60s Popeye: Popeye’s Pep-Up Emporium, almost your last chance to get Wimpy in shape


Jack Kinney provides the story for one of these cartoons, for the last time in this progress through the King Features Syndicate shorts of the 60s. There’s one more Jack Kinney-produced cartoon, though. And the animation direction — as the other Kinney short will be — is credited to Volus Jones and Ed Friedman, names I’ll be sorry to see the end of. Here from 1960 is Popeye’s Pep-Up Emporium.

Years ago the Flophouse podcasters talked about common mistakes of bad movies. One was explaining the wrong things, over-explaining the simple setup and not giving enough screen time to the counterintuitive implications. This short starts with a pretty long advertisement for Popeye’s Pep-Up Emporium, the gym where he promises to help with any body type. There’ve been theatrical shorts where Popeye runs a gym (Vim, Vigor, and Vitaliky and Gym Jam particularly), and they got the idea established much faster.

Spending so much time setting it up isn’t necessarily wrong. The advertisement sets the tone, sure. And it lets the short toss in a couple of jokes, admittedly at things like Brutus’s very fat body. We might try to be a little less body-shaming today, but the jokes are set up well enough. Having the commercial at the start also sets up that there’ll be another commercial made during the short, giving the cartoon what little plot structure it has.

Again I don’t fault the short for mostly being a bunch of spot jokes. Gymnasiums are good for a string of disconnected jokes. The cartoon comes close to that, with stunts like Olive Oyl getting tied up in knots after a little bending. Or Wimpy pulling a table toward himself and pushing it away again. Here we do have what’s got to be a Kinney Classic animation error. When the table’s nearby he chews in the air in front of a pile of hamburgers. Someone has to have been meant to draw a hamburger falling off the pile into his mouth, but too late for that now. Maybe for the remastered Special Editions.

Olive Oyl stands, confident and proud, atop Popeye, who's on the floor, on his belly, looking back with admiration up at her. She's got Popeye's legs twisted together, as though she had beaten him wrestling.
This is a good end for a cartoon and I’d like if the cartoon had set this up better.

So we get to the commercial, done live in a gymnasium, a transmitting challenge especially for 1960 that I’m glad I don’t have to master. Think of the audio quality. A butterfly lands on Popeye’s dead weights, and he drops the extra load through the floor, bringing an irate Brutus up and into the short. Thing is, Brutus is right to be angry. The — let’s call them 2000-pound dead weights — just crashed through his ceiling. And this after a commercial body-shaming him.

But the parts the cast is in requires Brutus to be the villain. So he lecherously tries to get Olive Oyl out of that … wall thingy she’s trapped in. He’s stomping on Popeye’s head while he does this, so Popeye pulls out the spinach and there we go. If you look at the Popeye-Brutus interactions this is pulling on the spinach way too early. It’s only justified by Popeye knowing the cartoon is almost over. I know, we don’t need much justification. Popeye and Brutus have a history we’re supposed to take ambiguously seriously. And the guy is stomping on Popeye’s head. And anyone watching a lot of Popeye cartoons comes to wonder why Popeye doesn’t pull out his spinach at the start of the trouble. (A problem endemic to most every show with a super-power-up gimmick.) Maybe if Brutus has been part of the class, and ever more trouble, then things would have balanced better.

Though I started my essay talking about mistakes of bad movies, I don’t think this is a bad short. It’s got the usual weaknesses of the King Features Popeye cartoons, including the drifting narrative of so many Jack Kinney-produced shorts. It’s got a good setup, though, and good jokes along the way. The worst it does is take such extreme narrative economy, to get Popeye to eat his spinach, that the writers seem not to have noticed Popeye doesn’t need to have eaten spinach here. Olive Oyl getting fed up waiting for rescue and eating spinach herself is a good solid ending. They could have got there with a better use of Brutus.

60s Popeye: Hoppy Jalopy, the racecar cartoon


Way, way, back, when I started reviewing the King Features Popeye cartoons of the 60s I skipped this bundle of cartoons. I had said none of these cartoons interested me enough. Well, I’m running out of 60s Popeyes to review, and I’ve built up a tolerance for not-interesting cartoons. I think I can say something about them now.

So this is another cartoon produced by Larry Harmon. You know what that means: it’s the future crew of Filmation. The story’s credited to Charles Shows and the direction to Paul Fennell. From 1960 here’s Hoppy Jalopy.

There’s obvious affects the tiny budget, in money and time, have on these shorts. There have been good animation bits, but never a scene that captures the imagination like overflowed in the 30s and filled a bunch of the 40s cartoons. The scope of the plots also diminishes. Popeye cartoons never have big casts, but they could at least give exits to the other competitors in the car race, or not introduce anyone but Popeye and Bluto/Brutus. That they were introduced, but not excused from the story, must reflect a lack of time to think the story through and rewrite it to a smooth finish.

But the subtler effect is to give the cartoon this weird, formalistic structure. Popeye and Brutus are racing, fine, of course they do. Is anyone else racing? Why not? Who cares what happens to them if they aren’t main cast? Olive Oyl’s scooped up in Brutus’s trunk, a thing she could only avoid by trying in any way. Why doesn’t she try in any way? Because it’s a Popeye cartoon, what is she doing in it if she isn’t abducted by Brutus? (Or being Popeye’s cheerleader, as in Swimmer Take All or Hot Air Aces.)

Brutus, in his very tiny racecar, has the trunk open and is ready to catch Olive Oyl in it. She's standing on the exposed side of the trunk hood, crying for Popeye's help, instead of taking one step away to be safe.
You know, Brutus’s racecar has some amazing trunk capacity, leg room, and engine power to fit in that tiny a frame. Also for Brutus’s steering wheel to fit around his belly.

I know this is the result of not having the animation cells to spare, to have Olive Oyl try and get away. But the effect is seeing things happen because they’re the things supposed to happen in a cartoon like this. And, in that regard, it’s fascinating. I am not proposing that the team which would, eventually, give us the animated adventures of Gilligan and the Skipper in outer space was experimenting with the audience’s concept of narrative. I mean that they ended up, somehow, creating a cartoon that works fine if you watch it while distracted and becomes odd if you pay attention.

I know I watched this — every King Features — cartoon a lot when I was a kid. I don’t remember ever wondering about why anything was happening. Yes, part of that is that the target age for this cartoon is not renowned for critiquing stories. But I wonder if it’s also that the roles of Popeye and Brutus and Olive Oyl are clear enough that as long as everyone is doing roughly what makes sense, the whole cartoon does. Or at least it looks enough like a cartoon that makes sense to pass.

60s Popeye: Seeing Double, another Popeye cartoon, another Popeye


I am, to my amazement, close to the end of writing something about (almost all) the King Features Popeye cartoons of the 1960s. Unless I’ve messed up my notes, this is my last Gene Deitch cartoon. So, sad to say, I have no story credits to give you. I can just suggest we look at 1960’s Seeing Double.

Among the things I like about the Gene Deitch cartoons is their ambition in story structure. In particular, they’re comfortable keeping stuff secret from the characters and from the audience. It suggests trust from Deitch (and the other creators of the cartoon). I’m not sure whether they trusted the kids would wait to have the plot revealed, or whether they trusted kids will watch Popeye even if they don’t understand it. It makes them stand out against cartoons with more linear plots and explained motives.

Here we establish that Olive Oyl wants a $2,000 mink stole Popeye can’t nearly afford. And then we cut away to a bunch of gangsters. It’s not clear either party knows of the other’s existence. The head gangster, doing an Edward G Robinson impression, has a new robot duplicate of Popeye. I’m not sure the duplicate is meant to look like Popeye. I get the feeling they just made something that worked and it happened to be a short guy in sailor suit with a corncob pipe. You know, the way all robots of the early 60s had corncob pipes.

Robot Popeye puts on a good indestructible show, marching through walls and punching through safes. Based on eyewitness reports the cops toss Popeye in jail. Olive Oyl cries how it’s all her fault, forcing Popeye to rob the bank to buy a mink stole, and we finally learn why that scene was even in the cartoon. It’s odd that Olive Oyl should think Popeye could do something underhanded like rob a non-crooked bank. But Olive Oyl — like all the humans save Popeye in the comic strip — is venal, and can’t fully believe in a person who is not. When another Robot Popeye robbery is reported Popeye’s had enough of this impersonator. Rather than pause to note his unshakeable alibi, he breaks out of jail, punching through the walls just like the robot does.

An angry Popeye talks to his robot duplicate. The robot Popeye is spinning an arm, ready to punch.
Do you suppose Robot Popeye had a robot can of robot spinach on him? Was that going to be the way to tell them apart? (By the way, that’s some nice background work. I think it’s all colored pencils?)

Then there’s the confusing element here. Somehow Popeye ropes the gangsters’ car. We haven’t seen him have any reason to even know there are gangsters. My guess is the story ran long, and something had to be cut, so they went with cutting the bit where Popeye learned what the audience already knew. I guess that’s the best choice. It’s a bold shortcut to take, though, if you suppose that a skeptical grown-up might be watching. (The gangsters also go from flying out of a car to falling off a building, which suggests some scene or other got lost.)

When I reviewed Potent Lotion, another Deitch cartoon that opens with unexplained events, I wondered about casting Brutus as the head gangster. Now that we have an original character cast as the head gangster I wonder why not Brutus. This shows how I can’t be satisfied. But I am a poor amateur critic, and I have to use the few tools I have. One is to ask, how would the story change if some element were different? If the gangster were Brutus, then the robot’s resemblance to Popeye could not be coincidence. I don’t see where that would affect the cartoon much. It would even have explained why Popeye nabs the head gangster, as it’s usually safe to pick Brutus as the culprit. My best guess is they wanted to do an Edward G Robinson character, since that’s always a fun voice, and that’s that.

Still, if we have run out of Gene Deitch Popeye cartoons, I’m glad to go out on one that I enjoy so.

60s Popeye: Popeye’s Corn-Certo (I wonder if Hungarian Rhapsody #2 gets played)


It does not. Today’s King Features Popeye is another Jack Kinney-produced short. The story’s by Joe Siracusa and Cliff Millsap. Both are new names around here, and the Internet Movie Database lists this as the only writing credit of any kind for both. Cliff Milsap was also editor for about two dozen of these shorts and that’s all IMDB knows about him. Joe Siracusa has more of a filmography, although nearly all of it as editor or composer or music editor, all the way up to the 80s G.I.Joe and Transformers. He was also drummer for Spike Jones from 1946 through 1952. Animation direction is credited to our old friend Eddie Rehberg. From 1960 here’s Popeye’s Corn-Certo.

This short has the feel of one of the theatrical Popeye cartoons. It’s a return to the plot line where Popeye and Brutus compete in showing off their expertise. Eventually Brutus incapacitates Popeye and tries making off with Olive Oyl. Popeye eats his spinach, we get some quick fighting, happy ending. The specific of competing by musical instruments calls to mind 1948’s Symphony in Spinach.

There are some structural differences from a theatrical version of this plot. The major one is Popeye and Brutus don’t take turns showing off. Popeye gets several instruments in a row to play the “3rd movement from the 2nd Pizzicato by Mozarella, the big cheese of the musical world”, which sounds like the Popeye the Sailor Man theme. (I like the choice. I imagine it’s for budget reasons. But it also plays as tweaking the artifice of the premise.) That seems like an improvement. It lets us get a bunch of Brutus-sabotages-an-unaware-Popeye jokes in a row. And it doesn’t require Popeye to sabotage Brutus or to find so many ways Brutus’s playing can go wrong. I’m not sure that would work for every challenge cartoon like this, but it works here.

Brutus smiling at the camera and pointing to himself. His index finger is very long and fat, but not to the point it would distract you if I didn't point it out. His mouth is a bit blurry from the next animation cel being a little visible on-screen here. Brutus's eyes are half-open and he looks sleepy.
I couldn’t get a screenshot of this moment that didn’t have a bit of blur in it. They must have decided to animate this moment on the ones, or the YouTube compression worked against it. Anyway you can see how Brutus, even if he did cheat by using a player piano here, is a natural piano player when he has fingers that long.

And the short offers several good little bits. The performing contest being introduced as though it were a boxing match, for example. Or Popeye getting a couple of muttered interjections in, such as saying “Man the lifeboats! I sprung a leak!” or “I should’ve played `Over the Waves`” when his flute produces water. That sort of throwaway joke could have been a muttered 30s gag and fit right in. It’s a good energy to invoke. There’s even a gorgeous throwaway bit. When Popeye says he’s beginning to smell a rat we see a delighted Brutus smiling at the camera and pointing to himself. It’s playful, in a way the best Popeye cartoons are. I got good feelings from watching this.

