We come to the finish of this little run of baffling Jack Kinney-produced cartoons. With a story by Osmond Evans (whose only story credit before this was Popeye the Fireman, though he has animation direction credits) and animation direction by Ken Hultgren, this 1960 short takes us on a tour of moments that raise the question, “Huh?” Here is Popeye and the Magic Hat.
So there’s a line here where Olive Oyl says of stage magician Brutus that she thinks he’s a big fake. This comes after she’s gone to see his show. He’s produced fireworks, a stream of water, several brass instruments, and petunias which he gave her. Brutus has taken Popeye as a volunteer. Brutus has made Popeye’s clothes jump off his body, then back on, then turn into a baby’s outfit, then a caveman’s, then a clown’s, then a ballerina’s, and then into a matronly gown. And then had a Jeep — Eugene, I assume — appear, crawling all over Popeye. Then had an apple appear on Popeye’s head. Then made Popeye’s legs disappear, along the way to making all Popeye’s body vanish, right out there on stage. And then gave him a body that would be big for Aunt Eppie Hogg over in Toonerville Trolley.
What sensible reason does Olive Oyl have for calling Brutus a “fake”? What would constitute “real” magic?
I focus on this as representative of this short’s baffling nature. The rough outline makes sense and has been done before. More than one time. (With variants.) The specifics are weird. Why does Olive Oyl call Brutus a fake after that? Why does Popeye say something like “Dreamy Squeamy, [ Brutus ] gives me the popcorn!” Why is Eugene the Jeep hanging around Brutus? Is he actually doing the magic and Brutus only does the patter? How much of this short is made up of Brutus waving his magic wand down and up once? I like Brutus responding to Olive Oyl’s cry of “fake” by turning her flowers into fish. Why does he then turn her into a seal? And then do a stunt of bouncing 10- and 16- and really-heavy weights off her nose and at Popeye?
And then we get a string of transformation jokes. Popeye asks if Brutus is trying to make a monkey out of him, because he hasn’t learned from past cartoons like this. And then he’s a monkey for a bit. Brutus turns them back to normal. Then turns Popeye into a giraffe and Olive Oyl into a flamingo, because of reasons he doesn’t share with us. Popeye grabs the wand, creates a Delux [sic] Giant Size can of spinach and turns everything back to normal. Brutus flees into his hat, and Popeye and Olive Oyl follow. The resulting fight decimates Liddsville, but saves the animation budget because a hat jumping around is easy to animate. (There is a lot this short that’s easy to animate. The characters mostly stand still on a blank background, alone, while looking at the opposite corner.) And then the hat opens out wide and everybody pops up, a happy performing family talking about how “you were both adorable!”
So … uh … what? What just happened and why? Was this all a stunt, with Popeye and Olive Oyl confederates making it look for the TV audience like they were fighting? And now breaking the scene to let everyone know it’s all right? Having written that out, I admit, I can read that as clever. That Popeye and his cast are performing the roles of antagonists in hundreds of these little scenes. There’s a reason his comic strip was named Thimble Theatre.
There are thrills in looking hard at these 60s cartoons rather than, like, the Fleischer cartoons that everybody loves. One is how weird the cartoons could get. There wasn’t the time and money (and maybe talent) available to make clear stories well-animated. This can produce a wild, bracing freedom. Until it happened I had no idea this cartoon would involve Olive Oyl turned into a performing seal. That surprise is a delight and I’ll take that, if the cost is my being sure why these things happen in this order.
Seeing Popeye as a monkey and Olive Oyl as a flamingo got me wondering. So far as I know there hasn’t been a short that cast the Popeye gang as animal versions of themselves. (I’ve forgotten almost all the Hanna-Barbera series, but King Features has got some of it on their YouTube channel. And I’ve seen none of Popeye And Son.) It could freshen up a stock plot if you have new-looking animation and can toss in a bunch of animal jokes among the regular dialogue. I suppose it would cost too much, redesigning the characters and having to replace all the stock animation cycles for the one short. Could be it’s somewhere in the comic books, or should be. I’m interested in seeing adventures of Popeye the Monkey and Olive Oyl the Flamingo.