Today’s Popeye short continues the journey into Jack Kinney-produced weird ones. It’s from 1960 and the credits — well, the credits have a different style from what we’ve seen already. The credits give Ken Hultgren the story, though, and animation direction. Kinney’s the producer. So here is Sea Hagracy, a title I believe wants to riff on “sea piracy”, which says a lot about how it’s going.
When I at last read Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre comics I came to appreciate something about Popeye. That is that Elzie Segar never began a story with any idea where he was going. Some stories he finished with no idea where he was going. This is not to deny his skill or charm. Just that the stories often wander around instead of having any narrative thread.
My sources don’t indicate that Sea Hagracy is based on a comic strip storyline. It has the feel, though. In particular, it has several momentary thrusts of plot logic. Any one thrust makes sense. How they fit together is a mystery. It would make sense if this were a 16-week storyline condensed. That much time allows for the characters to reconsider what they’re doing. In five minutes? That’s a greater challenge.
The story starts well, with the title card dissolving right into the tax man taking the Sea Hag’s fortune. She hasn’t kept up her ill-gotten gains tax. Good inciting incident and some good lines, like the Sea Hag having stolen these chests by honest piracy. But she needs money, and figures to return to piracy. Popeye won’t let her. So she decides to make him a partner.
Popeye’s having none of it, and one can wonder why the Sea Hag thought that might work. I can imagine the sequence where she makes a more plausible case and gets shut down. Popeye “hates piracey worse’n poison,” and The Phantom argues that’s his line, and we’re done with that thread.
Stave the Third. Sea Hag bribes Wimpy into knocking Popeye out. Wimpy won’t betray his dear friend, of course, not for less than two hamburgers. Solid idea, and if the negotiations go on forever that’s all right. It’s some fun patter. Wimpy sneaks in with the mallet, but can’t bring himself to clobber Popeye. Popeye, by the way, has spent the whole short looking annoyed to be in the short when he wants to read the paper. And once Popeye gets wind of this he decides his rule against hitting women doesn’t mean he can’t spank the Sea Hag. I don’t follow this logic, but I grew up in an era where we noticed spanking was, you know, battery.
That seems like a logical end for the story, so the story goes on again. The Sea Hag decides she should just destroy Popeye, and use magic, since she remembered what she is. This involves sending lightning out to destroy Popeye’s house, which works, and which doesn’t get undone by the end of the short. Popeye eats the tiny can of spinach he keeps in bed, next to his feet. And then absorbs a bunch of the Sea Hag’s lightning bolts, then comes back as a half-human, half-lightning-bolt to zap the Sea Hag. This all is an idea so exciting as to overcome the limited animation. Think what it would have been like in a Fleischer two-reel color feature. And now we’ve got the end of a shorter but more superhuman story.
And one that ends with the inciting incident — the Sea Hag is broke — not just unresolved, but forgotten. Which is again true to the comic strip, and plots written day-to-day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The story credit is a bit of a fib. Not to discount Seymour Kneitel’s work in putting the story together. But it was based on the 1936 comic strip storyline Mystery Melody. As often happens with the conversion of a print story to screen, the print version is better. But the print version had five months at six strips a day to tell its version. The cartoon has five minutes. Kneitel had to do serious work to shrink and adapt it. He’s helped by reducing the character set to the bare minimum, and cutting out side stories. And by Elzie Segar’s tendency to get caught by a funny idea and do that for three weeks straight while he thought of the next plot point.
The story as we get it animated: Poopdeck Pappy’s haunted by a weird melody that Olive Oyl and Popeye can’t hear. We see it’s the Sea Hag playing her flute in a wonderful dark, spooky swamp. She sends her vulture to grab Pappy’s hat, and he tells the backstory. When a young sailor he courted the beautiful Rose of the Sea — “afore I was married”, a reassurance that Popeye is not literally a bastard. But when he finally kissed her, she transformed into the Sea Hag. He freaked out and ran, and the Sea Hag has held it against him for 80 years. Pappy looks a bit shallow, but he was young and saw his girlfriend transform to a witch. It’d be strange if he weren’t freaked out. And it’s got the feel of a folk take. I’m too ignorant to pin down one that quite works like this, but discovering your beloved is secretly an evil spirit has got to be done before.