Given how well this works I don’t know why Siracusa and Millsap didn’t write more shorts. Maybe they didn’t enjoy the writing. Maybe they saw a chance to adapt Symphony in Spinach but didn’t see another theatrical short they were interested in. Too bad. The writing is strong enough to make a good cartoon within the studio’s constraints.

60s Popeye: Dog-Gone Dog-Catcher, a missed chance for a third Roger cartoon


We have another Gene Deitch cartoon this week. It’s directed by John Halas, Joy Batchelor, and Tony Guy, so it’s one of the British-made cartoons rather than the Czechoslovakian ones. But no story credit that I’m aware of, unfortunately. Here is 1960’s Dog-Gone Dog-Catcher.

Popeye is a good character. He is not particularly lawful, though. He’s aware authority can be corrupt or malevolent or wrong. A lot of his best moments are standing up to bullies who happen to have rank. There are shorts where Popeye has to talk up how he obeys and respects, mostly, the police. But cast Brutus as the authority figure and have him make a few snide comments to the camera and Popeye can clobber him without bothering anybody.

So I’m bothered that this short doesn’t quite get it right. The setup is all right. Popeye’s given Olive Oyl a new dog, a poodle who’s described as male, possibly the only male poodle in pop culture. His name is Zsa Zsa. Brutus comes along as a thieving dogcatcher and scoops up Zsa Zsa. Popeye goes undercover to free him. He wears one of those cartoon dog outfits that’s so seamless your every real-world Halloween costume disappoints.

My problem is that it’s not clear Brutus was in the wrong here. He was shown wanting to steal a dog and make life hard for the owner. But he is also the city dogcatcher. We see Zsa Zsa let loose, without a collar or license, and menacing-or-something a cat. An honest dogcatcher would likely try to grab Zsa Zsa given that. It throws the moral balance of the cartoon off. It already started wobbly, with the time-constrained need to put Zsa Zsa out unsupervised early on so the story could start. It makes Popeye and Olive Oyl look like negligent dog-owners.

Popeye, wearing a dog costume, sits on the ground barking; the dog mask is wide open as though he were just a dog with a seam around the neck. Olive Oyl watches; she's considerably taller than him. Popeye's head is not even at her hips.
I know Olive Oyl is tall and Popeye is not but, wow, how short is Popeye anyway?

I don’t demand that characters be all one tone. That’s boring, and it’s not realistic. Characters should also make mistakes. But it’s usually better form, when they get it wrong, for it to be part of the story hat they have blown it. But these cartoons are too short, and the audience-appropriate plots are too direct, for Popeye to explore the difference between being good and acting rightly.

If you can get past this — I imagine many of you can — there’s a fun cartoon here. Popeye’s in an impossibly perfect dog costume, which freshens up the action some and lets him mess with Brutus’s head. We get a spinach-flavored dog biscuit, a rare Deich cartoon case where Popeye doesn’t trust to luck for spinach to show up. (Also a weird edit where we have to infer he eats the dog biscuit.) Popeye declaring “I am smarter than the average dog” and I’d love to know if that’s meant to be a Yogi Bear riff. Popeye getting stopped by a cop and explaining he only has a dog license. The cop asking Brutus if dogs can talk, and a rabbit popping up between them to say, “I never heard anything so preposterous!”

That’s all solid stuff. I just don’t like that I’m not sure Popeye was in the right.

60s Popeye: Uncivil War, about the processes that drive one bad


This week takes us back to 1960 and a cartoon with a baffling title. It comes from the Jack Kinney studios. The story’s by Gerald Nevius and the animation direction by Volus Jones. Here’s a short titled, for some reason, Uncivil War.

I don’t get the title at all. I expected it to be maybe a historical short, but more likely something where Popeye and Brutus have to share the housekeeping. “Popeye instructing Swee’Pea in good driving habits” would have been my maybe fourth guess after “Popeye fights with a squirrel”.

Instead, we’ve got a safe-driving short. The idea seems oddly pitched for the audience, which would be mostly kids a decade away from driving. There were plenty of theatrical shorts pushing safe-driving messages, such as the excellent 1950 Goofy short Motor Mania, directed by some guy name of Jack Kinney. But that’s aimed at a general audience where some of the people are driving home from the theater. Also, the jokes were bigger, bolder. The jokes in “Uncivil War” are more mundane, more educational. There’s a preposterous pileup of cars, caused by Popeye stopping to read the signs too carefully, but that’s about all. The cartoon might have had more surreal jokes if it were just a short about Olive Oyl learning to drive or Popeye trying out his new car. It has a curious shift in structure. It starts out looking like Brutus is trying to woo Olive Oyl with his cool car and Popeye proves himself superior by being a more thoughtful driver. But then that evaporates and we get instead a string of jokes where someone drives badly and then the rest of the cast calls them stupid.

Popeye's car is stopped on a city street. Brutus, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy have all smashed their cars into one another, behind him, and are angry about their smashed cars.
And you say only Popeye knows how to parallel park?

A choice I think I like here is that Brutus isn’t always the bad driver here. (Nor is Olive Oyl, a welcome avoiding of stereotype.) Everyone shuffles the roles of being the good and the problem driver. It helps spread out the laugh lines. It also conveys a subtler message that everyone is a problem driver in some way or another. I can’t imagine that many kids watching this came away thinking of how just being a Good character, like Popeye, doesn’t mean everything you do is right. But it is the sort of lesson one should have. It feels like an inefficient way to do it, is all.

I’d love to know why the Kinney studios chose to make this cartoon, of all the premises they could. Were they thinking of great how-to-drive shorts of the past, including Motor Mania? Was it some sense that they should have some cartoons with socially constructive messages? And how did “Uncivil War” get attached to it as a title? Would like to be able to give you an answer.

60s Popeye: Spoil Sport (sorry, I don’t know who’s spoiling what sport here)


This week brings us back to Gene Deitch-made cartoons. So, as traditional, I don’t have more detailed credits than that. The Internet Movie Database credits Stepán Konícek for music, although I have to say a lot of it seems like stock background. In any event, from 1961, here’s Spoil Sport.

There is something fascinating in these 1961 Gene Deitch-made shorts. They have felt more ambitious, bigger in scope, than most of the King Features 60s cartoons. This is a case in point. Popeye disappoints Olive Oyl with his new scooter being one of those little foot-powered toys you see in cartoons and Back To The Future. Brutus thrills her with his new sportscar. She goes riding with him, that goes badly, Popeye rescues her. It fits a particular style of Popeye-and-Brutus-compete cartoon, often done in theatrical cartoons. Making it about a great car versus … not … is also evocative of the 1936 short The Spinach Roadster, a solidly fun one.

I think it’s unfair to call this a remake of The Spinach Roadster. But it’s riffing on the same melody. There’s no competing with the earlier cartoon for animation smoothness or detail. The short makes some wise choices to compensate. There’s the magazine pictures Olive Oyl’s looking at to start the short. Or her long wardrobe of identical dresses that she needs to pick from. And, in the most impressive animation choice, highlighting the danger of going too fast on this mountain road with a bit of parallax scrolling, showing the cliff’s edge and the valley far below. This last is a particularly good use of the limited animation budget.

There are shortcomings. Brutus’s sports car jumps over Popeye in a way that looks like a bizarre animation error. It’s easy to imagine the 1930s version of this, where it’s clear this is done on purpose to set up Popeye’s evaluation that “that’s not a car, it’s a grasshopper!” But Popeye’s scooter faling into an open manhole, and popping back up without his movement being interrupted? That’s a joke that plays as well as the Fleischers would have done.

Brutus, angry, is in a sports car sitting on top of a mountain peak. Olive Oyl's in the car beside him. Popeye has set a fence post out to reach the peak, and he, on his scooter, reaches his hand out to help Olive Oyl out of the car.
I get that Popeye doesn’t want to eat his spinach until it’s really dire but this might have been a case to eat his can, dig underneath the car, and toss it back to the main road. Am I wrong?

As Brutus drives up the mountain he’s going too fast for the road width. That’s given; he’s a cad and a villain, at heart. But they don’t crash off the road until after Olive Oyl grabs hold of Brutus’s head. She does that a bunch this short, including when Popeye’s trying to rescue her. Later, her scarf gets in his face so he drives the scooter off the cliff. That’s all within the bounds of normal carton character choices, doing things that make the situation worse. A thing missing, that would have been there in the theatrical version of this, is Brutus’s heel turn. He doesn’t try grabbing at Olive Oyl and forcing her to snuggle or whatever it is he thinks he’s doing. My guess is this reflects some rule about how villains can treat women in made-for-TV cartoons rather than limits on time. It does cause a shift in the blame for the ultimate mess, though. It’s not one that spoils the cartoon. Brutus still gets to be the heel, punching out a Popeye who’s rescuing him from a mountain peak. And essential to Olive Oyl’s character is that she’s high-maintenance. I just note how it changes the impression of who to blame here. Could be that Olive Oyl is a more nervous passenger than Brutus was a driver, and if she didn’t grab his head they wouldn’t have gone off the edge.

Another point is this is a well-edited cartoon. Most of these 60s shorts have indifferent pacing and timing. Here, each joke or plot point moves right to the next quickly. Some of these shorts have dialogue where each line sounds like an isolated island in the middle of the ocean. It’s jolting to hear the characters talking to each other so. The only long, slow piece is Popeye pedalling his scooter up all four loops of that mountain road, and that’s a shot that’s funnier the longer it goes on.

I haven’t done a systematic study. My impression is that I’ve enjoyed these 1961 Deitch cartoons, on average, more than any other bunch of these shorts. I’d love to know if the shorts had more time, or money, or less pressure, or what that’s given them an edge.

60s Popeye: Disguise the Limit, somehow *not* Private Eye Popeye


For the second cartoon in this bundle, King Features offered the full credits. Which is odd since this is a Gene Deitch-made cartoon; apart from his name and William Snyder’s we don’t get any credits. The Internet Movie Database offers no insight about who offered the story or animation for 1961’s Disguise The Limit.

I have mentioned mentioned I have no idea how King Features Syndicate chose what cartoons to bundle up where in their YouTube channel. There must have been some deliberation to put two Popeye-the-detective shorts next to one another. I don’t know whether the lack of a third reflects their not having another Popeye-the-detective short. (I do find that Paramount Cartoon Studios made a 1960 short with Disguise The Limit as title, but as far as I know the only common elements are voice actors. There’s also episodes of Courageous Cat And Minute Mouse, Kwicky Koala, Darkwing Duck, and That’s So Raven with the title.)

The introduction sets up another cartoon of Popeye and Brutus competing over a job. In this case, a gorilla’s escaped the city zoo, and they called a detective agency, as one will. Apart from Brutus flirting with Olive Oyl about his plans for the reward money we weren’t told existed, we don’t get that. Instead, once things get going, it’s a mistaken-identity farce. Popeye-and-Brutus competing is an always solid premise. But a good madcap mistaken-identity farce holds a more special place for me.

Brutus and Popeye put on gorilla costumes to go to the zoo and catch the gorilla, as one will. Olive Oyl insists Popeye should dress as a female gorilla, something achieved by putting on a hat “with ribbons yet”. It’s silly, yes, but it also makes the mistaken-identity stuff possible. It almost reads as a joke about how cartoon design treats female as a declension from the male, marked by accessories like hats and perfume. I don’t know that this joke was intended. But I’m amused by it even if it wasn’t put in on purpose.

A gorilla holds Olive Oyl in his arms; she's trying to squirm his way out. Popeye, dressed as a female gorilla (you can tell as he has a hat with ribbons) taps the gorilla on the shoulder.
I have to wonder if Popeye and Olive Oyl saw this as a welcome return to the good old days here.

I like the idea of this cartoon a good bit. Whether it succeeds has to depend on your patience for how everybody gets confused about which gorilla is which. Brutus punching Popeye’s hat off and it happening to land on the actual gorilla makes enough sense for a cartoon for me. Reasonable people can disagree. I’d like the action to have been a little faster, and maybe for one or two more rounds of the characters losing track of who’s a gorilla and who’s in a costume. Maybe if Brutus’s gorilla outfit looked like the others and he wore some prop. But either of these might have made the short too complicated for the intended audience. (Although every time I watch Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July I realize I’m not young enough to understand Winterbolt’s scheming anymore.) Or just demanded too much screen time.

