What I Learned From Watching All the 60s Popeye Cartoons


Or almost all. I’m at peace with there being a couple of the two-hundred-plus King Features Syndicate cartoons that I haven’t recently reviewed. But I always like at the end of a big project like this I like to think about what it means.

I can’t say this has prompted me to have a major critical revision of the 1960s cartoons. Or to push for one. The 1960s cartoons are mostly regarded as a cheap, hurried cash-in, of a quality ranging from mediocre to garbage. I’m warmer to them than that, but the conventional wisdom is near enough right. There are some cartoons that I’ll advance as “pretty good” or even “good”. More that are “interesting”. But like everyone knew going in, the theatrical shorts are better. The black-and-white shorts better still. I haven’t looked at the 1980-era Hanna-Barbera series to compare those. Might try them. I know late-70s Hanna-Barbera hasn’t got a high reputation. But it could make Saturday morning cartoons at least uniformly okay. None of that Testimonial Dinner bizarreness or that one where Popeye turns into a giraffe there. (All right, there’s the Superfriends where Zan and Jana are unable to outwit a defunct roller coaster. That was a bit slipshod.)

Swee'Pea, Professor Wotasnozzle, Olive Oyl, and Popeye standa around looking at the Whiffle Hen and the Whiffle Chick. The Whiffle Hen's a roughly ordinary chicken-size bird. The Chick is quite large, about as tall as Popeye, and has a vaguely cubical body and head, and with the beak at a weird angle looks with half-lidded eyes towards the camera.
Who can forget how the Whiffle Chick opened up the Popeye universe?

And yet those are two cartoons that leapt immediately to mind. The lure of the novel, or the exceptional, is hard to resist when you watch a lot of something. That’s no different here. Give me a bonkers premise or a plot that’s too incoherent to be dream-logic and I am fascinated. This is not an effect any studio ever tries for; probably you couldn’t manage it if you did. (Compare that one episode of Dexter’s Laboratory written by a seven-year-old. It was one of the most compelling episodes of a generally good show.) What chance does a merely well-made episode, like Myskery Melody, have against that? Yet that’s also a cartoon that leapt right to mind and that I will keep promoting while I can.

The King Features cartoons introduced some good trends. One is that they largely shed the plot of Popeye-and-Bluto/Brutus-compete-for-Olive-Oyl. There were some cartoons that used that frame, sometimes to good effect. But it was a story done four billion times already, especially in the 1950s shorts. Clearing it out opens up the universe to do a series of golfing jokes or driver-safety jokes instead. Another is expanding the cast of characters. Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre overflowed with neat characters. The King Features shorts finally animated the Sea Hag, and brought Poopdeck Pappy and Eugene the Jeep back to being major characters. It also gave some outings to lesser characters like Roughhouse, the Whiffle Hen/Bird, King Blozo, Castor Oyl, Toar, and the many vaguely defined relatives of Olive Oyl. Even footnotes like Ham Gravy got some scenes.

Dark, foggy, swamp-bound scene of the Sea Hag on a raft, the full moon in back of her. She plays her flute with her vulture sitting up ready to launch.
She looks like a friend!

Not enough of them. The Sea Hag and Eugene the Jeep make the leap into major characters, as they should, because they’re endlessly fascinating. King Blozo almost makes it, but not quite. So do Alice the Goon and Professor Wotasnozzle. I’m glad they got the time they did, and wanting more is a good state to be in with them. Professor Wotasnozzle might be the biggest disappointment. He’s in a good spot to give Popeye some goofball super-science gimmick to deal with. Instead what we mostly see is him in a framing device. He sends Popeye to another era to do the same schtick without even a clear idea whether Popeye knows what’s going on.

The shorts give this sense of new ground breaking, of new possibility. There were far more characters, most of whom worked, and fresh stories available to tell. Even more settings. Many cartoons were set in Popeye’s Boring Suburban Home. But they weren’t required to be, the way so many of the 1950s Famous Studios seemed. Sometimes that setting was even part of the story, as in Coffee House, the Beatnik cartoon. Or, for a mixed benefit, the attempt to set the cartoons in India or China or such. This usually turned out so racist I refused to review the cartoon. One can see the charitable reading, that the cartoons are trying to be more ethnically diverse. This sort of nonwhite-people-written-by-very-white-people can be a well-intended stumble. It was endemic to 1960s and 1970s programming. Still not going to listen to Chinese Wimpy.

On stage, Olive Oyl is transformed into a seal from the neck down. She looks startled. Popeye leans in from behind the curtain looking aghast.
This is one of those scenes you’d never get from the studio that brought us that cartoon where Popeye can be elected President only if he does farm chores for Olive Oyl.

There’s also a sense of there being no grown-ups in the room. The shorts feel like they’re the story person’s idea, untouched by worry that they fit the Intellectual Property Use Guidelines. Often this freedom from supervision also seems to be freedom from a second draft. Especially if Jack Kinney’s or Larry Harmon’s studios produced it. But a lot of exciting, creative novelty comes from people who have skill in their craft and only casual supervision from the people paying for it. The shorts didn’t enjoy this as much as they might. The sense remains, in most of these shorts, that anything might happen. Popeye’s in caveman times. Olive Oyl has a pet tiger. Wimpy crosses the Whiffle Hen and becomes a werewolf. A living missile wants to kiss Popeye. Brutus builds a robot Eugene. Aliens come to Earth, disguised as mailboxes. Brutus magics away Popeye’s arms. Wimpy is a millionaire, twice. Alice the Goon is hypnotically compelled to make out with Popeye. Cheese wheels from the Moon hold Wimpy hostage. Swee’Pea is the focus of a revolution. I made up at least one of those; can you tell which ones?

Scene of the audience in the Colosseum. The front two rows are filled with mostly minor characters from Popeye/Thimble Theatre.
Look at that screen packed full of trivia answers!

All this new freedom and new ground and lack of restraint, though, is most often let down by the result. The animation can’t ever be as good as the theatricals, certainly. And given the circumstances it couldn’t be as good as the 1980 Hanna-Barbera era either. Every studio managed at least some interesting touches, sometimes in a simple clever edit or a move that surprised one. More often the letdown is in the story, or at least the editing. There were so many odd pauses or absent bits of narrative logic it was no longer worth mentioning, at some point. I don’t know how often I accused, especially, a Jack Kinney short of having a dream logic. Or planned to but cut it for being redundant. We had that, though. Someone with experience in how stories work can fill in gaps. But the intended audience of young children? How do they know enough about how stories work to understand that? (On the other hand, maybe they mind since they don’t know that Brutus’s promise to eat his weather prediction was not set up.)

To summarize my feelings for all this, then? Besides the powerful nostalgia I feel for cartoons I watched, and loved, uncritically when I was young and impressionable? It is that I saw so many times that this could be a really good cartoon, hidden underneath what is an okay cartoon. So a new project for when I win a billion-dollar Powerball is to to take like three dozen of these shorts, have someone do another two drafts of the story, and have them animated by people who have the time to draw all the characters in all the scenes they’re in. We’ll get at least a couple great cartoons from that.

Brutus, Olive Oyl, Popeye, and Eugene sit together inside a gigantic top hat, all smiling and happy at the conclusion of their adventures.
Good night everyone! Eat your spinach and have a magic four-dimensional dog sit on your head!

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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.

60s Popeye: Valley of the Goons, the rare cartoon where Popeye goes sailing


After a bit of Jack Kinney we get back to the comfortable grounds of Paramount. Once more we have story, direction, and production by Seymour Kneitel. This for 1960’s Valley of the Goons.

Considering his name Popeye doesn’t spend that much time at sea. Especially in the King Features shorts, where he got stuck in a boring suburban house. Here, he’s finally at sea — and even in a sailing ship! — but it took being shanghaied to get him there.

I like this one a lot. Not just because it has Goons, although that does help. It does a lot of things right, including getting Popeye on an adventure. It’s also a strongly-plotted adventure. Poachers hoping to make a fortune in goonskin shanghai Popeye, presumably because they need the extra muscle. Popeye, being a hero, isn’t having it. He breaks out of the brig and gives the Goons the spinach they need to kick the pirates out. And the spinach seeds so they won’t have to rely on him anymore. The story’s sensible, the motivations clear enough, and Popeye is resolutely heroic for it all.

As seems to happen, I wonder if this was a condensed version of a comic strip or comic book adventure. Neither the Popeye Wikia nor the IMDB suggest it was. And it’s unfair to say that because a story is coherent and entertaining it must come from somewhere else. There’s no reason Seymour Kneitel can’t write good stories. Still, a condensation would explain why Rough House isn’t suspicious when the Captain takes the knocked-out Popeye.

