Olive Oyl has a surprise: we’re doing Modern Art jokes! Comic strips and cartoons have had a curious antipathy for Modern Art ever since both modes started. It’s curious because it’s not like either is a threat to the other’s cultural niche. It’s like if train enthusiasts were always mocking fire engine enthusiasts. I get that Modern Art leads itself to easy jokes. Well, to an easy joke. That’s because a lot of it will carry the question “what makes something Art?” and sometimes you don’t want to deal with that. But even in 2021, when society’s dropped all support for the humanities, we’re still interested in the question “what makes (this) and (something)”. Else your STEM friend would not have Opinions about whether a corn dog is a ravioli.
Still, we’re set up for this being a cartoon about Modern Art and don’t quite deliver. We get a couple minutes of Popeye in the museum. For me, this is the high point of the cartoon, sold by Popeye’s disproportionate anger. Jack Mercer reads his lines like Popeye is supposed to have been wounded by all this and it’s great. Characters reacting way out of line with the scene makes for hilarity.
But after that we move to Popeye as an artist. I appreciate the cartoon letting us suppose Popeye drew inspiration from the Modern Art after all. Seems to be a lot of traditional, representational work, but you have to start somewhere. He invites Olive Oyl over and she skips merrily along. Brutus overhears and takes up sabotage. He smashes Popeye’s tall marble sculpture of Olive Oyl’s head, and gets a mallet to his own head for the trouble. That in time for Olive Oyl to arrive and treat the rubble as Art.
Then for some reason she poses while Popeye makes a new An Art, in an abbreviated remake of 1937’s My Artistical Temperature. Popeye way over-explains why he can eat his spinach off a painting, and we get a longer fight with Brutus than usual. Like, for the King Features shorts I expect Popeye to hit Brutus once or twice to knock him out of the cartoon. Here, we get a lot of action. Particularly, Popeye swinging Brutus again and again at the marble to carve a new Olive Oyl head. It’s more painful than I expect. I think that’s from all the time Popeye spends swinging around a hollow-looking, dazed Brutus. The pain is less real when it looks like Brutus would clobber Popeye if he could get a fist in edgewise.
So, in the end, Brutus is dazed, a lot of marble has been quarried and destroyed, Popeye’s made a pretty representative head of Olive Oyl, and Olive Oyl is happy. I guess the museum trip was a success?
Before I get to the cartoon here’s a bit of Popeye news. Stephanie Noell, who runs the Out Of Context Popeye panels Twitter feed, put together an e-book. It collects the Spinach Juice Springs story from Thimble Theatre. This was the first full storyline after Elzie Segar’s death, and the story by Tom Sims and Doc Winner seems to have gone uncollected before. It’s available from Gumroad.com as a pay-what-you-will download. Sims and Winner here put forth a couple neat ideas that they shuffle around a while before running out of stuff to do, then toss in a new idea and shuffle that a while, before finally everyone agrees the story is done. So they kept that Elzie Segar vibe pretty well at this point.
Really it’s two cartoons. One is Poopdeck Pappy babysitting a teething Swee’Pea. Swee’Pea goes wild chewing things. Thumbs, most often, but a phone book, a table, anything he can get near his mouth. It looks like the premise is Pappy trying to keep up with Swee’Pea’s devouring the world. That seems viable enough for a five-minute cartoon to me. You can imagine the Tex Avery, or at least Dick Lundy, cartoon built on that.
But just as that’s settled — with a cute bit where the dentist examines Swee’Pea through binoculars, out of biting range — we shift to a different plot. This one’s the story of the Sea Hag kidnapping Poopdeck Pappy so she can steal his teeth. Pappy’s able to escape, thanks to a campaign of expert biting. This, too, seems like it could have been a five-minute cartoon. So why smash these two premises together?
Might be they couldn’t figure a way to extend either premise to the five-and-a-half minutes needed. In which case, yes, better to do two half-cartoons they have inspiration for. But that pushes the question to why they had a pair of tooth-themed premises going at once. Did someone have the idea for the title and then they pitched ideas to fit it?
Also, why is this a Poopdeck Pappy cartoon? Like, why wouldn’t it be Popeye watching Swee’Pea teething instead? (Which would make the non-emergency dentist visit less odd.) I guess Pappy’s willing to punch the Sea Hag, when Popeye never would, but it’s not like Pappy punches her this cartoon either. It allows for a punch line, Popeye coming in to see Swee’Pea brushing his teeth. But that could be done just as well if (say) Olive Oyl came in to see how he was doing. The side effect is this is another candidate for the title of Least Popeye in a Popeye Cartoon.
Part of me wonders, not completely facetiously, if this started out as a public service cartoon for dental hygiene. The repeated instructions about brushing teeth and going to the dentist fit there. As does Pappy telling a story where good teeth saved the day. And Swee’Pea doing a closing rhyme of “They’ll last to the finish! If he eats his spinach! And brushes them twice a day!”
This might even explain the sketchiness of the animation. I don’t think Popeye’s ever been animated on ones, and by this era it certainly couldn’t be animated on twos. Here I estimate them as animating on the eighteens. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Could be the Deitch studio was running out of the time and animation budget and they had to put out something. It’s a shame if the answer is all that dull, though.
So, this is a weird one. I mean weird even for a Gene Deitch cartoon. I like it, mind you. I won’t think ill of people who feel the story is gibberish. But the ridiculousness is so proudly worn that I can’t hold that against the cartoon. I mean, it’s about an alien mailbox stealing Olive Oyl’s rose and messing with Popeye’s head. I’ll give it a hearing.
This has me wondering about the origins and writing of the cartoon, although not quite enough to see if Gene Deitch’s web site said anything. A flying saucer cartoon makes sense, especially for 1960. The alien messing with Popeye and Olive Oyl is inevitable from that. Why is the alien a mailbox? Why is it grabbing random objects? But rejecting Popeye’s mail? It feels like a parody of something and I can’t think what.
