60s Popeye: Popeye’s Testimonial Dinner and what the heck was that


Last week’s cartoon, built on the premise that Popeye’s friends have to sneak him in to a TV show in his honor, Paramount Cartoon Studios made. There were like 800 studios making Popeye cartoons for King Features in that early-60s rush. Here’s one from Jack Kinney, who’s credited as director and producer. Volus Jones gets the animation-director credit. The story’s given to Jerry Nevius, a name I don’t have recorded yet. This could mean anything. Here’s 1960’s Popeye’s Testimonial Dinner.

Why were there two let’s-celebrate-Popeye cartoons in a row, and from different studios? Maybe coincidence. Maybe, if they had as much as a year’s lead time to put cartoons together, everybody noticed it was the 30th anniversary of Popeye as a character. I had assumed King Features Syndicate was bundling these on YouTube in the order they were completed or first put into syndication. This makes the overlap of gimmick more prominent. But Strange Things Are Happening had nothing to do with any specific bits of Popeye history. This one is a clip show. That’s novel only in that I think this is the first King Features run clip show. Famous Studios’ 1953 Popeye’s 20th Anniversary was, similarly, a clip show hung around the frame of a testimonial dinner. There’s worse premises.

So what the heck did I just watch?

A clip show, sure. And the basic idea makes sense, Popeye taken to a dinner attended by Swee’Pea, Eugene the Jeep, King Blozo, Wimpy, Alice the Goon. Even some minor characters like Oscar and Ham Gravy and why is Ham Gravy suddenly turning up everywhere? But envious Brutus, uninvited even though he’s the person Popeye spends the most time with, sneaks in. When his sabotage fails Brutus complains about his lot in life. Popeye takes pity, gives Brutus some spinach and lets him take a good clean punch. Everyone celebrates Popeye’s magnanimous nature.

It’s implementing this that makes no sense. The first clip is King Blozo recounting the time the land was threatened by a dragon that Popeye beat up. That was in Popeye Versus The Dragon, a cartoon that King Blozo was not in. Also that seems to be set in Cartoon Medieval times. But, fine; it’s not like it’s impossible Blozo was part of that. But Blozo also says “I further recall a time when Popeye and Brutus were … ” Were what? This could lead into almost any clip, as though Jerry Nevius hadn’t decided or didn’t know what clip they’d be used. They ultimately used Golf Brawl, a cartoon I haven’t got around to yet. You can watch it from here, if you like. Jack Kinney’s credited with that story. They edited the clip, although to make it make more sense. There is no evidence that King Blozo witnessed any of it.

Brutus complains that “they’re making out like I was the villain”. This is a fair complaint for a clip unlike the one shown. The clip shows Brutus hitting a golf ball that bounces ridiculously off trees and knocks himself into the water. It hits Popeye in the nose, as it bounces around, but there’s no plausible way Brutus intended that. Also the clip’s sound is re-recorded, so that Brutus laughing is silent instead.

Olive Oyl starts telling about this time she was managing a store, and “this bully” came in. I don’t know what cartoon this is supposed to reference. We don’t get a clip from it anyway, just Brutus protesting and demanding to tell his side. Popeye says go ahead. Brutus does, but we fade to black and then return to him saying “naturally I had to protect myself”. What cartoon would even fit Brutus’s declaration that “so, outnumbered, I asked for help from a kindly old sea witch, who agreed to help”? As a general principle, I like the idea that we only ever see some of Our Heroes’ adventures, and they have stuff going on even when the cameras aren’t rolling. But it’s a bold move to do a clip cartoon without the clips.

Then he goes in to how he and his “girl” were sitting in this coffeehouse. It’s a clip from Coffee House, only with new sound recorded. It shows how much the animation of that cartoon depended on the mood music and finger-snaps of the coffee house patrons and such. Also, the clip is edited down to just show Brutus punching Popeye after not much provocation. Past clip cartoons with a Brutus-telling-his-side theme focused, rightly, on showing where Popeye was escalating things.

This convinces Popeye that Brutus isn’t all bad, because I guess this line was written before Volus Jones had picked out the Coffee House clip to show. So we get the unusual cartoon where someone besides Popeye eats his spinach, and the rare cartoon where Popeye gets beaten at the end of it.

Popeye sprawled on the floor, looking behind him at an empty table. Brutus is photobombing, holding up one finger on an arm he sways back and forth while singing.
Popeye is haunted by the voices of people he cannot perceive, while Brutus? Brutus just has fun.

After the one punch, at about 16:20 in the video, Popeye lands. His friends start singing this “Popeye, you’ve done it again” earworm. They had previously sung it at the start of the night, where it made no sense. (My notes had a line “why not For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow?”.) But they credit him with saving the day, cheering about how he marshaled his might to turn wrong into the right, while Popeye looks around at the empty table behind him. Also Brutus does this wonderfully hilarious conductor’s dance. Fade to black and then … about 16:38, we just start over again, Popeye landing from the punch. His friends start singing this “Popeye, you’ve done it again” earworm again. This is so baffling that I thought at first it was some weird YouTube-related file error. But there’s no possible upload error that made this play once with empty tables and one with everyone at the tables.

I understand why you make a clip cartoon. You have to deliver so much content, you have only so much time, and you have only so much budget. This fills that content hole, cheaply and quickly. Maybe it also gives an animation director some experience and credits in a production with lower stakes and lower demands. So why is this such a mess? I’m open to hypotheses.