Pappy says the Sea Hag’s been looking for him for 80 years, which indicates he has a high opinion of himself as a suitor. Well, he is a guy. It doesn’t seem like she must have been looking for him long. He was sitting in jail on Goon Island for forty of those years. But this may be a continuity separate from the Goonland short. I mean, I know it is. The continuity of Popeye is about personality and attitude, not about what happened when. In the comic strip Mystery Melody was only the first major story after Pappy was found.
The Sea Hag uses her flute to bewitch Pappy. She gives him a chance to love her as Rose of the Sea and when he refuses, she puts him in the dungeon. Popeye reasons that what he could use is Eugene the Jeep, who what do you know but is right there. Eugene charges for the castle and chases off the Sea Hag, shooting electricity from his tail, a thing we didn’t know he could do before. Didn’t know it in the comic strip version, either. The Sea Hag’s vulture tries to take Popeye away, but he eats his spinach and punches his way free. And pushes the castle out of the way, freeing his father. We have a happy ending, with the last joke being Pappy spooked by a mysterious whistling that’s the tea kettle. It’s one of the few jokes in the short.
I like this short. It’s one that gives the Popeye characters history, the illusion that there’s a world going on even when Popeye isn’t on-screen. And it has some nice haunting moments; that shot of the Sea Hag playing her flute in the swamp is a good spooky one. And the Rose-of-the-Sea backstory for Pappy feels like the sort of folklore that belongs in a story about a rough-and-tumble sailor from a rough-and-tumble family. The time spent on setup does mean there’s no time for development; we have to go almost directly to the resolution. It’s a good trade, though, as the setup is good.
It’s unusual for the cartoons in being dramatic rather than comic. And it’s unusual for the King Features era in being plot-heavy. (Though Paramount cartoons seem to be the most plot-driven of the King Features run.) Nobody’s acting dumb, or even petty. It’s even got structure, with Pappy telling his history while the vulture flies back to the Sea Hag. Popeye cartoons don’t usually have things developing in parallel.
That I know the comic strip version of this story spoils things a little. Comics Kingdom reprinted it in the Vintage Thimble Theatre run. So I know the pieces of the comic strip story dropped, most of them for time. Much of this is Wimpy coming along and getting his greedy hands on the Sea Hag’s flute. I’ve mentioned the relationship between Wimpy and the Sea Hag before. Mystery Melody isn’t the comic strip series that established that relationship, but it did build on it. The comic strip also had two disturbing sequences. In one, Popeye beat up the Sea Hag’s vulture, literally tearing him apart. She used her flute to stitch him back together and restore his life. Great stuff, inappropriate for this cartoon. This audience anyway. But if they wanted to make an animated Popeye Movie? That would be a powerful scene.
The other bit from the comic strip dropped here is the battle between the Sea Hag and Eugene the Jeep. In the cartoon, the Sea Hag’s terrified and runs off. In the comic strip Eugene hunts down the terrified Sea Hag, electrifying her until he finally leaves her “mummified”. That, too, is a downright disturbing moment, especially as it comes after a lot of funny bits where Eugene surprises the Sea Hag. It gives Popeye a fantastic moment, though, mourning the possibly-dead Sea Hag and scolding his father for not pitying her in that state. Again, so inappropriate for a cartoon with this scope and audience, but also, a great bit for the full-length movie.
There’s some other things dropped from the comic strip version. Toar, for one, but also Alice the Goon and the Sea Hag’s new lackey of Bolo. I can’t fault them cutting these characters, who didn’t have much to do in the comic strip version anyway.
