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: Swee’Pea Soup plus a cartoon I noped out of


So if things continued in their ordinary course, the next cartoon would have been Two-Faced Paleface. Produced by Larry Harmon, directed by Paul Fennell, written by Charles Shows. The title had me wary because Popeye does not have a good track record with American Indian characters. The story starts with Popeye mining for gold, and finding some. Brutus horns in on this, pretending to be an Indian.

Popeye protests it can’t be Indian land, “we just discovered gold here”. This would be a good, witty, dark comment on American history if I thought they meant it. But, you know? I don’t like Brutus dressing up as “Big Chief Pain-in-the-neck” of the Cha-cha-cha Indian Tribe. I don’t like Popeye joining in. And you know? I’m not going to do it. You want 600 words from me about this? I want $25 minimum. I’m on PayPal.


So let me get that taste out of my mouth by going to the next one on my schedule. This is 1960’s Swee’Pea Soup, directed by Gene Deitch. There’s no other credits, so I can’t tell you who did the story, which I quite like. Or the animation, which is a delight for being this limited. Also, we get not one but two special guest stars.

We start in media res, rare for any children’s cartoon of the era but especially for Popeye. The mob demands the removal of King Blozo. They want someone lovable, like Swee’Pea. King Blozo is another long-time Thimble Theatre character, and a great one. He rules a land that’s usually called Spinachovina. He’s really not up to the job, and would do something else if he was any good at that. He spends most of his time worrying about how bad everything is. His only solace (not seen this cartoon) is reading the funny papers. This may sound basic, but, you know? A character doesn’t need depth to be good. He needs to commit to his bit.

Popeye, seen from behind, scratching his chin while King Blozo walks in circles, hunched over and worry-worry-worrying.
And here’s a rare angle for seeing Popeye. This is a very characteristic pose for King Blozo, though, and you do get a good handle on who he is just from looking at that.

Blozo summons his mad scientist, Professor O G Wotasnozzle, to make him as lovable as Swee’pea is. Wotasnozzle intuits the way to do it is to make Swee’Pea soup, and kidnaps the child. This is a weird turn for Wotasnozzle, who was mischievous but not villainous when created for Sappo (Elzie Segar’s non-Popeye gig). Possibly the story writer wanted to keep the cast to known characters, and Watsnozzle had to contort to fit the part.

We get some action, we get Popeye captured under Wotasnozzle’s giant boot device. We get the mob throwing spinach that contrives its way into Popeye’s mouth. (It’s normal to have a small drain that funnels water directly into your basement.) Popeye launches the double-decker pot of Swee’Pea soup into the air, and Swee’Pea falls into Blozo’s arms. Swee’pea’s approval confers popularity on Blozo and everything can be peaceful and happy again.

This is a lot of story. And, daft as it is, it all hangs together. There’s a neat bit of storytelling that all the trouble in it comes from innocent motives. Swee’Pea brings the kingdom to rebellion just by paying a friendly visit. Blozo, a character almost as innocent as Swee’Pea, causes Swee’Pea’s kidnapping with the unobjectionable order to “make me lovable”.

I would like to know if this is a condensation of a story that ran in the comic books or the daily strip. It’s heavily plotted for a five-and-a-half-minute cartoon. It doesn’t waste time introducing characters. It has changes of fortune and a solid mix of drama and comedy. If this is all Gene Deitch or his writers, they deserve credit for doing something quite good with the form. If they condensed an original story, I’m curious what the original story was like.

King Blozo standing on the balcony of his castle, surrounded by a mob. Blozo has Swee'Pea in his arms and the two are rubbing heads together happy; this is making the mob very happy.
So a happy ending all around. And it is a great touch that they rubbed their heads against each other. It’s more animation than the scene requires and that’s gratifying to see.

The animation, too, is nicely done. It’s expressive and it’s all a little more fluid than mere needs of the story demand. Look how Popeye’s stance changes, at about 0:55, as he guesses the People are looking for a new king. He scratches his head, he pats his chest, he leans his head forward, he moves one arm down and the other up. It makes Popeye’s thinking better-shown. Look at how Blozo, walking in circles about 1:50, starts circling the opposite direction. None of this is essential. It makes the cartoon more fully animated, though. I imagine this is the budgetary advantage of animating in Eastern Europe. They can afford more pencils.

Even if the animation were worse, though, the story would likely win me over. If more of the shorts were like this the series would have a respectable reputation.

Popeye: Swee’Pea Soup


Previously:


OK, this is an odd one. It features King Blozo, another character who’d been in the Popeye comics since the 1930s but who’d somehow not gotten an appearance in the theatrical shorts, as well as O G Wotasnozzle in a surprisingly villainous role. King Blozo rules Spinachovia with a semi-competent, perpetually worried, often faltering hand. (Indeed, King Features’s current comic strip offering is a rerun of a story in which Blozo loses his rule to a homemade computer.) About all that eased Blozo’s worry in the comic strips was getting American comic strips delivered to him, although Popeye could help by telling jokes or, when he got around to it, straightening out Blozo’s ridiculous issues.

So the premise of this cartoon, Blozo losing control of the country when the population finds it thinks Swee’pea is just too cute, is really not far off something that might happen in the original source. The cartoon beginning in media res is a striking one; it starts the action off with some energy and vitality that pretty well mask how the cartoon takes three minutes before anything really, properly speaking, happens, and how it really only has the two scenes. I don’t know why Wotasnozzle is so villainous in this one, though; he was well-intentioned if impish in the comic strip and the 1960s cartoons in which he sends Popeye through time are … well, he’s a jerk to do it, but that’s a different kind of thing from trying to cook Swee’Pea. (Seriously, how is this even supposed to work? Go back to making Sappo’s wife a young woman again so he thinks he’s cheating on her with her, O G.)

You might guess the animators behind this from the drawing style and the pacing, although I spotted it by listening to the sound effects, especially of the shattered vase. It’s the same sound used for some shattered objects in the Tom and Jerry cartoons made in the early 60s by Gene Deitch for William L Snyder’s Rembrandt Films. We saw Deitch directing some of those 1960s Krazy Kat shorts, too.

While the cartoon’s pretty good at steadily presenting funny pictures, I don’t think Rembrandt Films manages to be as good at that as Gerald Ray Studios were. Individual shots are surprisingly long (though they do pan side to side quite a bit), and they don’t try to be silly as still frames. Of course, it is animated and if you watch with the sound off, you get to a funny part soon enough. That’s pretty satisfying.