I haven’t picked my next project to review, no. And it’s convenient — for me at least — to have an index page linking to all the essays of a big group project. On the other hand, there were like four hundred thousand King Features Popeye cartoons of the early 60s. So I’m going to part out these index pages. The studio of origin is the natural dividing line there. Yes, I am keenly aware that Jack Kinney Productions made eight hundred thousand of these shorts. I’ll deal with that later.
Here, then, are the Gerald Ray-produced Popeye cartoons, with whatever thoughts I had about them:
Where There’s A Will — I can’t find that I did see this! If I’ve missed it on King Features’s YouTube page please let me find it, I can still fit a couple more reviews in.
Take It Easel — this is the remake of that one Woody Woodpecker cartoon and where I wonder if Milt Schaffer was using a pseudonym to work for Walter Lantz some.
I Bin Sculpted which is another but much looser remake of older Popeye shorts.
Fleas a Crowd which is a flea circus cartoon that got released on vinyl for some reason.
Egypt Us and I’m sorry about the title and what the cartoon thinks Ancient-flavored Egyptians are.
The Big Sneeze which is trying to be an Abominable Snowman cartoon but doesn’t manage the trick.
The Last Resort which I did not review as part of this project, and that King Features doesn’t seem to have on its page, which is a shame because it’s one of the few appearances of Toar. Again it might be hidden on King Features’s YouTube page somewhere.
Jeopardy Sheriff which is another title I don’t understand but moves well enough as a cartoon.
Or almost all. I’m at peace with there being a couple of the two-hundred-plus King Features Syndicate cartoons that I haven’t recently reviewed. But I always like at the end of a big project like this I like to think about what it means.
I can’t say this has prompted me to have a major critical revision of the 1960s cartoons. Or to push for one. The 1960s cartoons are mostly regarded as a cheap, hurried cash-in, of a quality ranging from mediocre to garbage. I’m warmer to them than that, but the conventional wisdom is near enough right. There are some cartoons that I’ll advance as “pretty good” or even “good”. More that are “interesting”. But like everyone knew going in, the theatrical shorts are better. The black-and-white shorts better still. I haven’t looked at the 1980-era Hanna-Barbera series to compare those. Might try them. I know late-70s Hanna-Barbera hasn’t got a high reputation. But it could make Saturday morning cartoons at least uniformly okay. None of that Testimonial Dinner bizarreness or that one where Popeye turns into a giraffe there. (All right, there’s the Superfriends where Zan and Jana are unable to outwit a defunct roller coaster. That was a bit slipshod.)
And yet those are two cartoons that leapt immediately to mind. The lure of the novel, or the exceptional, is hard to resist when you watch a lot of something. That’s no different here. Give me a bonkers premise or a plot that’s too incoherent to be dream-logic and I am fascinated. This is not an effect any studio ever tries for; probably you couldn’t manage it if you did. (Compare that one episode of Dexter’s Laboratory written by a seven-year-old. It was one of the most compelling episodes of a generally good show.) What chance does a merely well-made episode, like Myskery Melody, have against that? Yet that’s also a cartoon that leapt right to mind and that I will keep promoting while I can.
The King Features cartoons introduced some good trends. One is that they largely shed the plot of Popeye-and-Bluto/Brutus-compete-for-Olive-Oyl. There were some cartoons that used that frame, sometimes to good effect. But it was a story done four billion times already, especially in the 1950s shorts. Clearing it out opens up the universe to do a series of golfing jokes or driver-safety jokes instead. Another is expanding the cast of characters. Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre overflowed with neat characters. The King Features shorts finally animated the Sea Hag, and brought Poopdeck Pappy and Eugene the Jeep back to being major characters. It also gave some outings to lesser characters like Roughhouse, the Whiffle Hen/Bird, King Blozo, Castor Oyl, Toar, and the many vaguely defined relatives of Olive Oyl. Even footnotes like Ham Gravy got some scenes.