You see how enthusiastic I am about this cartoon and the original comic strip story. The 1960s run of cartoons had much working against them. But this shows how much they could work well, too.
There’s no story credit for the 1960 William L Snyder-produced Hag-Way Robbery. I regret this. It is directed by Gene Deitch, and made by his team of Czechoslovakian animators. You all know I like Gene Deitch cartoons. They have a weirdness that I enjoy, starting with how the opening credits fanfare begins early and so Popeye’s pipe-tooting sounds like it comes in late. Let’s see what happens after the credits.
Eugene the Jeep is kidnapped! And it’s the Sea Hag who did it! Popeye has pulled together his trusted regular cast and sails to rescue him! It’s a bold opening, one signalled by rousing music and the camera panning in on his ship moving at an angle.
Popeye’s assembled a crew of Olive Oyl, Wimpy, and Swee’Pea because who else are you going to call on? I mean and not seem like you’re being a Popeye Hipster. (Toar, Professor Wotasnozzle, Alice the Goon, and maybe the sheriff from this one story in 1930 would be my selection, though.) He’s stocked up with plenty of canned spinach, canned hamburgers, canned baby food, and … canned olives. I think this is the first and last we’ve ever heard of Olive Oyl caring about olives, but she has to eat something for the gimmick to work. It seems odd to establish these supplies, but the cartoon knows what it’s doing. These are important to the plot.
The Sea Hag’s plot, anyway. From her shark submarine — where Eugene looks adorably cross in his cage — she pipes in a tube to steal all Popeye’s spinach. And to spray in labels so that everything else pretends to be canned spinach. You may ask how she can spray in labels that all land perfectly on their targeted cans. Sea Hag’s magic, you have to give her that. With Popeye unknowingly disarmed she shoots torpedoes, and he goes belowdecks for a can of spinach and finds nothing. He sees no choice but to try everything else. Meanwhile Wimpy, Olive Oyl, and Swee’Pea eat a lot.
It’s all strongly paced, with the story just not pausing. It’s a good reminder that limited animation does not mean it has to be slow or even dull to look at. Deitch follows Jay Ward’s rule that even if you can’t animate smoothly, you can at least have all the pictures be funny along the way. The strong pace also keeps questions of story logic from cropping up. Like, why doesn’t Popeye have a can of spinach in his shirt like he always does? Or, more importantly, how do you kidnap a Jeep, who can just disappear and reappear anywhere he wants? As, indeed, Eugene does, when Popeye gets to the final can and it’s canned orchids, the Jeep’s particular food. Also, where did the canned orchids come from?
Eugene we can answer at least. He’s a magical being, closer to the fae folk than you see in your average comic strip or cartoon. He’s content to go along with personal inconvenience if it promises some interesting mischief.
But there’s little time to consider the rest. Sea Hag, low on fuel, tosses Popeye’s spinach into the boilers. The smell is “the next best thing to eating spinach”, and Popeye gets his power-up. One might complain about the logic; I’d ask, is that really less plausible than the time he ate his spinach after being disintegrated? Anyway, Popeye won’t hit the Sea Hag, but he will maroon her, on a beautiful island where the can learn to be good.
So, I like this. A lot. It’s energetic, it’s silly. Sea Hag’s got a pretty good plan. There’s bits of plot that don’t make sense and I don’t care about rationalizing them, which shows how well they did entertaining me.
We’re back to 1960 now, and back to Gene Deitch’s studios. So there’s no story credit and the producer credit is William L Snyder. I don’t know what the organization of these videos is. So here’s Which Is Witch to watch.
Something it’s hard for kids to learn is that just because a good guy does a thing doesn’t mean they’re doing something right. A hazard of stories, especially short ones with familiar characters, is jumping to the action without justifying it. This is a good example. Popeye and Olive Oyl are sailing to Sea Hag Island. Why? They’re going to surprise her. All right, but why? Sea Hag eventually mentions she’ll get back to piracy. But it’s not clear she was doing anything before Popeye stirred up trouble.