There’s some alien behavior this short, and not all the Mailbox From Space. Popeye and Olive Oyl have a bunch of dialogue where they talk past one another, or past the scenario. Like, Olive Oyl says her rose is gone, and Popeye answers, “yeah, it’s real gone,” like he thinks he’s in a Beatnik cartoon. Or, as the Space Mailbox tries to inhale Olive Oyl, Popeye says, “That’s a pretty good trick, but I thought you wanted to go for a walk.” These are lines funny for being inappropriate to the scene. I like the comic style of characters talking past one another (see every episode of Vic And Sade). But again, I understand the viewer who keeps asking, “The heck am I watching?”. Popeye getting to Olive Oyl’s and saying how “the feeling is mucilage” is great, though.
As typical, Deitch animates cheaply but well. It starts with a good use of a long camera pan to simulate animation. If the aliens had any reason to send a mailbox, it must be that this is an easy figure to draw. There’s lots of shots of the characters looking funny. As far as I know there wasn’t any overlap in animators between this and Jay Ward studios. But they had a similar attitude that limited animation doesn’t justify drawing boring poses.
I won’t fight you if you don’t like this, but I’m happy with it.
It’s several kinds of unusual in today’s King Features Popeye cartoon. The first is it’s a Gene Deitch-directed short. So, unfortunately, there’s no credits given for story or any of the Czechoslovakian animators. Just Deitch and producer William L Snyder. It’s from 1961, also, which I think makes this the first 1961 cartoon that isn’t from Paramount.
And then the distinctive thing: this is a cartoon where Popeye interacts with no other humans. There’s rather few like that. We know where that’s several cautions. But, here we go, Beaver Or Not.
Does Popeye ever think to try giving up when he notices he’s in a Popeye-Versus-The-Animal cartoon? These cartoons never show him at his best. They run against his (inconsistently followed) “be kind to children and dumb animals” ideal. He usually looks like the jerk. He ends up having to give in and letting the animal have his way. And Popeye is one of those characters who recognizes he’s in a cartoon. Does he ever think to jump to the happy ending?
This time around, Popeye’s battling a pair of beavers. Not sure why a pair, other than to give them a reason to say stuff to each other. Popeye doesn’t need an excuse to say his thoughts aloud, but a beaver needs some pretext. Popeye’s gone to a cabin in the woods for his vacation, and the beavers just then dam the river up. He tries tearing the dam apart so he can have his river.
One can sympathize with Popeye for wanting his vacation to be free of nonsense. But the need to draw the beavers as damming the river up right beside Popeye’s cabin damages the ability to sympathize. So, what he has to walk twenty feet upriver to get to the water? This is worth getting upset about? I grant it’ll be annoying paddling his canoe back through the mud to get home. He already had to paddle about eight minutes of screen time to get to his cabin. That’s an annoyance for off at the end of the vacation, though.
Like with any Popeye-Versus-The-Animal cartoon, Popeye tries various ways to get the animals to do what he wants. They don’t care. There’s some good cartoon action about batting dynamite back and forth. Popeye finally resorts to his spinach, with the beavers wondering “what’s he up to now?” and shrugging “who knows?” Popeye does take the gentlest approach, at least, lifting the dam out of the way and tossing it aside. Could have been meaner.
But the animals must prevail. They do it by discovering more spinach. (Often the way the animal gets the upper hand on Popeye.) “Let’s try it!” “Why not?” Reasonable. They cut Popeye’s cabin down into the river, for an even more of a dam. And finally Popeye yields to the cartoon he’s in and accepts he has to swim with the beavers or not at all. It’s a happy ending that Popeye could have gotten to sooner if he remembered every past cartoon starring an animal.
It’s all pretty good if you don’t feel like Popeye should be to smart to get in this fight. You know what Gene Deitch cartoons will look like, lots of good funny drawings and a strange soundscape. Sometimes mixed poorly: when he’s done changing Popeye can hear “a sawmill”. I can’t hear it at all. Or working so hard to be funny they don’t quite make sense, as in how the beavers roll around laughing and weightless. They look better for the short segment they’re under water, which is a feat. Usually animating something in the water is the hard part. Solid enough cartoon.
Here are some Popeye-Versus-The-Animal theatrical cartoons:
There’s no story credit for the 1960 William L Snyder-produced Hag-Way Robbery. I regret this. It is directed by Gene Deitch, and made by his team of Czechoslovakian animators. You all know I like Gene Deitch cartoons. They have a weirdness that I enjoy, starting with how the opening credits fanfare begins early and so Popeye’s pipe-tooting sounds like it comes in late. Let’s see what happens after the credits.
Eugene the Jeep is kidnapped! And it’s the Sea Hag who did it! Popeye has pulled together his trusted regular cast and sails to rescue him! It’s a bold opening, one signalled by rousing music and the camera panning in on his ship moving at an angle.
Popeye’s assembled a crew of Olive Oyl, Wimpy, and Swee’Pea because who else are you going to call on? I mean and not seem like you’re being a Popeye Hipster. (Toar, Professor Wotasnozzle, Alice the Goon, and maybe the sheriff from this one story in 1930 would be my selection, though.) He’s stocked up with plenty of canned spinach, canned hamburgers, canned baby food, and … canned olives. I think this is the first and last we’ve ever heard of Olive Oyl caring about olives, but she has to eat something for the gimmick to work. It seems odd to establish these supplies, but the cartoon knows what it’s doing. These are important to the plot.
The Sea Hag’s plot, anyway. From her shark submarine — where Eugene looks adorably cross in his cage — she pipes in a tube to steal all Popeye’s spinach. And to spray in labels so that everything else pretends to be canned spinach. You may ask how she can spray in labels that all land perfectly on their targeted cans. Sea Hag’s magic, you have to give her that. With Popeye unknowingly disarmed she shoots torpedoes, and he goes belowdecks for a can of spinach and finds nothing. He sees no choice but to try everything else. Meanwhile Wimpy, Olive Oyl, and Swee’Pea eat a lot.
