality.
The villain here is El Diablo, who looks uncannily like Brutus and has the same voice Brutus used when pretending to be Don Juan back when he turned young. I’m not going to fault Jackson Beck for not having two distinct “Brutus with a Spanish accent” voices. The bull this time is a cute calf, and Popeye and Olive Oyl come to defend them. This seems like it should be enough of a story, especially for a cartoon that’s under five minutes of screen time. But then Charles Shows went and had a grown-up and dangerous bull run into the story. I understand the impulse to add some peril, since Brutus El Diablo wasn’t cutting it. But it isn’t very frightening and Popeye goes and off-frame kills the bull. Yes, he punches a bull into a pile of meat in most every bullfighting cartoon he’s in. That usually doesn’t work for me then, either.
The animation’s done by the team that would create Filmation. So, it’s got the lushness and subtlety of expression you’d expect from that. A lot of interactions handled by an off-screen sound effect. Well, at least Popeye gets kissed by a calf at the end. That’s something.
My first problem with this cartoon is that I know the history of Popeye too well. There’s a better version of this cartoon. Of course there is; by the time we reached this cartoon there were … I don’t know, three hundred Popeye shorts out there? A lot of premise was covered. But the Fleischer Stealin’ Ain’t Honest covers a lot of the same territory, including BlutoBrutus stealing the map through a periscope and racing to an island. Between the 1940 predecessor and this 1960 version the gold mine has turned into a uranium mine. That’s nice and timely. Updating the Macguffin doesn’t affect things any, of course. But it’s curious we don’t see any use of radioactive materials as magic, capable of any sort of weird fun story event. Or at least giant glowing monsters. Yes, I know uranium doens’t really do that. Who could possibly care?
The most interesting change is Brutus putting on a gorilla suit to mess with Popeye. This is a danged good idea. Popeye has an aversion to beating up “dumb aminals”. He’s not as consistent with this as we’d wish from our heroes. But it takes more to get him to beat up a gorilla than to beat up Brutus. A good costume shop would let Brutus get away with murder.
Of course there ends up being a real gorilla in the mix, and Popeye thinks the real gorilla is Brutus and then Brutus thinks the real gorilla is Popeye stealing his gimmick. That’s a fair enough use of the gimmick. It seems like it could have been better.
There’s a writing tick that I noticed here and now I’m curious whether it’s a Harmon-studios specialty. That’s one of forming a joke by repeating a word, maybe in different contexts. Asked if he’s sure nobody can see the map at sea, Popeye says, “Sure I’m sure.” Shown the Geiger counter, Olive Oyl says, “I can hardly wait for the buzzer to buzz”. As Brutus ties her up Olive Oyl tells Brutus “you are a crooked crook!” Brutus answers “this mine is mine, all mine!” Any one of these is unremarkable. They even fit the language pattern of Popeye’s immortal declarations about how he yam what he yam and that’s all what he yam. Or how he’s had all the can stands, he can’t stands no more. I suspect if I were more intersted in the cartoon I wouldn’t notice these things. But there you go.
So the cartoon is animated as I’d expect from the future Filmation team. The characters are angular; Brutus is almost a triangle. The movement well-defined or stiff, depending on how good a mood you’re in. The story is … now that’s interesting.
If you watch this when you’re seven years old, or if you watch it while distracted, the story makes good solid sense. Brutus is showing off at the extremely thin stadium. Popeye has enough of this, and challenges him to the track-and-field events. Popeye does great but Brutus cheats until Popeye has enough, spinach, fight, triumph, end.
The thing is that’s not quite what we see. Like, Brutus is showing off, yeah, but he’s also there to put on a show. If we take his ballyhoo in earnest, he is setting world records. And we don’t actually see Popeye challenge him, nor Brutus accept the challenge. If we didn’t know the series we could see this as a relentless heckler spoiling the show. Connective tissue is missing.
