60s Popeye: Mirror Magic, and look, it’s Popeye’s mother!


Today we’re back to the Paramount Cartoon Studios, and another Seymour Kneitel-fest. He gets credit for story, direction, and production in this 1960 Popeye cartoon. So let’s give that to him and see what Mirror Magic is all about. It’s not much magic, especially not compared to Popeye and the Magic Hat.

There is a curse to competence. It tends to be boring. The last couple Jack Kinney cartoons I looked at had sloppy stories and a lot of animation cheats. But that also gave them this weird, unpredictable nature. Here, Paramount Cartoon Studios, which had been animating Popeye for 27 years already, gets all the craft of cartooning right. But it’s less fun.

The story is an adaptation of Snow White. For once it’s not a story Popeye tells to Swee’Pea. Jackson Beck in his narrator voice sets the stage, in the land of Muscleonia, where the strongest man rules. Little Popeye, whom we meet as an infant lifting his grandmother in her chair, is destined to be strongest in the land. We see it in scenes like Popeye bringing all the cows in the pasture in when his mother asks him to. Also we see Popeye’s Mother, the only time — in animation or in the comic strips — I remember seeing her.

King Brutus doesn’t suspect until the Magic Mirror, Jack Mercer doing his best Ed Wynn, drops the news that the change of might has happened. And so Brutus goes in disguise to kill an unsuspecting Popeye. He tries by dropping stuff that would kill a normal man, all of which Popeye shrugs off. Funny enough. Also interesting: despite the title, there’s no use of magic besides the Wynn Mirror’s ability to tell who’s strongest in the land. And not warn of anyone stronger growing up. Brutus drops his disguise, for not much reason, but gets the drop on Popeye, who eats his can of spinach. I was surprised he had a can. I’d expected the vase he was knocked into to happen to contain spinach.

Popeye, having noticed the back of his outfit was chopped off by a fallen scimitar, turns around to see Brutus, in his old-lady guise, about to smash him with a chair.
“He’s got a chair! He’s got a chair! Oh, what a moment for the referee to have turned his back to scold Popeye’s manager!”

It’s all done competently. The one moment I didn’t understand was Popeye saying how he couldn’t hit an old lady, and Brutus tearing off his old-woman guise, declaring “So you’re not as strong as the mirror said you were!” But that’s a tiny logic gap, so compelled by the plot needs you might miss it. And there are a few neat bits, mostly animation of Brutus leaning into the camera. But that’s all. You can tell from how much of this essay is recapping what happened that I just watched the story, nodded, and didn’t have deeper thoughts about it. The cartoon proves that not everything this era was badly made. But I know which of the last couple cartoons I’ll remember in two months.

At the end of the cartoon Popeye sings about how he’s Popeye the Sailor Man, even though he’s been established as the Pleasant Peasant throughout, and has not been in the same frame as any more water than the glass he holds. I trust there is an explanation for this blunder.

60s Popeye: The Mark of Zero, and the mystery of the Mark of Zero


We continue in the wilderness of shorts for which King Features’s YouTube collection includes no credits. The style of the title card gives away that it’s a Paramount Cartoon Studios production, from 1961. Seymour Kneitel is the producer and, per the Internet Movie Database, director as well. Irving Dressler has a story credit. He seems to have gone without mention here before. Here, now, learn the mystery of The Mark of Zero.

Zero, here, is the hero of a bedtime story Popeye tells. He’s a dashing, sword-wielding force standing against Brutus and his gang. There’s a good bit to like in Zero’s story. For one, he’s got a lighthearted tone. Zero quipping about how he’s kind of a cut-up is the sort of joke Jack Mercer would mumble if this short were made in the 30s. And that includes some nice cleverness, such as by disarming Brutus’s band of thugs by using a magnet.

Also, Brutus’s band of thugs is well-populated, especially for this era, and by more than one character model and voice. And his battle of wits with Zero develops. It’s got a proper introduction, build, and climax. Brutus declares “dames is Zero’s weakness,” on grounds not evidenced on-screen, and puts on a dress to catch Zero by surprise. The framing device excuses Brutus giving Zero the precious bit of spinach. This is the rare bit of suspense where you know how things are going to go the hero’s way.

It’s all done in the lumbering, steady pace of a Paramount cartoon, of course. Look at when Zero’s caught in a barrel with Brutus sitting on top. We get a good solid reminder that Zero has a sword, before he swipes Brutus’s rear end. The joke setup is sound. Set up the action and pay it off. What it’s not is fast. With better pacing the cartoon could be twice as good.

Brutus, wearing a dress, whips off the wig and mask he wore to conceal his identity and holds his sword out on Popeye-as-Zero's chest. As Zero, Popeye's wearing a loosely Robin Hood-like outfit, with a nice purple cape.
By the way that’s a look that works for Popeye. I’m not being snarky here. He fills it out well.

