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.