60s Popeye has his Skyscraper Capers

I’m looking today at the Jack Kinney-produced 1960 short Skyscraper Capers. The credits scrambled my anticipation. Not affecting my expectations at all: the story was by Nick George. I don’t know the name yet, but I’ve only just started tracking these things. Lowering my expectations: that the animation director was Rudy Larriva. You may remember his name from the roughly 112,316 Wile E Coyote cartoons that Warner Brothers subcontracted out in the late 60s, made with a budget of $46 and nearly six bars of background music. He did a couple of those regretted Daffy Duck/Speedy Gonzales cartoons too, on similar terms. I’m not saying he didn’t do well given the constraints, but do you like the cartoons? And these King Features Popeye cartoons were made on the same constraints.

Raising my expectations, though: the title promises a skyscraper cartoon. I don’t know which animators first realized that skyscraper construction is a great background for a cartoon. The setting promises imminent danger, giving the cartoon that tension good for slapstick comedy. A big construction project implies great planning and sequencing, and thus something massive that the characters can rebel against, or at least mess up. (Note that multiple studios noticed skyscaper construction set to orchestral music produces great cartooning.) And you can even give the animators a chance to prove they can draw, with just one shot of the girder structure in perspective. So which expectation panned out?

This kind of cartoon chooses to explain why Popeye’s building a skyscraper. Probably the audience would have accepted it if he were just there; it’s not so baffling that BrutusBoss is just there, or that Wimpy is just there. Having Popeye read out the help wanted sign certainly fills time without needing so much animation, though. It’s interesting Popeye likes the idea until he actually sees a height, and shies back entirely once he’s asked to sign a contract. That he does it for fear of being called yellow is not a great look for him, but I can’t say it’s false. I’m interested that Brutus gives a contract that’s a real actual document. I can read enough of it to see that it’s some kind of purchase agreement rather than an employment contract, but that could not possibly matter. Also it means some animator had the job of designing Popeye’s signature.

Supervisor Wimpy guiding Popeye to his job with the tones of an elevator operator is a good bit. Also a good bit is his lightly Greek Chorus role of commenting on Popeye’s latest mishap. The attitude’s good enough to almost distract me from trying to work out what exactly he said, after dropping the bricks. I keep hearing, “that [ there? ] was a faux pas, sir”, which is good at least so far as I did hear it.

BrutusBoss does demand to know whether Popeye’s trying to get him killed. It’s a good question. The setting demands people get hit with bricks or get steel girders in the gut and stuff. The casting demands that Popeye instigate these things, though. BrutusBoss is in charge, and Wimpy laboring isn’t Wimpy. So this demands either Popeye be incompetent or be following incompetent direction. The cartoon goes for making Popeye incompetent. Although we could blame management here; after all, someone chose to send Popeye out on bare girders with a wheelbarrow full of bricks and no clear direction. And Popeye can’t be blamed for the rope pulling BrutusBoss up spontaneously fraying and snapping.

Brutus sitting at the window ledge, chin on his hand, mouth wide open and eyes nearly closed; it's meant to be a taunting move but can be mis-read as a come-hither look.
Hard to know whether to be more distracted by BrutusBoss’s come-hither look or how his fist seems to get in-between his beard and his chin.

There’s a lot of understatement lines I like here. Wimpy tut-tutting that “you shouldn’t have done that” after Popeye drops BrutusBoss from the hook. BrutusBoss declaring “I want out!” after being driven in to the ground by sacks of concrete. Wimpy’s whole “faux pas” line whatever it exactly is. The whistle bellowing “LUUUUUNCH!” and later, “WOOOOOORK!” is also a nice bit and I don’t know whether it’s original to this cartoon. My hunch is it was done in earlier workplace cartoons.

Popeye needing his whole lunch break to unsuccessfully open a can of spinach I’m still thinking about. It’s absurd, sure. Is it funny enough to justify ignoring the, like, 194 earlier cartoons where Popeye just squeezed his can open? I guess, but I think I’d have liked a comment from Popeye about how he doesn’t understand why this is so hard today.

So there’s much I like here. Or find fun, at least. Not the animation, though. That’s all fairly boring stuff except for when it gets baffling. There’s a couple of decent sequences of action, all of which require props or characters to teleport into place. BrutusBoss pulls the sides off Popeye’s ladder, leaving him to climb the rungs hanging in midair; solid enough joke. Popeye keeps running up and BrutusBoss is on top of the building’s mast somehow? And Wimpy looks down to follow this action because … ? Well, because they don’t have the budget to animate Wimpy looking up, but still.

We end with everybody quitting because, eh, the short’s over and that’s enough.

The Eleventh Talkartoon: Sky Scraping, Where Bimbo Gets A Name

So, something new’s added to the Talkartoon family for this short, released the 1st of November, 1930. Bimbo’s emerged from his prototypical form as this slow-motion screwball character who’s been around five-or-so times. He’s worthy of a name. It’s not given on-screen because of course not. But it’s there in the title card that I assume is the original title card and not a later addition.

