60s Popeye: Jeep is Jeep


The title seems clear enough. And the credits are promising: it’s another Paramount Cartoon Studios product. That is, the people who’d been animating Popeye since 1933 and could do it in their sleep, and from 1952 to 1958 did. There’s the guarantee of basic competence here. The producer and animation director are Seymour Kneitel. The story’s another by I Klein. Here’s 1960’s Jeep Is Jeep.

This cartoon looked ready to be great. I’m a Eugene the Jeep fan from way back. You’ve seen my icon here. And in the first scenes we see Popeye is not in his Boring Suburban House. He’s in a Boring Suburb, sure, but his house is boat-shaped. Usually a good sign.

That’s a paragraph that tells of my disappointment. Not that it’s another introducing-the-Jeep cartoon. And not that it’s introducing the Jeep after we’ve had several cartoons, including from Paramount, with Eugene. That part’s almost a tradition. Popeye Presents Eugene, the Jeep, in which Popeye’s introduced to Eugene by Olive Oyl, came out two years after Popeye the Sailor with the Jeep, in which Popeye introduces Eugene to Olive Oyl. That’s fine. This is not a serialized comic.

The problem is first it takes forever — at least, until 1:45 — before Eugene gets into the cartoon at all. This in a cartoon that runs 5:40, counting the credits. And then another minute explaining his gimmicks: he’s magic, can walk through walls, and can answer any question.

Animation cel of Swee'Pea riding bareback on Eugene the Jeep, who seems happy to be his steed.
OK but this part? Life goal.

Finally, at 2:42, Swee’Pea wanders off. Understandable, since what kid would be interested in a magic dog that’s just arrived? And Popeye finally notices this, about 2:58 in, and the story finally starts: Eugene leading Popeye to Swee’Pea. The premise is all right, if a low-animation-cel remake of Popeye the Sailor with the Jeep. At least one joke — Eugene walking through a stone wall, and Popeye punching his way through — is directly reused. (It also ends with Popeye doing one of his oldest animated moves, punching a train into stopping.) The cartoon’s this low-energy remake even before Eugene finally arrives. Popeye doing tricks while babysitting Swee’Pea evokes the Fleischer’s I Likes Babies And Infinks, but very slow.

There’s no blaming people for reusing jokes, or even whole plots, especially not 22 years later. But the original cartoon had more and better jokes. And it had the punch line that Eugene was mischievously leading Popeye on a needless chase. Without that? It’s a slow march through not much fun.

60s Popeye: Uranium on the Cranium, because Popeye cartoons are where you say things like ‘cranium’


We’re back to a Larry Harmon-produced cartoon this week. The director on record is Paul Fennell and the story is by the ever-reliable Charles Shows. Back to 1960 and Uranium on the Cranium.

My first problem with this cartoon is that I know the history of Popeye too well. There’s a better version of this cartoon. Of course there is; by the time we reached this cartoon there were … I don’t know, three hundred Popeye shorts out there? A lot of premise was covered. But the Fleischer Stealin’ Ain’t Honest covers a lot of the same territory, including BlutoBrutus stealing the map through a periscope and racing to an island. Between the 1940 predecessor and this 1960 version the gold mine has turned into a uranium mine. That’s nice and timely. Updating the Macguffin doesn’t affect things any, of course. But it’s curious we don’t see any use of radioactive materials as magic, capable of any sort of weird fun story event. Or at least giant glowing monsters. Yes, I know uranium doens’t really do that. Who could possibly care?

The most interesting change is Brutus putting on a gorilla suit to mess with Popeye. This is a danged good idea. Popeye has an aversion to beating up “dumb aminals”. He’s not as consistent with this as we’d wish from our heroes. But it takes more to get him to beat up a gorilla than to beat up Brutus. A good costume shop would let Brutus get away with murder.

A gorilla facing off against Brutus, who's left the head off of his own gorilla costume.
Well, you got me: this one isn’t from my DeviantArt account anyway.

Of course there ends up being a real gorilla in the mix, and Popeye thinks the real gorilla is Brutus and then Brutus thinks the real gorilla is Popeye stealing his gimmick. That’s a fair enough use of the gimmick. It seems like it could have been better.

There’s a writing tick that I noticed here and now I’m curious whether it’s a Harmon-studios specialty. That’s one of forming a joke by repeating a word, maybe in different contexts. Asked if he’s sure nobody can see the map at sea, Popeye says, “Sure I’m sure.” Shown the Geiger counter, Olive Oyl says, “I can hardly wait for the buzzer to buzz”. As Brutus ties her up Olive Oyl tells Brutus “you are a crooked crook!” Brutus answers “this mine is mine, all mine!” Any one of these is unremarkable. They even fit the language pattern of Popeye’s immortal declarations about how he yam what he yam and that’s all what he yam. Or how he’s had all the can stands, he can’t stands no more. I suspect if I were more intersted in the cartoon I wouldn’t notice these things. But there you go.