Yes, yes, of course. Sea Hag’s a villain, we know she’s villaining even when Popeye isn’t there. But, as of the start of the cartoon, what has she done that needs a response? Going off living on an island shaped like her, and running an army of off-model Goons? (They’re the same model Goon as in Goon With The Wind, so I suppose this is how Gene Deitch liked them to look.) There’s warnings there, but what is Popeye responding to?
If we get past the motivation problem, though, we’ve got a pretty snappy cartoon here. Popeye’s sneaking up fails. Sea Hag has, of course, a duplicate robot Olive Oyl ready to dispatch and stir up trouble. We’ve had duplicate Popeyes before; I’m not sure if this is our first duplicate Olive Oyl. We also have the Sea Hag’s pet vulture. In the comic strip he’s named Bernard. Here he’s Sylvester. I have no explanation for this phenomenon.
There’s also a bunch of little points that almost but don’t quite make sense. Olive Oyl sees Popeye kissed by a woman about Olive Oyl’s height and about Olive Oyl’s weight and wearing Olive Oyl’s clothes, on the Sea Hag’s island, and her first suspicion is not “the Sea Hag’s pulling some stunt”? Popeye left his spinach behind in the boat because … ? The Robot Olive Oyl is more in love with Popeye than willing to follow the Sea Hag’s directions. That one I’m all right with, actually, since the slightly-too-perfect duplicate is a good bit.
Despite my doubts about the plot, the cartoon’s got a lot to commend it. A good pace. Pretty fluid animation considering its limits. A lot of camera pans to make a little bit of motion seem like more. A plot with twists, too, as the Sea Hag outsmarts Popeye’s sneaking-up, and the Robot Olive Oyl betrays the Sea Hag. Some pretty lively voice acting, too, especially from Jack Mercer.
This is another cartoon with a wrong title, though. Which Is Witch, and a premise that there’s a duplicate Olive Oyl, implies a story where it’s hard to tell two Olives Oyl apart. Popeye’s a little confused, but it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t complicate the story any. I wonder if the title fit the story outline, but the finished product mutated away and nobody had a better title.
I’m still left wondering, in an echo of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff: what was Popeye’s plan? Go in, get captured, and escape? Mission accomplished, I guess?
This cartoon lets me reveal something that every one of you, deep down, already knew about me. As a young kid watching Popeye on the local stations I wondered: how many cartoons are there? How many do they have? Do they run the cartoons in a set order, or is it random? There was no way to know, of course, except to keep logs. So I would think it should be easy to write down titles of cartoons as they came up.
This would be foiled, over and over, by the ability of an under-ten-year-old to keep a sheet of paper and a pencil near the TV day after day. Also to pay attention when he heard the sailor’s hornpipe starting up, so I could have a title to write. (It did not occur to me that I could leave a blank line for a missed title.) But this cartoon, Voo-Doo To You Too, with its punchy, rhyming, easy-to-remember title? It was always the scolding reminder that I should re-start my list.
Happily, I am today an adult. I can consult lists of cartoons on the Internet. And we don’t have to worry about Popeye running on the local stations on TV. Or about there being local TV stations either. I can content myself to writing 800 words about every one of them.
This cartoon was by Famous Studios, the ones that until recently had been the only ones drawing Popeye. Direction and story are both by Seymour Kneitel. I think he was at least nominally the director for everything Famous Studios ever did with Popeye.
So the punch line is that however well I remembered the title, I mis-remembered which cartoon it attached to.