It’s all strongly paced, with the story just not pausing. It’s a good reminder that limited animation does not mean it has to be slow or even dull to look at. Deitch follows Jay Ward’s rule that even if you can’t animate smoothly, you can at least have all the pictures be funny along the way. The strong pace also keeps questions of story logic from cropping up. Like, why doesn’t Popeye have a can of spinach in his shirt like he always does? Or, more importantly, how do you kidnap a Jeep, who can just disappear and reappear anywhere he wants? As, indeed, Eugene does, when Popeye gets to the final can and it’s canned orchids, the Jeep’s particular food. Also, where did the canned orchids come from?
Eugene we can answer at least. He’s a magical being, closer to the fae folk than you see in your average comic strip or cartoon. He’s content to go along with personal inconvenience if it promises some interesting mischief.
But there’s little time to consider the rest. Sea Hag, low on fuel, tosses Popeye’s spinach into the boilers. The smell is “the next best thing to eating spinach”, and Popeye gets his power-up. One might complain about the logic; I’d ask, is that really less plausible than the time he ate his spinach after being disintegrated? Anyway, Popeye won’t hit the Sea Hag, but he will maroon her, on a beautiful island where the can learn to be good.
So, I like this. A lot. It’s energetic, it’s silly. Sea Hag’s got a pretty good plan. There’s bits of plot that don’t make sense and I don’t care about rationalizing them, which shows how well they did entertaining me.
Gene Deitch gets to direct this next King Features Popeye cartoon and you know what that means: I have no information about who the story’s by. The producer’s William L Snyder, though, and the production date is 1960. And now this … is Astro-Nut.
There was something glorious in the early 60s, when all you needed to join the space program was to be a cartoon character. If Top Cat and gang could be astronaut candidates just because Officer Dibble questioned their patriotism, the doors were open to everyone. I’m sure that when I get into King Features’s other cartoons of the 60s I’ll find one where Snuffy Smith joins NASA.
For this Gene Deitch production, Popeye joins the space program to do a simulated long-duration flight. Can a person survive in a tiny capsule with no human contact for sixty days? Cartoon NASA is getting ahead of its game with this test; nobody would spend sixty full days in space until Skylab 4/3, in 1973-74. (Skylab 3/2 came in about six hours short of 60 full days.) Still, better to know sooner than later, I suppose.
Popeye seems poorly briefed for the space-related mission he’s signed up for. I know, it’s to give the audience useful exposition. But there’s room to ask whether this was the actual space program Popeye was working for. I mean, Popeye’s only human contact is supposed to be one tape of his friends’ voices, that he can listen to over and over, making use of the world’s slowest rewind feature? And they didn’t check the tape to make sure that Brutus didn’t use his time to taunt Popeye about how he was going to steal Olive Oyl away? Maybe they thought this was playful teasing? Popeye did sign up for a 60-day simulated flight, after all. What did he imagine Brutus was going to do?
We get a montage of Brutus dating Olive Oyl. Seems like they’re doing a lot, too. We see them swimming (he pushes Olive Oyl into the water). Going for a car ride (Olive Oyl has to hold the car up and run, a scene that looks like a separate car-themed cartoon broke out; watch this space). Going to the horse races (Brutus steals some money form her). Going to the amusement park (they ride an improbably steep coaster). All this in what we learn is just two days.
Popeye’s torn between his duty to stay in the capsule 60 days and his intense jealous need to punch Brutus. So there’s only one thing to do and I’m not sure just what it was. He swings his fist, anyway, and the capsule spins, and the instant spray spinach starts to spray and then the capsule launches from the ground, heading into space at the speed of light. This, of course, will cause Earth time to go backwards while the capsule progresses at sixty times normal time speed. And somewhere, the young Python Anghelo nods, understanding. All Brutus’s dates with Olive Oyl wind backwards and the capsule lands again. The generals congratulate Popeye for … having done a 60-day endurance test in an hour and Brutus and Olive Oyl are there and don’t undrestand how much time has passed. I feel this is a cartoon whose plot I probably understood when I was a kid. I’m too old to follow its logic anymore. We close out with a song, at least, “Through space in an hour / On pure spinach power / I’m Popeye the Sailor Man”. Also he sprays spinach into his mouth, so I guess his bubble helmet was open the whole time.
So, it’s weird. It’s Gene Deitch, what do you want. There’s good bits here. Popeye sees a vision of Swee’pea in his pipe smoke, for example, while hearing his voice, and that vision’s wrecked by Brutus coming in. Popeye acts reasonably crazed with jealousy as he thinks about Brutus and Olive Oyl together. The repeated rewinding of the tape to Brutus’s sneering “I’m keeping company with poor lonesome Olive” is a good tension-builder.
But the cartoon gets stuck at the dilemma Popeye outlines. He can desert his post or he can give up on Olive Oyl for at least two months. He can’t do either and still be Popeye. Rather than break Popeye, we break the universe, and do the ending of Superman I 18 years early. It’s an interesting writing lesson: it’s easier to break all narrative logic than it is to defy Popeye’s nature.
Also, sixty times an hour is two and a half days. I know, it doesn’t matter. It’s a messy way out of the problem, but there’s not a good way.
There is no good reason for me to remember any Top Cat story. I apologize for the inconvenience.
We’re back to 1960 now, and back to Gene Deitch’s studios. So there’s no story credit and the producer credit is William L Snyder. I don’t know what the organization of these videos is. So here’s Which Is Witch to watch.
Something it’s hard for kids to learn is that just because a good guy does a thing doesn’t mean they’re doing something right. A hazard of stories, especially short ones with familiar characters, is jumping to the action without justifying it. This is a good example. Popeye and Olive Oyl are sailing to Sea Hag Island. Why? They’re going to surprise her. All right, but why? Sea Hag eventually mentions she’ll get back to piracy. But it’s not clear she was doing anything before Popeye stirred up trouble.
Yes, yes, of course. Sea Hag’s a villain, we know she’s villaining even when Popeye isn’t there. But, as of the start of the cartoon, what has she done that needs a response? Going off living on an island shaped like her, and running an army of off-model Goons? (They’re the same model Goon as in Goon With The Wind, so I suppose this is how Gene Deitch liked them to look.) There’s warnings there, but what is Popeye responding to?
