Or almost all. I’m at peace with there being a couple of the two-hundred-plus King Features Syndicate cartoons that I haven’t recently reviewed. But I always like at the end of a big project like this I like to think about what it means.
I can’t say this has prompted me to have a major critical revision of the 1960s cartoons. Or to push for one. The 1960s cartoons are mostly regarded as a cheap, hurried cash-in, of a quality ranging from mediocre to garbage. I’m warmer to them than that, but the conventional wisdom is near enough right. There are some cartoons that I’ll advance as “pretty good” or even “good”. More that are “interesting”. But like everyone knew going in, the theatrical shorts are better. The black-and-white shorts better still. I haven’t looked at the 1980-era Hanna-Barbera series to compare those. Might try them. I know late-70s Hanna-Barbera hasn’t got a high reputation. But it could make Saturday morning cartoons at least uniformly okay. None of that Testimonial Dinner bizarreness or that one where Popeye turns into a giraffe there. (All right, there’s the Superfriends where Zan and Jana are unable to outwit a defunct roller coaster. That was a bit slipshod.)
And yet those are two cartoons that leapt immediately to mind. The lure of the novel, or the exceptional, is hard to resist when you watch a lot of something. That’s no different here. Give me a bonkers premise or a plot that’s too incoherent to be dream-logic and I am fascinated. This is not an effect any studio ever tries for; probably you couldn’t manage it if you did. (Compare that one episode of Dexter’s Laboratory written by a seven-year-old. It was one of the most compelling episodes of a generally good show.) What chance does a merely well-made episode, like Myskery Melody, have against that? Yet that’s also a cartoon that leapt right to mind and that I will keep promoting while I can.
The King Features cartoons introduced some good trends. One is that they largely shed the plot of Popeye-and-Bluto/Brutus-compete-for-Olive-Oyl. There were some cartoons that used that frame, sometimes to good effect. But it was a story done four billion times already, especially in the 1950s shorts. Clearing it out opens up the universe to do a series of golfing jokes or driver-safety jokes instead. Another is expanding the cast of characters. Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre overflowed with neat characters. The King Features shorts finally animated the Sea Hag, and brought Poopdeck Pappy and Eugene the Jeep back to being major characters. It also gave some outings to lesser characters like Roughhouse, the Whiffle Hen/Bird, King Blozo, Castor Oyl, Toar, and the many vaguely defined relatives of Olive Oyl. Even footnotes like Ham Gravy got some scenes.
Not enough of them. The Sea Hag and Eugene the Jeep make the leap into major characters, as they should, because they’re endlessly fascinating. King Blozo almost makes it, but not quite. So do Alice the Goon and Professor Wotasnozzle. I’m glad they got the time they did, and wanting more is a good state to be in with them. Professor Wotasnozzle might be the biggest disappointment. He’s in a good spot to give Popeye some goofball super-science gimmick to deal with. Instead what we mostly see is him in a framing device. He sends Popeye to another era to do the same schtick without even a clear idea whether Popeye knows what’s going on.
The shorts give this sense of new ground breaking, of new possibility. There were far more characters, most of whom worked, and fresh stories available to tell. Even more settings. Many cartoons were set in Popeye’s Boring Suburban Home. But they weren’t required to be, the way so many of the 1950s Famous Studios seemed. Sometimes that setting was even part of the story, as in Coffee House, the Beatnik cartoon. Or, for a mixed benefit, the attempt to set the cartoons in India or China or such. This usually turned out so racist I refused to review the cartoon. One can see the charitable reading, that the cartoons are trying to be more ethnically diverse. This sort of nonwhite-people-written-by-very-white-people can be a well-intended stumble. It was endemic to 1960s and 1970s programming. Still not going to listen to Chinese Wimpy.
There’s also a sense of there being no grown-ups in the room. The shorts feel like they’re the story person’s idea, untouched by worry that they fit the Intellectual Property Use Guidelines. Often this freedom from supervision also seems to be freedom from a second draft. Especially if Jack Kinney’s or Larry Harmon’s studios produced it. But a lot of exciting, creative novelty comes from people who have skill in their craft and only casual supervision from the people paying for it. The shorts didn’t enjoy this as much as they might. The sense remains, in most of these shorts, that anything might happen. Popeye’s in caveman times. Olive Oyl has a pet tiger. Wimpy crosses the Whiffle Hen and becomes a werewolf. A living missile wants to kiss Popeye. Brutus builds a robot Eugene. Aliens come to Earth, disguised as mailboxes. Brutus magics away Popeye’s arms. Wimpy is a millionaire, twice. Alice the Goon is hypnotically compelled to make out with Popeye. Cheese wheels from the Moon hold Wimpy hostage. Swee’Pea is the focus of a revolution. I made up at least one of those; can you tell which ones?
All this new freedom and new ground and lack of restraint, though, is most often let down by the result. The animation can’t ever be as good as the theatricals, certainly. And given the circumstances it couldn’t be as good as the 1980 Hanna-Barbera era either. Every studio managed at least some interesting touches, sometimes in a simple clever edit or a move that surprised one. More often the letdown is in the story, or at least the editing. There were so many odd pauses or absent bits of narrative logic it was no longer worth mentioning, at some point. I don’t know how often I accused, especially, a Jack Kinney short of having a dream logic. Or planned to but cut it for being redundant. We had that, though. Someone with experience in how stories work can fill in gaps. But the intended audience of young children? How do they know enough about how stories work to understand that? (On the other hand, maybe they mind since they don’t know that Brutus’s promise to eat his weather prediction was not set up.)
To summarize my feelings for all this, then? Besides the powerful nostalgia I feel for cartoons I watched, and loved, uncritically when I was young and impressionable? It is that I saw so many times that this could be a really good cartoon, hidden underneath what is an okay cartoon. So a new project for when I win a billion-dollar Powerball is to to take like three dozen of these shorts, have someone do another two drafts of the story, and have them animated by people who have the time to draw all the characters in all the scenes they’re in. We’ll get at least a couple great cartoons from that.