The short has a couple beats that sound like that classic old Popeye muttering, but promoted to front-line dialogue. Like, Popeye planning, if the reward money turns out to exist, to “buy a new hat, I suppose”. Or after noticing the gorilla “bent the bars like they were butter” declaring “We’ll look for a gorilla with butterfingers”. The response doesn’t make sense except as riffing on some already funny words. I like that sort of dialogue, though, and want to encourage cartoons that have it.

60s Popeye: Private Eye Popeye and the case of the missing credits


King Features has chopped off some or all of the credits the last couple shorts. This was a particularly severe case, with even the title card lost. It’s only the title of the collection on King Features’s YouTube page that makes it clear we’re starting on Private Eye Popeye. The Internet Movie Database tells me this is a 1960 Jack Kinney-produced short, with story by Raymond Jacobs and direction by Rudy Larriva. With that established, let’s watch.

My first watch of this, I hadn’t looked up the credits. I wondered if it might be a Gene Deitch short. The nice moody opening pan across the waterfront, with the music too soft for me to notice first time through, seemed suggestive. And little bits of not-necessary but fun flourishes, like Popeye poking his cleaning rag through his magnifying glass, or the title bar identifying Olive Oyl as a private eyess, seemed like Deitch’s touch. Shows what I know, even after all this time.

A leftover Jimmy Durante caricature claiming to be the police chief assigns Popeye and Olive Oyl to catch diamond smugglers. It’s Brutus and the Sea Hag, of course. Popeye wisely calls on Eugene the Jeep to find the plot. This gets a clever bit of Eugene spelling out ‘DIAMONDS’ with his tail, a message Our Heroes can’t interpret. Brutus locks Popeye in the hold, and hits on Olive Oyl, who hits back. Popeye finds his way into one of those giant deck tubas that ships have in cartoons and silent movies, and holds a gun on Brutus. This feels out of character, as much as it makes sense for “a private eye”. Anyway, the Sea Hag steals the gun and Brutus steals Popeye’s helicopter.

Olive Oyl and Eugene the Jeep are tied to the mast of a ship. (Eugene is upside-down.) Olive Oyl cries for help.
Wait … how do you tie up a Jeep so he doesn’t just fourth-dimensionally pop out of there? Is Eugene having a laugh on everybody?

The big action scene here is Popeye clinging to the helicopter while Brutus flies it. The helicopter breaks up and Brutus and Popeye with one propeller each try to grind the other’s propeller to nothing. This is another thing that made me think Gene Deitch: the action is very much what the 1930s theatrical version of this cartoon might be. It’s got that blend of action and danger and absurdity. Popeye eats his spinach, granting super-powers to his propeller blade, and sends Brutus to the sharks below. To be eaten, if we take the text literally, another moment that feels out of character. The Sea Hag’s still loose, but Olive grabs the gun, accidentally shooting down a jar of diamond-encrusted pickles to knock out the Sea Hag. That sounds like gibberish but all the story pieces hold together.

It’s a strongly story-driven cartoon, especially for a Jack Kinney production. I think of his shorts as being more mood pieces. This strong a narrative I’d expect from Paramount or Gene Deitch. It’s a mostly good blend that they have going here. Not sure I like the guns, or the suggestion Brutus has been killed. And the music is the usual for Kinney, a random shuffle of stock cues mixed at the wrong level. But the whole is a successful short. You can see the version of this that might have been made in, oh, 1938, without feeling too bad that it wasn’t.

60s Popeye: Voice From The Deep! Or See Here, Sea Hag!!


Besides having maybe the longest title for a Popeye cartoon, this week’s short has a tribe of villagers on Phony Island. For the most part we only see one, Chief Knucklebone. Did not like that those points were introduced to the story. To my eye, this avoided being offensive: apart from a celebratory dinner we only see Chief Knucklebone, and he’s presented as acting in his own interests. Still, it’s set on a tropical island where the locals are having trouble they can’t deal with. If you don’t need that in your recreational reading, you are right, and should skip this one.

This one is another Gene Deitch-made cartoon from 1961. As usual with Gene Deitch cartoons I don’t have more specific production details than that. The IMDB offers that the music is by Stepán Konícek and that’s all they have to say. If you’re still up for this, then, let’s watch.

This is, at heart, a stock Popeye plot. At least for the comic strip, although the outline got done a few times in theatrical shorts too. Popeye gets a call for help from a backstory friend who lives on some remote island. (It always seems to be islands in the comic strip, too. I guess so he can sail there, or maybe because there’s so many islands you can make up more and it won’t stand out.) Here, there’s the Sea Hag pulling a Scooby-Doo, scaring off the locals to grab their land. The Sea Hag captures — well, not Olive Oyl, for once. Popeye eats spinach, and vanquishes the foe. (Since that’s done off-screen I guess we can’t say for sure he punched the Sea Hag, but it seems like a close-run thing.) Happy ending.

The Sea Hag sits in front of her Volcano Broadcasting System radio/loudspeaker, an apparatus set up inside the volcano to scare off the locals. Bernard, her vulture, perches on her shoulder, with wings spread wide and peering down at her.
The “voice of the volcano” gimmick is one that I’ve seen recently in the Comics Kingdom Vintage comic strips, too. I think it was in a 1950s run of Mandrake the Magician, but I couldn’t swear it wasn’t Brick Bradford or even Johnny Hazard, come to that. You know how those talking volcanos were back in the day.

What makes it appealing is how it goes about this. The considerable animation, for one thing, starting with a needless but fun spiral at the title cards. Having stuff moving, and in funny ways, forgives a lot of weird edits and slightly mistimed lines and all. Also that the cartoon makes time for needless but funny digressions. Popeye sulking about how he needs an extension phone or an extension bathtub, for example. (Or complaining how the phone always rings when he’s taking a bath, when he’s taking a shower.) Or the airplane pilot come to take Popeye to Phony Island. We don’t seem to need this — why not just cut to Popeye hopping off his boat? — but we get some bouncy flying over the suburbs, and the pilot gets fun lines such as indifferently telling Popeye how to use his parachute. That seeming irrelevance pays off, too: Popeye goes on to use his parachute later, first to get into the volcano and then to get back out. What looks like a throwaway gag sets up plot cleverness. Twice.

And that’s what I like in this short. It’s got a lot of cleverness. Even the Sea Hag’s scheme is a clever one. She wants the island so as to set up a vacation paradise for villains. That’s a fun idea. It’s a setting I’d expect to see in a mid-season episode of Get Smart. I’m sorry we didn’t get to see the plan enacted. I suppose the Sea Hag’s vision of casual pickpocketing and cultural programs establishes the premise. And this might be something more fun imagined than seen in detail. (I’d still like to see the Get Smart episode at KAOS Summer Camp.)

Yes, yes, whenever one of these shorts seems to have more plot than needed I wonder if it came from the comic strip. But I wonder again. The short does a great job at giving the impression there’s more story than is on-screen. I like when they do that.

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.)

60s Popeye: Have Time, Will Travel, a rich subtle web of continuity


Now in King Features’s YouTube channel we’ve entered a strange space. They’ve decided to cut opening credits, not just from the first video, but from all of them. I had to resort to the Internet Movie Database to confirm that this was a Gene Deitch cartoon, although I kinda knew already. IMDB does say the short was directed by Darko Gospodnetic, which I think is the first specific credit I have for any of the Deitch cartoons. Also, that this is a 1961-produced cartoon, which may explain one mystery. Here we Have Time, Will Travel.

And a content … advisory. I’m not sure it rises to the level of warning. In the short Popeye and Olive Oyl get caught by a tribe of … Neanderthals Or Something I Guess. It’s playing with the tropes of the “primitive cannibal(?) tribe”. It didn’t quite trip over the point of too much, for me. But you should be aware if you are more alert than I am to the racial ideas bundled into the basic idea of showing “primitive tribes”.

I like this cartoon and I can’t quite say why. Energy, I suppose. Watch it with the sound off; there is all sorts of movement, all this vitality to it. It hits a good midpoint between the wild energy of a Jack Kinney short and the strong discipline of Paramount Cartoon Studios. The premise is a great one — Popeye with dinosaurs, always a winner — carried out half-well. Somehow we get off dinosaurs and into a mean tribe like could happen, only more racist, without Popeye having to leave his era at all. And we get a lot of odd stray moments. I imagine that, as a kid, I’d accept without question Popeye ordering a time machine out of a catalogue. That it’s a tinker-toy construction? That’s weird for the sake of weird and you might need to be an adult to notice how arbitrary that is.

Also arbitrary: for some reason Olive Oyl’s house hasn’t got any heat. I’d so like to know, was this in the first draft of the story? Or was it fit in so that there’d be something to do with the Neanderthal’s spears, once those were put into the story? Or was the tribe put in because they had to give something for Olive Oyl to burn? (But then why not have Popeye and Olive Oyl escape, and them burn the time machine in frustration for putting them in a scrape?)

Popeye and Olive Oyl sitting on the bare seats of a time machine made of what appears to be tinkertoys. It has a large square seat back, and a triangular-prism out front, but it's mostly just a wireframe figure.
That shape there is a loose allusion to the time machine of the 1960 movie, right?

Popeye dubs the first dinosaur they encounter, the one they pull a thorn from the foot of, “Oscar”, saying he reminds him of a guy he knows in Brooklyn. This is an intriguing continuity moment. In the comic strip there’s a regular minor character, Oscar, there to be the dopey incompetent sidekick Popeye sometimes needs. Oscar’s barely made it to the cartoons; I think he has one or two appearances as a background character. Is that the Oscar we’re supposed to think of when we see a brontosaurus?

I want to shrug that off as a meaningless coincidence. But Popeye opens the short by saying how if Professor O G Wotasnozzle can build a time machine so can he. Wotasnozzle’s time machine was a recurring setup to put Popeye in weird situations, including facing yet another dinosaur. But this was a recurring gimmick of Jack Kinney cartoons. Gene Deitch (or someone working for him) was aware of what the other studio had done, and trusted that kids would remember that, and chose to explain why they weren’t using Wotasnozzle’s time machine. I was startled enough by the second Roger The Talking Dog cartoon recapping the first for everyone. (Though Roger postdates this cartoon.) Why did Deitch want his cartoons to connect even to other studios’ Popeye cartoons?

A brontosaurus cries out in pain at the tiny thorn in their paw. Popeye leans in, looking at this, dangerously small and close to being underfoot.
I think this is also how Alley Oop met Dinny. (I actually don’t know and can’t find their story offhand.)

As I said at the top, I liked this short. The energy is a big piece. But it could also be these tossed-off hooks to other Popeye stuff. They’ve got me engaged and thinking about the short in ways a lot of these cartoons don’t.

I like the tribe folk shrugging off spinach as “dinosaur cabbage”. Fun little bit. Of course we all know spinach was only bred about two thousand years ago but we have to accept there’s worse anachronisms here. As Doc Wonmug explained when he first learned Alley Oop lived with dinosaurs, there’s stuff we haven’t heard about yet.

60s Popeye: Popeye And The Polite Dragon, with a shocking revelation about Popeye’s ancestors


We’re back to the Jack Kinney studios for a Popeye cartoon featuring a dragon. No, not Popeye And The Dragon, although there’s some resemblance in dragons there. No, this one is a completely different 1960 Jack Kinney-produced cartoon about Popeye and a dragon. This one is Popeye and the Polite Dragon.

This one has story by Joe Grant and Walter Schmidt and animation direction credited to Rudy Larriva. Producer is, of course, Jack Kinney. Let’s watch, then compare notes.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Jack Kinney studios found a great premise that they did as little as they could with. All right, but it’s so. Popeye adopts a prissy dragon. How can you not at least look at that story and see what it’s about?

OK, so it’s technically not Popeye, but his great-great-grandpappy who looks just like him and also eats spinach and fights the evil Brutus. Lop off a couple seconds at the beginning and end and you have the cartoon where Popeye adopts a dragon.

It’s possible that, in a moment of sloppiness, the studio forgot this was a framed story. There’s bits where Jackson Beck steps in as the narrator, when nominally the cartoon is Popeye telling a “dragon story” to Swee’Pea. I know, it’s hard to imagine sloppiness in a Jack Kinney cartoon, but there it is.

An infant purple dragon, holding his tail over one arm, holds his other arm out and looks away, eyes closed, to reassure Popeye's great-great-grandpappy.
Huh. Wonder what this character’s like, there’s so many ways this pose could be read.

