The next part of my King Features Popeye reunion tour takes me back to Jack Kinney’s studios, and to 1960. The story is credited to Joe Grant and Walter Schmidt, and animation direction to old friend Eddie Rehberg. And now settle back, get comfortable, and watch the tale of Popeye and the Herring Snatcher.
Factories are great settings for cartoons. The lusher the animation the better the setting. The Platonic ideal of the modern industrial factory is a great mass of well-timed movement, a symphony of its own. Many cartoons have observed this and used it for the same great effect. Wacky shenanigans play great against the hard discipline of a complex piece of music or motion. So Grant and Schmidt start things off perfectly by dropping Popeye into a factory.
Grant and Schmidt also have a great idea in the setting. Popeye as the watchman and Brutus as a burglar feels like a classic dynamic for the characters. It’s not done much — maybe at all? — outside this, though. Credit to them for having a fresh reason for these people to be interacting like this. Also for having a setup where they can get right into the silly fights. It also gives a built-in reason for Olive Oyl to drop in at the lucky moment when Popeye needs a spinach sandwich. And we even get to hear Jackson Beck doing the narrator voice he used for five million old-time-radio shows, introducing the Finnan Haddie’s Herring Cannery and the herring-snatcher premise. (‘Finnan Haddie’ sounded so needlessly specific I had to look it up. It’s a cold-smoked haddock, originally from eastern Scotland. It got a couple mentions in cartoons and movies in the 30s and 40s, sometimes as entendre.)
Setups are half the game. The other half is execution. And here, well, it’s a Jack Kinney cartoon. The story logic holds together well enough, Brutus knocking out Popeye, stealing herring, going back to shoot at Popeye some more. And then we get weirdness. Mostly in Brutus talking to the audience — this is the most fun he’s had since he played football for dear old Rugby. (I was all ready for Brutus to become the second cartoon character known to have attended Rutgers.) Brutus taking the chance of shooting Popeye’s pipe as an excuse to give himself a cigar? That’s a bit wacky; it wouldn’t be out of place for 1940s Daffy Duck. Popeye building a castle of herring boxes and Brutus shooting them down, awarding himself even more cigars? This is weird, feeling more like a dream than an escalation of wackiness. There’s also the strangeness that we see Olive Oyl coming in relatively early — I believe we see her in shadow at 7:27, and see her knocking on the door at 7:44 — but she doesn’t come into the story for another full minute yet. Add to that how the music is the usual Kinney-studios needle-drop and you get this detached, floating mood to the whole thing.
It worked, more or less, for me this time. I think remembering that this is set after midnight, a time that’s supposed to be strange and dreamy, improved it for me this time. But I also remember watching this when they released a third of the King Features Popeye shorts on DVD and thinking this was gibberish. Or at least that it had such weird, loopy logic that its main virtue was unpredictability. You don’t set something in a herring factory unless the characters are going to get stuffed in a can. Past that, what would you predict might happen? I mention this as a reminder that all these reviews tell you something about the mood in which I watched them. There’s not a unique right answer about any of them, besides that Popeye’s Testimonial Dinner is a bonkers sloppy mess and exciting for it.
I don’t have a good place to mention this so have it here. I like that Popeye’s muscles become a set of bongo drums that he knocks on, to the beat of that bongo-drum-stock-sound. It’s an unnecessary weird joke and I like it.