It’s not just skipped steps in setting up the story. There are anomalies in motivation all over. For example, in tossing the ball-and-chain, Brutus makes a good impressive throw. Then he runs out and catches it. It’s an impressive stunt, but it spoils the throw as an athletic performance. Popeye does a high jump by tying balloons to himself; how is that supposed to impress the judges? Brutus hands Popeye a bomb, which explodes, and then Brutus wonders where the guy he just blew up went. Why?
If you’re a kid watching this, there’s no trouble. These things just happen because it makes sense for the scene. You know Brutus and Popeye act like this because that’s what they’re doing. If you watch while distracted there’s no problem. You, having learned how narratives work, imagine a connective tissue that makes sense. There’s a hole that swallows up Popeye’s pole, when he tries to vault? Brutus probably dug that to sabotage his opponent.
So there’s a curious anomaly here. The cartoon makes perfect sense, unless you’re an adult paying attention to it.
I’m not saying it’s bad. The stunts are nice, many of the jokes work for me. I love any chance for Popeye to do that angry chimney-puffing on his pipe. Wimpy hawking spinach burgers is a more interesting way to get the spinach than just pulling out a can would be. Wimpy not wanting anyone to actually eat the spinach burgers makes his participation an existentialist absurdity. Or just painting a joke onto an already non-sequitur plot element. It’s just a cartoon that works better if you don’t scrutinize it.
So, first continuity error: Popeye isn’t a sheepish character. He might go reluctantly into something if he doesn’t see why it’s his business, but that’s not sheepish.
Popeye’s interrupted watching his Western show by Olive Oyl, bringing a telegram that I guess Western Onion trusted her with. Poopdeck Pappy needs help with rustlers. Plus, hey, Poopdeck Pappy! He disappeared after Fleischer Studios became Famous Studios, to fit Paramount’s vision of their cartoons being “not so interesting”. (There were a couple cartoons in 1952 and 1953 with him, one a cameo, one disappointing, and one a remake of Goonland too racist to put on TV.) King Features, though, was glad to use everything they had a trademark on.
Popeye heads out, in the engine of a small train; is it his? Anyway, Pappy meets him with a shotgun. Pappy is, as traditional, a twin to Popeye, except with a beard. And, here, a red cap. And, another continuity error: Poopdeck Pappy is also never sheepish.
Brutus comes in, wearing a long coat, to swipe some sheep and I am childishly delighted that his plan is “sneak sheep out under his trenchcoat”. It’s the joke you’d make if you were a podcast host joking about the premise. The sheep are cute in this vaguely UPA style tool. Brutus goes in with a helicopter, too, having abandoned the trenchcoat plan because … I don’t know. This one outright fails.
Brutus orders Popeye out of town at gunpoint. Popeye uses the countdown to twist the gun barrel and, in a joke I like, ends up pointing it at himself and getting blasted anyway. He asks what he did wrong. It’s not only a good cartoon joke; it’s a joke building on decades of confident cartoon protagonists twisting the barrels of hunters’ guns.
Poopdeck Pappy, shaving, overhears the gunshots. Did you notice that he’s shaving? Because that’s important. But it’s also a good plant for what’s to come, and I imagine seven-year-olds who figure this out feel really clever. Anyway Brutus has tied up Popeye and shoots at his feet until he hops off the cliff. This seems like extra work to go to throw him off a cliff. But, confident he’ll never see Popeye again, who walks in but Popeye? In a red hat this time. Did you notice it was a red hat? … Not that it would be bizarre if Popeye were to be back on top of the cliff. That kind of thing happens in cartoons.
Brutus ties up Pappy with a stick of lit dynamite, and runs off. Popeye runs in, extinguishes the fuse and frees Pappy, and doesn’t say anything to his father. Nor does his father say anything back. I’m surprised by how much the animators are trusting the audience to follow what’s going on. I don’t think they’re wrong to, but I’d expected a reassurance line to emphasize that Pappy looks like Popeye now.
Brutus, not having heard the dynamite explode, goes into the mine where he had tied up Pappy. I admit I’m cowardly around fireworks and such. My college summer job was in a nitrocellulose plant. Still, I would not go in to investigate a stick of dynamite that isn’t exploded yet. Popeye appears to encourage him to go in and look, which makes good cartoon logic but: why would you do that, Brutus? Think out what things could follow from the information you have. How many of them are good for you?