If we get past the motivation problem, though, we’ve got a pretty snappy cartoon here. Popeye’s sneaking up fails. Sea Hag has, of course, a duplicate robot Olive Oyl ready to dispatch and stir up trouble. We’ve had duplicate Popeyes before; I’m not sure if this is our first duplicate Olive Oyl. We also have the Sea Hag’s pet vulture. In the comic strip he’s named Bernard. Here he’s Sylvester. I have no explanation for this phenomenon.
There’s also a bunch of little points that almost but don’t quite make sense. Olive Oyl sees Popeye kissed by a woman about Olive Oyl’s height and about Olive Oyl’s weight and wearing Olive Oyl’s clothes, on the Sea Hag’s island, and her first suspicion is not “the Sea Hag’s pulling some stunt”? Popeye left his spinach behind in the boat because … ? The Robot Olive Oyl is more in love with Popeye than willing to follow the Sea Hag’s directions. That one I’m all right with, actually, since the slightly-too-perfect duplicate is a good bit.
Despite my doubts about the plot, the cartoon’s got a lot to commend it. A good pace. Pretty fluid animation considering its limits. A lot of camera pans to make a little bit of motion seem like more. A plot with twists, too, as the Sea Hag outsmarts Popeye’s sneaking-up, and the Robot Olive Oyl betrays the Sea Hag. Some pretty lively voice acting, too, especially from Jack Mercer.
This is another cartoon with a wrong title, though. Which Is Witch, and a premise that there’s a duplicate Olive Oyl, implies a story where it’s hard to tell two Olives Oyl apart. Popeye’s a little confused, but it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t complicate the story any. I wonder if the title fit the story outline, but the finished product mutated away and nobody had a better title.
I’m still left wondering, in an echo of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff: what was Popeye’s plan? Go in, get captured, and escape? Mission accomplished, I guess?
So if things continued in their ordinary course, the next cartoon would have been Two-Faced Paleface. Produced by Larry Harmon, directed by Paul Fennell, written by Charles Shows. The title had me wary because Popeye does not have a good track record with American Indian characters. The story starts with Popeye mining for gold, and finding some. Brutus horns in on this, pretending to be an Indian.
Popeye protests it can’t be Indian land, “we just discovered gold here”. This would be a good, witty, dark comment on American history if I thought they meant it. But, you know? I don’t like Brutus dressing up as “Big Chief Pain-in-the-neck” of the Cha-cha-cha Indian Tribe. I don’t like Popeye joining in. And you know? I’m not going to do it. You want 600 words from me about this? I want $25 minimum. I’m on PayPal.
So let me get that taste out of my mouth by going to the next one on my schedule. This is 1960’s Swee’Pea Soup, directed by Gene Deitch. There’s no other credits, so I can’t tell you who did the story, which I quite like. Or the animation, which is a delight for being this limited. Also, we get not one but two special guest stars.
We start in media res, rare for any children’s cartoon of the era but especially for Popeye. The mob demands the removal of King Blozo. They want someone lovable, like Swee’Pea. King Blozo is another long-time Thimble Theatre character, and a great one. He rules a land that’s usually called Spinachovina. He’s really not up to the job, and would do something else if he was any good at that. He spends most of his time worrying about how bad everything is. His only solace (not seen this cartoon) is reading the funny papers. This may sound basic, but, you know? A character doesn’t need depth to be good. He needs to commit to his bit.
Blozo summons his mad scientist, Professor O G Wotasnozzle, to make him as lovable as Swee’pea is. Wotasnozzle intuits the way to do it is to make Swee’Pea soup, and kidnaps the child. This is a weird turn for Wotasnozzle, who was mischievous but not villainous when created for Sappo (Elzie Segar’s non-Popeye gig). Possibly the story writer wanted to keep the cast to known characters, and Watsnozzle had to contort to fit the part.
We get some action, we get Popeye captured under Wotasnozzle’s giant boot device. We get the mob throwing spinach that contrives its way into Popeye’s mouth. (It’s normal to have a small drain that funnels water directly into your basement.) Popeye launches the double-decker pot of Swee’Pea soup into the air, and Swee’Pea falls into Blozo’s arms. Swee’pea’s approval confers popularity on Blozo and everything can be peaceful and happy again.
This is a lot of story. And, daft as it is, it all hangs together. There’s a neat bit of storytelling that all the trouble in it comes from innocent motives. Swee’Pea brings the kingdom to rebellion just by paying a friendly visit. Blozo, a character almost as innocent as Swee’Pea, causes Swee’Pea’s kidnapping with the unobjectionable order to “make me lovable”.
I would like to know if this is a condensation of a story that ran in the comic books or the daily strip. It’s heavily plotted for a five-and-a-half-minute cartoon. It doesn’t waste time introducing characters. It has changes of fortune and a solid mix of drama and comedy. If this is all Gene Deitch or his writers, they deserve credit for doing something quite good with the form. If they condensed an original story, I’m curious what the original story was like.
The animation, too, is nicely done. It’s expressive and it’s all a little more fluid than mere needs of the story demand. Look how Popeye’s stance changes, at about 0:55, as he guesses the People are looking for a new king. He scratches his head, he pats his chest, he leans his head forward, he moves one arm down and the other up. It makes Popeye’s thinking better-shown. Look at how Blozo, walking in circles about 1:50, starts circling the opposite direction. None of this is essential. It makes the cartoon more fully animated, though. I imagine this is the budgetary advantage of animating in Eastern Europe. They can afford more pencils.
Even if the animation were worse, though, the story would likely win me over. If more of the shorts were like this the series would have a respectable reputation.
This week’s King Features Popeye cartoon is, it happens, directed by Gene Deitch, and produced by William L Snyder. There’s no story credit to it. Matinée Idol Popeye, another in the microgenre of cartoons where Popeye makes a movie.
Though I’ve called it a microgenre, there really aren’t many cartoons where Popeye is making a movie. At least one of the times he is, it’s a clip cartoon recycling one of the two-reelers. The benefit of doing a let’s-make-a-movie cartoon is you can put Popeye in any scenario without needing any setup or resolution. But, then, when have we ever needed a reason that Popeye should be in Ancient Egypt? It’s old-style cartoon characters. They could just do that.