Not enough of them. The Sea Hag and Eugene the Jeep make the leap into major characters, as they should, because they’re endlessly fascinating. King Blozo almost makes it, but not quite. So do Alice the Goon and Professor Wotasnozzle. I’m glad they got the time they did, and wanting more is a good state to be in with them. Professor Wotasnozzle might be the biggest disappointment. He’s in a good spot to give Popeye some goofball super-science gimmick to deal with. Instead what we mostly see is him in a framing device. He sends Popeye to another era to do the same schtick without even a clear idea whether Popeye knows what’s going on.
The shorts give this sense of new ground breaking, of new possibility. There were far more characters, most of whom worked, and fresh stories available to tell. Even more settings. Many cartoons were set in Popeye’s Boring Suburban Home. But they weren’t required to be, the way so many of the 1950s Famous Studios seemed. Sometimes that setting was even part of the story, as in Coffee House, the Beatnik cartoon. Or, for a mixed benefit, the attempt to set the cartoons in India or China or such. This usually turned out so racist I refused to review the cartoon. One can see the charitable reading, that the cartoons are trying to be more ethnically diverse. This sort of nonwhite-people-written-by-very-white-people can be a well-intended stumble. It was endemic to 1960s and 1970s programming. Still not going to listen to Chinese Wimpy.
There’s also a sense of there being no grown-ups in the room. The shorts feel like they’re the story person’s idea, untouched by worry that they fit the Intellectual Property Use Guidelines. Often this freedom from supervision also seems to be freedom from a second draft. Especially if Jack Kinney’s or Larry Harmon’s studios produced it. But a lot of exciting, creative novelty comes from people who have skill in their craft and only casual supervision from the people paying for it. The shorts didn’t enjoy this as much as they might. The sense remains, in most of these shorts, that anything might happen. Popeye’s in caveman times. Olive Oyl has a pet tiger. Wimpy crosses the Whiffle Hen and becomes a werewolf. A living missile wants to kiss Popeye. Brutus builds a robot Eugene. Aliens come to Earth, disguised as mailboxes. Brutus magics away Popeye’s arms. Wimpy is a millionaire, twice. Alice the Goon is hypnotically compelled to make out with Popeye. Cheese wheels from the Moon hold Wimpy hostage. Swee’Pea is the focus of a revolution. I made up at least one of those; can you tell which ones?
All this new freedom and new ground and lack of restraint, though, is most often let down by the result. The animation can’t ever be as good as the theatricals, certainly. And given the circumstances it couldn’t be as good as the 1980 Hanna-Barbera era either. Every studio managed at least some interesting touches, sometimes in a simple clever edit or a move that surprised one. More often the letdown is in the story, or at least the editing. There were so many odd pauses or absent bits of narrative logic it was no longer worth mentioning, at some point. I don’t know how often I accused, especially, a Jack Kinney short of having a dream logic. Or planned to but cut it for being redundant. We had that, though. Someone with experience in how stories work can fill in gaps. But the intended audience of young children? How do they know enough about how stories work to understand that? (On the other hand, maybe they mind since they don’t know that Brutus’s promise to eat his weather prediction was not set up.)
To summarize my feelings for all this, then? Besides the powerful nostalgia I feel for cartoons I watched, and loved, uncritically when I was young and impressionable? It is that I saw so many times that this could be a really good cartoon, hidden underneath what is an okay cartoon. So a new project for when I win a billion-dollar Powerball is to to take like three dozen of these shorts, have someone do another two drafts of the story, and have them animated by people who have the time to draw all the characters in all the scenes they’re in. We’ll get at least a couple great cartoons from that.
We’re now up to the last of the Gerald Ray-produced King Features Popeye cartoons. We don’t get a story credit for this short. We do get a director, at least, Tom McDonald. He was also director for The Last Resort, The Big Sneeze, Jeopardy Sheriff, and Egypt Us. Here from 1960 is Baby Phase. Yes, the title has nothing to do with the cartoon besides that it’s got Swee’Pea in it.
Ah, the dream story. Everyone’s favorite way of having a bunch of wild stuff happen that would break the reality of the setting, right? For example there’s no way that in the “real” Popeye universe you could have Swee’Pea so dominated by … juggling.