Going on inside is Pappy re-lighting the dynamite so it’ll go off when Brutus arrives. And he walks past Brutus, again raising the question whether Brutus is paying attention to what he’s looking at. The blast throws him out the cave, and on seeing two Popeyes he goes bouncing off the cliff. He’s caught by what seems like an excessively deep tree root, right where a sheep can kick him over and over.
This is a pleasant cartoon. Solid enough story. Between the trenchcoat, Popeye asking “what did I do wrong” at twisting Brutus’s gunbarrel, and the way we get into the duplicate Popeye stuff, there’s decent comedy here.
The animation is pretty solid. Not so solid that, like, we ever see a character’s legs when they walk. We instead pull tighter in while the figure bounces up and down. But we do get tight focus on people’s faces, which gives us something to look at. Also to wonder at how everybody’s leaning so far over all the time. Their backs have to hurt so. It’s not a great cartoon; there’s not a moment of great delightful surprise to it. But it’s pretty good throughout.
There’s a fairly new syndicated newspaper comic strip, created by John Kovaleski. It’s a pleasant strip about a single father and his baby, and sunk a bit by its name of Daddy Daze. “Daze” is the inevitable pun for anyone wanting to make something with the shape of a pun on “days” and I don’t know that it helps. Maybe they’re aiming at a market which I am not in. Anyway, here’s the 1960 Popeye cartoon Childhood Daze.
I knew from the video’s thumbnail that it would involve a baby-size Popeye. The opening credits give us that it’s Larry Harmon-produced. The animation director’s Paul Fennell. The writer’s Charles Shows. Shows also had writing credits on Muskels Shmuskels and Foola-Foola Bird. These cartoons had decent enough premises and stories that mostly made sense. My expectation by the end of the credits was that it’d be a fair cartoon, maybe stiffly animated, with a dotting of weird little bits along the way. Also that the animation would probably be pretty stiff, and since it had a new model for Popeye, it wouldn’t have any really good bits. The mystery would be how to get a Baby Popeye.
The answer’s early on, as we visit the daringly mid-century modern home of Professor O G Wotasnozzle. Wotasnozzle’s a character from Segar’s other gig, the husband-and-wife strip Sappo. Wotasnozzle with his wacky inventions turned their boarding house premise into something where goofy weird things happened. When Sappo faded out Wotasnozzle transferred over to the main strip, a minor character who could set off some nice nonsense. For some reason Famous Studios never did anything with him, or a lot of the weirder Thimble Theatre cast. The King Features cartoons brought him out and for just this sort of thing: want to make Popeye a baby? A caveman? An astronaut? Six inches tall (I’m guessing, but I’m probably right)? Wotasnozzle can make it happen.
And that’s basically what happens. Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Brutus are gathered at Wotasnozzle’s place to see him turn a chicken into an egg. Does it work on people? Let’s find out. Brutus volunteers, specifically he volunteers Popeye. It’s a dumb gag, and yet one time in high school my geometry teacher let me get away with that when he was looking for a volunteer to go to the board. I am truly sorry, Larissa. I should have realized he’d go with the gag.
So we get a Baby Popeye out of the little slot for stuff that’s gone through the Atomic Youth Machine. (I saw Atomic Youth Machine open for Presidents of the United States of America in ’98.) I’m curious how Wotasnozzle figured an ‘adult’ or ‘teen’ or even ‘child’ human would fit in that output slot. I guess he really had not thought through whether this thing would work on humans.
It’s taken two minutes, of a five-and-a-half minute short, to get Baby Popeye. That seems like a lot of time watching characters stand still and blink. Olive Oyl’s shocked that the Atomic Youth Machine, that she’s just seen turn an aged chicken into a chick, and that was set to make Popeye into a baby, turned Popeye into a baby. Thus we see the difference between understanding the proposition that “this will turn someone into a baby” and believing the proposition.
