60s Popeye: Forever Ambergris (it’s actually less than three minutes of ambergris)


Jack Kinney’s back in the producer’s chair for today’s 60s Popeye short. Eddie Rehberg is listed as director; the story’s credited to Ralph Wright. Here’s the 1960 short Forever Ambergris.

The title alludes to Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 novel which sold 480 kajillion copies and inspired a 1947 movie. The cartoon somehow has nothing to do with the novel’s plot of a woman who seduces or marries her way into post-Restoration English royal society.

What we do have struggles to be one of the Popeye-tells-Swee’Pea-a-story cartoons. It takes almost forever to get there, though. At least a minute and a half, in a cartoon with a five-minute run time, not counting credits. Olive Oyl’s going out, and wants a babysitter. Popeye tries to flee, calling babysitting not-manly. It’s a bad look for him. Yes, I know he’s expressed similar attitudes, like once finding Olive Oyl’s dog too sissy for him to walk. It was a bad look for him then, too. I guess it’s needed-for-plot, so that Olive Oyl can use her perfume to make Popeye babysit. And then so Popeye has a reason to talk about ambergris, which goes into perfumes. But did we need to justify Popeye watching over Swee’Pea? If he’d just announced he was going to tell a story about finding some ambergris, would it have jarred too much?

But time spent getting to Popeye’s story is time they don’t have to spend on Popeye’s story. Which may be needed; there’s not much to it. While at sea Popeye spots some ambergris and he, Brutus, and Wimpy collect it. And then put it in a treasure chest. And lock the treasure chest. And guard the treasure chest. This allows for a pleasant pattern of Brutus declaring, say, he’s going to lock the treasure chest, and Popeye declaring “me too” and Wimpy “I also”. The many repetitions give it an appeal this action wouldn’t otherwise support.

Three people coming across an unexpected treasure makes me think of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Or at least the many spoofs I’ve seen rather than the actual Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The cartoon doesn’t go for this, though. So why is Wimpy in this cartoon? He’d have been great in a Sierra Madre scenario descent into paranoia. He naturally plays people against one another; that could feed a real story. Instead he seems to be an unneeded buffer between Popeye and Brutus, who swipes the treasure when the ship crashes somehow into Paris.

Popeye standing, but his head is lowered in weariness, and his body is drawn all jaggedy, as though he had been crumpled up and quickly straightened out again.
2021 is treating us all just great!

Brutus carries it up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Popeye follows and punches the treasure chest, which falls into a cement mixer. “And ever since, that street in Paris has been forever ambergris”, Popeye explains, an ending that makes Swee’Pea mad. I’d thought that was fair — Popeye’s story feels like a shaggy-dog story with a punch line not related to the setup. But, on review, Popeye did claim only to be telling the story of the time he found some ambergris. So it is a shaggy-dog story but at least it was about the dog he promised. Olive Oyl gets home as Swee’Pea’s crying, and won’t hear any excuses, so she crashes a jar over Popeye’s head. It’s not a good look for her, either.

The cartoon frustrates me. I’m not satisfied with it. But I also can’t point to anything it’s doing wrong. Like, Wimpy doesn’t have a reason to be there. But he doesn’t have a reason to be in Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor either, and that’s not a problem there. Popeye’s ambergris find comes to nothing, but what did I expect it to? Him finding something that would make him rich forever would break the loosely-defined basic setup of Popeye. Him finding enough to buy a new car (or something) is maybe plausible but too boring to make a story. He has to end up getting nothing, or near-nothing, out of it. That nothing being a great-smelling sidewalk in Paris satisfies that. But it feels like something I acknowledge is funny in principle without laughing at. (I concede a lot of my own humor-writing is stuff that is only funny in principle.)

I think Olive Oyl smashing her perfume jar on Popeye’s head was a bad ending.