So the mystery. It’s not why frame this as a bedtime tale. It’s why tell the tale to Deezil Oyl? Why not Swee’Pea? Deezil was a character created for the 60s cartoons, I think to have a kid who could be more rambunctious and chaotic than Swee’Pea could be. (Also to be a companion in case the plot needed two kids.) The closing scene, with Deezil having zero-swiped her whole bedroom, would be unusual for Swee’Pea, but I don’t feel it’s out of character. There’s no need to set up telling Swee’Pea a bedtime story either.

She never got to be a regular in the cartoons, and as far as I know never appeared in the comic strip proper or another Popeye series. So I don’t want to cheat her of her few appearances. I’d like to know why she got this, though. Maybe they were looking for things to do with Deezil? But you get a lasting character when they do something someone else in your cast can’t, and “hear a bedtime story” is well-covered already.

60s Popeye: Strikes, Spares, an’ Spinach, from Seymour


Today’s is a Paramount Cartoon Studios cartoon. It’s one of the most Paramount cartoons, too. The ever-reliable Seymour Kneitel takes the credit for story, direction, and production. From 1960 here’s Strikes, Spares, an’ Spinach.

This is Popeye’s first bowling cartoon, isn’t it? I can’t think of an earlier bowling cartoon. Bowling gags, yes, such as against the Forty Thieves, or when Popeye met Rip Van Winkle, but not one a whole cartoon built around a bowling alley.

The other day I quipped I needed more Popeye cartoons where all I can say is this was a Popeye cartoon. I didn’t have this one in mind, but it is close to that. Most of the action is Popeye teaching Olive Oyl to bowl. Meanwhile Brutus leans in through one of those huge windows bowling alleys are famous for and sabotages the lessons. Mostly by, like, pouring rubber cement into the bowling ball holes. That kind of gag. Popeye has enough of this, eats his spinach, bowls Brutus out to the trash.

The interesting story choice is that the cartoon explains why Brutus is trying to sabotage this lesson. It’s revenge, or jealousy, over Popeye cancelling their bowling date. Why was that motivation needed, though? Granting it’s rude at least that Popeye didn’t tell Brutus before he came all the way over. Or invite Brutus to teach with him. That setup would have made it easy for Brutus and Popeye to compete in sabotaging each other.

Scene of Popeye and Olive Oyl at the start of a bowling lane, getting ready to pick up a ball. There's a large open window behind them. The ball return lane has a curved top which seems too low to have allowed the balls already returned to have gotten there.
How … how does that ball return lane work? Like how does the ball get past the upper lip of that piece, particularly? Anyway it turns out you can just look at videos of how actual bowling ball return lanes work, and can then ask questions like: is a bowling ball return mechanism a roller coaster?

But granting they wanted to give Brutus a particular reason to be a jerk for once. They chose to use time having Brutus run over and lie to Olive Oyl about Popeye not making their date. This justifies all that time spent in Popeye bathing and getting dressed and all. If we didn’t see that, it would be less credible that Brutus had time to get to Olive Oyl. But all the time spent on that means a minute and a half, of five minutes’ screen time, is spent getting to the bowling alley. And that’s all stuff that could start any cartoon. Were they short of bowling alley gags to use? Or did they write that setup, which would have less overloaded a seven- or eight-minute theatrical short? And then not cut bits once they reached five minutes of screen time?

I’ve sometimes described the Paramount Cartoon Studios shorts as having one gear. This is another example of that. There’s no change in tempo over the short, no acceleration of events as we reach a climax, nothing. It’s a string of decent enough jokes until Popeye decides to eat his spinach now (with a well-timed “Uh-oh” from Brutus) and then we’re done. All that’s okay enough. But I’m already forgetting this cartoon and if you watched it, you are too.

60s Popeye: Hamburgers Aweigh, featuring gross violations of Wimpy’s autonomy


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.

A wide-eyed happy Wimpy stares at the camera as his body shakes, freed of all magic spells. The Whiffle Bird is in the air beside him, happy also.
No quarreling with Wimpy’s priority of getting all those spells off him, but it does seem like he’s uncharacteristically slow to see the power of having a bird who grants wishes on hand.

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.

Sea Hag and her Vulture stand, glaring, next to Wimpy, who stands guard with a giant knife/saber resting on his shoulder.
“I regret, Miss Sea Hag, that no one over 48 inches may ride Pirate Boats and the park strictly enforces this policy.”

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.

60s Popeye: A Poil For Olive Oyl (I count at least 28 poils myself)


Back today to Paramount Cartoon Studios, and the year 1961. Seymour Kneitel gets credit for direction and (of course) production. Joseph Gottlieb gets the story credit. He also had the story credits for Operation Ice-Tickle and for Going … Boing … Gone. So I’m glad to have a title from him that doesn’t make me wonder if I’m missing an obvious pun. We search now for A Poil For Olive Oyl.

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.

Olive Oyl (seen from behind) watches a TV set showing Popeye swimming underwater.
Hey, nice of Olive Oyl to watch the cartoon along with us!

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.