The setup is Popeye and Olive Oyl making some Anthony-and-Cleopatra film. Brutus is director, sensibly enough. I’d wondered if this was a riff on the infamous Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton Cleopatra, and it seems … unclear. That movie, released 1963, had started production in 1958. So a 1960 cartoon could riff on it. But apart from its five-million-dollar budget what would stand out, in 1960, about the project? Probably it’s more generically a riff on that era of epic-style filmmaking.
We get early on some nice visual jokes. Popeye turning into a ham when Brutus accuses him of being one, that sort of thing. It reflects one of the good lessons of limited animation: if you can’t show complicated action, at least show a bunch of funny pictures. Brutus tries to woo Olive Oyl, taking out of his pocket a heap of flowers bigger than he is; that’s better than anything which would make physical sense.
The premise of the cartoon becomes that Brutus wants Popeye out of the way, but can’t fire him, so he has to get Popeye to quit or die. Bit gruesome, but, makes sense. We get the gag of Popeye’s head caught in a lion’s mouth, and him puffing his pipe to make the lion release him. That’s been done before; in the Famous Studios Tops in The Big Top Bluto even puts a slab of meat on Popeye’s head to ensure the lion tries to eat him. Here it’s just luck for Brutus that the plan starts to work. It’s a missed chance to make Brutus more villainous, but on the other hand, do we want Brutus to be that mean?
Brutus chuckles “that’ll be good for the end title” when a vulture rests on Popeye’s head. It is, and it’s a missed resolution that the end of the short doesn’t have the vulture on Brutus’s head. We get some nice and really exciting music as the elephant comes in. It raises questions about what the filming schedule for this film was supposed to look like. I wouldn’t want to try to shoot a lion and an elephant and a crocodile scene on the same day. Obviously Brutus is throwing stuff together in the opes of getting Popeye to quit, but he does seem to be filming all this. Without giving Popeye direction of what he should accomplish in the scene, though. If this were an actual film it would be a heck of an avant-garde piece. It’d have some weird verite-like style anyway. Brutus is optimistic to think this will win an Academy Award, but it will have a good shot at being a cult classic.
Brutus finally turns to just grabbing Olive Oyl, because he has not learned how people work yet. Popeye does a slick bit of crushing his can open by dropping a beam of wood on it; that gets us to the fight climax. More time’s spent on Popeye making a sphinx of himself than the actual fight. I’m curious whether they were trying to limit the violence or whether Deitch (or storywriter) thought that punching was the least interesting thing Popeye did. Before we know it, Brutus is harnessed and hauling Popeye’s chariot. This seems like it should violate a Directors Guild rule, but we have reason to think the production is outside proper channels, what with how there’s no other crew.
This isn’t a lushly animated cartoon and after the initial business with the ham it doesn’t get too fanciful either. It does well with what animation there is. And it avoids having too many scenes that look like police lineups. We get a lot of close pictures of characters’s faces, or from chest up. Not so many of them standing in a line viewed from afar. I regret that it doesn’t show off the experimental energies I was talking so much about yesterday. But sometimes a cartoon’s just executed successfully after all.
Gene Deitch has died. Not, his family reports, from Covid-19. There are a number of good obituaries about the animator, including at Cartoon Research, at Cartoon Brew and, for a particularly detailed look at his career, Lambiek’s Comiclopedia. Many of these obituaries are written by people who met the man and knew him some. I am not among them.
I knew Gene Deitch through his work, like many of my generation. And, I think like many of my generation, from knowing that every now and then there would be a really weird installment of a favorite cartoon. Tom and Jerry, most often. Popeye, some. Maybe something from the second-tier studios, like Terry Toons, which still got some syndication time when I was a kid. They would consistently look weird. I adopted that word because, as an undiscerning child who just loved cartoons, I didn’t grasp that they were also quite cheap.
There is no way for me to say this without sounding like a hipster. But I always liked the peculiar weirdness of Gene Deitch cartoons. Especially the Tom and Jerry run, which stood out from the Hanna-Barbera cartoons before and the Chuck Jones cartoons made after. There is now a conventional wisdom that, sure, the average cartoon-viewer sees the Deitch Tom and Jerry cartoons as the worst but there were interesting visual and story experiments going on. I am happy people are agreeing and appreciating them more.
Part of us wants to believe in cartoons as coming from somebody. They can’t. They’re an even more necessarily collaborative process than filmmaking ordinarily is. (There are animated cartoons made wholly, or substantially, by one person. There are happily more being made as computer tools are able to support animators. But, outside discussions of the origins of animation, they’re still a small influence in the art form.) This is what I like in the Deitch-made cartoons I’ve seen. Much like Chuck Jones he has this personality that comes through the filmmaking. It’s not usually as approachable as Chuck Jones’s work. It’s usually a bit weird. Deitch worked with UPA and was a true believer in its experiments in giving up photorealism for expressive exaggeration. Any studio he worked in he tried to make more experimental. It’s easy to love the results of successful experimentation. To get to success, though, you need to go through some weirdness.
Some of this experimentation was forced on Deitch. His Prague studio, for example, was staffed by animators (Deitch included) who had seen no or very few Tom and Jerry cartoons to start with. The budget for each cartoon was whatever loose change Deitch found in the airplane seats flying to Czechoslovakia. But some of this experimentation was his desire to draw something different. It’s amazing that he was able to work so long and so faithfully to that goal.
Gene Deitch directed this week’s 60s Popeye cartoon. It doesn’t carry story or animation credits, but this was when he was working in Prague and also doing the Tom and Jerry cartoons that everyone regards as “really weird”. I love them, not just because they are very weird. This week’s cartoon, Sea No Evil, is not structurally a pretty normal cartoon. Still, I like it.
