Popeye and the Giant: body horror, weirdness, but no, not *that* Giant


I complained that last week’s 60s Popeye was a competent cartoon. Every piece of it made sense, followed from the premise, and came out pretty bland. These are not faults for this week. It’s another Jack Kinney joint, this one with story by Noel Tucker and animation direction by Hugh Fraser. Noel Tucker is a name unrecorded by me, so far. Hugh Fraser we’ve seen having Popeye build a robot and being a Hawai’i tour guide. Both of those times I noted the animation was loose, or if you’re not feeling generous, sloppy. What does this imply for Popeye and the Giant? Let’s watch.

The title gives me expectations: that it’ll be another Jack-and-the-Beanstalk take starring Popeye. They’ve done this before, during World War II and again later in the Famous Studios run. They also did it in the 60s run of cartoons. They’d do it again for the 70s run. But sometimes it’s possible that a Popeye cartoon might reuse a premise of another Popeye cartoon. I know, shocking. But, no; the cartoon decides to go in weird directions instead.

And it keeps going weird. Weird to the point I am more curious than usual about its writing. It feels to me like Tucker had a couple ideas, found they were developing in curious ways, couldn’t fit them together, and went with what he had. The cartoon shifts direction several times over. The narrative doesn’t quite make sense. But it’s a good weird. It’s an unpredictable weird, at least.

Follow the narrative. We start with Popeye carrying flowers, I assume to Olive Oyl. He’s not aware that he’s in footage recycled from another short. Wimpy appears, in a pocket universe, offering his usual pay-you-Tuesday-for-a-hamburger-today deal. Popeye ignores him and walks out of the cartoon. Jump to Brutus, who learns the carnival wants a giant. He guesses his plant-growth pills will work on Wimpy, so feeds him a pile of burgers so large Wimpy’s eyes poke out, the first of many body-horror moments. It has an effect: the camera waves around and loses focus, a rare moment of cinematography for these shorts.

Gigantic Wimpy, with a large-but-not-proportional hat and tie, lecturing Brutus, whom he holds in one hand.
I give them a pass on having Wimpy’s clothes gigantify along with him, and will allow Wimpy’s hat and tie not quite growing to fit as a way of demonstrating his bulk. But: we’re looking at Wimpy’s left hand here. How is that attached to his shoulder? So there’s one more moment of body horror for you.

And it works, as Brutus declares, before we actually see anything happen. He jumps outside his house to laugh, a move that doesn’t look at all like they’re recycling footage from another short. Wimpy’s body bulges out and expands in a way that does look painful, an expressive bit for the animation limitations here. Brutus demands Wimpy sign a contract; Wimpy demands food, first.

Here, I think, the premise got away from Tucker. Wimpy is a clever, gluttonous, and slothful character. Add to that physical power, though? That’s dangerous in a novel way. Unfortunately we fall back from that. Brutus agrees to feed Wimpy first, delivering a bunch of burgers on a conveyor belt, saying, “I can’t supply the demand”. It’s a curious line because it’s got the placement and cadence of a joke, but is a literal statement of fact. Was this a placeholder line, meant to be replaced with something funny?

The carnival can’t use Wimpy, observing that he’s impossible to show or feed. Good observations. So Brutus turns to the Sea Hag, who’s set herself up as Shyster At Law. I’m sure this is a sly allusion to the Marx Brothers’ nearly-lost radio program, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel. Good approach and it’s not a bad role for the Sea Hag either. The Sea Hag forgets her weird crush on Wimpy and declares this is a chance to mess with Popeye, who hasn’t been seen since the story actually started.

Her plan: abandon Wimpy as a foundling child on Popeye’s doorstep. Here again I think the premise got out of Tucker’s control. Like, Brutus needed help to have the idea “make Popeye deal with this nonsense”? When Giant Wimpy’s first seen by Popeye, he’s sobbing like a baby. Why? A spell of the Sea Hag’s? That explains having the Sea Hag involved at all. But then Popeye has no doubt that he’s dealing with a giant Wimpy.

Gigantic Wimpy laying on his back in a crib outside Popeye's house. A note is pinned to Wimpy's pants, which Popeye, leaning out the window in his bedclothes, is reading.
I once again protest King Features animating my DeviantArt account without my permission.

Told, by note, that the antidote is unknown, Popeye tries to find an antidote. He goes right to spinach — er, essence of spinach — showing that he’s aware of the rules of the universe he’s in. This makes Giant Wimpy bigger, animated by having the camera slide down a little. So instead he tries “essence of hamburger”, which looks to the untrained eye like a hamburger. Sure, we already saw him eat dozens of burgers that Brutus made, and again dozens more at the carnival. But this time? It’s a burger that shrinks him back to normal.