For as simple as the premise is there’s stuff I don’t understand about it. Like, do the adults understand what Baby Popeye is saying? Popeye talks back to Brutus at about 2:20, and Brutus doesn’t really respond. But it’s not like these cartoons usually have tight dialogue. And for much of the cartoon Olive Oyl and Brutus talk about Popeye as if he’s not there. The one time there’s definite communication is Olive Oyl responding to Popeye’s cries to be fed, but that’s something any kid could ask for. Other than asking for spinach, I mean.
There’s a bit at 3:05 where Brutus is spanking Popeye. Or, talking about spanking Popeye and in the pose where he would be spanking, with Baby Popeye crying. But there’s no actual movement on Brutus’s part. Did the censor not allow them to show spanking or were they saving on the animation budget? Also baffling: why is there a long red carpet in Wotasnozzle’s house?
This is a disappointing short. After we get a Baby Popeye he doesn’t do anything. Olive Oyl doesn’t do anything. (After he introduces the premise Wotasnozzle doesn’t do anything either, but that’s kind of his thing.) Brutus at least rolls him up into a basketball and tosses him through a hoop that Wotasnozzle has inside his house for some reason. But Brutus could do that anyway, before Popeye gets riled enough to eat his spinach. Also every time we see Baby Popeye being held up, he looks like regular Popeye but his legs fell off. I’m not sure what a Baby Popeye ought to do, but standing in lines blinking isn’t it. The obvious thing is to make them all kids and go through their usual nonsense but with kiddie-level attention spans. Or have Olive Oyl and Brutus forced to babysit Baby Popeye while Wotasnozzle gets something to fix the machine and make him an adult again, and Popeye is a difficult child. Or have Baby Popeye get in on Swee’Pea’s world. Something, anything. The premise is better than the cartoon made of it.
New Year, new old Popeye cartoons to watch. It’s another Larry Harmon-produced cartoon here, this one written by Charles Shows. I don’t have him on record yet, but these records are still quite young things. Going in, I don’t expect great animation — again, see the Hal Sutherland/Lou Scheimer credits — but I’d expect a couple of interesting figures at least. And a solid story makes up for a lot of animation flaws. So here from 1960, it’s Foola-Foola Bird.
We open on a picnic that certainly doesn’t look at all like it’s setting up stock footage that could frame any story. I like the way they’ve drawn grass, though. Popeye and all are tuned to KPLOT-AM radio, where Jackson Beck is doing his Jim Backus impersonation. It’s an adequate way to set up the premise, if you don’t just want to have Popeye and Olive Oyl sailing to Foola-Foola Island and explaining the plot to each other.
The National Birdwatchers Society is offering a million dollars for a Foola-Foola Bird. Nobody says what they want it for, but, given the era … I mean, this was made before Rachel Carson proposed that covering the earth eight feet deep in neurotoxins to save the cost of road crews cutting brush back from highway signage was bad, actually. I have concerns about the well-being of any animals in captivity. But that’s outside the scope of the cartoon. Popeye knows where to find a Foola-Foola Bird: they’ll be on Foola-Foola Island. You’d think more people would try looking there. But I like that Popeye knows where to go. It suggests he’s picked up sailor’s lore, and I like when he gets to be a sailor.
There’s a neat little dissolve, between Brutus and a sneaking Popeye, at about 1:40. And then we get “the last” of the Foola-Foola Birds, although I don’t know how Popeye’s so sure this is the last of them. The bird’s pretty good at taking care of himself, at least.
Popeye does this cheery little song about how “I will fool-a the Foola-Foola bird”. I don’t know why I liked this so. It seems playful, like the way Jack Mercer’s improvised mutterings in the 30s did. I’m curious whether the line was written or whether Jack Mercer just spruced up a dull moment in the recording studio. Or replaced a boring line announcing what Popeye was doing with this.