Someone off-screen pulls by a leash a decoy rabbit, holding a carrot in its mouth. An enthusiastic, happy Goon chases the decoy.
So anyway I hope your year is turning out productive like this.

We get introduced to Goon Valley as “A Backwards Country”, along with some jokes about things being done the wrong way around. Putting a mailbox in a letter, for example, or a mugger forcing cash on someone. (Who seems happy about it, too.) A serious critic might consider the colonialist implications of these pirates raiding a country explicitly labelled “backwards”. And being saved by the white guy coming in and defending them, and encouraging them to adopt his own techniques to fend off future incursions[*]. Me, I’m considering: is this a ripoff of Bizarro? The character first appeared, in Superboy, in 1959, and was popular for good reasons. But he was a lone “backwards” figure. Bizarro’s world (Htrae) first appeared in April 1960, if Wikipedia doesn’t mislead me. It’s … conceivable that this was filling out a couple minutes of screen time with a Bizarro World riff. But I find coincidence is the more compelling explanation. It’s not a unique genius that would think of “what if everyday life, but backwards?” It must have antecedents.

The captain of the poachers isn’t a Brutus figure, although Jackson Beck does the voice. Beck also does Rough House’s voice, using a southern-fried accent I think is unique to this short.


[*] One might ask whether I’m trivializing a serious and worthwhile form of criticism by putting it to a disposable cartoon from the 60s. I don’t intend to trivialize, no. I argue, first, that we learn how to think seriously about things by first thinking lightly about things. Whether by shallow thoughts or by simple topics. If the text doesn’t have enough of a point of view to criticize, it’ll fall apart under examination, and it’s worth learning how to spot that, too. And some serious thinkers would agree that the pop-culture stuff shoveled into kids’ heads deserves examination. But, again, these are for real critics, as opposed to what I do around here.

60s Popeye: Popeye Goes Sale-ing, the closest he’s been to sea in ages here


We’re not done with Seymour Kneitel-Mania yet! Story, direction, and production are all credited to him in 1960’s Popeye Goes Sale-ing. Thank you, Paramount Cartoon Studios. Let’s enjoy.

The short starts with Popeye doing his scat singing. It’s nice and cozy and I wonder if they re-recorded it each cartoon or not. I also wonder why it’s used. Is it a simple way to pad out a cartoon that’s run too short? I could imagine doing a bit more of the shopping follies here, although I don’t know if it would make the cartoon any better.

Olive Oyl spots a half-off sale on everything in the department store, giving the opening for a couple reliable jokes showing sofas, tables, coats, that sort of thing cut in half. And then we go into the store and a bunch of schtick. It’s all constructed well enough, although we can fairly ask: is this a Popeye story? It could be any woman-and-man pairing from that era and you’d get about the same scene.

The joke is simple enough. Olive Oyl dives into the mob packed around a sale table and comes out with something she declares a great bargain. Also one that she doesn’t want, so she sends Popeye to get her money back. Getting the refund requires filling out great bunches of forms. I dimly remember the days when returning merchandise involved at least some explanation or effort, mostly writing down on a sheet how this was “not what you wanted”. I’m told that in older days yet it was harder still, except at stores that promised they did no-effort returns. Since there’s no comic value in returning merchandise being no effort, Popeye gets a bundle of paperwork with excessively fussy questions.

Popeye looks over his shoulders, at the camera, while shrugging his shoulders.
“It’s a living.”

And I did want to mention the studio did a nice job on the background. This is not sarcasm. I appreciate how few lines and colors they used to suggest the department-store setting without interfering at all with registering the characters or action.

Brutus isn’t here. But there’s no need for any antagonist. The point isn’t overcoming anything; the point is the Sisyphean nature of the event. And there are two cycles, Olive Oyl’s attempt to get something to find it’s not right, and Popeye’s work returning it. Since our focus stays with Popeye that’s not as obvious as could be. The only way off is for one person or another to get tired of it, and Popeye does, eating his spinach and finally doing something that some other woman-and-man pairing couldn’t.

We leave back on the road again, with Olive Oyl confined to wearing blinders. That’s a joke used in the theatrical cartoons, although mostly for cartoons about Olive Oyl learning to drive. I think this is the first time it was used to keep her from spotting department stores.

60s Popeye: Hair Cut-Ups, part of Seymour Kneitel-Mania here


Seymour Kneitel-Mania continues here at King Features Popeye review headquarters. 1960’s Hair Cut-Ups credits Max Fleischer’s son-in-law for story, direction, and production of this Paramount Cartoon Studios short. Let’s watch.

In form, this is another of the tell-Swee’Pea-a-story cartoons. It’s got a more interesting framing device, since it’s not Popeye reading from a book. The frame, of Swee’Pea being afraid of his first haircut, even has a thematic resonance with the story told. That story is some riff on the tale of Samson and Delilah, casting Popeye as Samson and Brutus as an unnamed bad guy who disguises himself as Delilah.

This kind of setup, Popeye recast as a figure of legend, they’ve done before. Greek Mirthology, from 1954, has Popeye cast himself as Hercules to talk his nephews into eating their spinach. The stories are different enough I can’t call this is a remake of that Isadore-Klein-written cartoon. It’s a variation, though, especially in how the Popeye-figure switches his source of might to spinach. 1948’s Popeye Meets Hercules has a similar “ancient origins” theme, but that Popeye is already hep to the spinach deal.

Popeye, as Samson, holds some of his long, dark, thick hair against his cheek and smiles, so very happy with the feeling and the texture.
Now, if I were an actual critic, I’d have some thoughts about the cartoon having “Brutus” assume a — the — female role in the story. What does it signify that after years trying to beat Samson, “Brutus” is able to win when he abandons the male role altogether? And that his win is immediately destroyed when he sheds the Delilah persona, taking on his male identity again? No, I don’t believe Seymour Kneitel was thinking of investigating gender roles in the Popeye universe this way. But why did Kneitel feel it right to have “Brutus” shed his face covering and Delilah voice before punching out Popeye? Anyway, since I’m not a critic, I won’t think about that instead and will instead giggle about “Popeye” here loving his hair.

As I’d expect from the Paramount studios the cartoon’s competent, even efficient. The modern-day cast is as tiny as it could have, giving Brutus a rare non-antagonistic role so his double can be the villain. Ancient times have an even smaller population, only Samson and his rival fighting over who’s strongest. This opens to a couple of feats-of-strength jokes of the kind the Popeye animators could likely do in their sleep.

There’s a neat little bit when ‘Delilah’ invites Samson into the barber shop. Smoke from Samnson’s pipe threads underneath Delilah’s face covering. It seems like a good visual joke showing Samson’s attraction to Delilah. ‘Delilah’ sneezes, though, revealing that Brutus face. It explains the plan ‘Brutus’ concocted without him having to say it to the viewer. Good bit of work and I imagine a fair number of kids giggling as they worked it out. One strength of a Kneitel production is getting simple things like that done well. When the same element can serve two roles without drawing attention it’s doing well.

60s Popeye: The Rain Breaker, which is not a useful article of clothing


I don’t know why the Paramount Cartoon Studios cartoons are all from 1961 lately, while the other studios are stuck in 1960. Of all the things I don’t understand about how King Features is ordering these shorts, that’s one of them. The story here is by I Klein. Direction and of course production are crediteed to Seymour Kneitel. Have your picnic baskets ready as we visit The Rain Breaker.

At what point, watching this, did you realize it was all a dream? Me, watching this just this weekend, I figured it was a dream the moment I saw Popeye fall asleep without anybody else on-screen. We’re trained to tolerate, at least, dream stories, but they have to play fair, like by giving us the last moment we can say something definitely happened. Here it’s an overstuffed Popeye falling asleep during a lovely day for picnicking.

I don’t remember how long I needed when I was a kid. Plausibly it wasn’t until Popeye woke up that it occurred to me. Popeye is someone who has astounding adventures. Why not get so annoyed that the weather forecast is wrong he goes up to the clouds to figure out what’s wrong? And, once there, why shouldn’t the problem be that Thor has imprisoned Iris until she agrees to marry him? It’s interesting that Paramount Cartoon Studios felt the need to blanket that as an imaginary story. This is a series that’s had Popeye meet flying saucers many times over. He’s gone to Lilliput. Paramount Cartoons would even have him meet the cheese men of the Moon and the missile men annoying King Blozo. Why not the goddess of the rainbow, sunshine, and the sunny weather?