One good thing about the King Features Popeye cartoons is that they opened up the cast. The Famous Studios cartoons shrank the Thimble Theatre universe until it was Popeye, Bluto, Olive Oyl, sometimes Wimpy. I think even Swee’Pea vanished, his roles taken up by the two of Popeye’s Nephews who survived. King Features’s run was not so stingy. This cartoon stars the Sea Hag, who never appeared before the 60s run somehow. And Eugene the Jeep, who had vanished after Popeye cartoons stopped being black-and-white somehow. There’s smaller characters too. The Sea Hag’s pet vulture — Bernard, though he’s not named here — appears in a good supporting role. There’s even, in the first scene, a look at Rough House’s Cafe (Special To-Day: Spinach Burgers). Rough House never appeared before the 60s cartoons and I’m not sure that he ever did again, except in the Robert Altman movie.
We also get the Sea Hag as an actual character. Like, a real and imposing menace. Coming ashore, she picks a nice-looking house, and decides to enslave the owner to serve her. The owner is Olive Oyl. What are the odds? Popeye overhears this and does not leap right in to punch something. He remembers that he’s vulnerable to magic, and unwilling to hit a woman even if she is the Sea Hag. Instead he jumps into the bedroom and tries to persuade Olive Oyl out of her magical enslavement. She knows he’s in there anyway. Maybe the Sea Hag knows how these cartoons go.
Sea Hag shapes a candle into a voodoo doll of Popeye, and then binds it with an enchanted hair: Popeye’s arms are stuck to his side and there’s no moving them. It’s a great additional menace, taking away Popeye’s secondary superpower. (His primary superpower is standing up for what’s right, even if it hurts him.) And I do remember, as a kid, being frightened of a magic spell that would lock my arms to my sides. It’s rare to get actual nightmare material out of these cartoons.
She tosses the candle in a chest, and locks it, and sends Bernard to lose it in the wilds. Popeye searches for help with the chest, and who turns out to be in the cartoon but Eugene the Jeep? Luckily, Eugene’s magical powers include his knowing what the plot is. So Popeye doesn’t have to recap the situation right after he’s explained it to the audience. We get a slice of Popeye-following-Eugene, including a joke where Eugene walks through a tree that Popeye can’t. That’s a joke done in the Fleischer studios’ Popeye the Sailor With The Jeep, though since it had been 22 years we can forgive the reuse. Eugene can find the chest easily enough, and open it, but he’s helpless to untie the hair.
So, finally — and later than I would have tried — we turn to spinach. It does nothing to get Popeye’s arms free, and that’s where the cartoon really gets frightening. More powerful than spinach-charged Popeye? There’s genies who aren’t more powerful than spinach-charged Popeyes. Ah, but Eugene knows the rules of sympathetic magic: he feeds the doll some spinach, and doll-Popeye breaks his bonds. This leaves Popeye free. This also leaves under-ten-year-old me wondering, well, aren’t his arms stuck up in that triumphant pose now? Why not? And, like, is there anything they can do with the doll so it can’t be used against him again? If they melt it what happens to Popeye? So you can see that even as a kid, I was doomed to be like this.
Popeye runs back to Olive Oyl’s house, and gets a good fight in with Bernard, since he can’t hit the Sea Hag. This smashes up the house, but does send Sea Hag and Bernard flying away. Olive Oyl, freed from her trance, remembers none of this, but demands Popeye clean up the mess. Popeye protests he didn’t make the mess, which is wrong. He’s not to blame for the mess, but he totally did make it. Popeye closes on a rhyming couplet, not something he always does this series, complaining about how he finds women confusing. It’s a weak moment; what about any woman’s behavior here has been confusing, and why?
Never mind the weakness. This is one of my favorite King Features cartoons, even if I somehow let the title detach from it. It’s a good solid storyline. It’s got a rare menace for Popeye cartoons at all, never mind for cartoons of this era. It’s even pretty well animated, considering Famous Studios’ limitations. Anybody’s walk cycle is boring, but it’s pretty smooth and on-model. And we get a lot of scenes from interesting perspectives. The Sea Hag’s shown at three-quarters profile to cast her zombie spell on Olive Oyl, at about 6:47, and again at about 7:29 readying to fix that swab Popeye, and again explaining the rules of the voodoo doll at about 7:59. One may suspect important elements of the animation are being reused in all three appearances, but that’s good budgeting. Popeye’s conversation with Eugene the Jeep, starting about 8:46, is done from above Popeye’s and Eugene’s shoulders. They’re both interesting perspectives. We get some of that again when Eugene can’t untie the magical hair, or feeds the wax doll its spinach.
