60s Popeye: Popeye’s Travels, or the good bits of Gulliver’s travels


Today’s is another Seymour Kneitel triple-threat, giving us story, direction, and production. With an assist, though, from Jonathan Swift and possibly the people Seymour Kneitel was working with in 1939. It’s a hap-hap-happy day, to quote a song not used in 1960’s Popeye’s Travels.

When the Fleischer Brothers were destroying their cartoon studio making Gulliver’s Travels into a movie, they considered casting Popeye as Gulliver. Probably the picture would have been better if they had. Popeye has charisma; their animated Gulliver is unburdened by personality. But it wouldn’t have been respectable. Popeye looks disreputable, even scary, to be the star of something taken seriously back then. You can clean up Popeye, but make him less interesting that way. I’m not sure it’s an accident the only feature-length Popeye movie was in the late New Hollywood era. Still, we can imagine what the 1939 movie but with Popeye might have been like.

Or we can watch a five-minute synopses, as here. And it turns out, it’s pretty good overall. That might mislead. An idea that’s fun at five minutes can be leaden at 76. At this condensed length Paramount can focus on the good stuff: Popeye waking up, bound by miniature people and wheeled into town. Walking through a town he towers over. Wading out against a tiny navy. With another 71 minutes there’d have to be some dull stuff too, like coming up with a reason for Lilliput and Belefuscu to fight. I grant the original satirical point was about how many wars are about stupid issues. And not giving any issue is consistent with that point. Still, sometimes a war is about something that matters, too, and it bothered me to not establish that there was a dumb reason for this war.

Popeye looks down, with delight, at the Lilliputian village around him as townsfolk come out to wonder at this giant.
So all of you wondering where your recurring childhood dream of being a tiny 17th-century villager scooped up by a giant Popeye came from, I’m glad to help!

I also don’t know why the rival nation becomes Belefuscu here. Was it to make it easier for kids to say? It strikes me that in the 70s Hanna-Barbera changed the pronunciation of Mister Mxyzptlk to something less hard to say. Could be they were being kind to the voice actors.

I’m not sure whether the Kings of Lilliput and Belefuscu are meant to resemble their Fleischer Movie versions. I see a loose resemblance. But it’s not like “thin guy and fat guy” is a unique concept for a pair of characters. Their outfits haven’t got any resemblance to the movie’s kings besides “looks like a cartoon king, all right”.

Popeye starts the short with a voice-over narration. I don’t remember that ever happening before. There’s also a great cutaway, after he washes up on shore. The next scene is the bound Popeye being dragged into town. It’s a good dramatic dissolve. And it stands out, given how Paramount Cartoon Studios tends to make sure we see every step of the action. (In the movie Gulliver takes an unaccountable forty minutes to wake up.)

In the end, Popeye guarantees peace through the threat of squishing, exactly like how the War of 1812 ended. He uses a small sailboat to go off and sings his couplet: “Whether you’re a giant or mite there’s no reasons to fight, says Popeye the Sailor Man!”. Popeye. Popeye. The classic cartoon character most likely to be found in a fight cloud. The character who has no end of comic strip panels of him congratulating someone for giving him the best fight he’s had since Singapore.

We can rationalize it. There’s a clear difference, after all, between choosing to get into a bar fight and going to war. But that rationalization is ad hoc. Popeye used to be incredibly popular. That brings an obligation to not screw up people who model themselves on you. He had to become more respectable, even if it makes him less Popeye. It hasn’t destroyed him, but it is hard to believe in a Popeye who hates violence.

Color Classics: Ants In The Plants


For this week’s Fleischer Color Classics cartoon I’d like to present one of the last of the series. If Wikipedia is correct, Ants In The Plants — released the 15th of March, 1940 — was the last of the Color Classics not to star Hunky and Spunky. I don’t want to get into Hunky and Spunky right now, but they are probably among the top 50 most interesting mother-and-son pairs of cartoon donkeys in 1930s and 1940s three-strip Technicolor animation.

For a series whose focus was, nominally, showing off the music owned by Paramount Pictures, there’s not a lot of music in this cartoon. The only song is Al Neiberg and Sammy Timberg’s We’ll Make Him Yell Uncle, and it doesn’t dominate the cartoon the way that, say, Dancing on the Moon does its or that the Hungarian Rhapsodies give A Car-Tune Portrait its shape. On the other hand, now you have a name for that bit of music when you run across it in Fleischer/Famous/Paramount cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s. One suspects a touch of franchise fatigue had set in.

By this time the Fleischers, like nearly everyone else, had access to three-strip Technicolor and so the colors are more diverse and, if you can imagine what this looked like before seventy years of color fade, generally brighter. It’s also a very distinctly Fleischer cartoon: the three-dimensional sets are used for the very first scene, and the gadgets of the ants are created in a way that reminds me of Betty Boop’s Grampy, gimmicks of everyday items put to new applications that seem just about like they might work.

The cartoon was made around the time that the Fleischer’s ill-fated first motion picture, Gulliver’s Travels, was being completed and released to theaters. This seems to me likely to explain why the animation looks lush and enjoys novel camera angles and imaginative staging, such as the scene of the anteater’s snout writhing back and forth through tunnels as it approaches the camera: they’d developed the skill and technical ability to do that sort of motion and they were going to use it. Good.

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