Animation cell of Popeye about to punch Thor (Brutus). Thor is standing on a small cloud, but Popeye's on nothing, which stands out because the background is a shot looking up at the castle atop the mountains, so that Popeye and Thor stand in mid-air.
I guess Thor can stand on a cloud if he wants. Popeye can only be there on Thor’s invite, though. If he’d thought faster he would have just let Popeye fall to the ground, way down below.

Once we get there it’s some routine stuff. There’s a nice bit where Popeye finds a window into Iris’s dungeon too high up so he pulls it down. That’s the kind of joke Popeye’s been doing since black-and-white cartoon days. Always works for me. There’s also a moment where Popeye and Thor stand in midair in front of the mountaintop castle. That’s a rare animation mistake for Paramount. Counterbalancing that is the moment of Thor’s lightning bolt melting against Popeye’s spinach-supported chest, which is a great look even in this limited animation.

I don’t fault the writing for making this all a dream story. If it makes it easier to justify Popeye punching out Thor who happens to look like Brutus, all right. That’s more interesting than Popeye punching Brutus. And it’s part of how kids learn to recognize that something’s become an imaginary story. It’s strange that the cue is “Popeye is having an adventure in too-interesting a place”.

60s Popeye: Popeye’s Travels, or the good bits of Gulliver’s travels


Today’s is another Seymour Kneitel triple-threat, giving us story, direction, and production. With an assist, though, from Jonathan Swift and possibly the people Seymour Kneitel was working with in 1939. It’s a hap-hap-happy day, to quote a song not used in 1960’s Popeye’s Travels.

When the Fleischer Brothers were destroying their cartoon studio making Gulliver’s Travels into a movie, they considered casting Popeye as Gulliver. Probably the picture would have been better if they had. Popeye has charisma; their animated Gulliver is unburdened by personality. But it wouldn’t have been respectable. Popeye looks disreputable, even scary, to be the star of something taken seriously back then. You can clean up Popeye, but make him less interesting that way. I’m not sure it’s an accident the only feature-length Popeye movie was in the late New Hollywood era. Still, we can imagine what the 1939 movie but with Popeye might have been like.

Or we can watch a five-minute synopses, as here. And it turns out, it’s pretty good overall. That might mislead. An idea that’s fun at five minutes can be leaden at 76. At this condensed length Paramount can focus on the good stuff: Popeye waking up, bound by miniature people and wheeled into town. Walking through a town he towers over. Wading out against a tiny navy. With another 71 minutes there’d have to be some dull stuff too, like coming up with a reason for Lilliput and Belefuscu to fight. I grant the original satirical point was about how many wars are about stupid issues. And not giving any issue is consistent with that point. Still, sometimes a war is about something that matters, too, and it bothered me to not establish that there was a dumb reason for this war.

Popeye looks down, with delight, at the Lilliputian village around him as townsfolk come out to wonder at this giant.
So all of you wondering where your recurring childhood dream of being a tiny 17th-century villager scooped up by a giant Popeye came from, I’m glad to help!

I also don’t know why the rival nation becomes Belefuscu here. Was it to make it easier for kids to say? It strikes me that in the 70s Hanna-Barbera changed the pronunciation of Mister Mxyzptlk to something less hard to say. Could be they were being kind to the voice actors.

I’m not sure whether the Kings of Lilliput and Belefuscu are meant to resemble their Fleischer Movie versions. I see a loose resemblance. But it’s not like “thin guy and fat guy” is a unique concept for a pair of characters. Their outfits haven’t got any resemblance to the movie’s kings besides “looks like a cartoon king, all right”.

Popeye starts the short with a voice-over narration. I don’t remember that ever happening before. There’s also a great cutaway, after he washes up on shore. The next scene is the bound Popeye being dragged into town. It’s a good dramatic dissolve. And it stands out, given how Paramount Cartoon Studios tends to make sure we see every step of the action. (In the movie Gulliver takes an unaccountable forty minutes to wake up.)

In the end, Popeye guarantees peace through the threat of squishing, exactly like how the War of 1812 ended. He uses a small sailboat to go off and sings his couplet: “Whether you’re a giant or mite there’s no reasons to fight, says Popeye the Sailor Man!”. Popeye. Popeye. The classic cartoon character most likely to be found in a fight cloud. The character who has no end of comic strip panels of him congratulating someone for giving him the best fight he’s had since Singapore.

We can rationalize it. There’s a clear difference, after all, between choosing to get into a bar fight and going to war. But that rationalization is ad hoc. Popeye used to be incredibly popular. That brings an obligation to not screw up people who model themselves on you. He had to become more respectable, even if it makes him less Popeye. It hasn’t destroyed him, but it is hard to believe in a Popeye who hates violence.

60s Popeye: Sneaking Peeking, with a surprise lesson for us all


It’s another Paramount Cartoon Studios short today. This one has slightly less Seymour Kneitel than yesterdays. Kneitel gets the producer credit, of course, and the director credit. But I Klein gets the story credit. From 1961 here’s Sneaking Peeking.

I mentioned how Paramount Cartoon Studios shorts seem to have one gear. This one has better control of its tempo. Maybe I Klein’s better at pacing things. Or maybe it’s about the stakes of the story. There is something in an unstoppable spirit demolishing a castle that isn’t there in the question of whether Olive Oyl can bowl.

The frame is that Swee’Pea was sneaking into his birthday presents, so he’s to get a lesson in the form of a story that he’ll drift away from. In the story, a King (Poopdeck Pappy) sends Mercury (Wimpy) to dispose of a box containing something terrible. Mercury stops at the castle of the Happy Prince and Princess (Popeye and Olive Oyl) for lunch. Mercury’s not taking as literal the King’s direction to “tarry not” in disposing of this. The Princess sneaks a peek inside because what can it hurt?

Turns out inside is Mister Michief (Brutus, looking good for his captivity in a magic briefcase). Mister Mischief promises to do favors, creating fresh chaos. Cleaning the chimney gets the Prince and Princess and Mercury covered in soot. Cleaning them off gets them soaked by a fountain. Drying them off gets all the furniture in the castle set on fire. Pushing the castle away from the fire gets it knocked over. The Prince has enough of this, eats his spinach, and stomps Mister Mischief back into the box.

At a castle with the drawbridge extended over the moat. The Princess (Olive Oyl) has opened a box and a very tall, slender, muscular Mister Mischief (Brutus) has popped out. The Prince (Popeye), wearing a crown, and Mercury (Wimpy, with wings on his hat and shoes) look on.
No snarking here: that’s a great color palette in this image. The purple ground and stone, with the maroon highlights, gives this a great and distinctive look.

I like this one. Brutus as a chaos agent makes sense. And his chaotic steps have a good range. Each step is a legitimate way to fix the previous problem, while staying obvious how it’s going to make a new, bigger problem. (Keeping that obvious lets the viewer savor the Prince, Princess, and Mercury catching on.) The short picks up a good bit once Mister Mischief gets out. It’s a shame that doesn’t happen sooner.

But there’s nowhere to get time from except from the frame, which is almost as short as it could be. I suppose we could put in the setting by showing the pages of a book of fairy tales and have Jackson Beck introduce this as once-upon-a-time.

The small point left unaddressed, that I’ll bet I Klein hoped nobody in the audience would wonder. So was the King’s plan to drown Mister Mischief, in that box, at sea? Is that why he wouldn’t tell Mercury what he was doing and why it was important to tarry not? Would Mercury have followed directions if he knew why it mattered? The true lesson is that you can’t expect people to follow instructions if they don’t understand why these rules matter.

60s Popeye: Strikes, Spares, an’ Spinach, from Seymour


Today’s is a Paramount Cartoon Studios cartoon. It’s one of the most Paramount cartoons, too. The ever-reliable Seymour Kneitel takes the credit for story, direction, and production. From 1960 here’s Strikes, Spares, an’ Spinach.

This is Popeye’s first bowling cartoon, isn’t it? I can’t think of an earlier bowling cartoon. Bowling gags, yes, such as against the Forty Thieves, or when Popeye met Rip Van Winkle, but not one a whole cartoon built around a bowling alley.

The other day I quipped I needed more Popeye cartoons where all I can say is this was a Popeye cartoon. I didn’t have this one in mind, but it is close to that. Most of the action is Popeye teaching Olive Oyl to bowl. Meanwhile Brutus leans in through one of those huge windows bowling alleys are famous for and sabotages the lessons. Mostly by, like, pouring rubber cement into the bowling ball holes. That kind of gag. Popeye has enough of this, eats his spinach, bowls Brutus out to the trash.

