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: 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.

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.