As that’s the starting point here. Swee’Pea’s got a book about How to Juggle and it turns out to be excellent guidance. In no time he’s juggling random household objects from the top of a chimney, and only dropping some of them on Popeye. Popeye puts Swee’Pea safely inside the house and scolds him for this dangerous stuff. That’s shown with a nice bit of foreshortening, matched by Popeye picking up the book in the camera’s direction. It always stands out when a studio moves the plane of action.
And then, reading, Popeye falls asleep, our cue that none of the stuff to follow counts. Does that matter? I’m not sure. Whenever Popeye has a cartoon where he’s protecting the oblivious innocent — usually a runaway Swee’Pea, sometimes a sleepwalking or hypnotized Olive Oyl — the innocent is always safe. If we know how cartoons work we know that already. All that spotting this for a dream gives us is a built-in explanation for gaps in the story. How the circus is nothing but Swee’Pea, for example, or that Swee’pea’s signed a 99-year contract. The way Swee’Pea keeps finding himself in what should be more preposterously dangerous scenarios. These now become a natural nightmare progression where everything is as bad as it could be and somehow gets worse. But I’m not sure this is meant to be dream-logic as opposed to these cartoons not having the time to write a natural escalation into the story.
Popeye bobbles his spinach, which seems like the cue to viewers who missed it that this isn’t real. It’s a moment played for extra tension or a laugh in a couple of cartoons, mostly Fleischer-era theatricals. It could have been a setup for Swee’Pea to eat the spinach and save the day for the falling Popeye. But it didn’t go that way, instead waking Popeye up and having him feed spinach to Swee’Pea as the way to help him be the world’s greatest juggler. Changes of heart are nice, and Popeye supporting his kid’s ambitions is great.
It’s all okay enough, and there are a couple nice bits, like the ringmaster reassuring Popeye that they can get another juggler. I’d have liked to either commit to the reality of Swee’Pea in the circus or have the dream-peril be greater. As it is, the ending seems like just avoiding “Popeye eats his spinach and saves the day”, and where’s the fun in that?
Today’s short, from 1960, is one of the rare Gerald Ray-produced Popeye shorts. The direction is credited to Tom McDonald. There’s no story credit given. I can offer a small content warning: at two points in the story Poopdeck Pappy tells a tall tale about fighting “Injuns”. If this seems slight enough not to bother you let us proceed with Jeopardy Sheriff.
I mentioned the other day the curse of competence to tend to be boring. It doesn’t have to be, though. Nothing has to be boring. Here, Gerald Ray studios puts together another variation on the Poopdeck-Pappy-gets-in-a-fix plot. It’s got a nice energy to it, and enough action. Someone experienced with stories might not be surprised by the plot developments. But surprise isn’t necessary to stories.
We start with Poopdeck Pappy telling an enthraleld Swee’pea a tall tale about being a sheriff. He backs into Popeye, who “if I told you twice I told you once” doesn’t want Swee’Pea raised that way. Pappy goes off to sulk while Popeye tells a “nice, true fairy tale” to Swee’Pea. On the TV, there’s a report of a bank robbery and of a weird old sailor claiming to be Sheriff Poopdeck Pappy interfering. Popeye knows what happens any time Pappy gets out of eyesight.
The bank robbers — none of them Brutus, this time — have Pappy captured. In the chaos, Popeye’s able to free Pappy, who rides on the back of the getaway car to the gangster’s hideout. Pappy’s captured again, as is the pursuing Popeye. And worse, the gang has a pickpocket who snatches Popeye’s spinach! Pappy’s able to snatch a gun, shoot open Popeye’s spinach, eat it, and punch the whole gang into jail. With his skill proven Popeye is happy to listen to Pappy’s tall tales again.
You can tell how Popeye’s not the protagonist here by how he doesn’t bust up, or want to bust up, the bank robbery. He’s totally able to eat his spinach and punch the robbers from the Left Bank all the way to City Jail if he had the power to drive the narrative. But Pappy’s got it, even if Popeye might have more screen time.