Wimpy thanks Popeye, while Popeye can’t help mouthing along to Wimpy’s lines. And Wimpy’s hungry again, and that’s our laugh line to the finish.

So, yeah, it’s all low-key bonkers. I mean this affectionately. Someone seeing only Brutus reading about this carnival offer would not guess it would have Popeye deal with a giant “baby” Wimpy. After watching the cartoon a couple times I guess I follow the threads, more or less, but it’s a weird path getting there. There’s two good premises — Wimpy as a demanding giant, and Popeye dealing with a giant baby — brought up and immediately forgotten. The story needed another draft or two to be a coherent whole, but I’m not sure that would be better. As it is, it’s all weird jagged edges.

Most interesting about the animation is that Giant Wimpy is not Wimpy drawn larger. His proportions are all off. This is a good way of establishing that Wimpy is truly gigantic. It does mean they can’t use stock footage of Wimpy for all this time that he’s the center of attention. Having to do that is probably why they had to reuse footage from other shorts. It’s a worthwhile trade.

This is a cartoon I’m going to have specific memories of next week.

Popeye and, what the heck, a Giant Bluto


I’m skipping what would’ve been the next 1960s King Features Popeye cartoon. It’s not that the cartoon is dull. The cartoon would be Azteck Wreck. It has Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Eugene the Jeep tromping around Aztec ruins looking for gold, and being menaced by Bluto Only He’s Mexican. It hits all the plot beats reasonably enough and it actually has good backgrounds. And it opens with Eugene the Jeep riding in a jeep, which seems like a joke somehow. But I don’t feel like expressing an opinion about playing Bluto as a bandito and you know what? I don’t have to.

So instead? Popeye and the Spinach-Stalk. Once again it’s produced and directed by Jack Kinney. Not sure if King Features is just front-loading Kinney for these videos or whether he’s just responsible for that many cartoons.

Jackson Beck narrates. He wasn’t just Bluto’s (main) voice actor. He was also an announcer or narrator for about 85% of old-time radio shows. There are only two things weirder than hearing Bluto’s voice setting up a story, like this one. Those two things are Beck playing super-sleuth Philo Vance on radio, and Arthur Q Bryan — the voice of Elmer Fudd — playing a cop on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. This gives you a feel for how Beck sounded whenever he narrated. (He also did the narration for the Fleischer Superman cartoons.)

The Thimble Theatre characters slot smoothly into the fairy tale. Popeye makes a decent Jack, well-meaning but easily bamboozled. Olive, the Sea Hag, and Bluto are all well-placed and Eugene is a good substitue for the Goose That Lays The Golden Eggs. I guess shifting things from Olive selling off the family cow to trying to sell pies saves the trouble of designing a cow or making the cow’s fate something to worry about. Pies are easy to draw and can be funny too. Switching out magic beans for spinach, too, makes sense.

Olive Oyl, dressed as a cook, held in a giant hand while the other hand paints glue onto her back.
Oh yeah, I remember this as the image that launched the popular DeviantArt group “Tiny Women Glued To Things”.

Where things don’t make sense are little plot holes. Like, Popeye seems to sell one pie for a can of spinach, and all right, that’s a problem. But what about the rest? The giant Bluto has captured Olive Oyl; when, and how? Yeah, it doesn’t matter. It does allow some fun business of Olive Oyl protesting she can’t play the harp, and doesn’t really sing, and that going on until Bluto agrees. Popeye-as-Jack knows Eugene the Jeep by name; how? Like, was Eugene his and Olive’s pet that Bluto also abducted? Bluto demands to know what makes Popeye so tough, but all he’s seen at that point is Popeye talking big. Told that it’s spinach, why does Bluto feed Popeye spinach? It makes sense for Bluto’s hubris to lead to his downfall, but hubris usually works better when it’s built up.

I know that as a kid I never noticed any of this. There’s not a lot of time, and it’d be dumb wasting time on questions like “why does Bluto want Olive Oyl rather than someone else to make pies?” This is probably also why they set up the premise with a quick Jackson Beck narration rather than reusing the bit of Swee’Pea asking Popeye to tell him a story. It saves a good half-minute or so.

It’s hard to film a giant, even in illustration. It’s hard to compose a scene so you can really see the size. There’s a couple of angles on Giant Bluto that work, though, a good view pointing up that makes him look large. This particularly in Bluto doing his Fee-Fi-Fo-Fan rhyme, and then later as he’s running after the escaping heroes. It’s good seeing such moments done well.

