King Features has chopped off some or all of the credits the last couple shorts. This was a particularly severe case, with even the title card lost. It’s only the title of the collection on King Features’s YouTube page that makes it clear we’re starting on Private Eye Popeye. The Internet Movie Database tells me this is a 1960 Jack Kinney-produced short, with story by Raymond Jacobs and direction by Rudy Larriva. With that established, let’s watch.
My first watch of this, I hadn’t looked up the credits. I wondered if it might be a Gene Deitch short. The nice moody opening pan across the waterfront, with the music too soft for me to notice first time through, seemed suggestive. And little bits of not-necessary but fun flourishes, like Popeye poking his cleaning rag through his magnifying glass, or the title bar identifying Olive Oyl as a private eyess, seemed like Deitch’s touch. Shows what I know, even after all this time.
A leftover Jimmy Durante caricature claiming to be the police chief assigns Popeye and Olive Oyl to catch diamond smugglers. It’s Brutus and the Sea Hag, of course. Popeye wisely calls on Eugene the Jeep to find the plot. This gets a clever bit of Eugene spelling out ‘DIAMONDS’ with his tail, a message Our Heroes can’t interpret. Brutus locks Popeye in the hold, and hits on Olive Oyl, who hits back. Popeye finds his way into one of those giant deck tubas that ships have in cartoons and silent movies, and holds a gun on Brutus. This feels out of character, as much as it makes sense for “a private eye”. Anyway, the Sea Hag steals the gun and Brutus steals Popeye’s helicopter.
The big action scene here is Popeye clinging to the helicopter while Brutus flies it. The helicopter breaks up and Brutus and Popeye with one propeller each try to grind the other’s propeller to nothing. This is another thing that made me think Gene Deitch: the action is very much what the 1930s theatrical version of this cartoon might be. It’s got that blend of action and danger and absurdity. Popeye eats his spinach, granting super-powers to his propeller blade, and sends Brutus to the sharks below. To be eaten, if we take the text literally, another moment that feels out of character. The Sea Hag’s still loose, but Olive grabs the gun, accidentally shooting down a jar of diamond-encrusted pickles to knock out the Sea Hag. That sounds like gibberish but all the story pieces hold together.
It’s a strongly story-driven cartoon, especially for a Jack Kinney production. I think of his shorts as being more mood pieces. This strong a narrative I’d expect from Paramount or Gene Deitch. It’s a mostly good blend that they have going here. Not sure I like the guns, or the suggestion Brutus has been killed. And the music is the usual for Kinney, a random shuffle of stock cues mixed at the wrong level. But the whole is a successful short. You can see the version of this that might have been made in, oh, 1938, without feeling too bad that it wasn’t.
Besides having maybe the longest title for a Popeye cartoon, this week’s short has a tribe of villagers on Phony Island. For the most part we only see one, Chief Knucklebone. Did not like that those points were introduced to the story. To my eye, this avoided being offensive: apart from a celebratory dinner we only see Chief Knucklebone, and he’s presented as acting in his own interests. Still, it’s set on a tropical island where the locals are having trouble they can’t deal with. If you don’t need that in your recreational reading, you are right, and should skip this one.
This one is another Gene Deitch-made cartoon from 1961. As usual with Gene Deitch cartoons I don’t have more specific production details than that. The IMDB offers that the music is by Stepán Konícek and that’s all they have to say. If you’re still up for this, then, let’s watch.
This is, at heart, a stock Popeye plot. At least for the comic strip, although the outline got done a few times in theatrical shorts too. Popeye gets a call for help from a backstory friend who lives on some remote island. (It always seems to be islands in the comic strip, too. I guess so he can sail there, or maybe because there’s so many islands you can make up more and it won’t stand out.) Here, there’s the Sea Hag pulling a Scooby-Doo, scaring off the locals to grab their land. The Sea Hag captures — well, not Olive Oyl, for once. Popeye eats spinach, and vanquishes the foe. (Since that’s done off-screen I guess we can’t say for sure he punched the Sea Hag, but it seems like a close-run thing.) Happy ending.