When Rabbits And Flappers Perform Dentistry


Remakes have always been with us. Famously, the only version of The Wizard of Oz anyone cares about is at least the fifth filmed version of L Frank Baum’s classic, and nowhere near the last. The only version of The Maltese Falcon anyone watches is the third made between 1929 and 1939. Partly that’s because a good idea is worth doing again, certainly at least until it’s done well. Partly that’s because movies are kind of disposable. Oh, a movie will last as long as the film, or the file, lasts, and you can experience it as long as it lasts. But as a commercial prospect, a movie comes into being, is watched a while, and then is forgotten. A remake gives it a new season in the popular culture. Cartoons get remade a lot, probably because the same reasons that make it sensible to remake a movie apply even more to cartoon shorts.

I wanted to write about the Betty Boop short Ha! Ha! Ha, released the 2nd of March, 1934, because it’s listed as the last theatrical appearance of Koko the Clown. Koko was, at least in a few shorts, Betty Boop’s second boyfriend, although he was more often just a friend of hers. And he was the star of the Fleischer’s cartoons from the 1920s, including many of their oddest features. He was also star of a 1960s string of Out Of The Inkwell cartoons.

Ha! Ha! Ha! gets described as a remake of the 1924 Koko the Clown short The Cure. I think that’s overstating things. There are some pieces the shorts have in common. The framing is that of the Out Of The Inkwell cartoons: producer Max Fleischer draws a character out of the inkwell, and the cartoon characters interact a bit with the real world. Then they try extracting a tooth and eventually cartoon laughing-gas escapes into the real world, to produce some amazing and disturbing real-world animation. But I don’t think that’s enough to call one a remake of the other.

The Betty Boop cartoon is the more professional of the two, I must admit. It’s better drawn and the story holds together better. The line of action from the cartoon paper, to the office, to the city makes more sense. And it’s remarkably funny considering the last quarter of the short is just one joke — something new encounters laughing gas, and starts laughing — repeated over and over.

But The Cure might be better. Some of this is that I’m charmed by how the short features a rabbit as Koko’s partner. But I also like the way the story doesn’t quite hang together. It’s got a more dreamlike, loopy quality, and more of an improvised feel. And while the Betty Boop version has some magnificent images as laughing gas escapes to the world — the gravestones, particularly, are the sort of image that will last in the mind — I think the earlier version has better jokes all around. And the interactions between the live action and the animated figures are more ambitious and thus more fun.

Popeye, The Ace Of Space


Previously:


One of the 1960s King Features Popeye cartoons I was thinking about including in my review of the various studios’ efforts was a Larry Harmon-produced one titled Ace Of Space. I could find it online, but at a strangely distorted aspect ratio, the sort of thing that makes you wonder if people don’t know how to set their TVs to the right display settings.

The curious thing is that the same title was used for a 1953 cartoon. This cartoon has the same starting gimmick as its 1960 namesake, Popeye getting abducted by a flying saucer and fending off the aliens (a robot, that time); the 1960 version sees Olive Oyl brought along for the ride, though not to much good story purpose.

The 1953 Ace Of Space is a rather famous Popeye cartoon, as it was the series’s venture into 3-D cartooning. That was a fad as short-lived as 3-D movies in the 50s were, but it yielded an entry or two from all the major studios in which, well, they figured out a way to make the studio’s logo three-dimensional and then maybe did one scene with a panning background and that was about it. Famous Studios was not an exception; besides a scene of a Martian being thrown at the camera you’d probably never get a hint this was meant to be seen with 3-D glasses on.

In some ways this is about the last Popeye cartoon for which Famous Studios was really trying; the cartoons they made after this tend to be dull, remakes, clip shows, or blends of these. The artwork’s solid, the story moves along well, and if I’m not overlooking a case this is one is tied for the record of Popeye’s spinach consumption. Even so there’s hints of how the studio was slumping towards irrelevancy: the story draws a lot from the 1946 Rocket To Mars, which starts with a more extremely warlike Mars that gets punched by Popeye into a giant amusement park. The extremes here are watered down versions of those, as if the studio was afraid that the premise of “Popeye in space” demanded too much imagination.

But they’re still trying, and the cartoon’s drama shook me as a child, and still does (particularly, the Atom Apple Smasher scene). As a kid, I also didn’t understand the logic of how Popeye got out of the disintegrator ray aftermath; as an adult, now, I still think the cartoonists didn’t have a good idea themselves. Or they don’t know the difference between disintegration and invisibility, somehow. I’m just saying I see plot holes in this cartoon is all.