So desperate mother Darlene Dragon leaves infant Percy on Popeye’s doorstep. (Popeyes are always discovering foundlings on their doorsteps.) He takes up the child and is surprised that he talks, somewhat posh, despite being an adorable infant. Later, Percy grows larger than the house, so Popeye sends him out in the world with a can of spinach to make his way. Percy’s way turns out to be into the Elite Dragon Inn, a trap set by dragon exterminator Black Brutus. Popeye, missing his son, finds Brutus and gets thrown in the cage with Percy. He eats Percy’s spinach and rallies the dragon’s fire to burn Brutus out of town. For a Jack Kinney cartoon that’s a pretty solid, well-motivated plot.

For all that stuff happens for good reasons the cartoon still feels underwritten. I understand there’s not the time for fully-developed character arcs. But then at the climax, after the spinach-eating, Popeye tries to rally Percy’s courage? Initiative? Pride? Something, to get him to breathe enough fire to get them out of this fix. That’s a good resolution to Percy’s quest for self-actualization or whatever. It’s also the first moment we get an idea that Percy wasn’t embracing his dragon self. Or whatever the issue was. I understand, Percy’s introduced with that name, and with that Odie Cologne voice. We’re supposed to think of The Reluctant Dragon. With that outside information we have a full storyline, but with what’s in the text?

Popeye stands, looking stern, and pointing at a large purple dragon who's sitting sheepish and depressed in front of him.
Like, where did that confident, self-assured dragon cub go? But then Percy’s had a lousy day, having to leave home and immediately getting captured. It’s fair to spend some time moping.

It’s not like allusion is an unfair way to build stories. Especially when we’re constrained for time or space. I mean, a Looney Tunes cartoon draws the mad scientist as Peter Lorre and we understand his deal right away. But that’s about setting up the mad scientist character. It’s not about his whole business. These feelings may reflect that there’s a lot in this cartoon designed to appeal to me. Popeye. Dragons. A Reluctant Dragon type. Popeye stating his thesis that you should proudly be whatever you are. It’s a story I want done well and I notice where this isn’t put together right.

A couple stray observations. Popeye takes a couple books off the bookshelves. Other books on the background include stuff by Volus, or from Larriva Publishing, or an author named Kinney. They’ve used this bookshelf before and I would swear I mentioned it at the time, but I can’t find that. The cartoon’s title promises a polite dragon, but all we get evidence of is “educated”. And, if — as the joke at the end suggests — we’re supposed to take this as having literally happened … you know, Popeye’s great-great-grandpappy doesn’t seem to have any kids besides Percy. Are we to assume that the Jack Kinney version of Popeye is, at least partially, a dragon? Because that would be cool.

60s Popeye: Popeye’s Fixit Shop, acknowledging the right to repair


Jack Kinney steps up to provide our cartoon this week. The story to 1960s Popeye’s Fixit Shop is credited to Ralph Wright, and animation direction to Hugh Frasier. Let’s watch, and then think about the heck we just saw.

There’s times I think I hypnotize myself into believing a cartoon is good because it feels weird. This is one of those. It’s got a tone and pacing so off that it feels a little alien. And when you’ve seen a lot of something, it’s easy to conflate being alien with being good. This cartoon reminded me of Popeye’s Car Wash. That has a story credited to Harvey Toombs, though.

This is another rivalry cartoon, with Popeye and Brutus both working repair shops at 120 Cartoon Street. There’s a funny pan down the buildings to see the history of dueling signs and the cobweb-encrusted proprietors. Great job establishing the backstory without even needing animation.

For a couple minutes the cartoon is about Olive Oyl wanting the heap of parts that used to be a telephone put back together. I don’t know if I wanted an explanation for how the phone broke. It doesn’t matter, no, but there was room for her to say she regrets taking it to the elephant parade or something. Brutus magically fixing the phone by swapping it for Popeye’s is a good premise. Olive Oyl gets to commit Brutus to fixing the broken phone in front of them and then that whole premise drops.

Olive Oyl clings to the hour hand of the city hall clock, in a pose reminiscent of the famous Harold Lloyd scene. She's posed so that her arms, and body, are in front of the hour hand, meaning that her wrists are either twisted sharply around or her hands are folded upside-down to hold on to the clock.
How … how is she holding on to that clock hand?

The other premise is the City Hall clock needs repairs if Santa Claus is ever going to visit the town anymore. Popeye has the job, but Brutus poaches it, and the rest of the short is them fighting inside the clock. That’s also a good premise. I’m curious whether they have these two repair premises because they couldn’t develop either of them into a full short, so went with what they had? I could also imagine they wanted to end with Olive Oyl eating the spinach, and needed some reason for Olive Oyl to be there at all. That would explain having her come in as customer. That explanation doesn’t satisfy me, though. She could’ve been Popeye’s assistant, or the person at City Hall pointing them to the clock, or something. I feel more confident that they didn’t have five minutes’ worth of clock-repair jokes.

A clock interior — like a factory interior, or a symphony orchestra — is almost a guarantee of a good fight. The background carries so much structure that the action almost can’t fail. It’s fun if the characters mess up the works; it’s fun if the characters can’t, and get messed up themselves. Yes, this would have been stunning and wonderful if it were done by the Fleischers in 1939, using real-life sets for the backgrounds. For the TV-budget pittance available here? It gets the idea across.

Olive Oyl eats the spinach this time, an event that’s rarer than I had thought (though this list is incomplete). Even more rare if you consider she usually eats it because Popeye can’t hit a woman even when she’s the antagonist. I’m aware of what the cartoon doesn’t do well. Mostly in pacing, or in missed lines or odd sound cues. Wimpy’s snoring-eating dialogue aggravates me in some way I can’t make precise, too. I still enjoy the whole.

60s Popeye: I Yam Wot I Yamnesia, with something never before seen in Popeye


This week we’re back at the Jack Kinney studios. The story is by Ralph Wright, whom we’ve seen with a couple mildly baffling cartoons: Double Cross-Country Race, and Forever Ambergris, and Around The World In Eighty Ways. So we can expect, if nothing else, a snappy title, and that’s delivered. Animation direction is by Ken Kultgren, an old friend now. Director and producer credits go, of course, to Jack Kinney. Here is 1960’s I Yam Wot I Yamnesia.

We get more than a snappy title from this. We get that rarity of a premise that hasn’t been done in Popeye before. There’ve been a few shorts where someone disguised themself as Popeye or, sometimes, Olive Oyl. (I think that was only done in the King Features shorts and I don’t know production order for those.) But an actual body-swapping story? That’s new. (Not wholly unprecedented; Vice Versa, which I know as a late-80s movie I didn’t feel the need to watch, was based on a novel from 1882. In the 1930s Turnabout was a popular novel and then movie.)

At least it seems like a body-swapping story. After the first accident, with Popeye and Swee’Pea swapped, Wimpy declares that it’s amnesia. Wimpy’s con-artist inclinations make him a good person to know any needed exposition. But he has a specific reason to know about this: as a boxing referee he’s seen it many times. Wimpy was introduced in the comic strip as a boxing referee; this might be the first time it’s come up in a cartoon that wasn’t about boxing. It also suggests mind-transfer is an occupational hazard of boxers in the Popeye universe. The world-building isn’t strong enough to ponder that. Wimpy knows the cure for bump-on-the-head amnesia is another bump on the head. But Olive Oyl gets in the way of his hitting Swee’Pea gain, and we get another round of body-swapping.

At the front door, Brutus leans forward, eyes closed, to kiss Olive Oyl. She has a stack of four hamburgers in her hand, and one in her mouth, so that Brutus is kissing the hamburger.
I’m sorry, I should have mentioned this week was Popeye After Dark.

Or, again, apparently body swapping? Because the punch line of the cartoon, Popeye and Brutus both acting like babies, doesn’t make sense as a swapping. It’s more like “actual” amnesia with neither remembering anything past when they were Swee’Pea’s age. I know, it’s shocking to imagine a Jack Kinney cartoon where the logic falls apart, but that’s what we have.

But there’s another unprecedented thing here. Wimpy-in-Olive’s-body, or whatever it is, declares (at about 14:02), “I’m one of the Jones boys.” And repeats it, about 15:26, telling Brutus, “Please, sir, I’m one of the Jones boys!” This was, I swear to you, Wimpy’s big catchphrase in the Thimble Theatre comic strip. He would throw up this line as conversational chaff to escape when a mark was starting to catch on to him. As far as I know it’s never been animated before. Ralph Wright revived Wimpy’s backstory to explain something that barely needs explaining. What motivated Wright to go for a deep cut in stuff Wimpy might say? (And a line that, in this context, would be baffling to kids who didn’t know that 25 years before Wimpy said this stuff. Maybe they would guess that his name was Wimpy Jones?)

Popeye and Brutus are sitting and crawling on the floor as toddlers, eyes closed and making goofy faces. Around them are a bunch of toys.
I don’t know what feeling it is Popeye playing with a sailor doll instills in me, but it does.

So the cartoon has striking novelty. What it hasn’t got is much of a plot. Once the premise is established we get about 938 cutaways to Swee’Pea-in-Popeye’s-Body demanding a cookie. And as many of Popeye-in-Swee’Pea’s-body demanding spinach. Wimpy-in-Olive’s-body goes after more hamburgers, as the refrigerator full of burgers isn’t enough. Olive-in-Wimpy’s-body goes off … I dunno, knitting or something, the girls do that all the time, right? But the cartoon is short. The novelty of everyone doing stuff with the wrong voice-actors is enough to last until Brutus arrives. And then he has to work out the premise again, since somehow once you’re body-swapped-by-head-conk you forget this happened?

Popeye-in-Swee’Pea’s-Body goes to make a spinach sandwich and eats a bit himself. This is another rarity, eating spinach before there’s any particular mission. It might be novel that this gets the Popeye-the-Sailor-Man fanfare before there’s any feat of strength to do. Popeye-in-Swee’Pea’s-Body punches Brutus for no reason I can discern. The various rubble knocks everyone but Popeye and Brutus right again. Wimpy’s happy to have the chance to test his theory and Olive Oyl declares, “No, no, a thousand times no; ’tis far better thus!” Thus is Popeye and Brutus playing like toddlers. It’s a funny, out-of-nowhere bit of melodrama on Olive Oyl’s part. I’m not sure what it means about what she wants in a boyfriend.

And that closes out it out. I’d be interested in a Popeye body-swapping cartoon where things happen. But puttering around with the novelty for a couple minutes is pleasant fun too.

60s Popeye: The Black Knight (not the one where he fights a pinball game)


We’re back to Jack Kinney studios for a time-travel adventure. This 1960 cartoon has a story credited to Ed Nofziger, with animation direction by Ken Hultgren. As always director and producer credits go to Jack Kinney. Let’s send Popeye to see The Black Knight.

“The Leprechaun”, last week, was all story and no humor. This week, we’re at a different studio, and at near the converse. This almost plays like an improv sketch built around the theme of Popeye in Pop Culture Medieval England. Once more Professor O G Wotasnozzle uses his time machine to possibly abduct an unsuspecting Popeye, sending him to King Arthur — in the time of Prince Valiant — for reasons of what the heck.

The Wotasnozzle frames are always a bit weird since I don’t know why they’re needed. These cartoons never seem like they’d make less sense if we started with Popeye in Medieval times, or the future, or caveman days, or whatnot. We never get scenes of Popeye trying to work out where or when he is. That’s confusing since the standard frame has Popeye knocked unconscious and dropped somewhere else in time. But in this case we don’t see that whole frame; the cartoon assumes the audience has seen enough of this to get the setup. I suppose they have. Kids have so much easier a time understanding stories.

King Wimpy looks bemused, and Queen Olive bothered, that an angry Popeye has been dropped, flopped over, on their dining table.
I understand King Wimpy’s disdain here. I’m also annoyed when someone drops work on my table in the middle of a meal.

Once we’re there, the story pretty near stops. We get the main cast (mostly) recast as Arthurian-ish characters. Wimpy as King Arthur, Olive Oyl as Olive Guinevere, Brutus as the Black Knight are about all you can do. The Sea Hag as Merlin makes the best sense at giving the role to someone magical. Naming her Ethyl Merlin is a nice gag. Anything the Sea Hag does is coded as villainous. It seems to me we don’t often see Merlin portrayed as a villain, at least not in Camelot-set stories. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court excepted. I’m not sure she quite reaches the point of villainy, though. Before she enters everyone’s afraid Popeye is a spy or something — they’re afraid of his pipe as some kind of sorcery. Even a good Merlin might reasonably want this intruder locked up until they were sure what his deal was.