What makes it appealing is how it goes about this. The considerable animation, for one thing, starting with a needless but fun spiral at the title cards. Having stuff moving, and in funny ways, forgives a lot of weird edits and slightly mistimed lines and all. Also that the cartoon makes time for needless but funny digressions. Popeye sulking about how he needs an extension phone or an extension bathtub, for example. (Or complaining how the phone always rings when he’s taking a bath, when he’s taking a shower.) Or the airplane pilot come to take Popeye to Phony Island. We don’t seem to need this — why not just cut to Popeye hopping off his boat? — but we get some bouncy flying over the suburbs, and the pilot gets fun lines such as indifferently telling Popeye how to use his parachute. That seeming irrelevance pays off, too: Popeye goes on to use his parachute later, first to get into the volcano and then to get back out. What looks like a throwaway gag sets up plot cleverness. Twice.
And that’s what I like in this short. It’s got a lot of cleverness. Even the Sea Hag’s scheme is a clever one. She wants the island so as to set up a vacation paradise for villains. That’s a fun idea. It’s a setting I’d expect to see in a mid-season episode of Get Smart. I’m sorry we didn’t get to see the plan enacted. I suppose the Sea Hag’s vision of casual pickpocketing and cultural programs establishes the premise. And this might be something more fun imagined than seen in detail. (I’d still like to see the Get Smart episode at KAOS Summer Camp.)
Yes, yes, whenever one of these shorts seems to have more plot than needed I wonder if it came from the comic strip. But I wonder again. The short does a great job at giving the impression there’s more story than is on-screen. I like when they do that.
The title of this week’s King Features Popeye had me expecting a Jack Kinney short. Somehow it felt like a story built around a “real” legendary creature fit that studio’s style more. Nope; this is Paramount Cartoon Studios. So director and producer credits go to Seymour Kneitel. The story’s credited to Carl Meyer and Jack Mercer. From 1961 let’s see Popeye tangling with The Leprechaun.
This is not a funny cartoon, which does not bother me. This is an adventure cartoon instead, a striking lot of story for five and a half minutes of animation. The Sea Hag has a plan to set her up for life: catch a leprechaun and steal his gold. Popeye spots her — in a neat and surprisingly smooth bit of animation, at about 33 seconds in — and decides he needs to be in the cartoon too. The Sea Hag finds the leprechauns on an island so lush it has detailed, even shaded, backgrounds. Her not-bad plan: beg for help from a kindly leprechaun, and to repay him, offer him tea. It’s laced with truth serum so he can’t not tell the location of the leprechauns’ gold.
The other leprechauns banish him for this. This doesn’t seem fair of them. I don’t know much about Irish mythology but from what I have learned, the only thing more dangerous than accepting a stranger’s offer of food and drink is not accepting. They should have sympathy; it could have been any of them. Popeye runs across the poor leprechaun, “banished forever” until their gold is returned, and he catches the Sea Hag at the docks. She uses her Evil Eye Whammy. He uses his spinach to punch it back at her, knocking her out. I guess this doesn’t break his resolve to not hit a woman, but it’s a close thing. The gold’s returned, Popeye’s made an honorary leprechaun, and I’m not sure we ever hear the victimized leprechaun’s name.
As said, this isn’t a funny cartoon. I’m not sure there’s even an attempt at joking. Doesn’t matter. There’s a story here, and a well-constructed one. For example, when Popeye first challenges the Sea Hag her buzzard sneaks up and knocks him out. This balances with Popeye sneaking up on and knocking out the buzzard at the end. The kind leprechaun finds the knocked-out Popeye and helps him; this establishes his nature before the Sea Hag can take advantage of it. And while we know Popeye would help a sad-looking fellow, it gives him a stronger reason to try and help the banished leprechaun.
And there’s some production bits. The bit with Popeye looking through his telescope and turning his head, for example, a bit of animation so good I expected them to reuse it at least once. Maybe it’s put into the Paramount stock library and turns up in other shorts. Or there’s the great children’s-book illustration of the forest. It’s got so much depth as to make the other backgrounds look chintzy. It gives a suggestion of the forest as this magical, more-real-than-real setting. Or maybe it reflects the background having been designed for a theatrical cartoon and getting pressed into service here. I don’t know, but I love the decision to use this.
I bet Popeye gets a lot of mileage out of being an honorary leprechaun in future cartoons. Can’t wait for next week.