The Foola-Foola Bird passes out when Popeye “scientifically” sprinkles salt on its tail. Why? I know the legend is that you catch a bird by sprinkling salt on its tail. But, like, I’ve seen every Woody Woodpecker cartoon and he was never taken by that, except when he was going along with a gag. Is the Foola-Foola Bird going along with Popeye’s nonsense to see if this leads anywhere interesting?
So after Popeye walks through the slowest snare trap in the world and gets caught, Brutus takes the Foola-Foola Bird, then drops it to tie up Olive Oyl. The Foola-Foola Bird gives Popeye his spinach, because … why? I’d like to think the Foola-Foola Bird has figured out the moral landscape here, but I don’t see that the bird has reason to. Popeye said he was going to give the Foola-Foola Bird a nice new home, but the bird already has a home.
There’s a perfunctory fight between Popeye and Brutus. If it counts as a fight when only one person throws a punch. And then we get Popeye and Olive Oyl sailing home, deciding to leave the Foola-Foola Bird alone: why? It’s a plausible change of opinion, yes, but why did either of them make it? One line of Olive Oyl regretting the trouble they’re causing the bird would carry a lot of work here. And give Olive Oyl a use in the cartoon. We have the cute ending that the bird’s followed along, and even dragged Brutus with him. Nice enough, although I don’t know why Popeye talks about the Foola-Foola Bird being there as if it were a problem.
So a question for me: why did the cartoon make up the Foola-Foola Bird? The Popeye lore already has the legendary and rare Whiffle Hen. Your tiring friend who wants to Well Actually things will tell you how the Whiffle Hen’s lucky feathers were the original source of Popeye’s indestructibility. There are King Features cartoons that feature the Whiffle Hen, a creature from the original comic strip. So I’m curious whether Charles Shows didn’t know about the Whiffle Hen, or didn’t think he could use it, or whether there was some draft where the Whiffle Hen would have been definitely wrong and something new had to be brought in.
The story makes sense, whether you’re a Whiffle Hen partisan or not. And Brutus talking so much about “getting the bird” or “giving me the bird” sure sounds like somebody was supposed to say something to camera. The animation is all rote stuff, though. There’s some good backgrounds, such as the first look at Foola-Foola Island, but nothing that moves looks all that interesting. It’s altogether a cartoon that’s all right.
Irate Pirate is another of the Larry Harmon-produced line of 60s cartoons. Just looking at the title card I thought: well, “irate” and “pirate” only really rhyme when Popeye is saying that, and only some of the time even then, right? It’s all right to rely on an idiosyncratic thing of your title character, especially a character as generally swell as Popeye. But it’s symptomatic of this cartoon, where I ended up thinking more stray thoughts than actually watching the plot. Let’s see if you agree.
The cartoon’s competent enough. Everybody has a model and they stick, stiffly, to it. The story’s quite direct. There’s not really weird moments in it, either. So I’m left with stray thoughts while I watch. Here’s some of them.
Hey, it’s a cartoon where Popeye the Sailor is actually doing something with boats!
Though it is odd that we’re set up with a collapskible boat that we never see collapsking. Just un-collapsking. A button is a setup to have a button pressed repeatedly, at awkward moments.
“Ooh, Popeye! I just love that salty dialogue!” is definitely (at about 0:55) a line I did not understand when I was seven.
Olive Oyl asks what the one and only button is for. Popeye wants to stop her from pressing it, but he doesn’t want to stop her so much that he moves in any way.
So why does BrutusJolly Roger have a French accent this cartoon? Did it start out at one point as a New Orleans-set river-pirates thing and then that setting got dropped? Did they record the audio for this the same day, or near enough, to Mississippi Sissy? Was Jackson Beck just trying to add a little flavor to a dull part?
Popeye complains that Olive Oyl, atop the mast, is rollicking the boat. But since the animation doesn’t have her actually move, it looks like he’s the one rollicking the mast.
BrutusJolly Roger has a point about not wanting Olive Oyl to be on Popeye’s homemade tub rather than his own actual boat. Also I like Popeye’s indignant, “whaddaya mean homemade? I builded this boat meself!”