The interesting story choice is that the cartoon explains why Brutus is trying to sabotage this lesson. It’s revenge, or jealousy, over Popeye cancelling their bowling date. Why was that motivation needed, though? Granting it’s rude at least that Popeye didn’t tell Brutus before he came all the way over. Or invite Brutus to teach with him. That setup would have made it easy for Brutus and Popeye to compete in sabotaging each other.

Scene of Popeye and Olive Oyl at the start of a bowling lane, getting ready to pick up a ball. There's a large open window behind them. The ball return lane has a curved top which seems too low to have allowed the balls already returned to have gotten there.
How … how does that ball return lane work? Like how does the ball get past the upper lip of that piece, particularly? Anyway it turns out you can just look at videos of how actual bowling ball return lanes work, and can then ask questions like: is a bowling ball return mechanism a roller coaster?

But granting they wanted to give Brutus a particular reason to be a jerk for once. They chose to use time having Brutus run over and lie to Olive Oyl about Popeye not making their date. This justifies all that time spent in Popeye bathing and getting dressed and all. If we didn’t see that, it would be less credible that Brutus had time to get to Olive Oyl. But all the time spent on that means a minute and a half, of five minutes’ screen time, is spent getting to the bowling alley. And that’s all stuff that could start any cartoon. Were they short of bowling alley gags to use? Or did they write that setup, which would have less overloaded a seven- or eight-minute theatrical short? And then not cut bits once they reached five minutes of screen time?

I’ve sometimes described the Paramount Cartoon Studios shorts as having one gear. This is another example of that. There’s no change in tempo over the short, no acceleration of events as we reach a climax, nothing. It’s a string of decent enough jokes until Popeye decides to eat his spinach now (with a well-timed “Uh-oh” from Brutus) and then we’re done. All that’s okay enough. But I’m already forgetting this cartoon and if you watched it, you are too.

60s Popeye: Hamburgers Aweigh, featuring gross violations of Wimpy’s autonomy


Paramount Cartoon Studios gives us today’s 60s Popeye. The producer is, as ever, Seymour Kneitel. He’s credited as director as well. Story is by Joseph Gottlieb. From 1961 here’s Hamburgers Aweigh.

The Popeye Wikia does not say this cartoon was adapted from the comic strip. I do wonder, though. It’s got a curious structure, feeling as though important pieces are missing. For example, we start with Popeye and Olive Oyl setting off on a voyage. To where? For what purpose? The cartoon ends at sea, with all their food eaten, and there’s not a hint of what they’ll do about that. (Granting the comic strip often forgot to resolve whatever the instigating event of the story was.) Popeye is able to call on the magical Whiffle Hen Bird. The Whiffle Hen Bird is an old and important piece of Popeye’s story, older even than spinach. But why is the Whiffle here? Why is Popeye able to call on him for a wish? (Eugene the Jeep hangs around Popeye enough that his presence doesn’t need explaining. But his magic seems defined in a way that the Whiffle Bird’s isn’t, and that would prevent what’s needed here.) Why did the Sea Hag stow away on Popeye’s ship? It can’t be the Whiffle Bird: she never knows this fantastic wish-granting creature is on board. Is it related to the unknown objective of Popeye’s voyage? (She offers to split the hamburger cargo with Wimpy, but that is the thing to bribe Wimpy with.) If this is condensed from a comic strip story, the condensing was done well. None of these questions really matters, apart from why the Whiffle Bird happens to be here.

A wide-eyed happy Wimpy stares at the camera as his body shakes, freed of all magic spells. The Whiffle Bird is in the air beside him, happy also.
No quarreling with Wimpy’s priority of getting all those spells off him, but it does seem like he’s uncharacteristically slow to see the power of having a bird who grants wishes on hand.

This is a cartoon with far more mind control than I expect from Popeye. And all about mind control of Wimpy, which also seems unusual. Wimpy is almost one of the magic cast himself, wandering through adventures barely touched. It’s weird when he’s turned into a werewolf or, here, gets the most important element of his personality wished away.

There’s some good plotting here. Particularly, the Sea Hag orders Wimpy to toss all of Popeye’s spinach overboard. Good thinking. It’s dumb ironic luck that the spinach cans land where her vulture drops Popeye. It’s particularly nice as the Sea Hag had just cackled how everything was going according to plan. I’m not clear what the plan was. It involved tying up Olive Oyl, only to have her walk the plank. Also it involved catching Popeye unaware, except also flying her flag so anyone could see she was up to something. I don’t quite follow her reasoning, but children’s cartoon villains sometimes have to cut some story-logic corners.

Sea Hag and her Vulture stand, glaring, next to Wimpy, who stands guard with a giant knife/saber resting on his shoulder.
“I regret, Miss Sea Hag, that no one over 48 inches may ride Pirate Boats and the park strictly enforces this policy.”

Popeye, unable to hit the Sea Hag, has no trouble giving Olive Oyl spinach so she can hit her. He’s ethical but he’s not above obvious loopholes. Meanwhile Wimpy’s used the Whiffle Bird to take all the magic spells off of him. Interesting that he’s aware of all the mind control and that nobody wished for him to be content with his new programming. If she had thought of it, the Sea Hag … well, she would have been in the same fix. But Popeye and Olive Oyl wouldn’t be doomed to starve at sea after Wimpy eats all 200 cases of canned hamburger. Live and learn, mm?

It’s all a competent, reasonable done cartoon. Something about it gives me the feeling there’s more to this story. Or it could be Joseph Gottlieb conveyed the tone that there was more going on than they could show. I’ll still be thinking about this one a while.

60s Popeye: A Poil For Olive Oyl (I count at least 28 poils myself)


Back today to Paramount Cartoon Studios, and the year 1961. Seymour Kneitel gets credit for direction and (of course) production. Joseph Gottlieb gets the story credit. He also had the story credits for Operation Ice-Tickle and for Going … Boing … Gone. So I’m glad to have a title from him that doesn’t make me wonder if I’m missing an obvious pun. We search now for A Poil For Olive Oyl.

The hosts of bad-movies podcast The Flop House once offered that a common bad-movie mistake is explaining wrong things. Too much time on backstory that doesn’t matter, not enough on why characters would want to do this thing now. A Poil For Olive Oyl is an example of this explain-the-wrong-things error.

Popeye wants to get Olive Oyl a birthday gift. She looks at a $12,000 mink coat and then a $5,000 strand of pearls. This setup takes about as long as third grade. I don’t mind giving Popeye a reason to go pearl-diving. But how long did we need the jewelry store owner to spend figuring out 20% off of five thousand dollars? We could have started with Popeye on the boat, saying, “And now I will collect the poils for your birthday presenk, Olive!”. We’d lose the not-quite-jokes about Popeye being a cheapskate. But the cheapskate jokes also imply that Olive Oyl can’t guess, to within four thousand dollars, what’s a reasonable cost for a birthday gift.

When Popeye gets to the oysters we have a modest but actual flight of fantasy. The beds are literal beds, oysters tucked in under blankets and all. The whimsy isn’t bad or unprecedented. Paramount Cartoon Studios was the Fleischer Studios reorganized. Surreality was the Fleischer’s greatest strength. But it has been a while since this studio put this sort of fantasy in its Popeye cartoons. I like the intent behind putting this whimsy in. But giving the oysters eyes and beds and pillows anthropomorphizes them in a way that makes taking their pearls more like theft.

Olive Oyl (seen from behind) watches a TV set showing Popeye swimming underwater.
Hey, nice of Olive Oyl to watch the cartoon along with us!

Even more like theft: the Sea Hag says Popeye is stealing from her oyster beds. Popeye insists that’s false, but … is it? I’m not asking about the actual maritime law about ownership of oyster beds. If she’s been farming oysters and she’s come out to chase off a tresspasser? Explain it to me like I’m a seven-year-old who’s accepted the folk-Lockean notions of the origins of property that every American grows up with. Because that gets the end of the cartoon, and finally some action, on a bad footing. Which is a shame. It’s the rare example of Olive Oyl eating the spinach and punching the bad guy. You don’t want that foiled by doubts about who’s right.

So there’s the problems here. We spend a lot of time justifying why Popeye would dive for pearls. But we don’t get to hear why the Sea Hag hasn’t got at least equal rights to the pearls. The cartoon counts on “she’s the villain so she must be being villainous” and that doesn’t work. My quick fix? When Popeye gets to the oyster beds, ask for volunteers to donate pearls to Olive Oyl’s necklace. Then Popeye’s not stealing from the anybody while the Sea Hag is. And start the cartoon at the oyster beds. We don’t need it explained why someone might gather pearls to make a necklace.

60s Popeye: Quick Change Olie and another Whiffle Bird cartoon


We’re back with Paramount Cartoon Studios today, in a 1960 cartoon. Quick Change Olie has a story by I Klein, and direction and production by Seymour Kneitel. And two special guest stars, too! Let’s watch.