The 29th Talkartoon: Jack and the Beanstalk and of course Betty Boop and the heck?


The next of the Talkartoon sequence is another one we don’t have animator information about. Sorry. Looking ahead, it appears there’s only two more Talkartoons without credits. Wikipedia also lists this as Betty Boop’s final appearance in dog form. It’s the first Talkartoon based explicitly on a fairy tale (unless one of the lost ones has something). It won’t be the last. From the 21st of November, 1931 — just two weeks after Mask-A-Raid — here’s Jack and the Beanstalk.

OK, so that’s kind of a weird one. It’s got all the major elements of Jack and the Beanstalk — Bimbo, with his earlier, more screwball design, as Jack; a beanstalk; a cow; a giant; a magic hen. The story’s presented in a lightly subverted form. Bimbo’s aware of the giant because of a dropped cigar. Bimbo just having the beans and needing the cow to tell him to use it. The Magic Hen coming out of nowhere. It’s interesting to me there are so many elements of spoofing the Jack-and-the-Beanstalk story. If I’m not overlooking something on Wikipedia this is only the second cartoon made based on the Jack and the Beanstalk story, and only about the fourth time the story was put on film. There are probably some more adaptations that just haven’t been identified. Still, it does suggest this is one of those fairy tales that are adopted more in parody than in earnest. It’s a curious state of affairs.

I mentioned Bimbo’s got his earlier character design here. He’s also got his earlier personality, the one with personality. He’s a more active person than he’s been since The Herring Murder Case at least. For a wonder in a cartoon billed Betty Boop and Bimbo, he’s actually the lead. I’m curious why he doesn’t stay this interesting. It gives the cartoon shape. And a screwball Bimbo can do random weird stuff to fill in jokes during a dull stretch.

There’s no end of casual weird body stuff this cartoon. It starts out with Bimbo taking his cow’s horn off to use as telescope. Bimbo’s arm turns into a rotary drill to plant beans. Bimbo untying Betty by taking her apart and putting her back together. The Magic Hen swapping her head and tail. The Magic Hen flying apart, then pulling herself together by putting her legs through her neck-hole and grabbing her head. File all these images away for a nightmare at some more convenient time.

Not only does a suspiciously Mickey-like Mouse appear about 4:48 in, but he figures into the plot. Makes for a really well-crafted cartoon, as well as the rare short from this era to have four significant characters. Five, if the Hen counts.

I’m not sure the short has any blink-and-you-miss-it jokes; everything is pretty well timed and set up. Also I’m surprised how big a laugh I got out of the bowl of soup smacking the giant in the face. Maybe you’d count the four eggs the Magic Hen lays turning into tires for her own morph into a car. And the car morphing back into the Hen. Both are such quick and underplayed bits of business it’s easy to not see them.

I’m surprised how well this short worked. Betty Boop cartoons would go back to fairy tales and nursery rhymes. This short gives good reason why.

On This Date: November 17, If You Like


765. Date of the historical incident believed to have inspired, in distorted form, the fable of Jack the Giant-Killer, when seven flies were indeed killed in one blow by a giant rampaging through a middle-Uressexshire hamlet. Less famously the incident is also credited with creating the village of Flattstone-Under-Stompenhedge. It’s a little baffling how the story ended up like we know it today. Most historians of legend suspect “political satire around the time of the Commonwealth or Restoration”. But we’ll admit that’s their answer to everything.

797. Kanmu, Emperor of Japan, changes his residence from Nara to Kyoto but the student loan people find him anyway.

1602. Birth of Agnes of Jesus, who’d go on to become a nun in what seems like typecasting but there you go. Sometimes you just know what your course is in life.

1777. The Colonial Congress sends the Articles of Confederation to the British Parliament for ratification in a deliberately-arranged “accident” that both sides fail to use as a chance to apologize and try to come to some reasonable settlement of the whole matter. It ends up making everybody feel eight percent more awkward.

1810. Sweden declares war on the United Kingdom in order to start the Anglo-Swedish War, since it seems like a shame to have such a snappy name for a war and nobody declaring it or anything. The war ends two years later when they notice everyone’s been so happy with the stylish name and the idea of Sweden and the United Kingdom being at war that nobody ever bothered to fight the other side, and that isn’t even my joke.

1858. Day zero of the Modified Julian Day scheme so that’s why your friend who does all this database stuff with dates is staring wistfully out the window and wondering why we have to have a February even today. We do not; we have a February in-between January and March.

