60s Popeye: Myskery Melody, a cartoon people have been asking for


For today I have a 1961 Paramount Cartoon Studios-produced cartoon. Myskery Melody is credited to Seymour Kneitel for the story and the direction. And it features something that Garrison Skunk has been asking for! So let’s watch the cartoon.

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.

Dark, foggy, swamp-bound scene of the Sea Hag on a raft, the full moon in back of her. She plays her flute with her vulture sitting up ready to launch.
I don’t know why she covers her face to play the flute. I know she was introduced that way in the comic strip, as part of making her the more mysterious and inexplicable, but I don’t know if that signifies anything more than we’re supposed to find her mysterious.

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.

In a bright purple sitting room, young Poopdeck has opened his eye in horror that the woman he's kissing is the Sea Hag.
I’m looking at how Sea Hag’s shoulder and neck have to be twisted so she can hold her hands like that while kissing Poopdeck. I can’t see where that’s comfortable for her.

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.

The Sea Hag runs, screaming, down a hill while Eugene the Jeep shoots electric bolts from his tail, jabbing her back.
This seems harsh but you do have to remember, she kissed Poopdeck without revealing that she was secretly ugly. Also there was that thing where she kidnapped Poopdeck too.

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.

Wimpy, speaking of the Sea Hag: 'Do you think she really has passed on?' Popeye: 'A'course, I ain't positiff, but I think the Jeep turned her into a mummy. ... We can't leave her standin' there against the wall ... le's put'er into a easy chair.' Wimpy, exiting: 'Well, that's that. Let's be going.' Popeye: 'Jus' a minute, Wimpy.' A somber-looking Popeye carries a pillow over, and sets it behind the seated, mummified Sea Hag's head. He walks off, mournful, and carrying his hat in his hand.
Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre for the 22nd of August, 1937, reprinted the 20th of August, 2020. The story had been quite a lot of silly fun before this, and right after this bit of Maybe Eugene Just Killed Her, went into several weeks of jokes about what they could do with the Jeep’s electric-power tail. Elzie Segar: master of a consistent and not-at-all jarring tone.

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.

60s Popeye: Hag-Way Robbery, and the mystery of how you kidnap a Jeep


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.

Olive Oyl, hands clasped together and eyes closed in joy, looking at a room stocked floor to ceiling with cans of olives.
Um … sure, this is a thing that motivates Olive Oyl!

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.

The Sea Hag cackles as she connects a cylinder vacuum cleaner to the periscope of her submarine. Eugene the Jeep, caged, looks on angrily.
The Sea Hag woke up this morning figuring that her day would go something like this.

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.

Eugene the Jeep sniffs at an opened can labelled spinach and that actually contained orchids. Popeye, desperate, on his knees, throws his arms out in frustration, apparently yelling at the Jeep.
I didn’t mention explicitly but there are a lot of funny expressions and poses this cartoon. Most of them for good effect, like making Popeye look the more desperate as he searches for spinach. Some for arbitrary effect; like, there’s a joke early on (about 18:23) where Popeye tells Wimpy to “keeps a sharp eye out for a ugly dame”, the Sea Hag. Olive Oyl steps in, asking, “did you call me, Popeye?” And he and Wimpy act all abashed, as though they were saying anything about Olive Oyl, let alone anything derogatory about her. It’s like the compulsion to fit a joke in overrode the logic that Popeye hasn’t got anything to be embarrassed about here.

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.

60s Popeye: Which is Witch, inviting the question: what was Popeye’s objective here?


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.

Olive Oyl pointing an accusatorial finger at her robot duplicate, who's turned away, frowning, with its heart dangling sadly on a long spring. Popeye looks on at the confrontation.
Trapped in a dungeon with his girlfriend’s heartbroken robot twin, or as Popeye knows it, “Monday”.

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?

60s Popeye: Voo-Doo To You Too, and what it means to me


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.

The cartoon depends on a thing it calls voodoo magic. It’s portrayed with the research into Haitian and Creole spirituality that you expect from a hastily-made kids cartoon of 1960. If you don’t need that, you’re right. I have a punch line to my little story that appears right after the embedded video, and after that we can catch up again next week. For those of us willing to watch what an East Coast cartoon studio called “Voodoo” in 1960, let’s watch.

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.

The Sea Hag, holding up a wax magic doll imitation of Popeye and a long straight hair with which she intends to bind it.
So for those wondering why the Sea Hag never tried this trick again: magic doll wax is so expensive that there’s no sense getting it until Michaels sends you one of those coupons for at least 60% off your entire basket, special items included, and they don’t send those coupons out often.

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 standing next to the bound wax doll. Eugene is walking into Popeye's leg, magically disappearing into him.
Wh — what the — wh — Eugene, you’re making this magic-bondage/mind-controlled-zombie cartoon all weird.

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.

Popeye: The Last Resort


Previously:


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.