Popeye’s Island Adventure offers a sloppy Toast to Popeye


The sixth of the Popeye’s Island Adventures continued the experimenting with format and story structure. Does this mean I’m happy? Have you ever seen evidence that I know how to be happy? Let’s watch A Toast To Popeye.

Rube Goldberg machines are one of those things that got lodged so well in the pop culture that nobody even knows where they came from. They were comic strips, originally. At least comic panels. They’re shaggy dog stories, with a punch line of some trivial task, like the buttering of toast, done in as roundabout way as possible. Are they funny? Tastes vary. I think they do well in animation, where the camera can guide the eye. Where a long continuous shot can give the action a sense of inevitability, the way a good farce will. They do well also when the contraption has as many parts as possible, but each individual part is just enough to accomplish its task. It takes tight design. It takes sharp editing. And it takes time; the more pieces in the contraption, the better the result.

So these are all problems working against this Island Adventure. There’s still only two minutes of animation; apparently the extra ten seconds last week was a concession to the need to carry so much story. The device Olive Oyl whips up to make and butter toast isn’t a bad idea. It does have the flaw of arbitrariness in it: once the balloon’s heated up, what makes it carry the toast over to the butter knife and the conveyor belt? No particular reason, just that if it didn’t, the machine wouldn’t succeed. What causes the mechanical arms to butter and spread jam on the toast just as the toast passes, rather than a moment before or after the bread goes by? No particular reason, just that if it didn’t, the machine wouldn’t succeed. So the device is a decent idea, but it doesn’t convince me. It’s not as funny as it ought to be. It could be fixed easily; put up a couple of rails, so the balloon has a direction imposed on it, and the machine would work.

And this is reflected in the story. There’s a good enough setup here: Swee’Pea needs a snack after the popcorn’s gone, and nothing but toast will do. Why not fruits? Why not gelatin? No particular reason, just that if it would, the cartoon wouldn’t have anything to do.. Swee’Pea could want something hot, but he can’t say so. Popeye happens to see Swee’Pea’s machine in shadow at a moment she’s holding her arms up and weirdly still. Why then? No particular reason, just that if he didn’t, the cartoon wouldn’t have anything to do. The story structure is all right, but it doesn’t convince me. It’s not as funny as it ought to be.

Coincidences are fine in storytelling. They’re usually taken better if the coincidence creates a problem rather than resolves it. But this is a case where the story has finished, and then remembers that Popeye hasn’t been in the short at all and he ought to do something. If there were a few more seconds, I’d have Popeye established on his boat, doing something, early on. Then return to him finishing the task and looking back on shore as Olive Oyl is doing her fist-bumps. This is still as coincidental a reason for Popeye to look just then, but it wouldn’t be a surprise that Popeye was in the short at all. And it might look more to Popeye like Olive Oyl was fighting some kind of robot monster.

And there is very little Popeye. At about the one-minute mark I was wondering if they were doing without him altogether, and getting ready to applaud their courage. I’m sure there have been Popeye cartoons with even less Popeye in them. (Probably Wimmin Is A Myskery, which is mostly Olive Oyl’s dream about her and Popeye’s four sons, who in later cartoons would be transferred over to nephew status.) But, no; the story just needed Popeye not to be there, until he could show up and not actually help anything. (There’s also no Bluto, the first time he’s been absent from one of these shorts. But as little as Popeye has to add to the proceedings, what could Bluto offer?)

While I wasn’t convinced by the story logic, there’s still important stuff I did like here. The first is that the direction’s getting better. The editing wasn’t as jumpy as it had been, and the camera movements all have clear purposes. The swiping of the lizard’s tongue is nice and funny to watch. I found it funny to have Olive Oyl pop out of a cake, holding another cake that the lizard pops out of, holding yet another cake. The hungry lizard’s reappearance at the end is a good closing. I like Swee’Pea swatting at his sandcastle while Olive Oyl goes looking for food; it’s something to do during a slow stretch. I like the strange, bachelor-making-a-sad-dinner attempt of Olive to just put a pear on a slice of bread and serve that as food. And, really, the more I write about this the more I like the short. I just can’t help feeling there’s an arbitrariness in the machinery, and the story logic, that keeps me from being convinced.


And I’ve finally put together a tag for this series. All the stuff I’ve written about Popeye’s Island Adventures should be here.

Meeting Betty Boop’s Grampy, Maybe


Popular cartoon characters attract relatives. It’s mandatory. Donald Duck has his nephews, Mickey Mouse a gaggle of orphans that cling to him. Popeye got nephews and a father, and in the comic strips even his grandmother. Betty Boop also picked up some relatives. The best-known of them is Grampy.

At least, I assume Grampy is Betty Boop’s grandfather. It’s not actually said. While she calls him Grampy, so does everybody else. On the other hand, there’s only one cartoon in which he appears without Betty Boop, and he’s typically present to solve Betty’s problems or to entertain her. Apparently Betty Boop’s official license-minders consider him her grandfather, so I guess that’s as definitive a word as we can expect. This isn’t the only mystery of Grampy’s nature. It’s not known who is voice actor was. Jack Mercer — the voice of Popeye and many other characters from the studio — is most often listed as Grampy’s actor, but I’m not sure that sounds right to my ear. But there’s no known contemporary documentation of who it was, just post facto attempts to place the voice.

Betty Boop And Grampy, released the 16th of August, 1935, sets the pattern for Grampy cartoons. We see Grampy, and he sets up an array of Rube Goldberg contraptions, that we get to see come to life. It’s a simple form, and it’s charming. Grampy cartoons tend to be a string of spot gags, free of tension or drama, just a steady sequence of amusements until some big contraption gets shown off. His is a world of fake-outs and sight gags, and if you find using an umbrella skeleton to slice a cake amusing you’re in good stead.

The cartoon is from 1935, and the artwork is continuing to improve amazingly. Most of the backgrounds are wonderfully precise but fluid drawings with watercolor washes, just beautiful to look at. And the Fleischers show off one of their tricks as Betty walks down the street. They had worked out a camera rigging to place animation cels in front of real, model backgrounds that could move with the camera, for uncanny realism. The sets are made to look cartoony, so that the whole project has an animated-universe existence unlike anything before the era of computer-animated cartoons.