1869. The Suez Canal successfully links the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. Backers fail to reach their stretch goal of connecting the Mediterranean with either the Pacific Ocean, the Baltic Sea at Brunsbüttel, or Albany, New York. But they’re happy with what they did achieve and give out some commemorative coasters.

1933. The United States recognizes the Soviet Union.

1935. The United States recognizes the Soviet Union a second time when Guatemala explains how the two of them used to stand at the window outside the League of Nations building in Geneva staring inside and sometimes putting pickles from the burger stand down the way onto the window to see if they’d freeze in place there.

1946. Last use of a Murphy bed except in a black-and-white sitcom.

1952. Soap magnate Dr Emanual Theodore Bronner, serving his jury duty obligation for the civil court, is asked whether he is familiar with the law regarding trees and shrubs which overhang the property line. Both sides’ attorneys excuse him 36 seconds later. He finishes the first of many extremely considered sentences about the matter in December, and his whole thought about fallen branches by 1954 (estimated).

1961. The United States recognizes the Soviet Union again, but pretends to stumble and have to fiddle with its shoelaces a couple minutes while they pass on the sidewalk.

1973. One of the most successful weight-loss plans of the 70s gets started when Eater’s Digest publishes this compelling bit of reasoning. The reasoning: you can burn off more calories simply by going about your business while wearing weights. But what is fat except excess weight? And, better, weight that you can’t take off even if you want? Therefore simply by walking or standing or breathing or sleeping on your chest you’re burning off excess calories, thereby causing yourself to lose weight on the whole deal. And therefore being fatter is the quickest way to being thinner and, therefore, being overweight doesn’t exist and within two years everybody is.

2015. ‘Bob and Bert’ create the only podcast advertisement ever recorded that makes listening to the podcast sound appealing or desirable or even something other than just a bit of sadness. After the successful advertisement their Wheeler-and-Woolseycast releases one more episode, then misses four months for an unannounced hiatus, returns with a 15 minutes apology and explanation that it’ll be two months before they get back to their twice-a-month-schedule, and then never be heard from again.

Some Giant Kids Tromping Around, Plus Mathematics Comics


I don’t mean to brag but over on my mathematics blog I’ve recently had two roundups of mathematically themed comic strips. The “Hatless Aliens” Edition let me reveal that Einstein’s paper introducing “E = mc2 doesn’t actually contain the equation “E = mc2”, so please go over there to read about that. The “Trapezoid” Edition let me introduce someone to Percy Crosby’s classic comic strip Skippy, which I also count as a public service.

To give folks who stick around here something to read, though, might I offer a pair of installments from Winsor McCay’s classic comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland? The backstory is a little involved and hard to summarize since, well, it’s dreamland, but in the installment from September 29, 1907, Nemo and company are sneaking around, best as giants can, Manhattan. In the installment from October 6, well, the sneaking has really advanced to knocking the city over. These things happen.

Nemo and Impie watch as Flip rampages accidentally through the city.
Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland for the 29th of September, 1907; reprinted on Gocomics.Com on the 28th of April, 2015.

But it all shows off McCay’s style: incredibly gorgeous artwork drawn with stunning precision — in the second strip look at how consistent the city buildings are between panels 1, 2, and 5, even though it wouldn’t make any difference if they were to vary — and with the loose dreamy narrative that the title of the strip implies. It’s not the kind of comic strip that I could imagine running in the newspapers today. Partly that’s because weekly narrative strips are, except for Prince Valiant, dead; partly that’s because this sort of whimsy is a very hard thing to create or to sustain.

Nemo, Impie, and Flip try to douse the burning city, and are shot by the Navy.
Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland for the 6th of October, 1907; reprinted on Gocomics.Com on the 30th of April, 2015.

I feel I should say something about Impie, but I don’t know what. The character was picked up earlier along Nemo and Flip’s adventures and I don’t know what I can say.

Calm Urged As Art Exhibited Publicly


I wanted just to share the front page from the Lansing State Journal from the 4th of October. It’s mostly about a perfectly normal incident, the sprucing up of campus by covering some of it with public art. I get the 30-foot-tall pencils. They were one of the best ways to jot down notes back in the olden days when students were over 350 feet tall and used sheets of paper two-thirds the size of a baseball infield for their records. It’s a time worth remembering. I don’t get the bright red squiggly figure but I imagine it’s something useful in a note-taking app or whatever they do in classes anymore.

Lansing State Journal, 4 October 2014

Also I notice that the Lansing State Journal warned, “LCC UNVEILS PUBLIC ART” using a bigger typeface than it saw fit to use for the start of the Korean War. Public art can be confusing and uncertain, sure, but it hardly seems to be that alarming. They could have used a subheadline of maybe “Despair Unwarranted; There Is No Need To Panic”. Nevertheless, it’s a fine typeface they use for that headline, though. That R has character. It’s no Bodoni, I’ll admit that, but as sans serifs go it’s something.