This all turns into a jousting contest between Popeye and the Black Knight, using what stunts need the least possible new animation. There’s charm here. A lot of it is silly dialogue, elevated by the decision to speak with Fake Old-Time Word Endingseth. Or jokes about the knight-fall or how the squashed Brutus is “what a short knight”. The running joke about Wimpy wanting more medieval hamburgers has some nice pacing and delivery, given how many end up bonking him on the head. I don’t get the joke early on about Wimpy wishing they’d invent hamburger buns and Olive Oyl saying “Oh, nay, t’would be ill. Bread!” I mean, I get that it’s funny because it has the sound of a pun, but the pun doesn’t make sense. They’re trying out a lot of jokes, they can’t all work. I appreciate the attempt.

60s Popeye: The Leprechaun, a title that gives away the last scene


The title of this week’s King Features Popeye had me expecting a Jack Kinney short. Somehow it felt like a story built around a “real” legendary creature fit that studio’s style more. Nope; this is Paramount Cartoon Studios. So director and producer credits go to Seymour Kneitel. The story’s credited to Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer. From 1961 let’s see Popeye tangling with The Leprechaun.

This is not a funny cartoon, which does not bother me. This is an adventure cartoon instead, a striking lot of story for five and a half minutes of animation. The Sea Hag has a plan to set her up for life: catch a leprechaun and steal his gold. Popeye spots her — in a neat and surprisingly smooth bit of animation, at about 33 seconds in — and decides he needs to be in the cartoon too. The Sea Hag finds the leprechauns on an island so lush it has detailed, even shaded, backgrounds. Her not-bad plan: beg for help from a kindly leprechaun, and to repay him, offer him tea. It’s laced with truth serum so he can’t not tell the location of the leprechauns’ gold.

The other leprechauns banish him for this. This doesn’t seem fair of them. I don’t know much about Irish mythology but from what I have learned, the only thing more dangerous than accepting a stranger’s offer of food and drink is not accepting. They should have sympathy; it could have been any of them. Popeye runs across the poor leprechaun, “banished forever” until their gold is returned, and he catches the Sea Hag at the docks. She uses her Evil Eye Whammy. He uses his spinach to punch it back at her, knocking her out. I guess this doesn’t break his resolve to not hit a woman, but it’s a close thing. The gold’s returned, Popeye’s made an honorary leprechaun, and I’m not sure we ever hear the victimized leprechaun’s name.

A leprechaun lifts the unconscious Popeye's nose ahead of pouring 'Shamrock Juice' into his now-open mouth.
I’m not the only person who expected a mention that Shamrock Juice contained a squirt of spinach, am I? Really expected that, possibly as the way Popeye would get his spinach power-up. Maybe if they had a full seven minutes for the short.

As said, this isn’t a funny cartoon. I’m not sure there’s even an attempt at joking. Doesn’t matter. There’s a story here, and a well-constructed one. For example, when Popeye first challenges the Sea Hag her buzzard sneaks up and knocks him out. This balances with Popeye sneaking up on and knocking out the buzzard at the end. The kind leprechaun finds the knocked-out Popeye and helps him; this establishes his nature before the Sea Hag can take advantage of it. And while we know Popeye would help a sad-looking fellow, it gives him a stronger reason to try and help the banished leprechaun.

And there’s some production bits. The bit with Popeye looking through his telescope and turning his head, for example, a bit of animation so good I expected them to reuse it at least once. Maybe it’s put into the Paramount stock library and turns up in other shorts. Or there’s the great children’s-book illustration of the forest. It’s got so much depth as to make the other backgrounds look chintzy. It gives a suggestion of the forest as this magical, more-real-than-real setting. Or maybe it reflects the background having been designed for a theatrical cartoon and getting pressed into service here. I don’t know, but I love the decision to use this.

I bet Popeye gets a lot of mileage out of being an honorary leprechaun in future cartoons. Can’t wait for next week.

60s Popeye: Olive Drab and the Seven Sweapeas (Seven! Count ’em! Because we lose one somewhere)


We’re back to Jack Kinney studios this week. The story’s credited to Jack Miller, a name I don’t have recorded yet. This and Popeye And The Spinach Stalk seem to be his only King Features Popeye credits. The Internet Movie Database credits him with story credits for some noteworthy things, including the Porky Pig/Daffy Duck classic You Ought To Be In Pictures, and a bunch of George Pal shorts including the Oscar-winning Tulips Shall Grow. Animation direction goes to our old friends Volus Jones and Ed Friedman. Here from 1960 is Olive Drab and the Seven Sweapeas. That’s how they spell it, it’s not on me.

Another Jack Kinney cartoon, another fairy-tale story. This is another one not presented with the frame of Popeye reading to Swee’Pea. He’s just narrating to us viewers. A neat thing about Popeye is it’s not strange to drop the characters into another story, the way it would break things if you did this with, like, a Star Trek episode. The oddest piece is casting Swee’Pea as all seven brothers. That works well enough, though. There’s no sense trying to differentiate seven characters in a cartoon this short. And even with the cast of Thimble Theatre characters opened up the way the King Features shorts allowed, there’s no digging out seven kid characters. It is neat they reached into the comic strip enough to find Olive Oyl’s father Cole, to play Olive Drab’s father.

The story’s a nicely done one. Its inspiration from Snow White is clear enough we can rely on that to fill in narrative lacunae. But it’s varied enough that the story feels new. It’s a good development to have Olive Drab go out in the world seeking help over this pirated ship. And there’s an interesting bundle of little ironies in the story. Particularly in how the Seven Swee’Peas go off to find Prince Popeye, who was coming to visit them anyway. We also learn Prince Popeye knew about the whole stolen ship thing without Olive Drab’s going out to tell him. I’m not sure he would have done anything if he weren’t sort-of asked to, so Olive Drab’s voyaging serves a purpose, I guess.

Popeye and his ship are seen through a telescope. The ship has a prow that's a larger replica of Popeye, smiling and looking forward.
Don’t talk to me, or my boat, ever again.

The Sea Hag, of course the villain, figures to prepare a can of cursed spinach for Popeye. Decent enough plan. Changing her focus to stopping Popeye, instead of Olive Drab, adds some nice wrinkles to the story. I was ready for Popeye to end up trapped in eternal sleep and Olive Drab needing to come to his rescue. The cartoon doesn’t go that far off-script, though. Olive Drab taste-tests it and knocks herself out, which makes sense.

Popeye and the Swee’Peas team up for some reason to take on the Sea Hag, although I’m not clear that they know she’s the problem. They seem to be going on the principle that she’s the other character in the short. She describes them as “the whole cotton-pickin’ navy” after her. They don’t seem to need to do much to stop her, though; trying to fire a cannon just gets herself blasted. She rams Popeye, who finds her box of Real Spinach, and he tears apart the bow of her boat. This seems to sink it, although from the art it’s not clear to me this even reaches the waterline. Well, they recover the gold, get back to Olive Drab, and for some reason the Sea Hag’s Vulture whispers how to revive her. And all is happy, Popeye and Olive Drab sailing off into the sunset, while six Swee’Peas wave at them. I have no explanation for this phenomenon.

I most often talk about the curse of competence with Paramount Cartoon Studios shorts. Here, we’ve got Jack Kinney Productions caught by the same issue. It’s a watchable, pleasant enough short. But I’ll be forgetting it soon enough. The short’s not that good, and its glitches are mostly things like poorly-edited line reads. It’s easier to remember, and to review these, when they’re much worse or much better.

Prince Popeye’s boat is an odd choice, though, have to say that for it.

60s Popeye: Boardering On Trouble, prequel to the Dan Aykroyd film Nothing But Trouble


Today’s is a Paramount Cartoon Studios cartoon. The story’s credited to Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer. Directing and producing we credit Seymour Kneitel for. From 1961 here’s Boardering On Trouble.

A strength in how Popeye adapted to animated cartoons is in the flexibility of setting. The characters are like figures of the Commedia dell’arte. They’re types you can put into any setting with whatever backstory makes the premise make sense. So you can set Popeye and Brutus as co-owners of an Old West hotel/boarding house and you don’t need to explain more than that.

And yet this cartoon doesn’t work. The basic conflict — another rivals-fight-for-Olive-Oyl story — is one Paramount Cartoon Studios had done a million times before. This may have worked against them. They’re so busy with the mechanics of the story that they forgot to justify it. Like, Popeye and Brutus are fighting; that’s what they do. Only here, Popeye throws the first (metaphorical) punch, pulling a gun on Brutus over whether their hotel should specialize in fine dining or quality entertainment. It’s a water pistol, yes, as we know because we overheard Popeye talking to himself about it. But it’s still a jerk move, and it’s a mistake for Popeye to be the lead jerk.

An angry Popeye holds a pistol on a shocked, terrified Brutus.
Popeye! What brought this on, besides the past thirty years of Bluto/Brutus’s bullying, harassment, and assorted villainy?!

Still that Paramount steady basic competence shows through. The water pistol gets set up early so that Brutus can suppose the next pistol drawn on him is also a toy. The cartoon would not make less sense if Brutus just assumed Olive Oyl had a water pistol, but they can’t help giving him a logical reason to expect it. It’s weird to explain that but not, like, why this is set in the Old West rather than the modern day. (Maybe it’s so that there’s a reason the hotel can’t do both fine food and quality entertainment? Why Popeye has to be the chef and Brutus the performer?)

I talk a bunch about cartoons that Paramount could have animated in their sleep. This sure feels like one. It gets the mechanics of Popeye and Brutus’s duel — each does their thing and the other sabotages it — well. It even tosses in a nice bit where Olive Oyl defends herself from the Masked Bandit (Brutus, pursuing a logic I don’t follow). But it’s so busy doing that that it fails to motivate the duel, or to avoid making Popeye the person who causes the trouble.

60s Popeye: Popeye’s Hypnotic Glance, it was much better than Cats


Jack Kinney’s our producer again, and the director also. Animation direction is credited to Volus Jones and Ed Friedman, while the story is by our old friend Ed Nofziger. With us here now from 1960 is Popeye’s Hypnotic Glance.

This essay is going to be me trying to rationalize why I like this cartoon. Not sure I can. This is a solid premise with which the cartoon does one thing and then stops. Somehow that hangs together for me. I think Olive Oyl’s unending repetition of how “I love Brutus”, joined eventually by Alice the Goon’s vocoded “I love Popeye”, might be hypnotizing me.

The plot’s coherent, especially for the often dreamlike progressions of Jack Kinney studios work. A jealous Brutus discovers he has a “How To Hypnotize” book, and figures that’s the way to get Olive Oyl to love him. We get a nice zoom-in on Brutus planning his villainy here. It’s a rare camera move with some dramatic purpose. That’s mirrored later by a camera not moving to good dramatic effect. As he starts hypnotizing Olive Oyl the camera sticks to the view of her fireplace. I expect that was a budget-driven choice. But it’s also dramatically effective, the sort of thing that a live-action director might focus on if this scene were played serious. Olive Oyl also goes out of focus, as the hypnosis takes effect, and that’s a good bit of camera work.

There’s some more off-camera action to decent comic effect, even if the scene shouldn’t make logical sense. Brutus goes into the kitchen and we hear him hypnotizing “You loves Popeye, get it? You loves Popeye”. Yes, he’s hypnotizing Alice the Goon instead of Olive Oyl. Popeye should be able to see this, but it’s more important the audience be surprised. Also I’m always happy seeing Alice the Goon, who never gets enough to do.

Popeye sits, tied up, in a kitchen chair. Alice the Goon holds a giant bowl of spinach which she's ready to start feeding him. In the background is a stove with a pipe that bends around four corners so it makes a square loop.
I believe in letting people enjoy the lifestyles they enjoy, so I don’t complain that Olive Oyl’s kitchen seems old-fashioned even for 1960, but I question whether that stove pipe is any good at its job.

It’s curious that about all Brutus wants to do with a hypnotized Olive Oyl is have her repeat “I love Brutus”. It’s amusing that he starts waving his finger like an orchestra conductor to lead her. Also that her head tips to the side and she gets stuck on “I love – I love – I love”. It barely makes logical sense as a record player joke and I wonder what a kid of today would make of it.

Credit Brutus with his cleverness in figuring to set Alice in love with Popeye. She’s one of the few characters who can plausibly overpower him and that he can’t hit back. Also credit Popeye for seeing the way out of that, by demanding she cook him spinach. I don’t know how to read the bit where Popeye cries out, “That’s it, Alice, more spinach!”. Alice responds with stony silence and no more spinach. It’s funny, but I feel like I’m laughing at an animation error.