We start (and end) at the Rough House Cafe, getting a view of Rough House himself. We don’t get any dialogue from him. But what could he do that would be useful? Complain about Wimpy calling his food poisonous?

They have some talk about ye olden days, with Wimpy imagining the chance to eat things like roast venison, roast boar, or roast full oxen. Wimpy’s gluttony shifting from hamburgers to “just lots of food” is a change of character although not a ridiculous one, seems to me.

A still-hungry Wimpy catches the Whiffle Bird with plans to eat her, because he did not learn from that time he got turned into a werewolf. Yes, yes, that cartoon’s from 1961 and only a fool demands continuity between Popeye cartoons anyway. Whiffle explains how rubbing her feathers grants wishes. Wimpy wishes them back in Ye Olden Days, and they’re lucky the Whiffle Bird doesn’t think this is a caveman cartoon or something. A minute and 57 seconds into the cartoon we’re finally at a castle.

A king crying woe is me, and who for a wonder is not Blozo, tells his tale. Olie the Wicked Magician kicked him out of his castle and kidnapped the princess. Popeye doesn’t need much encouragement to go saving the day. Wimpy, who got everyone into this fix, meanwhile vanishes.

Olie turns out to be Brutus, wearing robes, saying “ye” instead of “you” and sometimes affecting a generic accent. He’s a legitimate magician, though, using his powers to disappear when Popeye tries to punch him, or turn to flame when Popeye grabs him. Popeye counters with spinach magic, and a jackhammer punch that shrinks Olie to half Popeye’s size. This drives him off, because the cartoon is running out of time. Otherwise, like, this is the first thing Popeye’s done that’s at all effective against Olie. And I’d think if you can make yourself a giant at will it’s no great threat to be shrunk.

In a vaguely medieval castle, a large and ugly Princess holds Popeye in her arms and off the ground. Popeye's reaching a hand eagerly to the Whiffle Bird, who looks sad at having been captured again by Wimpy.
Is it possible that the Whiffle Bird isn’t actually good at magic and that’s why she keeps getting into these fixes?

But as I said, there’s not time for more action, or something that would exhaust Olie. So the King has his castle back, and Popeye would get to marry the princess except — ho ho — she’s ugly! And fat! And has a grating voice! Not to worry; Wimpy’s reappeared in the story. While he was out, it seems, he couldn’t find anything to eat, so he grabs the Whiffle Bird who also decided to be in the story again. Wimpy figures to eat her, an unaccountable lack of insight from a normally sharp operator. Popeye knows what to do and wishes them back to Rough House’s Cafe. Or restaurant, whichever.

I feel like these descriptions get more plot-recappy the less I like what’s going on. There’s a fair enough premise here. And I liked in principle that Ye Olden Days characters weren’t King Blozo and, for the princess … well, I don’t know. Olive Oyl if you want the princess to be attractive, the Sea Hag if you don’t. But that creativity’s messed up by having Olie be Brutus in a new costume. I like Olie being actually able to do enough magic to mess with Popeye. And, yeah, once Popeye eats his spinach the villain is vanquished. This all felt too abrupt, though. An extra half-minure or so in Ye Olden Days could have done very well. Let Olie come back from being shrunk, and Popeye punch (or whatever) him out of the castle. Then I think I’d be more satisfied.

I don’t understand the cartoon title. It nags at me. I want to say it’s an old theatrical or vaudeville, term. Maybe meaning something that explains why the villain isn’t called Brutus. I can’t confirm or refute that, though.

60s Popeye: Operation Ice-Tickle, and I don’t get what that’s a pun for either


So, first, Stephanie Noell of the OOC Popeye Twitter feed published a new pay-what-you-will zine, The Rainbird. This collects a Thimble Theatre story from 1939-40, by Tom Sims, Doc Winner, and Bela Zaboly. Popeye, having decided at last to marry Olive Oyl, sets out to Neutopia to find the magic rainbird that controls its weather. His reasons for this make sense in context. In the grand tradition of Thimble Theatre the action peters out with the original incident forgotten. Fun, though.

Less fun: the next King Features Popeye in their YouTube channel’s order is the Jack Kinney-produced Spinachonara. It opens with Popeye offering Swee’Pea an “Oriental-type kind” of fairy story so uh yeah yikes. I trust they meant to respect that non-white-people should get to be the stars of stories too. But I’m not paid to deal with Jack Mercer, Jackson Beck, and Mae Questel doing their Japanese Or Chinese Or Whatever Accents. You want me to do 600 words on that, ask for my PayPal.


Next cartoon, then. That gets us safely back in Paramount Cartoon Studios territory. Story by Joseph Gottlieb, with direction and production by Seymour Kneitel. Here’s the 1961 short Operation Ice-Tickle.

What we have here is another Popeye-and-Brutus compete cartoon. This time not to do a job but complete a task. That task? Bring back the North Pole. This because they happen to be in front of a statue of Admiral Peary when Olive Oyl has enough of Popeye and Brutus’s quarreling. The reward? A date with Olive Oyl, you know, like the one Popeye had been on when Brutus interrupted. All right. Popeye and Brutus are lucky they weren’t in front of the Science Center’s Planet Walk model of Saturn.

The premise is a bit goofy. Brutus buys a very slow rocket from a surplus store. Popeye hits up the surplus store too, getting an 1886 hot air balloon. And somehow this is not the only cartoon that I have reviewed that’s about flying a balloon to the North Pole. What the heck?

There’s this absurdity at the heart of the cartoon. At many of the details, too. Like, Popeye takes his burst balloon, builds a replacement using an inner tire and a car engine, and catches up with Brutus’s rocket? But it’s all well-constructed. The more I think of the story the more impressed I am with its fitting together. Like, does a kid notice the absurdity of a hot air balloon catching up with, and overtaking, a rocket? That is a joke they wanted us to notice, right?

Popeye rests in a hot-air-balloon basket, which hangs from a giant overinflated rubber-tire doughnut, and propelled by a small car engine hanging off the back. Through the center of the doughnut is the candy-cane-striped North Pole. On the top of the North Pole (in front of Popeye) is a frozen Brutus.
“Now there’s something you don’t see every day, Chauncey.”

“What’s that, Edgar?”

“Lighthouse making a home delivery.”

And then there’s little bits of crafting. Like, Popeye secures the North Pole by landing his doughnut-tire airship around it. There’s some foreshadowing there, as Brutus tries to pop this second balloon but misses because his rocket slides through the hole. (I assume that’s how we’re supposed to read that scene. The animation skimps on what we do see.) Or, when Popeye’s trapped in ice? He’s freed by the little flame of his own homemade engine. That flame’s there because Brutus is stealing his balloon, but doesn’t know how to work it. That’s a good reason for Brutus to have the flame pointed at Popeye and not turn it off. And, of course, it’s a thing that couldn’t have come about if Brutus hadn’t popped the original hot air balloon.

This is in the upper tier of the King Features shorts. The premise is absurd and if you can’t get into that, there’s nothing for you here. But grant the premise and the story makes solid sense. The animation’s the typical Paramount Cartoon Studios competence. There’s a couple of nice shots, like seeing Popeye and Olive Oyl and Brutus walking together from a camera above their heads. The closing joke is a weird one, but it does get everyone out in good order.

60s Popeye: Poppa Popeye, about Popeye as a pop, not Popeye’s poppa Pappy


We’re back at 1960 Paramount Cartoon Studios today. This is another Seymour Kneitel showcase. He’s got credit for the story, the direction, and the production. This is Poppa Popeye.

Some of these shorts are condensed stories from the comic strip or comic books. I thought this might be too, but the Popeye Wikia doesn’t hint that it is. There are stories where Swee’Pea’s mother returns for him. There’s at least one version of the Popeye continuity where Swee’Pea’s the lost prince of Demonia. That all suggests this isn’t adapted from the comics.

But you see where I get the impression. There’s a solid premise here, with Swee’Pea kidnapped by a fake father. And a lot of story. There’s no wasted time in the cartoon. After one moment of Popeye entertaining Swee’Pea, establishing his father-ness, Sando enters. He takes Swee’Pea away, and we have a story less time than some cartoons need to get Popeye to Olive Oyl’s house. Even the stuff that’s meant to be silly, like Popeye’s regression to childhood, is quick and efficient. And the plot is more serious than usual. It’s not as moody as Myskery Melody, a comic strip adaptation (and Seymour Kneitel show). But it is more focused and more serious than usual.