There’s a couple cartoon premises that seem to always work for me. One of them is the orchestra, typically playing the Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two. And another is this short’s theme, that of skyscraper-building. My supposition is that the premise gives the cartoon a natural, logical structure. The underlying material is necessarily ordered, so the cartoon can riff on that and have pretty near every joke land. (And one of the all-time best-ever cartoons is Friz Freleng’s “Rhapsody in Rivets”, fusing the two premises.) With skyscraper-building cartoons I think there’s another factor: all those steel girders. That is, to use the setting at all you need to draw these big steel meshes, often in perspective. It’s hard work drawing a plausibly in-construction skyscraper, and I think the knowledge that they put all this work in influences the audience. The dazzling visual can carry a weaker script.

Skyscraper-building would probably always be popular; the idea just boggles the mind to start. The skyscraper races of the late 1920s added fine and ridiculous drama to the construction, and if you haven’t read up about the spire on the Chrysler Building and its secret installation please go look that up now. Thank you. In the early 30s the last spurt of skyscrapers under construction, such as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, were much-needed work for thousands of people, and a curious note of not-yet-broken ambition. Great themes to hang art on.

So. Bimbo finally gets a name this cartoon. But he’s not called by name in the cartoon. He’s also barely in the cartoon itself. I suppose we do see him repeatedly, but I’m not sure that he stands out compared to the other workers. Dragging his feet to get to work and tripping over two bricks, working sleepily, but racing home, is fine enough, but it’s not a deep bit of personality.

And it feels odd that Bimbo trips over two bricks but hasn’t got a third punchline. And that there’s two strings of him sleepily laying mortar on bricks but not a third. The so-called Rule of Three is, like many comic rules, better a guideline for not screwing up a premise. But this does feel like punch lines were set up and then unresolved. I’d suspect scenes lost to editing but it’s tough to figure what they would be or why.

There’s suspiciously-Mickey-Mice all over this short. And even a suspiciously-Felix-the-Cat too, at about one minute in, having swallowed a quartet of mice while they passed behind a billboard. Which was almost my moment of weird body horror this short. All the while they passed behind the billboard I was thinking about oh no, they’re going to go there. But somehow the skyscraper reaching up high enough its structure pierces the Moon hit me harder. It’s a solid joke, especially as I didn’t suspect it coming.

A couple years after this short Disney would create the multiplane camera, making it possible to have animated elements moving in foreground, middle-ground, and background. The Fleischers would one-up that by building a multiplane camera that could also use real-world sets, for some live-and-animated scenes that are still dazzling. This short might prototype that, by having the girders and people in the foreground moving while the background’s held fixed. It’s a simple trick, but an effective one: there’s distance here.

A skyscraper-building cartoon has three compelling end points: the work day ends, or the building’s finished, or the building collapses in ruin. (And note how “Rhapsody in Rivets” does it.) This short takes mostly the first ending, fair enough, albeit with a weird coda after Bimbo’s rushed home from work. So, once more, I’m satisfied.

On The Passing Of _Momma_ Cartoonist Mell Lazarus

Years ago I got a book about skyscrapers. It was a collection of articles from Architectural Digest or some similar quasi-trade publication. The articles were mostly about what contemporaries thought of buildings at the time. It was one of those this-looks-interesting-in-the-dollar-bin purchases, since I know less about architectural criticism than you imagine. No, less than that.

One essay catching my attention, though, was about a circa 1910 skyscraper. The article praised its design for having finally solved the problem of skyscraper proportions. And the picture looked … normal. Boring. There was nothing distinctive about this building. You could drop this maybe fifteen-storey thing into any city and not be noticed. It was a mystifying phrase until I understood the context. If this solved the problem, well, of course it wouldn’t stand out nearly a century later.

The National Cartoonists Society announced yesterday the death of Mell Lazarus. He was renowned in comic strip circles for Miss Peach and Momma. Miss Peach, particularly, I keep hearing singled out for brilliance, and I confess I don’t get it. Probably that’s from lack of exposure. It was never running in a newspaper when I was growing up, and I never saw it on a newspaper’s web site before the strip closed up in 2002. I may have seen it parodied, mostly in Mad Magazine, more than I’ve seen the original. It’s hard to understand what’s great in something that way. It looks like an average example of that Mid-Century Modern comic strip style shared by every comic strip from between about 1960 and whenever it was Dilbert became trendy. But see the problem of the solved skyscraper.

Momma, though, that I read growing up and through to the present day. The family dynamics are awfully screwed up, but in a way normal enough for a joke-engine daily strip. The art, at least at Lazarus’s peak, had that style that looks shaggy and undisciplined, but which you learn is really tightly controlled when you study it seriously or, better, try to imitate it. And the jokes may have gotten harder to parse lately, but it’s hard to land every joke successfully, especially in a comic strip with a necessarily small cast of characters and limited set of continuing stories.

Anyway, by all accounts, Lazarus was a fantastic person and your life was considerably better if he was in it. That’s a great thing for people to be able to say about you.