The Big Idea


There are many ways that you can become a giant, here defined as a person fifty or more feet tall, or long while lying down. The easiest is to be born as one, of course, although many mothers protest this for the obvious reason, that it’s harder to fit the giant toddler into preschool programs. Next is to fall through a portal into an alternate universe in which the general scale of things is different, but this has its hazards as the flow of time might be different and you might be stuck in a dopey cartoon of some kind. Being the subject of an experimental gigantification ray is a convenient approach for people who are looking to work with their local mad scientist, or if they prefer the equivalent there’s magic spells that are poorly understood. Surely the most exciting method of becoming a giant is to take a job as a self-trained scientific detective, find one can’t use the magnifying glass to find clues correctly, and go stumbling into gigantism thusly. The important thing isn’t how you become a giant, it’s that you try.

Giants of the Colonial Era


I’ve been reading Reporting the Revolutionary War, by Tod Andrlik, reprinting newspapers, Colonial and British, when stuff was just happening. One paragraph from the Portsmouth New-Hampshire Gazette of July 20, 1764, read so:

A giant, 14 feet high (who was the same at nine years old) arrived the 14th ult at Dre[ can’t tell; it’s lost in the binding of the book ] from Trent, to make a shew of himself.

The next paragraph reports that an Ambassador discussed fishery stocks. Isn’t that a glorious treasure-trove of information about the world of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the days before the Flood of ’42 swept its hyphen away and probably didn’t do the fishery stock any harm besides putting it up higher? Consider the article’s implications.

For one, the writer doesn’t mention the name of this giant. Why? Maybe they guessed a person who was fourteen feet high didn’t need any further identification, and that’s true in my circles. I know dozens of folks who’re over sixty feet high, but fourteen is a distinctive number and if there were any I knew, you’d just have to say “that person who’s fourteen feet high” and I’d know who you were talking about without any further bother. It’d probably go very well for me that way, really, since I’m not very strong on remembering names. I can’t remember a guy’s name I’ll just guess he’s probably a “David”. You’d be surprised how often it works. All the guys I met from 1996 through 1999 were named David, or are now anyway, and the pattern’s holding up well to today.

Here’s the next thing: our giant, David, wasn’t making a shew of himself in Portsmouth. Whatever might be going on in Portsmouth in the summer of 1764, watching giants was not drawing a paying crowd. David didn’t just have to go outside Portsmouth to earn a living, too: he had to leave Trent. Now we have a scene, somewhere near the village green of Trent, New Hampshire, in early July, as a farmer or smithy or tar-featherer or coopers-blunderbusser or something talks with his wife about David’s disappointing performance.

“Did you see, Martha, that poor David was trying to make a shew of himself by being fourteen feet tall in the public square.”

“What, again?”

“Aye,” he says, pausing to throw a rock at something he heard was a Stamp Tax collector (who in fact preferred collecting other Coercive Acts, finding that everyone was into Stamp Taxes in those days). “Fourteen feet tall and he thinks that’ll be an entertainment for us.”

“Land o’ goshen, Vermont, Henry, but isn’t that exactly the same thing he was trying to do when he was but nine years old?”

“To the inch and third-barleycorn, Martha,” cracks Henry as he indentures a servitude. “Not even a half a pottled king’s earlobe higher.”

“My, my. Someone should tell the lad, just being very tall isn’t going to get you an audience in these parts. Maybe he could attract a paying crowd in Dre[ mumbled into the folds ], but this is Trent. This is the big time.”

“We’ve got experience looking at people who are large. David has to get some kind of special advantage if he’s going to find work here.”

“Maybe he should learn to juggle or somesuch, then he can put on a proper shew.”

And around the corner of the farm tavern print-shop coffee house, a lone tear runs down David’s cheek and sees how far it is to drop to the ground. David considers finding some apples, but as Johnny Appleseed won’t be born until 1774, he makes off with a couple rocks and steals away to Dre[ something or other ], hoping he can refine his act and work his way back up to Trent, and maybe someday Portsmouth or even Worcester. He does, finally reaching the last town in 1839, as he’s ready to retire, which is just as well as he’s upstaged by the first giraffe brought to North America.

And this is why the marginalia of old newspapers is so grand: we get to see a past we’d never otherwise suspect. (PS, the United States won the Revolutionary War, sixteen feet to thirteen and a hog’s plunder in height.)