It’s an interesting choice that Popeye only uses his spinach power-up to break the ropes tying him down and clobber Brutus out of his sofa. His reading the hypnotism book seems to be regular old reading. Or they didn’t have enough of the Popeye-the-Sailor-Man fanfare to make that clear.

As I say, I like this. I can point to good bits in it. (Olive Oyl laughing off Brutus’s first several hypnosis attempts without throwing him out of the house, for example.) But, boy, not a lot happens and what does is more funny-weird than funny-ha-ha. And it fumbles what should be easy bits, like having the background music louder than Alice the Goon’s dialogue. Not going to fault anyone who says this is an example of a lousy King Features short. I’m still delighted by it.

60s Popeye: Gem Jam (it’s more of a jelly)


Before I start, folks who remember the Talkartoon Twenty Legs Under The Sea, starring Bimbo and with a cameo from a proto-Betty-Boop, might like to know something. The Max Fleischer Cartoons channel on YouTube has a cleaned-up version of that cartoon just published. Theirs is a channel worth watching. They’re doing a lot of cleaning-up and posting obscure shorts. If I ever turn to reviewing the Fleischer Color Classics series I’ll likely depend on their versions of the cartoons.

And a spot of trivia. One episode of Let’s Make A Deal this week closed with a Quickie Deal with an audience member dressed as Popeye. The challenge: if he could name when the Popeye series started (to within a decade) he’d get a hundred dollars. 1933, right? Well, he guessed wrong. And they answered wrong, offering 1960 as the start! Have to guess whoever was pulling up trivia for the Quickie Deals didn’t realize how ambiguous asking when “the Popeye series” started was.

Back to the King Features Syndicate Popeye shorts, though. Today’s is another Popeye cartoon from the Paramount Cartoon Studios group. The story’s credited to I Klein. Direction and production are credited to Seymour Kneitel.

The cartoon is set in India. I’m relieved to report that it has no racist or even questionable depictions of Indian persons. This because the budget was too tight to represent any Indian persons at all. It does depict India as a place with strange statues bearing curses, though. If you don’t want that sort of exoticizing South Asia in your recreational reading, you’re right and just skip this piece. You aren’t going to miss anything important in understanding the Popeye canon. This never quite tripped over the line to get me angry. I think because it interacts with the setting so little. The story wouldn’t change if the Sea Hag were trying to get Merlin’s Macguffin from an English castle.

For those who are venturing on, here is 1969’s Gem Jam.

I mean, there’s this episode of Dave the Barbarian where the lead villain has to trick one of Our Heroes into swiping this cursed magic item for him. You could watch that, if you want this premise done with more fun and energy. Dave the Barbarian was a mid-2000s goofy cartoon set in a fantasy magic kingdom, so a cursed item has a subtler set of issues behind it. It also has a more specific curse. The first person to take it will turn into cheese. Dave the Barbarian had that 90s-web-comic style of wacky wacky zany and oddly angry humor. But I’m sure there’s nothing we now notice as regrettable in the series at all.

But this short, mm. Popeye and Olive Oyl are in India, while every Indian person is out of town visiting friends. The Sea Hag is, too, hoping to swipe a gem from a statue. But the gem puts a curse on whoever steals it, so, she whips up a perfume potion to make Olive Oyl steal it for her. I’m sure the Sea Hag would have preferred anybody besides Popeye’s girlfriend to do this, but again, there’s not even people in the distance in background paintings here. She had no choice. Also, apparently, in this cartoon’s continuity Olive Oyl hasn’t met the Sea Hag yet. I suppose this justifies the Sea Hag relying on Olive Oyl instead of, like, training a squirrel. But it’s going to mess up any kids trying to put all the Sea Hag/Popeye/Olive Oyl interactions in a consistent order. Good luck.

The Sea Hag, wearing a turban, holds out her hand expectantly . Olive Oyl, who's fallen on the ground, sits up, looking confused by all this.
“Come with me! We’ll find a better cartoon for you to be in!” “What, like where I’m in the Army with Alice the Goon?” “Eh, maybe skip it.”

Olive Oyl’s tricked into stealing the gem, but the Sea Hag can’t get it from her because the characters are explaining what just happened to each other. And the statue decides its ill-defined curse is going to mess with Popeye more than Olive Oyl. Well, he leaps in to take hole-in-the-earth meant for her. She feeds his spinach into the crack in the Earth, and Popeye remembers he can’t hit a woman even if she is the Sea Hag. So Olive Oyl eats the spinach and beats up the Sea Hag instead, off-screen. This is a rare cartoon where Olive Oyl eats spinach. The others I can think of are the Fleischer Studios Never Kick A Woman and the Famous Studios Some Hillbilly Cartoon, Right? This is because I have no memory of the Famous Studios Firemen’s Brawl. Anyway, Our Heroes return the emerald and we get out of the cartoon.

I always talk about how these Paramount-made cartoons at least always have basic competence, even if they’re dull. This one leans more on the boring side than usual, though. The repetition of explaining how the Sea Hag tricked Olive Oyl sure filled time. The curse wasn’t that interesting. We didn’t even get a good fight cloud between Olive Oyl and the Sea Hag. This would be a story to launch your existentialist fanfic about these characters going through the motions of protagonist and antagonist, except it’s not even an interesting enough routine plot to sustain that. Really, if you like the “trick the hero into stealing the cursed item” premise, try that Dave the Barbarian episode instead. That’s got jokes at least.

60s Popeye: Ballet de Spinach, a cartoon without spinach in it


This week’s cartoon, in which Popeye does not eat spinach, is from the Jack Kinney studios. Ken Hultgren gets the story credit. Ken Hultgren gets animation direction. Producer credit goes to some guy name of Jack Kinney. Must be a relative. From 1960 here’s Ballet de Spinach.

I discussed Moby Hick last week as a strongly plot-driven cartoon with not much humor. Here we’ve got an almost plotless cartoon that’s relying on its humor. Olive Oyl has a new obsession, ballet dancing, and she nags Popeye into it. Nagging your friend into your hobby is real enough, and it’s potentially good comedic fodder. I don’t usually care for it myself, but please remember that left to my own devices, I would not actually go out or do anything. I’d sit in a comfortable chair playing on my own devices.

Olive Oyl’s dancing, and she’s going to be on the stage tonight, and she wants Popeye as her partner. This seems to be short notice. She nags Popeye into wearing a tutu and tries to coach him through a scene. Popeye’s outfit isn’t the sure laugh for me that the cartoon acts as it should be. Olive Oyl’s outfit works for me, though. We almost never see her in blue and it looks good on her, even though for some reason the outfit leaves her like two heads shorter than normal. Popeye mosty grumbles and stomps around like Fred Flintstone. It was close enough I wondered if there might have been any animators crossing over between Jack Kinney’s and Hanna-Barbera’s studios. But it’s also very likely there’s just a natural pose for an aggressive male character to stop across the room.

Popeye, dressed in a ballet costume as an angel, points a finger angrily at Olive Oyl, who's also wearing a ballet costume and seems less sure of herself.
The one shot this whole cartoon where someone isn’t making a fist.

Brutus, looking in through the window in what I think is stock footage, laughs at Popeye. So we can add ‘toxic masculinity’ to Brutus’s rap sheet. (It was probably on there already.) Brutus comes in, somehow, to escalate the torment, and Popeye has enough pretty fast. Olive Oyl decides Popeye mustn’t do things out of character for an angel. So he gets clever, asking if angels will smack people in their breadbasket, like this, or clonk them on their head, like this. It gets the punching done.

Characters roped into things they don’t care for is often good for comedy. So is characters forced to follow some rule that conflicts with their natural impulses. So even without a plot this is a sound enough base for the cartoon. It doesn’t work for me, as I don’t find it inherently funny enough that Popeye should be in a tutu. Popeye’s in a fowl enough mood that I don’t have fun watching him. I suspect if there were more sotto voce jokes, Popeye quipping about his embarrassment or awkwardness or inability to dance, it might work.

(I couldn’t work a way to mention The Green Dancin’ Shoes into this, but if you like Jack Kinney-made cartoons about Olive Oyl’s dancing, you might want to know about that one too.)

60s Popeye: Moby Hick (not the Gene Deitch one)


Paramount Cartoon Studios produced today’s short from 1960. The story’s from our old friend I Klein. Direction and production are credited to Seymour Kneitel. Here at least is Moby Hick.

A common problem to any longrunning series is the dwindling universe. It’s natural to focus on the most interesting character, or characters, and everything in the setting dwindles away. Moby Hick does something interesting, despite the only significant characters being the Sea Hag and Popeye. The Sea Hag doesn’t start this short with any interest in Popeye. When she does run across him she hasn’t any interest in destroying him. She keeps him in the cartoon because she figures she can use him. And her goal is something that’s in the backstory, something we don’t see much in these cartoons. Years ago (we eventually learn) she stole the Seamen’s Orphanage treasure, but lost it overboard where the great whale Moby Hick swallowed it. We have to suppose this was a Sea Hag caper that Popeye wasn’t involved in, since the treasury wasn’t recovered back then. These are small items. But they’re things that expand Popeye’s universe, making stuff happen that isn’t about him.

The Sea Hag gets a lot of nice business this cartoon. She has a solid introduction, the whole bar of sailors scared off by her reputation. Spotting Popeye as someone she could use, and spinning enough of a tale of being reformed for Popeye to buy it. Popeye’s usual sense for detecting bad guys seems to malfunction here. His Columbo-like eye was one of his defining characteristics. In his first story in Thimble Theatre he couldn’t stop socking John Stork, long before he had any evidence Stork was the bad guy. It’s not lost entirely; Popeye recognizes Moby Hick isn’t some rampaging monster from a good look at the whale. Maybe he wants to believe in reform that much. He hasn’t got much reason to expect it from the Sea Hag, or Bluto/Brutus. But, like, Toar came around fast, and so do a lot of his opponents.

The giant face of Moby Hick, a green whale, looks, smiling, to Popeye, who's standing up and looking happy back at him.
I know this is Moby Hick, the legendary … green … whale, but what I see is that space-energy monster from the advertisements for Arkanoid. Only, uh, not mean.

This is a more plot, less comedy-driven cartoon than usual. I have the impression Paramount-made shorts are more likely to have that sort of strong plot. I suspect the studio was better at stories than (say) Jack Kinney’s or Larry Harmon’s could be. The only mysterious point is how the Sea Hag came to learn Moby Hick had swallowed the treasure. I suppose it was some wicked bit of spellcraft or something.

It’s not just me, right? It is weird that Popeye’s been swallowed by jellyfish more than he’s been swallowed by whales? (He wasn’t even swallowed by a whale this time!) Only a stray thought; pay it no mind.

60s Popeye: The Bathing Beasts, in which nobody bathes or even gets wet


We return to Paramount Cartoon Studios for today’s Popeye short. The story is credited to Irving Dressler. Direction and production, though, are credited to our old friend Seymour Kneitel. Here’s 1960’s The Bathing Beats.

This is another in the long-running string of “Popeye and Bluto/Brutus do feats of strength for Olive Oyl’s attention” cartoons. Paramount — which used to be Famous Studios, which used to be Fleischer Studios — had done about 740 of them at this point. They could probably do them in their sleep. There’s a fair chance nobody planned to make this short, it just appeared, the byproduct of working on other shorts.

The feats-of-strength-for-Olive’s-attention cartoon lives on how inventive the gags are. It should also rely on how interesting the stakes are, but those are almost never interesting. It’s usually who gets a kiss from Olive Oyl, or maybe a date. (In Popeye for President the stakes are becoming President of the United States and yet that doesn’t do anything for the cartoon.) Here it’s … who gets to ride in front in Olive Oyl’s new car.

So the contest is at the local Mister America pageant where whichever wins gets to ride shotgun. The pageant is lucky Olive Oyl bought a car as they’d otherwise have no competitors. And then we get a bunch of basic, easy-to-animate gags. There’s bits of life. I like the pacing of Popeye and Brutus pulling the other out of the front seat. I like Popeye knocking on his head like a xylophone. But, consider the joke where Popeye slaps Brutus’s back to make him swallow his harmonica. Brutus says something unintelligible. It’s funny enough, but it’s also done already, in Symphony in Spinach. Only there it was Bluto slapping Popeye, acting as villain. I’m not sure Popeye stumbles over the line between being mischievous and being the jerk, but it’s closer than I’d like.