It’s really not until 2:51, when Olive Oyl’s finally tied up, that we see BrutusJolly Roger doing something villainous. If he did tie her up; we have to take it on trust that he had some part on it. There’s easily one chance in four that Olive Oyl spontaneously manifests ropes tying her up at about this part of a cartoon.
At about 3:30 Olive Oyl demands, “Don’t you dare hurt Popeye, you – you – pirate, you”. BrutusJolly Roger says, “Oh, I would not think of it” and immediately shoots his harpoon without explaining the apparent contradiction. Yeah, all he does is sink Popeye’s inflatable boat but I’d expected some mention of why he’s well, actually not hurting Popeye.
While handing from BrutusJolly Roger’s fishhook Popeye declares there’s “nothing like strained spinach to tickle the tonsils”, and when he eats it there’s this watery sound effect. What’s gone and strained his spinach? Is this supposed to be watery after Popeye was dunked in the sea? I guess that makes sense?
Those button noses on the ends of BrutusJolly Roger’s sharks given them a weirdly puppy-dog look.
BrutusJolly Roger’s boat starts out pretty sleek and modern, but as it goes on he seems to pick up older-style pirate accessories. Like, were they even still making cannonballs in 1960, apart from for historical reenactments? I honestly don’t know and don’t know how to look this one up.
After getting partly blown up by a cannonball that Popeye’s caught, lit, and passed back on, Olive Oyl declares “Let’s go ashore, sailing is so boring”. So she’s fed up with cartoons where all she does is get tied up by the Big Bad and urges Popeye on to doing something, too.
There’s probably some way to measure how much I’m buying into a cartoon by how many stray distracted thoughts like these that I have about it.
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.
We’ve finally got a break from Jack Kinney-directed episodes. This one’s … oh. Larry Harmon. You know, the with the crew that would go on to be Filmation. I mean, I like Filmation. They made a lot of the cartoons so deeply weird that they appealed to the young me. Who else would think to do a cartoon refresh of Gilligan’s Island by just moving everyone to a new planet? I don’t expect great animation. I’m happy if I can get a weird cartoon, though. So here’s Ski-Jump Chump, another 1960 piece.
This isn’t the first skiing cartoon from Popeye. It’s also not the first one where Jackson Beck plays Bluto as some wholly new character with a French accent. Maybe French-Canadian. Beck was apparently comfortable with that accent; he has it on a fair number of old-time radio characters too. Here he’s Gorgeous Pierre, greatest ski jumper in the world. I too wonder if that’s a riff on Gorgeous George, the 50s pro wrestler who’s the guy being riffed on in those cartoons where a pro wrestler has curly blond hair and a perfume bottle.
And it’s not even the first cartoon this month where the story is Popeye and BlutoBrutus Gorgeous Pierre doing stunts to win Olive Oyl’s affections. What makes this stand out mostly is the animation getting weird. Like, in the first scene Popeye’s right eye keeps doing this little fluttering that made me think they were accidentally opening it. No; it’s just that his eyebrow jumps between spots. Which is a mistake that curiously makes his face look much more alive and real than the animators wanted. So that’s worth talking about because it’s an animation error that makes the cartoon kind of better, somehow. It’s superior to BlutoBrutus Gorgeous Pierre using a jack to lift the end of a ski jump, which my eye keeps trying to parse as an optical illusion. And I have no idea what’s supposed to be happening about 3:04, when Popeye skis into the rope.
This all comes to a ski race because I guess they needed some structure for the back half of the cartoon. We see BlutoBrutus Gorgeous Pierre being all devious by going right after the race starter says to “go”, while Popeye stands around blinking. And here I realized I have mixed feelings about the character designs here. They’re very simple ones. Like, I look at them and think, “I could draw that,” which is a sign of a very simple character design. But simple isn’t the same as bad. I admire how they’re able to get Popeye and Olive Oyl and You-Know-Who drawn and recognizable with so few lines and as many as five colors.