No complains here about story structure. Or pacing. If you’re tired of the American Cornball comedy style you might not like the opening scene where Pappy slowly backs up into Popeye while warning about not letting ’em get behind you. But if you like that style, or if you don’t know how that setup must pay off, then it’s a well-constructed joke that only gets better the longer it builds. And there are a lot of nice bits of small silliness, things that the cartoon doesn’t need but is better for. Popeye opening the story of Goldilocks by talking about the three bears, “Moe, Sam, Lefty, and George”, and while you might count four, “those are the bear facts”. Popeye bursting in to the bank robbers crying out “Don’t touch a hair on that old grey head” — I trust it’s a Barbara Fritchie reference — mirrored by his bursting into the gang’s hideout with “don’t touch a head of that old grey hair”. The TV news reporter also drinking a cup of coffee, which I assume refers to something someone in 1960 would recognize. Even good little word manglings, like crying out “are ya comin’ peaceably or do I have to use forceps?”
All told, yes, a competent cartoon, done with enough flair to be pleasant.
Today’s is one of the rare Gerald Ray-produced cartoons. Direction for this 1960 short is credited to Bob Bemiller. There’s no story credit, always a shame. But there’s something interesting in the story. So let’s watch I Bin Sculpted.
There’s a couple genres of Popeye cartoon. One nice reliable one is Popeye and Bluto/Brutus competing at doing some job for Olive Oyl. That frame covers cartoons as diverse as Shoein’ Hosses, Popeye for President, and I Wanna B A Life Guard. There’s an even smaller genre, though, the one where the competition turns perverse. Hospitaliky, from 1937, and its color remake For Better Or Nurse, are the prime examples of that. In those shorts the boys are competing to get injured all the more, in the hopes Olive Oyl will nurse them back to health.
Olive Oyl’s not a nurse here; she’s an artist. She’s doing a sculpture to be titled “Pooped”, and she wants a model as worn-out-looking as possible. And so Brutus and Popeye compete to get themselves as battered as possible. The gimmick’s a good one, and probably could be used even more than it already was. Here, we get that basic structure, with the extra twist that Brutus and Popeye try sabotaging each other’s doom. In Hospitaliky and For Better Or Nurse, they go their separate ways until fighting at the railroad track.
So it’s an odd cartoon that is so much a remake of some theatrical shorts. Popeye tries to get run over by a steamroller in For Better Or Nurse; in the same short Bluto jumps off a skyscraper. In Hospitaliky Popeye goads a bull into attacking him; in For Better Or Nurse it’s Bluto. in both earlier cartoons Popeye uses an airplane, to jump from or to deliberately crash. But you notice none of these jokes gets done quite the same way here.
The theatrical-short vibe even extends to the introductory segments. Popeye and Brutus crash through Olive Oyl’s door simultaneously. That’s a joke done several times in Popeye-and-Bluto-compete shorts. There’s even a tattoo gag, of the kind I thought was abandoned in the 40s, with Popeye’s destroyer tattoo shooting a torpedo so sink Brutus’s battleship ink.
This is a model for remaking a theatrical short. It’s built on a solid premise. And while it uses joke setups that people might remember, it has different outcomes to them all. The plot complication of Popeye and Brutus foiling each other’s injuries, rather than chance working against them, makes for a fresher story too.
Today’s is another Gerald Ray-produced cartoon. Direction is credited to Tom McDonald and there’s no story credit. I can tell you it’s copyright 1960, at least. So here’s The Big Sneeze.
This is not an Abominable Snowman cartoon. It’s circling around the idea, though. I guess Popeye cartoons come closer with the Alice the Goon cartoon Frozen Feuds. But Popeye, Swee’Pea, Olive Oyl, and a St Bernard are out enjoying the mountain peaks and playing with the echo and all that. I thought the St Bernard might be the dog that turns up in Hy Eisman’s Popeye strips on Sundays, the one whose name I can’t remember. His name is Chester, in Hy Eisman’s take on things. Or Birdseed, in earlier Thimble Theatre comics and comic books. Anyway neither seems to be the dog here, who gets called Bernie.