The short starts, like the old writing advice goes, as late as it possibly could, moments before parties unknown steal every piece the boating equipment, one at a time, from under Popeye and Olive Oyl’s noses. It’s Brutus’s work, and he takes the stuff to his boating supply store to sell back to Popeye. There’s a fairly extended sequence of Popeye listing all the items he needs, and Brutus bringing it up from behind the wet wheelbarrow behind the counter. It may take longer to establish this than needed. But it does establish a rhythm. It makes the sequence feel like a running gag. It helps the comedy land better. It’s particularly good for appealing to the kids the cartoon’s aimed at; I could remember the sequence decades after the last time I’d seen the cartoon. Also, I would have sworn there were at least three cycles of Brutus stealing all the boating gear and Popeye buying it back.
It’s a good premise for a cartoon too. It’s obvious why Brutus might be pulling this trick, and why he might think Popeye and Olive Oyl are good marks. Popeye’s apparently willing to write off the first loss of five hundred bucks’ worth of boating equipment as bad luck (!), but he’s not going to fall for that long. And then it’s chase Brutus, see Brutus getting away, find the spinach, and punch things to a conclusion. I have the impression that Deitch cartoons bring things to an end pretty fast, once Popeye eats his spinach, but I’m not feeling energetic enough to check that.
There are some of the common traits of Deitch-directed cartoons of this era here. Character movements are kept simple, and transitions between motions are implied or off-panel altogether; look at about 16:27, when Popeye stands motionless in a sinking boat for a solid eight seconds, to punch a Brutus who’s appeared somehow through, I guess, the hole in the boat, and punches him. Brutus goes from flying up into the air to being in the water, held by an anchor, swimming with all his might in a transition we have to imagine. And there’s a loose adherence to character models. I don’t mind this. Some choices almost seem artistically thoughtful. Like, in the boating store, Popeye’s hips and legs being these dwindling things make him look puny in the face of Brutus’s might, which matches where the character is at that moment in the story. Other weird bits are probably artifacts of trying to make what movement there is available look better in motion. If you freeze a frame at about 16:36, where Brutus is in the water swimming and anchored to what’s left of his boat, you can see him with an elephant’s trunk of a left arm that looks awful; but, that’s one frame of a swimming cycle that looks fine.
I am charmed that Popeye spends a couple sends waving his fingers to the beat as the soundtrack gets to the “I’m strong to the finich” couplet. There’s no diegetic source for this music; somehow, the radio is the one stolen thing Popeye didn’t buy back. Which is also a fun bit of business as the background music cutting out when Brutus steals the radio is how Olive Oyl and Popeye learn the cartoon has started and they need to do something. It’s always the little things that tickle me particularly.
It’s been a month plus since the last Popeye’s Island Adventure. Maybe the series will resume. Maybe it’s done. I do not have the time to decide what to do with my Tuesday slot here. It’s somehow become a series-review day. I like that. It means once I decide what series to review I know what I’m writing. But what series? I don’t know, so I’m going to do a couple more of the 1960s King Feature Syndicate Popeyes to get myself some margin and decide later. This may prove a controversial choice. I can actually see the readership drop when the day’s post is a King Features Popeye cartoon. But, what the heck. If someone wants me to look at something they can nominate it to me.
So I’m going to do at least a couple more King Features Syndicate Popeye cartoons. This from their “Classic Popeye” line on YouTube, since I expect those videos to stick around a while. I’m skipping their Episode Two since none of those four cartoons — Hoppy Jalopy, Popeye’s Pep-Up Emporium, Baby Phase, and Weather Watchers — interest me enough. I’m going straight to some of Episode Three. I’ll start by reviewing the last of the quartet, The Billionaire. Anyone who wants to peek at future weeks can figure out the other cartoons in this just by looking. I’m guessing, though, not a lot of people are going to check.
Parody’s a weird thing. The Millionaire was this (American) TV show that ran for a couple years in the 50s. Each week a strange reclusive multimillionaire gives someone a million dollars, on condition they never ask questions about where it comes from or why. Then we watch how this screws up their lives. I never saw an episode. I know it entirely from its parodies. SCTV did a fantastic one. I’m not sure if I saw it riffed on Saturday Night Live. (I may be thinking of their parody of The Continental, another 50s TV show I’ve only ever seen in imitation, including in a Popeye cartoon.) I’m not sure it wasn’t done in a Richie Rich comic book. And, then, there’s this spoof, starring Popeye.
It starts weird. The premise is that Popeye’s a multi-millionaire and he’s living in a mansion and he’s giving out money to his friends. It seems out of character for who Popeye is. And yet … …
Part of the premise of Thimble Theatre, when it started, was that these were plays. Like, you had the recurring cast, but they’d have different parts each adventure. Each day, in the earliest strips. The comic strip settled to a basically uniform continuity before even Popeye joined the cast. But this bit where these are characters playing parts, and the settings will vary, lasted into the cartoons. Usually that just plays into what the relationships are between Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl at the start of the cartoon. Sometimes it plays into whether Popeye’s a sailor, a fitness instructor, or a short-order cook this cartoon. So Popeye as a multimillionaire benefactor shouldn’t be outside the cartoon ranges. I’m not sure why I feel like I need to argue myself into this. Maybe it’s that Popeye and Bluto and Olive Oyl usually have working-class positions. In the 50s they moved to the suburbs and the middle class and got boring. A rich Popeye seems untrue. I mean, yeah, there was the cartoon where Popeye ran for President, but that turned into working-class stuff like “can he bale hay” fast enough.
At the least, it’s weird. And weird should be expected: this is another Gene Deitch-directed cartoon. If you didn’t know, you might suspect something from the animation. The backgrounds, particularly. Look at the carpet and the chair in Popeye’s mansion, at about 17:46 of the cartoon. Try not to be distracted figuring out how Popeye’s holding that phone. I can’t do that pose comfortably, but I can do it.
As with From Way Out, the animation is loose with the character models. This is fine by me, since they’re drawn so expressively. Freeze the image at about 18:28. Popeye looks weird, not just because both eyes are open again. But it’s a scene. And Deitch’s team was doing what it could with the animation budget. Olive Oyl keeps moving, that scene. There’s no need for it, except to keep the picture from being boring.