I’m not satisfied with the cartoon, though I can’t pin down a specific thing it does wrong. The starting incident makes sense, and Popeye breaking down at the loss of Swee’Pea fits his character well. What everybody does from there makes sense. There’s some good business along the way, too. My favorite is Swee’Pea — running away from the circus to join home — writing a gibberish note.

Popeye, wearing a baby bonnet, lies in a baby carriage, looking sad to the point of crying. Olive Oyl stands over him, worried.
I don’t mean to be harsh but in my opinion Popeye is overreacting to Swee’Pea being at half-day preschool.

Popeye is a passive character here. But the story wouldn’t make sense if he were any other way. He does take the step of (somehow) nailing Swee’Pea’s clothes to the floor, to ensure the child can’t join Sando at the end. But that’s only revealed after the fact, and it’s not clear it was needed. It’s also cheating, but then Sando cheated first by carrying a bunch of toys in for the “let’s see who he goes to” contest. And, Popeye being knocked out as the protagonist gives Swee’Pea the chance to take charge. Maybe the trouble is we see so little of what Swee’Pea goes through that his initiative doesn’t register.

Motivations are a bit underdeveloped. Sando wants a kid for his acrobatics act, fine, but why Swee’Pea? Well, otherwise he wouldn’t be in this cartoon. Popeye gives up Swee’Pea pretty quick. And Sando gives him up at the end of the cartoon as quickly. These steps make sense if the story is condensed from a comic strip or comic book, where the obvious questions could be addressed. But the cartoon is only five minutes, after credits. There’s only so much time that should be spent explaining why we’re going to do the thing we have to do for the cartoon to happen at all.

If this premise had the two or three minutes more that it’d have as a theatrical short, it could have been an all-time great. As it is, it does well confirming a side of Popeye we knew was there, if we’re honest.

60s Popeye: Duel to the Finish, one of the good ones


Today’s is another Seymour Kneitel festival: he gets credit for the story, direction, and production of this 1960 Paramount Cartoon Studios piece. Here’s Duel to the Finish.

It’s hard to have no sympathy for Wimpy. He’d have taken over Thimble Theatre, if only Popeye hadn’t been there first. He has this great blend of gluttony and larceny. He pairs well against Popeye. There’ve been a couple cartoons that pitted him against Popeye. The most notable was 1939’s Hello, How Am I. In that one Wimpy pretends to be Popeye so he can get hamburgers out of Olive Oyl. Here …

All right, there’s a certain overlap. But it has a different start, and different progression. Here, Olive Oyl is bored with Popeye, and we can see why. She wants to make him jealous, so starts making hamburgers to woo Wimpy. And Popeye sees this for what it is, Olive Oyl and Wimpy using each other. It’s not until Olive Oyl offers a kiss that Popeye cares. Which is a nice dramatic irony as Wimpy couldn’t care about such things as kisses. So it’s a duel.

A contented Wimpy sits at the table, surrounded by dirty plates, with three hamburgers in front of him, a hamburger in his right hand, and a fork holding a chunk of hamburger in his left hand.
Olive Oyl has a lot more plates than I do. Also, Wimpy has the power not just to eat hamburgers with a fork but to single-handedly cut out a slice of hamburger using a fork.

Wimpy makes it an eating duel, challenging to see who can eat the most hamburgers. He’s not a stupid person; it’s just amazing Popeye accepts it. Right away we see Olive Oyl worn out from making burgers, and Popeye struggling to chew. And Wimpy puttering along, happy, even eating burgers with both hands. One of those hands has a fork. I’ve heard of people eating New York-style pizza with a fork, but hamburgers is a new one. And he beats Popeye! This is the rare cartoon where, not only does Bluto/Brutus not appear and not be the antagonist, but Popeye also doesn’t win. You have to appreciate Wimpy’s cunning.

But Popeye has to win anyway, and it comes about by forfeit, again a rare event. Olive Oyl can’t cook another hamburger. This breaks Wimpy’s interest in her, because he’s unaware that she might be able or willing to cook at a later date. The beaten Popeye grumbles at Olive Oyl for having started the whole mess, and that’s the end.

Bedraggled Popeye and Olive Oyl slumping on the couch after being exhausted in the eating contest.
In retrospect, this makes Popeye being boring at the start of the cartoon look like wisdom.

Wimpy goes home. It’s never clear what he thinks about this whole day. That he recognized a chance to eat if he flattered, yes. He had a similar relationship with the Sea Hag, at least in the comic strip. He came in, spotting an advantage he could take, and used it for as much as he could, and wandered out again. It’s as though he barely notices the mortal lives of Popeye and Olive Oyl and drifts in, like a magical creature, while there are rewards to be had.

The whole cartoon’s a story well-established by the characters in place here. And it explores consequences that aren’t obvious from what we already knew of them. Solid stuff. Could have been a quite good theatrical cartoon.

60s Popeye: Robot Popeye, because everybody gets a robot cartoon


Today’s is a 1961 Paramount Cartoon Studios cartoon. So you know that means the direction is by Seymour Kneitel. It’s also a story by Seymour Kneitel. That’s been a weird combination before. Here’s Robot Popeye.

I once asked whether every major cartoon character in the 60s built a robot. That in the Jack Kinney short where Popeye builds a robot. Popeye has also, in a Larry Harmon cartoon, fought against a robot. And, in a Gene Deitch cartoon, has had to face a robot duplicate Olive Oyl. It’s only ringing the changes to have a Paramount-made cartoon where Brutus builds a robot Popeye.

Brutus makes a mechanical man with a model of simple user interface design. The control offers the actions to stop – walk – run – sit; and there’s a dail for his voice. Robeye talks in a bit lower voice than Popeye does in, I guess, a cue to the audience. He’s using Robeye to mess up Popeye’s good name, much like he’d done with a simple marionette in 1944’s Puppet Love. Robeye meets the actual Popeye, sending Popeye into a fit of self-doubt we haven’t seen since 1939’s Hello, How Am I, when Wimpy impersonated Popeye. There have been a lot of duplicates and robots in Popeye, who, let’s not forget, is a rough-and-tumble sailor who likes a good fight. It’s surprising there haven’t been more Popeye robots before. They would do it again.

Brutus and Robeye’s first steps are pretty low-key ones. Confusing Popeye. Going to Roughhouse’s Diner to put Wimpy’s meal on his tab. Also, I guess Popeye has a charge account at the diner. It gets serious when Robeye shows up early for Popeye’s dinner with Olive Oyl and does the usual sorts of tricks. Calling her food poison. Yanking a chair out from under her. Throwing water in his face. You’d think Olive Oyl would recognize when she’s in another duplicates cartoon. But these patterns are always more obvious to outsiders.

Popeye meeting Robeye, a robot duplicate, walking the other way up the street. Robeye is drawn with more angular, straight lines all over, and bolts at his wrists and elbows and hips. Also importantly horizontally across the middle of his shirt is a straight line with bolts underneath the seam.
I recognize that bots and flat panels are important to indicating something’s a robot to the audience, and that they want things that fit over the stock footage well. But do you suppose Robeye’s lower shirt there is just a metal panel bolted to his torso or what?

Speaking of patterns. Once again Brutus sabotages his own successful scheme. Not, for once, by getting grabby at Olive Oyl. By showing Robeye off so Popeye understands what’s going on. It’s common enough that a villain’s hubris wrecks them. And the cartoon only has like five minutes of screen time for the whole plot, so you have to get to the climax somehow. Here, Popeye grabs the remote control and switches it to ‘Get Brutus’. I hate to cut a Roughhouse appearance but Brutus fighting Popeye for the control could have used the time better.

And we close with Olive Oyl recognizing she should have known. Popeye explaining Brutus “wanted to quiz me with you”, a use of the word quiz I did not know was out there. And Robeye eating the cans of spinach. All fair enough, the sort of competent if unexceptional cartoon you expect from Paramount.

I bet Brutus is so embarrassed he put a “Get Brutus” option on the control.

60s Popeye: Who’s Kidding Zoo, a title that needs some baby goats to really land


Who’s Kidding Zoo is a 1961 Paramount Cartoon Studios-produced short. The story’s credited to Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer, and the direction to Seymour Kneitel. This is not the same credit given to every Paramount Popeye cartoon of the era. It just feels like it.

This is an example of a particular stock Popeye cartoon plot: Popeye and Bluto/Brutus battle each other for the chance to work for Olive Oyl. It’s a solid story. I’m surprised they had never competed for a job at the zoo before. You’d expect the setting to offer a lot of chances for good animal jokes. They’d done cartoons at the zoo before, like 1944’s Pitchin’ Woo at the Zoo, where Bluto was the zookeeper. He doesn’t bring up the experience here. I suppose it’s important to mention how annoying society makes changing one’s name.