An exhausted Popeye, about to fall asleep, slumps over a set of weights he's trying to lift.
Actual photo of me attempting to critique this cartoon.

Brutus drugs Popeye to sleep, but accidentally drops spinach in his mouth. The big climax is Popeye dead-lifting Brutus and his weight, a feat that’s so ordinary it appears as a pre-spinach warmup feat in The Anvil Chorus Girl. There’s nothing wrong in repeating a good joke. It shows the diminished budget and scope and ambition of these shorts, though, that what used to be a warmup act is now the closer.

The punch line, of course, is that Popeye remembers Olive Oyl is a woman driver and flees into a tree to be safe. It’s not that this genre of jokes can’t be funny, because Bob Newhart’s “Driving School Instructor” routine exists. But this joke doesn’t have any sincerity to it. The cartoon would be better if we ended with Olive Oyl driving Popeye off somewhere.

This isn’t a bad cartoon. But it doesn’t feel like it was made, that is, that no creative decisions went into it. It just animated whatever they had and never thought about why, or what they could do better, or uniquely. And, as mentioned in my essay’s title, nobody in this short titled The Bathing Beasts ever gets wet.

60s Popeye: The Golden Touch, and how to cure it


(The cure is spinach and Jeeps, which, yeah, will cure most anything.)

Before I get into the cartoon I want to amplify a bit of news. Fred M Grandinetti was kind enough to post the other day that he has a new book, Popeye the Sailor: The 1960s TV Cartoons, about just what the title says. I haven’t had the chance to get it, but I’m interested to read another person giving some serious attention to a neglected corner of Popeye’s history.

Another week brings us to 1960 and back to Jack Kinney sudios. Ed Nofziger’s credited for the story, with an assist to Ovid. Eddie Rehberg reappears as the animation director. Here’s The Golden Touch.

If the legends of King Midas teach us anything, it’s “don’t appear in a legend with any Greek gods”. Midas survives his two legends well, coming out of it with a couple hungry days and, later on, donkey’s ears that the fields can’t stop whispering about. Still, the golden-touch legend is the one we all remember, for saving humanity from a dystopia where the pursuit of the illusion of wealth destroys our environment, our society, and our bodies.

And it forms the bulk of this adequate cartoon. It’s the telling of another Popeye Fairy Story — Phairie Story, according to the cover — with the inspiration that Swee’Pea is in love with pennies. As a way into a story, that’s a good one. It’s a very kid attitude to want all the pennies.

In the story, Good King Popeye is a beloved ruler who does impersonations of Ted Lewis with his question, “Is ev’rybody happy?” It’s an interesting cast: I understood having Alice the Goon and Wimpy (who’s hamburger-happy) as a kid. As an adult, I’m … pretty sure the first person to answer is supposed to be Geezil. I think the last is supposed to be Toar. We also get a glimpse of Oscar (at about 0:46). There’s a short person standing next to Geezil(?) and Alice the Goon we never get a good view of, and I’d like to know if that’s supposed to be someone recognizable.

The street of a medieval-ish city. There are several people on the street, all frozen and turned to gold with dollar signs on them. One is 'Ye Poppe Corne' vendor. In front of 'Ye Poppe Corne' vendor are a cat and dog turned to gold in the middle of hissing at each other.
So first, is that Roughhouse as Ye Poppe Corne vendor? Second, why did King Popeye touch the cat and the dog?

Good King Popeye wants his land to be as rich as it is happy. The magical Jeep (is there another kind?) decides this is a day to give people what they ask for, not what they need. The golden touch is fine and fun when it turns his crown, his pipe, and his pipe smoke into gold. Less so when it turns Princess Olive to gold. He tries to eat spinach to fix all this and the spinach turns to gold, which he can’t eat.

And here the short starts to fall apart. King Popeye needs to find the Jeep to reverse the spell; OK. He goes asking people if they’ve seen the Jeep. By tapping them on the shoulders. I get the animation reasons for this: it’s very cheap to have someone stand still while a cel of Popeye’s arm swings down to touch them, and then you paint them in gold. But turning one person to gold is an understandable accident. The fourth time in you have to ask what King Popeye thought would happen.

My problem’s not that he does a dumb thing. Everybody does dumb things sometimes. And it’s a legend inside a kids cartoon. It isn’t necessarily bad if the kids are smarter than the characters. But if you’re Toar, and you’ve seen Popeye just touch Alice and Wimpy and turn them to gold, why aren’t you going to step back some? And the answer he didn’t see them, because they didn’t have enough animation budget for Toar to turn his head and see any of this.

But maybe the problem is unfixable. It would be about as cheap for Popeye to ask the crowd if they’d seen a Jeep and everyone to say no. They’re all Jack Mercer doing voices anyway. But it would be a shame to not use as much of the gold touch as possible. Maybe there’s a way to rewrite so King Popeye has reason to touch everybody in the kingdom, and if they had the time to work on the stories they might have found it.

A sad King Popeye walks along the narrow spit of land toward the Sea Hag's lair. His footprints are golden dollar signs.
I think it’s fair for King Popeye to ask why his crown and pipe and pipe smoke turned to gold but his clothes and the cape he’s brushing(?) did not.

Popeye’s last hope is the Sea Hag, who it turns out captured the Jeep. She’s able to drive King Popeye off, first with the garden hose, a joke that I really like. Then by throwing the kitchen sink at him, over and over. King Popeye eats his gold spinach because that bit where he couldn’t eat gold spinach was whole minutes in the past and who can remember that far back. And threatens the Sea Hag with being turned to gold if she doesn’t release the Jeep. I think this is getting in the neighborhood of a war crime but since it all ends merrily enough we’re okay with it. Everybody’s happy again, and Swee’Pea has learned to wish for nickels instead.

There’s stuff to like here. A King Midas Touch cartoon is a fun starting point. The wish is immediately appealing to anyone, even as we acknowledge that taken literally it would be horrible. The world becoming more and more dead as you interact with it should be a good nightmarish building of tension. We get Eugene the Jeep and the Sea Hag, always fun characters. And there’s cute little bits, such as King Popeye leaving behind golden dollar-sign footprints. If that wasn’t used in a Richie Rich comic book cover somebody at Harvy screwed up. I love the Sea Hag just reading her paper, asking “Hah?” when King Popeye demands the Jeep’s release.

As it is, though, it’s hobbled. There’s the problem of King Popeye having no good reason to tap the fourth person on the shoulder. And the music is a completely flat, almost languid thing. It’s like the music director was asked to score five minutes of hanging around while nothing happens. The change in whether King Popeye can eat the gold spinach I suppose we can use the old “it wasn’t dire enough to try earlier” excuse. It’d be nice to have something made more explicit, though. I know I always say the Jack Kinney cartoons are a rewrite or two away from working, but there we are.

60s Popeye: Roger, a Roger cartoon with more Popeye in it


Today’s is a Gene Deitch cartoon, so the only credits I have are his direction and William L Snyder’s production. From 1962 here’s Roger.

This is the rarest of all kinds of Popeye cartoons: the sequel! Apart from clip cartoons I can’t think of any other Popeye short that directly referenced another one. (There are a few shorts, How Green Is My Spinach from 1950 the most notable, where characters remember how this stuff always goes. But none of these are sequels to anything particular.) This is so unexpected that at first I thought this was a repeat of Canice Caprice, which introduced Roger the Dog. It’s not. It’s a completely different story centered around Roger the Talking Dog.

We meet up with Roger, who’s promising to never cause trouble again if Popeye and Olive Oyl take him back. This includes a promise not to speak except to them. It’s a promise Roger will keep even if it forces him to do dumb stuff, like make Popeye look like a fool to the cops. For this time Roger overheard men plotting to rob Mr Tiff’s jewelry store, and he even got the story correct. (He’s on a mission to get Popeye tobacco, which is the only time I can remember anyone mentioning what it is Popeye smokes, too.)

Roger the Dog pledges to never speak except for Popeye and Olive Oyl. He holds his paw up crossing his fingers in imitation of the Boy Scout 'Scout's Honor' pledge.
I didn’t know Roger made Beagle Scout. That’s great!

It’s an interesting character choice that Popeye tries to pass this off to the cops. Reasonable, yes, but why isn’t Popeye’s first plan to catch the robbers himself? When he does try catching them himself the cobs nab Popeye and toss him in jail; it reminds me of Potent Lotion, another Gene Deitch cartoon. Olive Oyl tries to shame the robbers, which works as well as you’d imagine, but it does feel like the sensible choice for her. Roger brings Popeye a can of spinach. Once more Popeye doesn’t leave the house carrying any. That’s been so consistent a thing across Gene Deitch cartoons it must be he, or his writers, thought that made for better storytelling. I suppose they’re right. It answers the question of why Popeye doesn’t eat his spinach sooner in the cartoon. I’m not sure that’s a question that ever much bothered the audience, though.

I regret having started these Popeye cartoon reviews too late to ask Gene Deitch anything he cared to share about them. I’d love to know what motivated doing a second Roger cartoon. Not that it should be Roger, of the characters created by Gene Deitch. I’m not sure there were other characters good for a second story besides Roger and maybe Professor Underwater. But why do a sequel at all?

I can imagine a story-creation narrative that makes sense. You want Popeye to know about a crime by some means he can’t explain. So, a talking animal overhearing this fits. And then it’s either Roger or something as good as Roger. (Eugene the Jeep? He’s been in Gene Deitch cartoons.) And then you need some reason the talking animal won’t talk to the cops, thus, a promise that he keeps outside all common sense. That’s all reverse-engineering the story creation, though.

In the jewelry store Popeye has untied Olive Oyl while Roger the Dog looks up with pride. The police chief rubs his hands together, happy to see what Popeye's delivered: the whole gang of jewelry store robbers, beaten up, and resting on top of the frowning Mr Tiff, an older bald man in glasses who's been revealed as mastermind behind this.
Oh I did not foresee Skin Horse ending with Ira Green getting beat up by Popeye. Works, though.

Popeye eats his spinach off-camera, an event exciting for its rarity. Adds some suspense to what we all know. He catches the robbers, who turn out to be working for Mr Tiff. It’s insurance fraud, the crime every child wants to see foiled when they watch TV or movies! I mean if they’ve had their fill of “bad person is pirating music”. Catching Slippery Sam leaves the cops so grateful they forget how breaking out of jail is still a crime even if Popeye shouldn’t have been there. Happy ending all around.

I’d call this the better of the Roger cartoons. Popeye guides more of the action, even if it’s prompte by Roger. And Roger behaves more sensibly apart from not following Popeye’s direction to tell the cops what he knows. The characters are balanced together better, is what I’m saying. It bodes well for the quality of the next Roger cartoon.

60s Popeye: Me Quest For Poopdeck Pappy (how does he keep getting lost?)


We’ve seen Poopdeck Pappy in shorts from at least three of the King Features Syndicate cartoon makers. But, you know, it was 1960. It was time for Seymour Kneitel to write, direct, and produce Me Quest For Poopdeck Pappy. Here goes.

Is there a more iconic Popeye story than his search for his Pappy? (Bluto/Brutus harasses Olive Oyl until Popeye punches him is any 30s-cartoon Bully harasses Female Lead until Little Guy fights back short.) In the comic strip, it was one of the stories that defined his character. For the Fleischer studios it became Goonland, one of the best theatrical cartoons ever made. (One semester campus cinema put a short before every movie. Usually Road Runner-and-Coyote; it was an engineering school. But one time they showed Goonland. I recommend the experience of watching it with an audience that has no idea what’s coming or how Popeye and Pappy will escape the Goons.)

For Famous Studios it got remade as Popeye’s Pappy, a cartoon you probably don’t know because Famous Studios decided to make it racist.  So it didn’t get shown much on television. (Who looks at Goonland and thinks “what this cartoon lacks is a two minute prologue of Whoopi Goldberg saying times were different then”?)  Then Paramount Cartoon Studios — the same outfit as Famous and Fleischer, really — put in one more take. And elements of the same core idea would go into Robert Altman’s movie. And into the 2004 direct-to-video-that-I-never-saw Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest For Pappy.

A startled Popeye is held tight in three of the tentacles of Charlie the Octopus.
“What a week, huh?” “Cap’n, it’s Sunday.”