The story’s this amiable, mostly nonsensical stuff going on. While Popeye is off skiing, figures unknown swipe Olive Oyl’s new raccoon coat. She storms off, following it, to a little door on a cliff side. There she’s encased in ice and captured by Jackson Beck doing his French Guy accent. Popeye, Swee’Pea, and the dog follow the tracks and Swee’Pea gets caught in ice too. We meet the mysterious figure: it’s Quasimodo, the Halfback of Notre Dame.
This is an identification aimed at kids smart enough to know there’s something called the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And who are so pleased that the cartoon acknowledges they know of such a thing that they don’t care the reference makes no sense. So I thank Gerald Ray for thinking of young me. Also adult me.
Quasimodo’s the echo of Echo Peak. He stole the coat for good reason: this is the first time he’s been warm in years. Why not light a fire? Quasimodo shows, by lighting a fire, which melts enough of his ceiling that everybody gets frozen. At its worst, this gets him to sneeze, get buried in an avalanche, and be lost until spring, which cuts into his work as an echo. Fair enough. And then Quasimodo pours water over Popeye to freeze him until spring. Popeye protests he only has a two-week vacation (from what? Or is that the joke?).
Everything works out basically nicely, though. Bernie’s able to dig in and pour spinach into Popeye’s pipe. He punches Swee’Pea and Olive Oyl free of the ice, and she grabs her coat back. And Olive Oyl has a plan for Quasimodo to get warm. Bernie goes off and gets little collar-casks of spinach for him. Happy ending for everybody.
This isn’t a zany cartoon. It’s more silly, with a few doses of wacky humor like making the menace be Quasimodo the Halfback of Notre Dame. It feels rather like a comedy sketch about the Old Man of the Mountain that Popeye and company got cast in. I’m amused by it all, anyway.
Ugh, that title. I’m sorry. I was considering skipping this cartoon altogether. Besides the title, it’s also got a plot which depends on The Natives picking up a white woman as their priestess/human sacrifice. There’s bits suggesting the cartoon means to teach the audience that the premise is nonsense. It’s a weak case, though. If you decide you don’t need to deal with this in your recreational reading, you’re right, and we’ll catch back up later.
Pushing me toward giving this 1960 cartoon any attention is that it’s a Gerald Ray-produced short. The Popeye Wikia lists only ten Ray-produced cartoons, the fewest of the five studios roped in to the project. So I’m slower to throw it out, although I’m not sure that’s right.
What keeps me from skipping this cartoon altogether is attitude. Driving the plot is that a “tribe” of “Egyptians” kidnaps Olive Oyl with intentions of human sacrifice. They don’t seem to be taking the sacrifice all that seriously, though. The Leader, questioned by Popeye about why they’d sacrifice their own priestess, shrugs and answers “Doesn’t everybody?” This all fits in line with that era’s Cartoon Existentialism. Think of all the Flintstones animals who work as appliances because “It’s a living”. It takes some edge off if the characters seem to be going about it because they’ve got to do something, even if they know it’s ridiculous.
There’s a pleasant ridiculous air to the whole thing. Even the voice acting feels lighter and more playful than usual. Things like Popeye calling Olive Oyl “a venison of loverliness”. His mangling of loveliness would have been enough, but the whole line is better still. The cartoon starts with a nice underplayed joke that they’re in Egypt because they got lost driving to Coney Island. The car’s overheated; there’s a quick glance at the dashboard being silly and breaking down. Olive Oyl calls the Sphinx the funhouse; she puts on a bathing costume like you’d joke about for the 1890s. Wimpy finally nags everyone into letting him start making lunch; in seconds he puts together a hamburger stand.
And, well, the “Egyptians”. They speak in “hieroglyphs” that I’m going ahead and assuming are fake. But they’re spoken in word balloons, as though this were a 1910s cartoon. After Popeye calls for subtitles, the “hieroglyphs” even translate to English. Popeye has always been a cartoon that breaks the fourth wall. Part of what makes the black-and-white cartoons so appealing is the sense that Popeye’s chatting with us about the artifice around him. Having a character’s word balloon be on-screen, and tangible, is an unusual sort of joke, though. There’s precedent, in the theatrical shorts where Martians kidnap Popeye, and he learns what’s going on from reading the subtitles for the audience. It’s still a kind of joke that works for Popeye and its rarely done.