The cartoon follows the structure well. Popeye and Brutus are hanging out at the zoo. They overhear zookeeper Olive Oyl phoning in an advertisement for an assistant. Mae Questel performs Olive Oyl with this odd tone, a more formal voice than usual. I’m not sure why. I suppose to underscore how in this cartoon she’s unfamiliar with Popeye and Brutus. Or that she’s in a high-class position at the zoo. She sets the two competing, here, to see who can cheer up Gloomy the hyena by telling one joke each. I suppose it’s important to mention that back then credentials weren’t as important a thing as they are now.

Since he lost the job, Brutus switches to sabotage, volunteering to help Popeye carry water to elephants. Brutus pours in weight reducer, which deflates Hannibal, Olive Oyl’s “best elephant”. Popeye blows into Hannibal’s trunk, inflating him to “better than before”. I suppose it’s important to mention that back then zoos had no idea how to keep elephants healthy. (It turns out it’s by not putting elephants in zoos. I’m sorry but it’s so.)

The next attempted sabotage is putting springs on a baby kangaroo’s feet, so he can’t help jumping into a lion’s mouth. Popeye rescues him and Olive Oyl is impressed that Popeye doesn’t want baby kangaroos to jump into lion mouths. So we can make inferences about why the last assistant zookeeper left.

Popeye looks startled that the kangaroo joey he's brought a carrot to is hopping off, past him, thanks to springs stuck to the joey's feet. The mother kangaroo stands over all this, looking asleep.
Why the surprised look, Popeye? Everyone knows a kangaroo’s favorite food is … uh … carrots … I guess?

With sabotage not working Brutus turns to costumes. He puts on one of those gorilla costumes that looks like a perfect gorilla to a we-have-assumed-trained zookeeper. He uses it to abduct Olive Oyl and knock out Popeye. The costume works until Brutus nods. Hannibal remembers Brutus’s part in the weight-reducer thing. And somehow intuits that Popeye needs spinach. A quick punch and Brutus, in costume, is put in a cage as the Half-Man Half-Ape, “Only One In Captivity”. This is a funny scene when you’re a white guy who doesn’t know about the history of zoos putting people on exhibit.

The story, particularly, hangs together well. Brutus shrinks the elephant; the elephant remembers this and acts to foil Brutus. Brutus’s kangaroo stunt lets Popeye impress Olive Oyl. Upset that they’re going to lunch, Brutus pretends to be an animal. I understand if the cartoon doesn’t work for you. It’s Paramount, so everything’s paced a little slow (although that likely helps kids understand and anticipate what’s going on). Exactly one thing moves at a time, although it moves smoothly. (I exaggerate, but not much.) But it’s a well-crafted cartoon, throughout. The viewer’s not stuck wondering what something is supposed to mean, or why it’s in there. It’s comfortable and easy to watch.

60s Popeye: Kiddie Kapers (could stand some more capering)


Today? We’re back to Paramount Cartoon Studios. Also to 1961. And not only is Seymour Kneitel the director of record (I believe he always is, for Paramount), the story again one by Joseph Gottlieb. So here’s some thoughts about Kiddie Kapers.

This is another cartoon I’d almost think was a leftover 50s-Paramount script. The presence of the Sea Hag foils that, of course. I don’t know whether Famous Studios/Paramount lacked the rights to use the Sea Hag in the 50s, or whether they just lacked the interest. The 60s cartoons opened up the character bundles.

But we have another cartoon with a pretty good, even fresh, premise that sort of peters out. It never does anything wrong. It just somehow leaves the idea under-used. It also feeds into that question about whether the Famous Studios animators were on Bluto’s side. Brutus, with a drop of the Sea Hag’s youth potion, is a handsome fellow, and he’s able at least for a while to act like a pleasant person. This was a workable scheme.

The action starts with Olive Oyl fed up with Popeye, one of her traditional modes. This over their relationship being frozen, the way these cartoons (and the comic strip) demand. She uses this as reason to call him old, and Brutus pounces on that with supernatural speed. Then he figures if he were young, he’d have a better chance with Olive Oyl, and what do you know but the Sea Hag can help with that.

I like that Popeye sees through Brutus’s scheme right away, although given how different Brutus does look it’s fair to wonder how. Maybe he knows there’s only like six people who are ever in these cartoons. Still, it can’t be his voice giving him away, not with how many parts Jackson Beck does.

Popeye spots the Youth Potion, because nobody in these cartoons ever leaves valuable stuff at home where it’s safe. Taking from the directions that one drop made Brutus young and handsome, he takes a big swig. This is dumb but it’s dumb in a realistic way, and we get Popeye turned into an infant for … this has to be at least the third time. I know he turned into a kid once when Martians kidnapped him and put him under their ageing ray. I don’t remember the second time but feel like there’s got to be another. This is a daft paragraph and I should get out of it. Anyway it’s not the first time Popeye’s been turned into a kid and I’m just guessing it’s not the second.

Olive Oyl and Popeye, both toddlers, sit on the porch playing patty-cake.
Ooh, I can’t wait to see how being toddlers and having to grow up all over changes the course of the Popeye Cinematic Universe!

Brutus uses Popeye’s whining as excuse to spank him, a move that offers no subtexts and no prospects for cheap jokes either. Olive Oyl’s ready with the spinach and to my surprise it doesn’t age Popeye back to normal. He spanks Brutus, again a move you can’t write anything about, but he stays a kid. To close the cartoon Olive Oyl takes a swig of the anti-age potion and luckily gets enough to become Popeye’s new age. It’s not how I expected the cartoon to end, but it’s an interesting end.

So if I keep finding pieces of the cartoon interesting why don’t I like the whole thing? I’m not sure I dislike the whole thing. I feel, though, like “Brutus is a handsome young man and Popeye is a bawling infant” should make for a cartoon with more unique scenes than what we get here. It might be that with five and a half minutes of screen time, credits included, that’s just impossible. A seven-minute version of this cartoon could fit three or four extra scenes, letting Brutus be a fake Popeye parent. Lose 90 seconds and something has to go.

60s Popeye: Scairdy Cat


This week’s 60s Popeye cartoon is another one made by Paramount/Famous Studios. For a change, Jack Mercer doesn’t have a hand in the story. The story’s by Joseph Gottlieb instead. The director is again Seymour Kneitel. So here’s Scairdy Cat.

I may sound like I’m slighting the cartoon to put so little focus on the story. It’s a decently organized story. Brutus finds a potion to induce cowardice in someone, and he sees this as his chance to crush Popeye. Sensible work there. He sprays Popeye with the fear gas, using the chance to throw away Popeye’s spinach. Again, good thinking there, Brutus. And he humiliates Popeye in front of Olive Oyl, which, again, good work. Brutus slamming the door shut causes the spinach can to roll into Popeye’s hands. It makes the structure better tragedy: Brutus causes his own undoing. It does mean Popeye doesn’t really have anything to do with his own story, but that’s all right. The story hangs together sensibly throughout.

What caught my interest was — knowing this was a Famous Studios short — the first scene. The establishing shot of the library. The building itself is rendered in three colors, as I make it out, including the shading used. Granted a library of this vintage might have a marble front, and not need many colors, but that’s still sparse. The whole scene, counting the background, is five. It’s a deeply stylized, UPA-style rendition of the building.

This continues throughout the short. Brutus’s kitchen is a (speckled) mustard yellow surface, with a red quadrilateral for a stovetop and two white rectangles for cabinets and counter. Olive Oyl’s living room is a similar mustard yellow expanse, with a white box, a purple chair and a purple wall hanging in the background. Many of these details are even lineless, or nearly so.

UPA-style rendering of a PUBLIC LIBRARY, a great marble building, done with extremely flat coloring and what look like hand-drawn lines for the steps and columns and windows.
Maybe my librarian friends can help. Would your books that contain actual working witch’s spells to alter people’s moods be in general circulation or would they be in special reserve?

The UPA style, with its flattened shapes and colors and great abstraction of space, isn’t one I cared for as a kid. I liked lush, photorealistic watercolored backgrounds where possible. These days, I better understand the appeal. Not just why animators would want to depict something with as little drawing as possible, but why they’d admire doing that.

Famous Studios was, usually, not a visually inventive studio. It’s easy to read its greatest animation as things left over from Max and Dave Fleischer. For much of their history they drew things in a basic, photo-realistic, functional style. This isn’t a bad thing. I understand the animators wanting, sometimes, to try a stylistic experiment, though.

