60s Popeye: College of Hard Knocks (please ring doorbell to the left)


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?

A shocked Popeye, wearing an academic cap, looking at the diploma he's unrolled to discover it's a Marriage License, showing Olive Oyl and Popeye readying to marry.
Oh, yeah, and then the punch line. Olive Oyl gives Popeye a certificate of his being an edjamacated ignoramus; it’s a marriage license with their pictures on it. This because if there’s one thing the kids in the audience know is funny, it’s how THE WIFE THEY SO BAD RIGHT.

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.

60s Popeye: Bullfighter Bully, a 60s Popeye cartoon with bullfighting


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.

Popeye smiling and holding out his hand, pointing to the calf and Olive Oyl in the stands. Both of them are smiling, the calf with a particularly exaggerated grin that makes it look like it's concealing a deep secret or possibly a crush.
On the other hand, a calf with a grin like that is certainly not innocent. He may not deserve to be stabbed to death, but he probably has earned a censure, maybe disbarment proceedings.

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.

60s Popeye: Sure, I heard of a Sheepish Sheep-Herder


This week’s King Features Popeye takes us back to Larry Harmon’s studio. So, you know, the future Filmation crew. The story is by Charles Shows, of Muskels Shmuskels, of Foola-Foola Bird, and of Childhood Daze. The director here, as in the three already mentioned, is Paul Fennell. Here’s Sheepish Sheep-Herder.

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.

Poopdeck Pappy, clean-shaven so he looks like Popeye, standing in cave with both eyes half-opened and looking off-screen. He's supposed to look devious, but the pose could also be read as sultry.
Sultry, yes, I’ll grant you Poopdeck Pappy is sultry sometimes. But not 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.

Oyl family reunion; Castor Oyl, Nana Oil, and less familiar relations are standing around. Popeye: 'I don't understands it. How can you be related to these people not look like any of 'em?' Olive Oyl: "I think there's a family resemblance.' Popeye: 'Resemblance sure, but why ain't ya all identical? Takes me family, f'rinstance! I yam the spittin' image of e'ryone in me family. If ya compares me to Pappy, or even me great grandpappy Patcheye we is practically clones o'each other. [ Pictures of Poopdeck Pappy and Patcheye, who look like redraws of Popeye ] Even peoples what marries into the family, like me dear old Ma or sainted Granny. Sure, they looked diff'rent before [ pictures of Popeye's mother and granmother, normal-looking figures ] but after gettin' hitched in, they started lookin' jus' like the rest of us. That's how you know they is family! That's how family works!' [ Pictures of Popeye's mom and grandmom, who look like redraws of Popeye.] Olive Oyl: 'I suddenly don't mind that we've never gotten married.' Popeye: 'It's just as well. This old world can only handle so much beauty.'
Popeye’s Cartoon Club made a reappearance this week, with a bunch of strips from Randy Milholland. This one, from the 30th of May, talks a little about everybody in the Popeye clan looking like Popeye. By the way members of the Oyl family include her brothers Castor and Crude Oyl, her parents Cole Oyl and Nana Oyl [ “Banana Oil” was a slangy way to call something “nonsense” in the 1920s ], Castor’s estranged wife Cylinda Oyl; nieces Diesel Oyl (we’ll see her) and Violet Oyl; uncles Otto Oyl and Lubry Kent Oyl. And, when Bobby London was doing his thing, a sultry blonde cousin Sutra Oyl and corporate-magnate Standard Oyl. Wikipedia figures “Violet Oyl” is a play on “volatile oils”. I guess maybe that’s what they were going for? It’s a tough name, anyway.

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.

Popeye: Crystal Ball Brawl


Previously:


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.

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