And a spot of trivia. One episode of Let’s Make A Deal this week closed with a Quickie Deal with an audience member dressed as Popeye. The challenge: if he could name when the Popeye series started (to within a decade) he’d get a hundred dollars. 1933, right? Well, he guessed wrong. And they answered wrong, offering 1960 as the start! Have to guess whoever was pulling up trivia for the Quickie Deals didn’t realize how ambiguous asking when “the Popeye series” started was.
Back to the King Features Syndicate Popeye shorts, though. Today’s is another Popeye cartoon from the Paramount Cartoon Studios group. The story’s credited to I Klein. Direction and production are credited to Seymour Kneitel.
The cartoon is set in India. I’m relieved to report that it has no racist or even questionable depictions of Indian persons. This because the budget was too tight to represent any Indian persons at all. It does depict India as a place with strange statues bearing curses, though. If you don’t want that sort of exoticizing South Asia in your recreational reading, you’re right and just skip this piece. You aren’t going to miss anything important in understanding the Popeye canon. This never quite tripped over the line to get me angry. I think because it interacts with the setting so little. The story wouldn’t change if the Sea Hag were trying to get Merlin’s Macguffin from an English castle.
I mean, there’s this episode of Dave the Barbarian where the lead villain has to trick one of Our Heroes into swiping this cursed magic item for him. You could watch that, if you want this premise done with more fun and energy. Dave the Barbarian was a mid-2000s goofy cartoon set in a fantasy magic kingdom, so a cursed item has a subtler set of issues behind it. It also has a more specific curse. The first person to take it will turn into cheese. Dave the Barbarian had that 90s-web-comic style of wacky wacky zany and oddly angry humor. But I’m sure there’s nothing we now notice as regrettable in the series at all.
But this short, mm. Popeye and Olive Oyl are in India, while every Indian person is out of town visiting friends. The Sea Hag is, too, hoping to swipe a gem from a statue. But the gem puts a curse on whoever steals it, so, she whips up a perfume potion to make Olive Oyl steal it for her. I’m sure the Sea Hag would have preferred anybody besides Popeye’s girlfriend to do this, but again, there’s not even people in the distance in background paintings here. She had no choice. Also, apparently, in this cartoon’s continuity Olive Oyl hasn’t met the Sea Hag yet. I suppose this justifies the Sea Hag relying on Olive Oyl instead of, like, training a squirrel. But it’s going to mess up any kids trying to put all the Sea Hag/Popeye/Olive Oyl interactions in a consistent order. Good luck.
Olive Oyl’s tricked into stealing the gem, but the Sea Hag can’t get it from her because the characters are explaining what just happened to each other. And the statue decides its ill-defined curse is going to mess with Popeye more than Olive Oyl. Well, he leaps in to take hole-in-the-earth meant for her. She feeds his spinach into the crack in the Earth, and Popeye remembers he can’t hit a woman even if she is the Sea Hag. So Olive Oyl eats the spinach and beats up the Sea Hag instead, off-screen. This is a rare cartoon where Olive Oyl eats spinach. The others I can think of are the Fleischer Studios Never Kick A Woman and the Famous Studios Some Hillbilly Cartoon, Right? This is because I have no memory of the Famous Studios Firemen’s Brawl. Anyway, Our Heroes return the emerald and we get out of the cartoon.
I always talk about how these Paramount-made cartoons at least always have basic competence, even if they’re dull. This one leans more on the boring side than usual, though. The repetition of explaining how the Sea Hag tricked Olive Oyl sure filled time. The curse wasn’t that interesting. We didn’t even get a good fight cloud between Olive Oyl and the Sea Hag. This would be a story to launch your existentialist fanfic about these characters going through the motions of protagonist and antagonist, except it’s not even an interesting enough routine plot to sustain that. Really, if you like the “trick the hero into stealing the cursed item” premise, try that Dave the Barbarian episode instead. That’s got jokes at least.
Paramount Cartoon Studios produced today’s short from 1960. The story’s from our old friend I Klein. Direction and production are credited to Seymour Kneitel. Here at least is Moby Hick.
A common problem to any longrunning series is the dwindling universe. It’s natural to focus on the most interesting character, or characters, and everything in the setting dwindles away. Moby Hick does something interesting, despite the only significant characters being the Sea Hag and Popeye. The Sea Hag doesn’t start this short with any interest in Popeye. When she does run across him she hasn’t any interest in destroying him. She keeps him in the cartoon because she figures she can use him. And her goal is something that’s in the backstory, something we don’t see much in these cartoons. Years ago (we eventually learn) she stole the Seamen’s Orphanage treasure, but lost it overboard where the great whale Moby Hick swallowed it. We have to suppose this was a Sea Hag caper that Popeye wasn’t involved in, since the treasury wasn’t recovered back then. These are small items. But they’re things that expand Popeye’s universe, making stuff happen that isn’t about him.