It’s easy to see why to keep going back to this story. The inciting incident of Popeye learning he might not be an orphan, is compelling. The dynamic of Popeye utterly devoted to a father he’s only ever imagined, and Pappy utterly contemptuous of his son? “I hates relatives,” Pappy declares in I think every version of this story. The setup alone generates comedy and drama. In this cartoon Pappy concedes that Popeye can take it, like his son would, when Popeye absorbs a fist straight to the jaw. “But my son woulda hit back,” which Popeye finds unthinkable. That is a master class in defining two people and their relationship. Pappy is a hilarious character, a caricature of Popeye that somehow still has some believable core. Pappy’s heel-face turn, bonding with his son over spinach and punching, is silly but makes such good character sense that it works every time. So the core story is so strong it’s hard to imagine anyone messing it up.

That isn’t a setup to saying this messed it up. The cartoon is lesser than Goonland, but, c’mon. Goonland is one of the best theatrical shorts American animation ever made.

The most relevant comparison is to Popeye’s Pappy. Me Quest For Poopdeck Pappy is almost what you get if you remove all the racist depictions of cannibal islanders from that. The role that Olive Oyl and Swee’Pea serve here, letting Popeye explain the premise of the cartoon, is served in Popeye’s Pappy by Popeye’s mother (!)(!!!)(!!!!!) in what is surprisingly not her only depiction ever. They then disappear wholly. Goonland has Popeye explain the premise in song, to himself and the audience. I’m curious why the later shorts aren’t comfortable with Popeye addressing the audience.

As with Popeye’s Pappy we see Popeye face the creatures of the island, all of them powerful and menacing, though not to Popeye. Pappy even sends Charlie the Octopus, an animal friend of his from the original comic strip story. (In Robert Altman’s movie I think the octopus was named Sam and his connection to Pappy was vague.) Pappy’s on “Goony Island” this time, a name that evokes Goonland, but there’s no Goons to be found. The Monster of the Sea is such a big, if pink Godzilla-esque, menace that Popeye can’t handle it without the spinach that’s rolled away. But that’s the impulse for Pappy’s change of heart here. And, as in Goonland, he observes he hasn’t had spinach in years. In Popeye’s Pappy, Pappy has a can of spinach with him all along. It’s kept inside a box with a ‘Break Glass In Emergency’ sign, a joke that belongs in a more watchable cartoon.

A giant pink/maroon Godzilla-style sea monster has their beak wide open. Poopdeck Pappy is standing, floating in midair, punching the monster's open mouth.
You see how much might there is in Poopdeck Pappy’s fists here when you consider he knocked the Monster of the Sea over the horizon without even touching him, just swinging his fist into the Monster’s mouth.

As every version of this story ends (that I’ve seen), Popeye’s reunited with his Pappy. And his disregard for Pappy’s autonomy — in this, Popeye’s Pappy, and the movie Pappy ruled his own island and seemed content there — is forgiven. Even by Pappy, who (as in Popeye’s Pappy) closes by singing how “Now I am happy / I found I’m the Pappy” of Popeye the Sailor Man.

As a cartoon? Well, this is limited by the things that always hit Paramount Cartoon Studios work. There’s too little variation in tempo to build up the drama to things. (Though the timing on the gorilla passing out after Popeye’s hit is quite good.) But it does have Paramount’s reliable competent animation. Everything’s fit together well. There are even flourishes of style. (Olive Oyl poses against the mast of Popeye’s ship in a pose like she uses in the two-reeler Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor. There’s no need for her to do that, even so far as there’s a need for her in the short at all, but why not be there with style?) If this short had some zany energy to it, then the strength of the story and of Popeye-Pappy interactions, would make this a really good one.

60s Popeye: Amusement Park, a cartoon set in, I don’t know, an accounting office?


It’s an amusement park, of course, as we know from the rare (for Paramount Cartoon Studios) title card that dissolves into the front scene. With a story by Howard A Schneider, and direction and production by this Seymour Kneitel chap, here’s 1960’s Amusement Park. All those tents make it look more like a county fair or a circus to me, too.

Popeye worries that Swee’Pea hasn’t got through the Funhouse yet and it’s been over two hours. This is a funny line, reason tells us, as it’s good understatement in the face of absurdity. I didn’t chuckle. And that’s the cartoon for you. The cartoon is constructed right, with the setup making sense and the story developing reasonably. It leads, as amusement park cartoons have always done for Popeye, to antics on the rides, particularly the roller coaster. It just isn’t funny.

Some of that is the fault of the limited animation. Brutus fleeing on a Ferris wheel or a roller coaster is a silly idea, if you think about it. While waiting to catch up with why this is silly, though, you need some spectacle. The theatrical shorts could afford that. King of the Mardis Gras ends with a glorious ride along a beautiful giant wooden roller coaster. Abusement Park skimps on the roller coaster support footage but makes up with a string of elephants flying through the air. Here? … well, Popeye and Olive Oyl ride a Ferris-wheel car through a tunnel of love. It’s obscured but we get to hear the chaos.

Sitting on stage are a thin man, Swee'Pea wearing a top hat, and a bearded lady. The sign behind them reads, in order, 'THIN MAN // BEARDED LADY // BABY MIDGET''
I don’t want to nitpick but the sign lists them in the wrong order. (Also, ‘Baby Midget’ is a good bit of bunkum.)

The limiting of the animation spectacle works against everything here. Like, Swee’Pea going through the funhouse, while Brutus tries to catch him, and escaping each time? That should work. The innocent wandering heedless of danger might be Swee’Pea’s best role. But what makes a funhouse is having lots of stuff moving in surprising ways. In this funhouse, Swee’Pea crawls through what looks like an empty barn while Brutus is too slow to catch up.

It’s all animated and written with the usual Paramount competence. I can’t pin down what I’d rewrite to make it better, at least within what I imagine the limits on budget and time were. Popeye and Olive Oyl riding a loose Ferris wheel car through the air to crash into a horse-drawn wagon ought to be exciting. Something’s gone wrong if it’s not.

Early on Brutus explains he wants Swee’Pea “to take the place of the midget what drowned in the salt-water taffy”. That seems a surprising grim backstory for the cartoon, although it wouldn’t have felt out of place for a theatrical short. I wonder if the script was pulled out of storage from the Famous Studios days.

60s Popeye: The Day Silky Went Blozo, in which Blozo goes Silky in a big way


We emerge from a second wave of Seymour Kneitel back to the comforting if slightly shoddy hands of Jack Kinney studios. The story for this 1960 short is credited to Joseph Stewart and Jack Kinney and animation direction to Hugh Fraser. Join us now and witness what happend The Day Silky Went Blozo.

Popeye versus The Reluctant Dragon! How can you not like that? Well, I’ll do my best to try … Well, you might not like that way Jack Kinney cartoons seem to animate the first draft of the script. That’s always unfortunate, and a bit more so here for the satiric potential in the premise. King Blozo is, like he always is when we see him, distressed. This silky-voiced dragon is disaffecting Blozo’s people with his Moritz Schlick-like assertion that the meaning of life is play. It’s never too soon to teach kids that society is as cruel as people have decided to make it, and that if we wanted, it could be better.

So Blozo has the problem that his kingdom’s threatened by this dragon encouraging people to sing and dance and be happy instead of, you know, work. Once again I long for the theatrical short this could have been, with two or three more minutes of screen time. And some bit players. And showing things screwed up because people are off prancing around a dragon instead of their jobs. The budget in time and money only allow sending Wimpy off against the dragon, who I don’t think gets called “Silky” on-screen. Wimpy’s spectacular failure against Silky sends Blozo to repeat the premise. And to declare he needs to send the “strongest, most honest, and ugliest man in my kingdom” against Silky.

Silky, a large dragon wearing blue vest, cap, and shoes, plays the trunk of a tree as if it were a flute. A crowd of Thimble Theatre regulars --- Wimpy, Brutus, Olive Oyl, Swee'Pea, Professor Wottasnozzle, et cetera --- sit on the ground watching eagerly.
The first events at the Garden State Arts Center were pretty informal things.

Strongest and most honest make sense. Ugliest is an odd insult to toss in, especially when for all we in the audience know Brutus might be next. The placement dampens the impact of a not-that-good insult/joke. I’d cut it, myself, especially as Blozo doesn’t have many other comic asides to make this flow better.

Popeye challenges Silky to a duel, and the dragon choses the yo-yo as his weapon. The dragon’s yo-yo tricks win over an appreciative crowd, one that includes Brutus in a rare non-antagonist role. He doesn’t even speak, although Jackson Beck earns his pay doing the dragon’s voice. Also a rarity: Popeye eats his spinach but doesn’t use that power to do anything. He’s ready to slug Silky, or at least do some better yo-yo tricks, but Blozo’s been won over by the charms of dragon yo-yo. So all the fighting gets called off. Blozo goes over to Silky’s way of living.

All the key points are here and I like how they play out. I particularly like the weird exceptions of this short, like Brutus’s and Olive Oyl’s non-speaking roles. And Popeye eating his spinach but not using that. Or Popeye being the last one to realize he’s on the wrong side here. He starts in the wrong sometimes, but I think this is the only time he comes around after eating his spinach.

There’s a batch of not-quite-finished bits. Blozo repeating how it’s terrible that this dragon is telling people just what they want to hear. How you tell the difference between the normal Wimpy and the Wimpy who’s taken Silky’s advice to live a frivolous, pleasure-driven life instead. Or the animators not having agreed on how big Popeye the Knight should be, relative to the dragon, so they try all the plausible heights. Or (at about 3:30) animating Popeye’s mouth moving since I guess the soundtrack showed someone was talking, never mind that it wasn’t Popeye. (Come to it, Popeye’s mouth — at least his pipe — moves more while Silky talks than when he talks later in the scene.) The lousy mixing of audio levels, so Silky’s song gets lost underneath the music. As keeps happening with Kinney-produced shorts, no one of these is a difficult thing to patch. But you feel the constraints on time that must have been present that they weren’t patched.

60s Popeye: William Won’t Tell, because in this one, William is Popeye, that’s why


Have we entered a new round of Seymour Kneitel-mania? … Almost! It’s a Paramount Cartoon Studios production this week, so yes, he’s the producer. And the director. The story, though, is given to Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer. So here is 1961’s William Won’t Tell.

I’ve mentioned the curse of competence. It’s not hard to write about great cartoons. It’s easy to write about the fabulously incompetent. William Won’t Tell is mostly a good enough idea done well. But I’ll try to give some decent attention to a cartoon that sets a reasonable ambition and does it pretty well. It shouldn’t be neglected for that.

It’s a fairy-tale setting, like a fair streak of King Features cartoons are. This one doesn’t have a narrator, or any kind of framing device. It doesn’t need one, although that does raise the question why any of these cartoons ever need one.

The town crier reads from a long scroll. He's a skinny, narrow-faced person, with a shaggy, Brutus-like beard.
One of the first bit parts played by Shaggy before he landed that Scooby-Doo job. In his memoir Shaggy admitted the Brutus beard was a strange choice and nobody remembers who suggested he wear it.

The story’s inspired by the legend of William Tell. Popeye Tell pauses in his day of doing good deeds to help the Queen replace her broken wheel. She gives him a kiss on the forehead, that he has to keep secret from the jealous King and the no-less-jealous Olive Oyl. The King learns of this anyway and demands all men pass before him with their hats off. When Popeye refuses the King forces him to shoot an arrow off Olive Oyl’s head. He does, but the trick arrow that makes this easy also knocks his hat off, revealing everything to everyone. The Queen saves the day, with a well-timed explanation and birthday gift for the King, and we have a happy ending.

I don’t have a national-identity attachment to the legend of William Tell. So I don’t mind the shifting of events and motivations and all. There’s a solid logic behind the whole story, too. We get Popeye to be heroic to start with, and for that resolute good nature to get him in a fix, and for that virtue to be what brings the last-minute save. It fits well enough I only noticed later that nobody brings up spinach.

A stubborn and annoyed Popeye blows 'NO' out of his pipe.
Saving this reaction shot for every e-mail I have to answer this week.

There are several nice fangles in this, mostly in the animation. Popeye refusing the King’s order by blowing his pipe to spell out ‘NO’ in smoke. Popeye felling a tree by using arrows that spiral around each other and do the work, the sort of stunt often done in the theatrical shorts. The King trying out and rejecting two apples before putting the tiniest one on Olive Oyl’s head. These all add vitality to the cartoon, and also reward watching. They lift the cartoon beyond the illustrated-radio default.

I bring up again how well I find the story structure. When I look at the other cartoons credited Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer I find one that I thought well-structured (Who’s Kidding Zoo) and some others with decent premises done okay (Messin’ Up The Mississippi or The Baby Contest, for example). I’m curious what happened to make everything come together this time.

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