We do get that cartoon-race motif where the villain would win easily if he didn’t keep stopping to sabotage the hero. In the last minute and a half the cartoon finally gets weird for weirdness’s sake. Gorgeous Pierre paints a tunnel into a tree. It’s a Coyote and Road Runner gag, except for being senseless. There’s a reason to take a tunnel through the mountain; why aim for the one tree on the hill because you think you can pass through it? That said, I apparently like this sort of nonsense because I didn’t think about that until the third time through. Another bit of nonsense I like is Popeye drinking spinach juice for whatever reason. I wonder if this is riffing on some commercial people in 1960 would remember. The cartoon ends with a fight cloud, and a small-pawed bear being roped into things. The bear gets to win the ski race. And Popeye declares “like Napoleon said, you can’t win them all” and spontaneously dons a Napoleon costume. Why? I have no idea.
By now, you know me. I found this a dull but okay cartoon through most of its length. I got more interested as the cartoon got more ridiculous. Also that bear was adorable and I reliably like the comic premise of the character who’s important but asleep through the whole thing. I will not call this a great one, since it isn’t. Popeye turning into Napoleon is a nice surprise, but it’s not the sort of joke which won’t wear out.
The next of this block of 60s King Features Syndicate Popeye cartoons is Caveman Capers. It’s produced by the Larry Harmon studios. So, you know, names like Hal Sutherland and Lou Scheimer who’d go on to give us Filmation. Going into the cartoon from that, I expected, if nothing else, all the characters to be faintly angular, and to move like they’re in a Flash web cartoon from about ten years ago. Let’s watch.
I would swear there are other Popeye-as-caveman cartoons out there. I’m not invested strongly enough in the question to look them up. But there’s a long record of caveman jokes in cartoon (and live-action movie) history. And, what the heck, we might as well try Popeye out in that setting. At minimum it gives us different props that he can play with.
We get a framing device on the action. I’m not sure why. Maybe they didn’t want to waste having designed a Popeye who’s squatting on legs one-third the length of his arms. Having a frame like this lets the cartoon paper over any gaps in the plot. But the cartoon doesn’t use that power.
I so dislike Popeye explaining how Prehistorical Olive “was a striking beauty, so grandpappy struck her, as was the custom in that day”. I know the premise is just a stock Caveman Settings joke. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. I was thinking about skipping this cartoon altogether. Still not sure I shouldn’t have skipped it anyway. I guess Prehistorical Olive reacting like Krazy Kat hit with a brick makes it less bad. Her putting up with this a while and then telling Popeye and BlutoBrutus to settle this like gentlemen and fight it out makes it more silly.
What I do like here is the color scheme. The world is green- and blue-tinted, while the characters are a clear bright tan. It reads pretty well in color. I imagine it also looked good on black-and-white televisions. I also like Popeye hanging out with a dinosaur; it has a nice Alley Oop vibe. I’m a bit surprised they didn’t try making a Eugene-the-Jeep dinosaur. They can’t have thought that would confuse the premise too much, with kids expecting a Jeep dinosaur to be doing magic tricks or something, could they?
There’s some dialogue I like. Prehistorical Popeye asking BlutoBrutus when it’ll be his turn to hit and getting the answer “not yet”. Prehistorical Popeye declaring that he’s gonna “call this stuff spinach, cause it looks like spinach”.
There’s a nice little fight cloud between Popeye and BlutoBrutus at about 5:02. It looks to me like the same fight cloud from when Popeye fought Irving. But this requires redressing Popeye and drawing BlutoBrutus in place of the robot monster. Which is worth it, surely. Once you have the motion traced out for a Popeye-versus-big-bruiser fight cloud just painting in different clothes isn’t too much work. I’m sue that as a kid I’d never have noticed that, though.
I suspect they had no idea how to close this cartoon.
Is there a comic minigenre funnier than early-60s Old People complaining about The Beatles? Arguably, it is early-60s Old People trying to make fun of Elvis. Let’s watch Mueller’s Mad Monster. This is a Larry Harmon-produced cartoon; Paul Fennell directs.