The Sea Hag gets a lot of nice business this cartoon. She has a solid introduction, the whole bar of sailors scared off by her reputation. Spotting Popeye as someone she could use, and spinning enough of a tale of being reformed for Popeye to buy it. Popeye’s usual sense for detecting bad guys seems to malfunction here. His Columbo-like eye was one of his defining characteristics. In his first story in Thimble Theatre he couldn’t stop socking John Stork, long before he had any evidence Stork was the bad guy. It’s not lost entirely; Popeye recognizes Moby Hick isn’t some rampaging monster from a good look at the whale. Maybe he wants to believe in reform that much. He hasn’t got much reason to expect it from the Sea Hag, or Bluto/Brutus. But, like, Toar came around fast, and so do a lot of his opponents.
This is a more plot, less comedy-driven cartoon than usual. I have the impression Paramount-made shorts are more likely to have that sort of strong plot. I suspect the studio was better at stories than (say) Jack Kinney’s or Larry Harmon’s could be. The only mysterious point is how the Sea Hag came to learn Moby Hick had swallowed the treasure. I suppose it was some wicked bit of spellcraft or something.
It’s not just me, right? It is weird that Popeye’s been swallowed by jellyfish more than he’s been swallowed by whales? (He wasn’t even swallowed by a whale this time!) Only a stray thought; pay it no mind.
So, everyone here. Do you like Seymour Kneitel? Like, a lot of Seymour Kneitel? Because these Popeye cartoon reviews are heading into a thick patch of Seymour Kneitel-produced, Seymour Kneitel-directed cartoons. Today’s has a story by Joseph Gottlieb but don’t worry, after this, we get a bunch written by Seymour Kneitel too. This … is Popeye’s Double Trouble, from 1961.
The cartoons I watched growing up led me to believe I would encounter doubles of myself much more often than I actually have. It’s easy understanding why physical doubles turn up so much, though. They let you get into comedies of misunderstanding and you don’t even have to make a new character sheet. This cartoon’s one of the set where there’s a specific reason for a double. This time, the Sea Hag poses as Olive Oyl. She’s trying to get back a wish-granting good-luck coin that she accidentally gave Popeye.
Put like that, the gimmick of the cartoon sounds goofy or ridiculous. It doesn’t feel goofy, though. It’s set up matter-of-fact enough to seem reasonable. Sea Hag meant to jinx Popeye by giving him her bad-luck coin, that she carries around with her. She never wonders if keeping her bad-luck coin on her might relate to how Popeye foils all her schemes. Her vulture, in an inexplicable stroke of bad luck, pulls out the good-luck coin. She doesn’t realize until Popeye’s picked it up and wished for a chauffeur. Also the good-luck coin grants wishes. This seems like an arbitrary trait, or two magic-item ideas getting conflated. But the wish-granting turns out to serve the plot well. It gets Popeye out of the trouble of not being able to tell which is Olive Oyl and which is the disguised Sea Hag, since Mae Questel does both their voices.
The story feels well-constructed. Not just in comparison to the loose motivations given the last couple Jack-Kinney-produced cartoons. And there are some touches I quite like. For one, I’m amused that Popeye accepts how the disguised Sea Hag smashes him into a wall or holds him upside-down to shake the coin off him. This doesn’t register as un-Olive-Oyl behavior. Also the waving her arm to shift into Olive Oyl’s appearance is a nice effect. I also appreciate that Olive Oyl gets to take the story lead. She sings the Vulture to sleep, unties herself, is sensible enough to wear a different hat so the audience can tell her from the Sea Hag. And she gets a rare chance to eat the spinach and so save the day. Good showing all around even if she wanders around like she’s dizzy and drunk after her spinach power-up. Well, they have to get a punch line to the dance contest from somewhere.
Wonder if the Sea Hag considered and rejected just asking Popeye for a coin for the phone or something. Yes, I know, if he turned the coin over then the short would be over too soon. Still, it would’ve been the first approach I’d try.
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.