60s Popeye: Intellectual Interlude, as the world tries to cope with a smart Popeye


King Features’s YouTube channel again cuts off most of the credits for this week’s short. And yet, turning to the Internet Movie Database, I get a little more information than I usually have for a Gene Deitch-produced short. The direction is by Zeljko Kanceljack, the IMDB says. I don’t know how they know. Nevertheless, here fresh from 1961, is Intellectual Interlude. It’s got a nice, exciting title card.

Is Popeye smart? It’s not a question that allows for a definitive answer. The Thimble Theatre universe is set up so he will always be as smart as the plot requires. When Segar introduced him he seemed expert on sailing, as one would hope, if naive in other areas. He quickly picked up a Columbo-like ability to spot the evildoer even if he didn’t know what evil was doing. Often he’s clever, rigging together some funny gadget to fix the problem of the moment. But he’s usually portrayed as ignorant (a different thing from not-smart), and often as uninterested in changing that. This cartoon starts with a common portrayal of that: Olive Oyl loved the movie Sophisticated Ladies and Popeye couldn’t be paid to care about it. She pushes him to get some adult education.

In the second surprise of the cartoon — the first was that the title card fed into the opening scene — Brutus is not the teacher. There’s a normal teacher from outside the Popeye universe here to give him the dunce cap. This leads to another teacher, a chemist who gets Wotasnozzle’s voice. He’s working on some potion, as chemists always are, with the final ingredient of intellectual spinach. All he needs is the test case, someone not allergic to spinach. Who does that sound like?

Popeye slumps deep in the chair he's tied to, while a purple-clad head villain leans well past horizontal to sneer into his eyes. In the background a taller, black-clad henchman watches, and next to both of them is a gigantic red-shirted bruiser with a small head and even tinier face, smiling at the prospect of punching out Popeye.
So all that budget saved by showing still pictures of newspapers with incorrect dates? It went into scenes like this, where everybody makes wildly unrealistic moves in these great flowing waves of action. It’s quite fluid and a demonstration of how animation can be limited and stylized without being boring or bad.

So this is a dream cartoon; we learn at the end that everything from Popeye getting the dunce cap is a fantasy. Did you suspect it? I didn’t, particularly. Super-Intelligent Popeye seems like something within the normal bounds of his universe’s antics. After a montage of newspaper headlines that I bet were kind to the animation budget we get some spy antics. Secret agents in helicopter 13-K abduct Popeye and demand he work for them. They’ve also got Olive Oyl, to make sure he goes along with it. When they dangle Popeye and Olive Oyl off a cliff, Popeye pops some spinach out of his chest. It’s the first time in a Gene Deitch cartoon I remember him carrying spinach on him, rather than depending on the environment. (The potion really did make him smarter!) We get the boing sound effect from the Gene Deich Tom and Jerry cartoons and it’s only when Popeye’s punched off the cliff to an infinite fall that he wakes up. Also somehow he and Olive Oyl had the same dream.

I didn’t notice any of the usual tip-offs that a story’s become imaginary. It didn’t even have Popeye facing too titanic a problem to wrap up. I mean, he’s Popeye and he’s just eaten spinach. He could crash onto the ground below, pull himself out of the Popeye-shaped hole and shake his head. Have him shake his head at that blow and reveal the super-smarts have worn off and we’ve resolved it all well. I don’t see why Deitch didn’t do that, and I’m sorry not to be able to ask him. (If he would remember.)

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