The cartoon also has a plot tick that reliably entertains me. Popeye keeps running back from the “Egyptians” to remind Wimpy not to eat without them. It’s the plotting equivalent of a spinning-plates act. This isn’t many plates. Nothing like in Barbecue For Two, which had a nice stretch of Popeye trying to keep even with things. It’s enough, though. It lets the Olive Oyl plot advance without having to explain why anything is happening now. Popeye can just come back to find she’s over a fire pit or whatever. It also must have helped production that they didn’t have to show things happening. Popeye can ask what’s going on and it doesn’t seem out of place.
It’s the unusual cartoon to feature a full-body morph for Popeye too, as he turns into a bowling ball to knock down the “Egyptians”. It also features Popeye starting his rhyming couplet too “soon”, and Wimpy delivering the closing lines. Lot of fun stuff here. Shame about the embarrassing stuff.
This is an unusual one! Fleas a Crowd is one of ten Popeye shorts produced by Gerald Ray. He produced more of the Beetle Bailey shorts, and far more of King Leonardo cartoons. If I haven’t missed, I’ve only done two other Gerald Ray shorts before, Popeye’s Junior Headache and the fascinating and mysterious Take It Easel. Bob Bemiller is listed as director again. There’s no story credit and the IMDB doesn’t try to guess at one. Here’s the cartoon from 1960, in any case.
This is a weird one. I like it, although I don’t know how much of that liking is that I like any weird cartoon. It’s the rare Popeye cartoon in which Popeye and Olive Oyl, though both present, never directly interact. She just watches him on stage; he never shows awareness she exists. Olive Oyl is on a date with Brutus, and stays on a date with him, too. Brutus and Popeye barely interact either. They aren’t even on screen at the same time until 5:19, and that for a moment. Popeye’s fleas beat up Brutus. There can’t be another cartoon where the main triad all appear but have less to do with each other.
So we have Popeye as ringmaster to a flea circus at the Thimble Theater, a joke admirably not dwelt on. It’s just there for everyone who spotted Ham Gravy hanging around a couple weeks back. Jealous of how Olive Oyl looks at Popeye’s flea mastery, Brutus sets a wind-up dog to steal the fleas. Then it’s mostly a Popeye-in-pursuit cartoon. Like those cartoons where he’s following the Jeep or the sleepwalking Olive Oyl or something.
The story’s solid if routine. But creative bits keep poking out, regularly enough I stay interested. Popeye’s fleas, for example, are named Damon and Pythias. When Popeye realizes “I’ve been flea-napped”, Olive Oyl passes out, as though in a Victorian melodrama spoof. The fleas leave a “Dear John” letter for Popeye. “We regret to inform you that due to circumstances beyond our control we are forced to continue leading a dog’s life. PS: heeeeeeeeelp.”
All of this could have been done with plainer but still functional dialogue. They chose to be interesting in the small stuff. For example: the fleas perform the Damon and Pythias Waltz. There is nothing waltz about the dance, and nothing waltz about the tune (Swanee River). Another and great example of this is when Popeye lets the dogs out of the dogcatcher’s wagon. Not the elephant jumping out, although that’s a great absurd moment. Notice that the dogs are not all the same model. I don’t think there’s any two that look quite the same. The joke would have been just as good if it were ten duplicates of the same dog and then the elephant. That Gerald Ray’s animators did more than they had gives the cartoon a higher-quality look.
In 1978 Peter Pan Records released a 7-inch disc adapting the story to audio. The adaptation ends up a good bit longer than the original cartoon and I don’t recognize any of the voice actors. Apparently, they were all the same guy, Harry F Welch, who possibly played Popeye in a couple of theatrical cartoons. Nobody’s sure. It has some delightfully clumsy moments of characters saying what they’re seeing. But as an old-time-radio enthusiast, I have to say: not the clumsiest. The comparison also gives some insight into how much value the pictures, even of these cheaply-made cartoons, adds to the story. Also how much the amount of time available for the same beats affects the story.