Famous Studios had done this before. There’s some cartoons from late in the theatrical run of Popeye, such as Parlez-Vous Woo or Spooky Swabs, with a similar style. Later in the 60s the studio would become much more experimental, as animators like Shamus Culhane and Ralph Bakshi were put in charge for short whiles. It’s not that they couldn’t do more innovative work; it’s that they only sometimes took the chance.


And some stray thoughts. Brutus finds the Fear Gas recipe on page 13 of Ye Olde Reliable Witche’s Cook Book. I like the Olde Thyming of that title. Page 13 is the left-hand side of the page. I think that’s an extra subtle joke, mostly because the surplus ‘e’ in Witche’s convinces me they were looking for chances to do that.

Brutus tests the Fear Gas potion on himself. This seems dangerous. If the cartoon had a higher budget he probably would’ve had a cat to test on and send running from a mouse.

When he’s first Fear Gassed, Popeye grows a nice yellow streak up his back. And then the word ‘YELLOW’ appears across in what seems like too similar a shade. But I remember this seemingly-low-contrast color choice reading cleanly enough on the black-and-white TV of my youth. So to sum up, there is no excuse for any web site to have light grey text on a dark grey background.

The Fear Gas works on Popeye, the first time, for only a couple minutes. This doesn’t seem like enough time to make him, as the spell promises, your slave. Or does Popeye just metabolize fear that quickly? I think he might just metabolize fear very quickly.

Betty Boop: Musical Justice


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:


It’s usually stupid to turn a cartoon character into a live-action one. Most cartoon characters, at least the beloved ones, are things that don’t make sense in live action: wisecracking rabbits and talking mice and brilliantly stupid moose and the occasional giant robot or so. As a moving illustration that works fine. Somehow the unreality of a drawing that changes by itself makes the unreality of a teapot with a personality make sense.

And yet there’s Betty Boop. After a couple of cartoons she settled down to being a stylized but still recognizably human figure. She would get into quite some surreal and bizarre situations. But she could also host quite mundane situations, things as easily photographable as singing until she melts the heart of a skeptical audience. Of the cartoon stars of the early 1930s she’s one of the few who could plausibly be played by a real-live person. And so she was.

So this week’s First Betty Boop entry is her first appearance in live action, in a short released the 26th of December, 1931. Mae Questel, who would voice her most of her animated run, also plays her in real life. Rudy Vallée, whose voice would grace several of her cartoons, appears as the host of the short as well.

The short is a bit of a strange one, and I apologize the best copy I can find of the whole thing is split into two parts. Betty Boop only appears in the second. I also apologize for the ethnic humor of the first musical/comedy act featured. I don’t know who “Henry Whitewash” is supposed to be, and I can’t find much in my meager vaudeville or early-movie references. I don’t know if his was an actual vaudeville or early-movies act or something made up so later generations watching the short could feel uncomfortable. His bit takes to about 5:20 into the video to wrap up, though, and give way to Rudy Vallée singing to a troubled couple.

The short falls into that strange genre of the Abstract Concept Court, in this case the Court of Musical Justice. (Compare it to the Court of Responsible Car Operations in beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000-featured short X Marks The Spot.) I’ve actually seen several shorts along these lines. The strangest was 1943’s Heavenly Music, actually a heavenly court in which a then-modern crooner (Frederick Brady as “Ted Barry”) was tried for his earthly crimes against music. He won an acquittal by insisting that all the major lines of his music could really be traced back to respectable dead white composers who were on his jury, such as Bach and Beethoven and the like. In this case, the judge is Rudy Vallée and the jury his Connecticut Yankees, but the general line is the same. Modern music is accused of wrongness, but that’s all right, because it turns out to be swell stuff.

The short, and its genre partners, seem almost designed to train undergraduates majoring in cultural studies on how to read the motives behind a text. Modern music is openly charged with corrupting the morals of the nation, just as charged by the older folks in the audience. One imagines they came into the theater just to take a break from yelling at clouds. But the young get the satisfaction of their music actually being played and being defended and acquitted. The defense isn’t all that great — it amounts to “aw, c’mon, it’s not that bad, and besides it can be fun” — but it’s enough to get grampa off your back. It’s hard not to notice Paramount Pictures trying very hard to cuddle up close to the music those kids like without seeming to approve so much that their parents and grandparents complain. Only the movie ticket revenue may bridge the generation gap!

This is one of only two live-action appearances Betty Boop made. I don’t know why there aren’t more. The character doesn’t require anything more than a dress and a wig to perform, and is obviously able to carry off “show off a musical number” shorts. Possibly they worried about over-exposing the character, although it’s hard for me to see how a couple of live-action shorts added onto a dozen animated shorts a year would do that. As it stands, it’s the start of a stunted branch in a character’s media presence.

Color Classics: Ants In The Plants


For this week’s Fleischer Color Classics cartoon I’d like to present one of the last of the series. If Wikipedia is correct, Ants In The Plants — released the 15th of March, 1940 — was the last of the Color Classics not to star Hunky and Spunky. I don’t want to get into Hunky and Spunky right now, but they are probably among the top 50 most interesting mother-and-son pairs of cartoon donkeys in 1930s and 1940s three-strip Technicolor animation.

For a series whose focus was, nominally, showing off the music owned by Paramount Pictures, there’s not a lot of music in this cartoon. The only song is Al Neiberg and Sammy Timberg’s We’ll Make Him Yell Uncle, and it doesn’t dominate the cartoon the way that, say, Dancing on the Moon does its or that the Hungarian Rhapsodies give A Car-Tune Portrait its shape. On the other hand, now you have a name for that bit of music when you run across it in Fleischer/Famous/Paramount cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s. One suspects a touch of franchise fatigue had set in.

By this time the Fleischers, like nearly everyone else, had access to three-strip Technicolor and so the colors are more diverse and, if you can imagine what this looked like before seventy years of color fade, generally brighter. It’s also a very distinctly Fleischer cartoon: the three-dimensional sets are used for the very first scene, and the gadgets of the ants are created in a way that reminds me of Betty Boop’s Grampy, gimmicks of everyday items put to new applications that seem just about like they might work.

The cartoon was made around the time that the Fleischer’s ill-fated first motion picture, Gulliver’s Travels, was being completed and released to theaters. This seems to me likely to explain why the animation looks lush and enjoys novel camera angles and imaginative staging, such as the scene of the anteater’s snout writhing back and forth through tunnels as it approaches the camera: they’d developed the skill and technical ability to do that sort of motion and they were going to use it. Good.

Popeye: Hits And Missiles


I mentioned last week the first of the 1960s run of King Features-commissioned Popeye cartoons, “Hits and Missiles”, which was produced by Paramount Pictures Cartoon Studios, which had been Famous Cartoon Studios and before that Fleischer Studios, who made all the great Popeye cartoons that animation fans speak of in reverential whispers. I thought, why not discuss this one, which I had characterized as “not too bad”.

The obvious thing to say about this is: it’s cheap. You can really see the budget in the editing, both in its sluggishness and how many inset shots are of a character standing by himself or herself on a featureless background, or when the walk cycle shows no evidence of getting out of the cycle. Or how there’s almost as many as three people doing all the voices (and you can really hear the different recording sessions they were using). Or how dialogue (especially between Popeye and the Big Cheese once Popeye breaks out of jail) doesn’t actually quite flow. Besides the things obviously being laid in for reuse (isolated characters on featureless backgrounds) there’s stuff that was recycled from earlier, better cartoons; even the premise of Popeye accidentally blasted into space was done before, in Popeye’s “Rocket To Mars”. I could swear a Popeye cartoon had done the gag about a rocket punching a hole in the Big Dipper, but can’t think which one (it’s not “Popeye, The Ace Of Space”), and even if they didn’t, someone had.

And yet there’s some good stuff in it. First, throwing Popeye into space is a sensible modernization of the “send Popeye on a fantastic voyage” motif that generates so many of his best stories. The mountain of Swiss cheese that Popeye and Olive fall through is a good sequence, and would make a great amusement park ride. And the cartoon throws in little bits of business that are amusing even when they serve no role in the plot, like Wimpy’s under-the-hat frying pan, or Olive Oyl’s little makeup table. Remove them and, yeah, you’d have to get the rocket accidentally launched slightly differently, but Olive’s makeup table is there just as an amusing throwaway gag. Considering they’d have been justified just showing the Big Cheese and Popeye talking instead, it’s good they showed a gag. It’s an attempt to fill the cartoon with funny pictures.

The overall cartoon is not great, no; but compared to the lethargic efforts Famous Studios was putting out a couple years before such as “Popeye For President” or “Parlez Voo Woo”? The cartoon suggests that the TV run of Popeye might be decent.

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