So far as this cartoon makes sense it stops making sense at about 19:23. This is after Popeye’s given all his friends, plus Bluto Brutus, a million dollars. He’s decided to wear a costume as a sailor so he can secretly check on his friends. The cartoon immediately forgets this explanation. I don’t want to cast aspersions but I wonder if this was meant to save the cost of drawing a new walk cycle for Popeye.
Popeye’s surprised to see Olive Oyl doing exactly what she said she would do, getting a million-dollar makeover at the salon she either ran or bought. Wimpy’s bought a herd of cows so he can be forever in hamburgers. It’s not a deep character beat, although it is cute to have Wimpy discover he hasn’t the heart to slaughter them. It’s a pretty funny cow herd considering they’re the same cow photocopied many times. Good cow design. Again, freeze the video at about 20:09 and just look at how silly a picture that is.
Swee’Pea’s got a chocolate factory, and has a scheme to justify eating the entire output. I can’t say that’s wrong. I don’t know what Popeye imagined would happen. Bluto Brutus runs his car over Popeye, then backs up to punch him into a mailbox, such well-timed gratuitous violence that it’s a good laugh for me. Besides the chauffeur-driven car Bluto Brutus spent his million on buying all the spinach farms in the country and plowing them under. If you question whether a million dollars would let someone corner the spinach market and destroy it, well, this is why you and I were treated like that in middle school. It’s a weird cartoon. Roll with it.
So of course Bluto Brutus shoves some cash money down Popeye’s throat. And of course it’s good for a spinach power-up because something something spinach ink something and … huh? It’s a bunch of great facial expressions on the way to the story’s conclusion. I’m not saying to make Popeye’s face at 21:30 your new user icon for anything. I’m just saying you’ll stand out in a crowd with that.
Having eaten spinach-inked currency Popeye … see, it’s just weird. But we get some good violence against Bluto Brutus, and a fine bit of body horror where Popeye punches Bluto Brutus into a stack of coins. And then get an extra dose of body horror when Olive Oyl shows off her million-dollar makeover, and Popeye laughs, and she’s so furious the thing crumbles. This cartoon doesn’t reach the body-weirdness heights of It’s Magic, Charlie Brown, but it’s trying.
All that’s left is a wrap-up, Olive Oyl and company begging Popeye for one more chance and learning Popeye’s already given away his last million. It’s an efficient way to wrap up the cartoon, which was trying to hard to end Popeye didn’t even have a couplet to sing at the end. He just tells us he’s Popeye the sailor man.
It’s another cartoon where Olive Oyl and Swee’Pea have noticeably the same voice actor. Mae Questel also does the voice of Millionaire Popeye’s unseen secretary, in a performance that confuses just who’s talking and why. Jackson Beck, the voice of Bluto Brutus, does better as opening narrator Ichael-May Ants-Pay. Jackson Beck did a lot of this kind of narrator or announcer work for radio.
I’m happy with this cartoon. But I can see where a dreamily plotted spoof of a sixty-year-old tv show that may well exist only in parody form wouldn’t work for everyone. I still say they’re funny cow designs.
Popeye’s Island Adventures seems to be on hiatus, if it hasn’t shut down altogether. I figure I’ll close out the quartet of cartoons in the “Classic Popeye” video I’ve been going over. And then maybe do another Popeye cartoon bit for the couple weeks after that, since it would really help my life right now to have some writing ready a couple weeks ahead of time.
As a kid I knew what it meant if a cartoon was directed by Gene Deitch. It was one of those weird Tom and Jerrys. You know the ones I mean. Where the characters were on a different model, and the storyline moved in fits and starts, and the audio was recorded in the Perth Amboy YMCA men’s locker room. I know a lot of animation fans hate them. I didn’t, or at least I didn’t for long. I appreciated strange, off-beat takes on familiar things. I still do.
So when I saw this was among the Gene Deitch-directed Popeye cartoons I was happy. The cartoon might not be good in the way, like, Cartoons Ain’t Human is good. But it would be weird. It would have personality.
Popeye has encountered aliens before. I think this is the first time Popeye’s precipitated an alien invasion, though. A small invasion, granted. The animation’s too limited for it to be a full-scale invasion. And it isn’t exactly his fault. But, still. Taking the Martian Mauler for a kid and trying to play patty-cake with him? That’s pretty dumb stuff on Popeye’s part.
If I have one stereotype of the King Features Syndicate Popeye cartoons it’s that every shot is three characters standing in a row on a flat background, with cutaways to one character having an emotion. This cartoon … has an amount of that, yes. But it hides it well. The characters move a lot, and they move in funny ways. They move even when there isn’t a particular joke to what they’re doing. There are little animated jokes, such as the Martian Mauler’s pants slowly dropping as Popeye and the group examine his stolen belt buckle. But there’s nice silly bits that don’t need to be there, like the way Popeye’s hat swirls around in the air after he’s fallen through the hole.
And characters move in big, expressive ways. Look at the scene of Popeye spanking the Martian Mauler at about 20:30. I would not be surprised if there’s only two or four frames, repeated, in this scene. But they’re good frames, each funny pictures. Look at Olive Oyl dodging the Martian Mauler’s reinforcements at about 21:20, including a neatly-posed scene about 21:24 where she’s looking away from the camera and still moving. Heck, look at the Martian Mauler’s joy in terrorizing the terribly square Popeye and Olive Oyl, at 19:47. Seriously, freeze the playback there. Even in that still picture there’s life.
You might reasonably complain that the characters float off-model. I mostly wouldn’t. Yes, Popeye looks just weird at, like, 18:30 where he’s collecting stuff that fell from the Space Magnet. Olive Oyl doesn’t look much better shortly after that. Or look at Popeye’s poses at about 20:26, right before he spanks the Martian. I don’t mind the characters drifting off their canonical model, though. They look off-model in that way you get when someone draws the character in a quick, energetic rush, and that’s usually a good look. I do not like both Popeye’s eyes being opened, though. I get the comic value in, like, once in a decade something being so shocking that both Popeye’s eyes open. Having that for a low-stakes thing like spanking an alien biker is just … nah, not for me.