60s Popeye: The Glad Gladiator and wait, is that Ham Gravy? I think that’s Ham Gravy!


This week’s King Features Popeye cartoon is another with story by Cal Howard. The only other Cal Howard cartoon I have got noted is Tiger Burger. The animation director is Eddie Rehberg, last seen doing everything on Frozen Feuds, that weird Alice the Goon picture. Jack Kinney’s the producer and ultimate director. Back to ancient days, then, with The Glad Gladiator.

Is deliberate anachronism funny? Sure, when it’s The Muppets doing it. But everybody else? I don’t mean whether it’s funny to snarkers pointing out historical inaccuracies in Hagar the Horrible. I mean to a normal audience.

This cartoon opens with the message that it’s set in Rome, 800 BC. Popeye ends up in a gladiator fight in the Colosseum. Before the eyes of the Empress, Olive Oyl. There’s a background gag where the restrooms are marked Ben Hur and Ben His. And then I come back to: 800 BC? For a Roman Empire setting?

This is not something anyone should care about. The setting is “Ancient Rome” and Popeye is there to do some stuff riffing on Roman Empire epic movies of the time. Fine and respectable enough. But then why set this to 800 BC, a time when Rome barely existed and none of the stuff that’s featured, including the Appian [Free]way Popeye riffs on, were around? Why give it a date at all? Other than to tease someone who’d know?

A historical story — book, tv show, movie — is always a battle between historical truth, story economy, and verisimilitude. (You could do a story with samurais tromping around 17th century Mexico, but would people buy the premise?) A cartoon especially has no reason to care about getting the historical details right. So why is this detail there at all? Did Cal Howard just write in an ancient-days number and not care afterward? Or was he doing this mindfully? Of course this Popeye cartoon isn’t history. But now it’s so much not history that even the seven-year-old watching it, who might know the legend of Rome’s founding being in 753 BC, would know it was off?

If he was being wry, I’m not sure it was a good joke. In part since I’m not sure a joke was meant. That’s a hazard of wryness, though. But if it were meant, it’s a very slight joke. “Ha ha, I know this quickly-made Popeye cartoon is of dubious historical integrity?” Am I making too much of an arbitrary choice? Maybe. But if something works, I like to credit it as deliberate. Even if the writer went with whatever came to mind, they chose to use that impulse, and to not edit it out. There’s judgement even in the arbitrary. And then there’s the crowd scene.

Scene of the audience in the Colosseum. The front two rows are filled with mostly minor characters from Popeye/Thimble Theatre.
Wait, but why aren’t Cole Oyl and Nana Oyl sitting next to each other? Oh wait yeah because it’s funny when husband and wife don’t actually like being around each other. Forgot.

We do get a couple glances at the audience in the Colosseum and the front two rows here are filled with minor Thimble Theatre/Popeye characters. And that is an interesting choice. I’m not sure about everybody because they’re out of their usual garb, and it turns out when you remove accessories, Elzie Segar used the same face a lot.

If I’m identifying things right, and I’m open to other opinions, in the upper row, left-to-right, are: Ham Gravy, original Olive Oyl boyfriend, who vanished after about 1930. Cole Oyl(?), Olive’s father. The Sea Hag, who’s appeared once or twice this series. Oscar, introduced to the comic in 1931 so Popeye could have a really dumb crewman. Nana Oyl, Olive’s mother. (Her name is a reference to “Banana oil”, 1920s slang for “nonsense”. Also 1920s slang for “nonsense”: any two-word phrase.)

Lower, front, row, left to right: George W Geezil(?), pawn shop broker and Wimpy-hater. John Sappo, bland protagonist of Elzie Segar’s other strip, the one that brought us O G Wotasnozzle. O G Wotasnozzle (or, possibly, King Blozo hunched down). Alice the Goon. I have no explanation for how Ham Gravy makes the cut and Wimpy or Rough House do not. Also, yeah I’m not positive whether Nana Oyl is sitting in the first or second row either.

Filling a crowd shot with minor Popeye characters? Sure. Anyone could do that. They’d put in Wimpy, Sea Hag, Alice the Goon, Swee’Pea. If you have to dig deep put in Rough House or Geezil. Someone had to think to put in Ham Gravy. Or Sappo. Or Oscar for crying out loud. Someone thought “we need a quick shot of Ham Gravy”, and had that vision carried out.

This, yeah, is the sort of deep focus I get into as I look for what’s interesting in the cartoon. We get Popeye in a Vaguely Roman-ish makeover for his sailor’s suit. It’s a nice look for him. But I expect being on a different model like that to require the rest of the animation to be cheaper. That expectation holds up; there’s a lot of characters sliding around or disappearing. And the story is all a lumbering push to have Brutus and Popeye fight each other in the arena. The opening credits for the cartoon run at 16:59 in the YouTube video link. They actually start fighting about 20:57, for a cartoon that ends at 22:45. And it’s not like we’re stuffed full of a lot of gags about contemporary America recast as Ancient Rome. The sign for the intersection of Columbus Circle and XXVIII Street is about it. That and — get ready to laugh — a guy twirling pizza dough! Shows how mores have changed. As a child of the 70s and 80s I know it’s sushi that’s the instant-laugh zany food. Not pizza. Pizza is boring.

And that’s my trouble with the cartoon. It has a few fleeting moments of personality. But it’s mostly a slow march to a small fight. The title card that maybe heightens the anachronism humor, and the attempt to identify all the bit players in the stands, is about all I’ve got.