(The cure is spinach and Jeeps, which, yeah, will cure most anything.)
Before I get into the cartoon I want to amplify a bit of news. Fred M Grandinetti was kind enough to post the other day that he has a new book, Popeye the Sailor: The 1960s TV Cartoons, about just what the title says. I haven’t had the chance to get it, but I’m interested to read another person giving some serious attention to a neglected corner of Popeye’s history.
Another week brings us to 1960 and back to Jack Kinney sudios. Ed Nofziger’s credited for the story, with an assist to Ovid. Eddie Rehberg reappears as the animation director. Here’s The Golden Touch.
If the legends of King Midas teach us anything, it’s “don’t appear in a legend with any Greek gods”. Midas survives his two legends well, coming out of it with a couple hungry days and, later on, donkey’s ears that the fields can’t stop whispering about. Still, the golden-touch legend is the one we all remember, for saving humanity from a dystopia where the pursuit of the illusion of wealth destroys our environment, our society, and our bodies.
And it forms the bulk of this adequate cartoon. It’s the telling of another Popeye Fairy Story — Phairie Story, according to the cover — with the inspiration that Swee’Pea is in love with pennies. As a way into a story, that’s a good one. It’s a very kid attitude to want all the pennies.
In the story, Good King Popeye is a beloved ruler who does impersonations of Ted Lewis with his question, “Is ev’rybody happy?” It’s an interesting cast: I understood having Alice the Goon and Wimpy (who’s hamburger-happy) as a kid. As an adult, I’m … pretty sure the first person to answer is supposed to be Geezil. I think the last is supposed to be Toar. We also get a glimpse of Oscar (at about 0:46). There’s a short person standing next to Geezil(?) and Alice the Goon we never get a good view of, and I’d like to know if that’s supposed to be someone recognizable.
Good King Popeye wants his land to be as rich as it is happy. The magical Jeep (is there another kind?) decides this is a day to give people what they ask for, not what they need. The golden touch is fine and fun when it turns his crown, his pipe, and his pipe smoke into gold. Less so when it turns Princess Olive to gold. He tries to eat spinach to fix all this and the spinach turns to gold, which he can’t eat.
And here the short starts to fall apart. King Popeye needs to find the Jeep to reverse the spell; OK. He goes asking people if they’ve seen the Jeep. By tapping them on the shoulders. I get the animation reasons for this: it’s very cheap to have someone stand still while a cel of Popeye’s arm swings down to touch them, and then you paint them in gold. But turning one person to gold is an understandable accident. The fourth time in you have to ask what King Popeye thought would happen.
My problem’s not that he does a dumb thing. Everybody does dumb things sometimes. And it’s a legend inside a kids cartoon. It isn’t necessarily bad if the kids are smarter than the characters. But if you’re Toar, and you’ve seen Popeye just touch Alice and Wimpy and turn them to gold, why aren’t you going to step back some? And the answer he didn’t see them, because they didn’t have enough animation budget for Toar to turn his head and see any of this.
But maybe the problem is unfixable. It would be about as cheap for Popeye to ask the crowd if they’d seen a Jeep and everyone to say no. They’re all Jack Mercer doing voices anyway. But it would be a shame to not use as much of the gold touch as possible. Maybe there’s a way to rewrite so King Popeye has reason to touch everybody in the kingdom, and if they had the time to work on the stories they might have found it.
Popeye’s last hope is the Sea Hag, who it turns out captured the Jeep. She’s able to drive King Popeye off, first with the garden hose, a joke that I really like. Then by throwing the kitchen sink at him, over and over. King Popeye eats his gold spinach because that bit where he couldn’t eat gold spinach was whole minutes in the past and who can remember that far back. And threatens the Sea Hag with being turned to gold if she doesn’t release the Jeep. I think this is getting in the neighborhood of a war crime but since it all ends merrily enough we’re okay with it. Everybody’s happy again, and Swee’Pea has learned to wish for nickels instead.
There’s stuff to like here. A King Midas Touch cartoon is a fun starting point. The wish is immediately appealing to anyone, even as we acknowledge that taken literally it would be horrible. The world becoming more and more dead as you interact with it should be a good nightmarish building of tension. We get Eugene the Jeep and the Sea Hag, always fun characters. And there’s cute little bits, such as King Popeye leaving behind golden dollar-sign footprints. If that wasn’t used in a Richie Rich comic book cover somebody at Harvey screwed up. I love the Sea Hag just reading her paper, asking “Hah?” when King Popeye demands the Jeep’s release.
As it is, though, it’s hobbled. There’s the problem of King Popeye having no good reason to tap the fourth person on the shoulder. And the music is a completely flat, almost languid thing. It’s like the music director was asked to score five minutes of hanging around while nothing happens. The change in whether King Popeye can eat the gold spinach I suppose we can use the old “it wasn’t dire enough to try earlier” excuse. It’d be nice to have something made more explicit, though. I know I always say the Jack Kinney cartoons are a rewrite or two away from working, but there we are.