I do like, though, the animation of Popeye rolling the Martians up into a giant ball, and particularly his spinning throw from about 22:16. It’s not smooth and graceful like you’d see if this were a Fleischer cartoon. But it’s a much better line of reasonably complicated action than you see in most of these 60s cartoons.
The cartoon ends at about 22:28, with the characters all lined up listening to the Martians crash off-camera into something. And then we get a wonderfully odd, awkward ten seconds of the characters looking at each other. I don’t know if the cartoon ran short or if they had thought there’d be time for another gag or what. It plays like Popeye needs time to think of a decent closing couplet to sing. I am irrationally pleased with this strange quiet, though.
For some reason the Professor who invented the magnetic telescope was not Professor O G Wotasnozzle. It’s not even the same voice characterization being used. (I don’t know if it’s the same actor; Wotasnozzle was yet another voice by Jack Mercer.) I don’t know why not. Wotasnozzle got a fair bit of screen time in the King Features Syndicate cartoons. But this is one of the earlier batch of the cartoons. Possibly they weren’t sure whether they could use Wotasnozzle. Wotasnozzle never appeared in the Fleischer or Famous studio cartoons. But he was introduced by Segar in the Sappo comic strip, which you’ll note is not Popeye. Wotasnozzle did join the Popeye comic strip, but I don’t know when.
The magnetic-telescope thing seemed oddly familiar and I was able to place it. I don’t know that this is the source, but one of the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s was The Magnetic Telescope. It looked … well, like a much classier, Art Deco version of the giant-horseshoe-on-a-stand that you get here. The 1940s mad scientist didn’t attract any biker Martians, of course, because juvenile delinquents weren’t invented until much farther into World War II.
I grant I may be a soft touch for Gene Deitch’s style. But I think this cartoon is better than the script for it would imply, and that’s thanks to strong animation.
OK, this is an odd one. It features King Blozo, another character who’d been in the Popeye comics since the 1930s but who’d somehow not gotten an appearance in the theatrical shorts, as well as O G Wotasnozzle in a surprisingly villainous role. King Blozo rules Spinachovia with a semi-competent, perpetually worried, often faltering hand. (Indeed, King Features’s current comic strip offering is a rerun of a story in which Blozo loses his rule to a homemade computer.) About all that eased Blozo’s worry in the comic strips was getting American comic strips delivered to him, although Popeye could help by telling jokes or, when he got around to it, straightening out Blozo’s ridiculous issues.
So the premise of this cartoon, Blozo losing control of the country when the population finds it thinks Swee’pea is just too cute, is really not far off something that might happen in the original source. The cartoon beginning in media res is a striking one; it starts the action off with some energy and vitality that pretty well mask how the cartoon takes three minutes before anything really, properly speaking, happens, and how it really only has the two scenes. I don’t know why Wotasnozzle is so villainous in this one, though; he was well-intentioned if impish in the comic strip and the 1960s cartoons in which he sends Popeye through time are … well, he’s a jerk to do it, but that’s a different kind of thing from trying to cook Swee’Pea. (Seriously, how is this even supposed to work? Go back to making Sappo’s wife a young woman again so he thinks he’s cheating on her with her, O G.)
You might guess the animators behind this from the drawing style and the pacing, although I spotted it by listening to the sound effects, especially of the shattered vase. It’s the same sound used for some shattered objects in the Tom and Jerry cartoons made in the early 60s by Gene Deitch for William L Snyder’s Rembrandt Films. We saw Deitch directing some of those 1960s Krazy Kat shorts, too.
While the cartoon’s pretty good at steadily presenting funny pictures, I don’t think Rembrandt Films manages to be as good at that as Gerald Ray Studios were. Individual shots are surprisingly long (though they do pan side to side quite a bit), and they don’t try to be silly as still frames. Of course, it is animated and if you watch with the sound off, you get to a funny part soon enough. That’s pretty satisfying.
So, television. After decades of anticipation, and a false start just ahead of World War II, and a couple rounds of confusion about various technical schemes that among other things took Channel 1 off the air, television finally became a successful mass medium in the 1950s. And more than anything else it needed programming, or as we call it these days, content. Movie libraries were the obvious cheap stuff to program, and they were raided with a vengeance, resulting in jokes about all the rotten old movies you caught on TV that filled up non-television mediums through the decade.
Programmers quickly figured out that kids would watch cartoons, and concluded that kids needed new cartoons, because apparently they had never met any kids and didn’t realize that they are actually pretty much fine with watching the same cartoon every day for what feels like a century. King Features Syndicate, in a rush that looks to me strikingly similar to their attempt to make every comic strip they had into a cartoon in the 1910s, decided in the early 60s to raid their comic strip properties and make lots of cartoons. Thus we got a new series of Popeye cartoons, as well as Beetle Bailey and Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, and for that matter Krazy Kat.
Fifty of these were made, between 1962 and 1964, animated by the legendary Gene Deitch and his studio in Prague, which you may remember as the studio that produced those really weird Tom and Jerry cartoons that sound like they were recorded in a bathroom and play out like fever dreams (I think they’re great, or at least a good step ahead of the Cinemascope cartoons). Deitch’s studio brought the mid-century modern feel and style of UPA cartoons to what it drew, and while I do not know for a fact that he was a fan of the comic strip, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that of course he was. The animation style is on-model for George Herriman’s comic strip in a way not seen since Li’l Ainjil:
Even more remarkably, in this, the debut of the series, the characters are on-model. The basic relationship of cat-mouse-brick-dog is made plain early on, and the characters stick to it. I don’t know that the first two scenes, of Krazy walking past Offisa Pupp with a door and a window, are drawn from the original comic strip, but they have to me the feel of them, particularly in the curious way the dialogue is both sparse and rococo. It builds into a wonderfully weird scene of Krazy’s imaginary house in the midst of a surreal landscape. I can see someone who liked this cartoon going to the comic strip and seeing something that may be different but is at least compatible, and probably more easily than someone could go from the 1930s Popeye cartoons to the comic strip.
So finally, and in a medium, and in an era for that medium, that gets no respect, we finally see what might be the best adaptation of Krazy Kat into a cartoon.