There was a cartoon attitude popular in the 1950s and 60s that I grew up liking. Call it Cartoon Existentialism. This is where characters do some role, not because they have reason to. They just know they have this role and they’re going to play it. You see this in any of the little home-appliance animals in The Flintstones, who shrug that it’s a living. Or fairy tale stories starring, like, Huckleberry Hound, where the characters shrug that this blue dog is messing up their routine.
Mad Mueller is such a creature. He’s introduced as the mad scientist at a nice spooky storm-ridden castle. He’s building a monster because what else does a mad scientist do in such castles? It’s a robot because, what the heck. It’s 1960. That the cartoon is soaked in this attitude of “what else are we going to do” predisposes me to like it.
I still do. It’s barely an animated cartoon. As the monster Irving carries off Olive Oyl, Popeye lets off a fair bit of trash-talking and daring bragging. Almost anything as long as he doesn’t have to walk over there. I have days like that. There’s one real moment of life in the cartoon, around 9:09 as Popeye and Irving get into a good fight cloud. It’s fun and has a nice sound effect to it. We could wish there were more of it. But there is something that amuses me in the fight being such a short sequence so repeated. It’s a neat abstraction of what makes a cartoon fight cloud.
There is a fair bit of dialogue. And it’s trying to be funny. Many of the jokes work for me, at least a bit. Mad Mueller telling the camera, “I push the little button. That looks like a good button,” for example. That really captures the Cartoon Existentialism of the piece.
The dialogue wants to be funny. So if you find something amusing in the idea of a Frankensteinian monster named Irving, you’re in good shape. If you like the idea that a spooky castle is in a neighborhood named Horrors Heights? Yeah, that works. Or this doesn’t do anything for you and the cartoon is wholly lost. I grant the premise that “Irving” is a funny name for a monster isn’t a strong joke. Or that Mueller can’t quite name Worcestershire sauce as he tries to whip up artificial spinach. Better, I think, is the casual way that Popeye speaks to Irving “as one monster to another”. Olive Oyl picks this up too, telling Mueller about how “your monster is beating up my monster”.
Popeye doesn’t have his spinach on him. Why? Well, so Olive Oyl and Mad Mueller have something to do in the end of the cartoon. Popeye smashes Irving to pieces and then rebuilds him. Why? Well, because you don’t want a mad scientist going around without a monster. Popeye rebuilds Irving into a figure who looks like Elvis Presley, Olive Oyl tells us. (I only see it about half the time.) Why? What else are you going to do? It’s a cartoon from 1960, you gotta do something.
And to wrap up my tour of the 1960s King Features mass-produced Popeye cartoons, here’s one made by Larry Harmon Pictures, Crystal Ball Brawl. I concede it’s not a very good cartoon, although it does capture an aspect of the original comic strips pretty well: a triggering incident offers the chance for riches and the characters besides Popeye start scheming to use it. The scheming doesn’t get very far — only Wimpy and Bluto get in on the villainy — but it does at least evoke how in the comic strip pretty much all the humans except Popeye have huge swaths of rotten in them.
If the name “Larry Harmon” nags at your mind it’s because you’re just about to place him as Bozo The Clown. Larry Harmon Pictures, or Larry Harmon Studios, was formed to animate Bozo the Clown, and the studio did work for Popeye, like everyone did, as well as animation for Dick Tracy and Mister Magoo. I can’t find much more information about it; the studio didn’t last long. The animation, featuring a pretty static set of poses with long camera pans in place of motion and a soundtrack that wanders in indifferent parallel to the action, doesn’t really commend itself like the work of some of the studios here.
And yet … look at that action and at the credited artists, particularly Hal Sutherland and Lou Scheimer. They would, after the closing of Larry Harmon pictures, create Filmation, which brought to the screen a lot of cartoons with pretty static animation, long camera pans, and a wandering and endlessly repeated soundtrack. Charitably, that seems to be because they rarely had the time or budget to do cartoons well: when given the chance, as on Star Trek or Fat Albert or Flash Gordon they created things that were quite solid, at least for television cartoons of the era. So this little cartoon is part of a thread that brings us to He-Man, if nothing else.