If more of the King Features cartoons were of this quality then the series would be fondly remembered.
I seem to have fallen into a theme of sampling the Popeye cartoons made in the early 60s from each of the various studios that King Featured hired to produce several zillion cartoons over the course of twenty minutes. Today’s, “The Last Resort”, was animated by Gerald Ray Studios, and I’d like to tell you something about them.
I barely can. The Internet seems to have overlooked Gerald Ray Studios in its entirety; the only references I can find to it are pages mentioning the 1960s cartoon. Fred M Grandinetti’s Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History offers that Gerald Ray had worked with Jay Ward — of Bullwinkle fame — on Crusader Rabbit and directed several Fractured Fairy Tales, and went on to form a Mexico City animation studio. You probably would have guessed these facts just from watching the cartoon, though.
If you weren’t sure there was a lot of Bullwinkle DNA in this studio then I recommend you try watching this cartoon with the sound off, because doing that makes clear how funny it is to watch. One of the guiding ideas behind Jay Ward’s style was that they may not be able to animate the scenes lushly, but, any given picture could be a funny one, and even if all you could animate in a scene was one character’s mouth moving you can at least switch between several different scenes showing the characters in different poses. It’s a simple trick, but it pays off well: the brevity of any given shot and the switching between shots fools the eye into thinking there’s more animation going on than there actually is.
And, as with Bullwinkle, the pictures are funny even when they don’t need to be, and sometimes in complicated ways: it would be enough of a joke that the Sea Hag is counterfeiting three-dollar bills. We didn’t strictly need to see one of them, but if we are going to, it’s funny that a three-dollar bill should have Benedict Arnold on it. And it’s funny enough that a three-dollar bill should show Benedict Arnold, but it’s funny on top of that that he’s shown hanging. It’s the sort of incidental detail that makes a tight budget work for you.
The cartoon’s also interesting in that it features the Sea Hag and Toar. Both were characters introduced to the comic strip in the 30s and, strangely, neither appeared in the Fleischer cartoons. They also didn’t appear in the Famous Studios cartoons, but the Famous Studios cartoons gradually forgot about all the Popeye-universe characters besides Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and two of Popeye’s nephews. Poopdeck Pappy, Eugene the Jeep, the Goons, and the other two nephews just faded out; if nothing else we can thank the 60s cartoons for bringing them back around.
I can’t think of a good reason the Fleischer Studios, particularly, didn’t use the Sea Hag. She makes a wonderfully compelling antagonist to Popeye, smart in the ways Bluto really can’t be and with the added plot complication that Popeye feels he can’t hit her. Come to think of it, that might be the problem, since that would make it harder to end a short on a big action climax unless the plotting was stronger, and of all the things Fleischer Studios did well, plotting was not among them.
Toar’s late appearance in animation is easier to understand. E C Segar introduced him in the comic strip as a prehistoric brute who, thanks to drinking from a magic pool, enjoys eternal youth. He started as a villain, but pretty soon fell in line as one of Popeye’s loyal supporters because Popeye is made of awesome. (A lot of his antagonists in the strip followed that character trajectory.) Having him introduced as the Sea Hag’s lackey is authentic to how he was introduced in the comic strip. And it’s easy to understand why he wouldn’t be introduced to the cartoons before the Sea Hag was: if he isn’t the real villain’s lackey, then there isn’t much plot role he can serve that Bluto can’t do at least as well. (Toar’s even voiced by Jackson Beck, Bluto’s voice.)
Gerald Ray Studios only made ten of the 1960s Popeye cartoons, which is a shame. The Bullwinkle-style limited animation serves the characters well.