60s Popeye: Spinach Shortage and so is Brutus just a food tycoon this cartoon?


We have many things to thank Jack Kinney for, this cartoon. One is producing and directing it. Another is the story. Animation direction’s credited to Alan Zaslove, though. Here’s the 1960 short Spinach Shortage.

Ask someone to describe a Popeye cartoon and they’ll give you a plot-driven summary. Popeye and Olive are doing something, Bluto/Brutus horns in, Popeye eats his spinach, beats up the bad guy. But ask what makes a Popeye cartoon interesting, especially the black-and-white ones. You get a response more useful to making lasting cartoons: it’s the mood. Popeye facing a silly or perilous situation and muttering silly comments. If you want a good Popeye cartoon, get a premise and a couple solid scenes riffing on it.

Spinach Shortage isn’t quite there. It’s got a good premise. Bluto/Brutus has tried to deny Popeye spinach before (see the inspired How Green Is My Spinach) but the idea is sound. And it takes a different angle here: Brutus has cornered the world spinach market and just won’t sell to … well, there’s a mystery.

Is this cartoon’s Brutus trying to get Popeye? Or just to get rich? He spends a lot more time chuckling about the rise of spinach prices than about what this is doing to Popeye. At one point he says how spinach has gone up to 10.25 per ton, and later to 50 per ton. That seems low, even for 60-year-old prices. But what do I know the price-per-ton of spinach? This brought me to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service report on spinach commodity pricing. This brought me to learn I don’t know how to read a USDA Agricultural Marketing Service report on spinach commodity pricing. I can see where most every market is “steady” or “about steady”, which seems nice. Another site says that in 2014 spinach for canning was about $68 per ton, so I guess Brutus’s quotations were in line.

Sign reading 'SOLD OUT!'
Yeah, I remember when spinach was something you ate for the music. Now? It’s all about affecting a consumerist pose. Total sellouts.

Back on point, though. The cartoon has this dreamlike flow to it. Popeye stocked up his spinach supply last week. It evaporates as he walks over to it. Popeye searches and finds nothing but store signs about there being no spinach. Popeye tries to break in to Brutus’s warehouses. The scenes feel like when Speedy Gonzales is trying to break into the cheese factory past Sylvester or Daffy Duck. Except the plot demands Popeye fail in ways Speedy can’t. Popeye tries riding a balloon into the warehouse, and falls into the sewer, to climb into the warehouse, and find he can’t pry open a box. It’s almost a nightmare logic of obstacles temporarily overcome and then renewed.

Reel out the events and I guess there’s a thread of action that makes sense. The cartoon’s most interesting, though, when it’s being strange. Popeye’s spinach stock disappearing. The progression of signs telling Popeye there’s no spinach. Good, strong, weird scenes.

So why don’t I call this is a good cartoon? I’m not sure. I’m near to reasoning myself into calling this good. But then I have to explain why I more enjoyed writing about it than watching it. I notice the strongest scenes are all front-loaded. Popeye trying to break into the spinach warehouse is a bit pathetic for one of the first generation of superheros. There’s some nice silliness in the ways Popeye tries to break in, like trying a fishing pole to snag a can, or riding a balloon. But they’re also mundane, at least for a cartoon world. Too plot-driven a way to break in, and to have the attempts fail.

Heap of spinach spilled over a box. Sitting up is a silhouette of Popeye in spinach; just his pipe is clear and not covered in the leafy green vegetables.
So if this cartoon’s Brutus doesn’t know who Popeye is, then he just went and tried to kill a guy who was just trespassing. If this cartoon’s Brutus does know who Popeye is, then he just went and dropped a heap of spinach on him. I don’t insist that characters never take actions against their own interests but it seems like Brutus should have thought through what he wanted to accomplish a bit more.

The cartoon ends with Popeye punching Brutus into an Eat More Spinach billboard. There’s no hint that Brutus’s corner of the spinach market will end, or that spinach supplies will return to normal. This isn’t the first cartoon to not bother establishing the status quo will return. And goodness knows we don’t need reassurance that in the future Popeye will eat spinach. It does feel like an unresolved chord, though. I can defend this. We don’t need the central premise of a nightmare resolved to finish the nightmare. It could be the cartoon needs to lean more into the nightmare feeling.

Popeye’s Island Adventures: Bluto and his teeth get some attention, also spinach


It’s happened before that Bluto has been the viewpoint character for a Popeye cartoon. At least to start things in action. Focus usually returns to Bluto. This week’s Popeye’s Island Adventure might be the most that Bluto has been the protagonist for a cartoon. I say ‘might’ because I remember basically three scenes from the late-70s Hanna-Barbera run. And all I’ve seen of Popeye and Son is that sometimes it was playing, silently, on the TV in the kids corner of the Popeye’s Fried Chicken in Singapore. (There was the one Popeye’s, and it was in Changi Airport.) But let me just assert that Can’t Handle The Tooth is the most Bluto-focused cartoon, and let people correct me.

My first thought about this was the cartoon’s a mess. The second was that fluffy was going to need like four pass-throughs to follow it. I did too, really. The storyline’s still messy, but I don’t think it’s hopeless. The short needs time, though. Incidents keep happening, in a sequence that feels a bit like a dream, or like a kid attempting to tell a story. A bit more screen time would help non-kids like me follow along.

I’d have gotten some of the time from the cartoon’s start. Bluto digging into Popeye’s ship is a reasonable thing for him to do. But the action only starts when Bluto tries opening an errant can of spinach. That’s at least ten seconds of stuff we didn’t really need established. Bluto trying to open the can is decent stuff.

Half a minute in, Bluto finally has a loose tooth. Trying to get it fully loose, and having every attempt fail in stranger ways: that’s the short’s focus. I like the silent-movie-approach of tying a string to a door and how that would have failed even if Popeye had gone through the door. And I like that this sets off a briefly-glimpsed side plot where Popeye can’t catch an errant spinach can. That premise could have been a short on its own, too. It might yet be. (Maybe not. Perhaps something that’s amusing in brief glimpses in the margins of the short would be boring if it were the primary focus. At least I’ve heard of that dynamic happening. But I’m a nerd, so deep down, I believe that anything funny can only be way more funny if you do a lot of it.)

The strangest interlude is with Eugene the Jeep. It’s a moment that feels like a frustration dream. Bluto figures biting into an apple will loosen the tooth; Eugene magically swipes the apples. He even turns a bunch of apples into a baked pie. I’m not sure how I feel about Eugene’s shift to magic-assisted gluttony, but there we are. Olive Oyl stepping out in a welding mask, with a torch and pliers, is another bizarre moment. I guess she has reasons for it, as who doesn’t fix a wobbly table in the sand by applying flame and pulling things?

And then it gets really weird. It’s not new that spinach should do wondrous things for entities besides Popeye. Nor is it new that it works on inanimate objects. When a bit of spinach falls on Bluto’s finally-free tooth … it … becomes gigantic? I don’t get how that follows from the usual spinach superpowers, and I missed why Bluto, Popeye, and the tooth end up in this giant rolling ball. Popeye ends up falling on Olive’s repaired table, another showing where the Sailor Kid’s fairly hapless. Bluto ends up in the water, and loses his gigantified tooth. It’s not the first time I’ve felt bad for Bluto at the end of a cartoon, although this one feels particularly unfair to him.

I’ve watched the cartoon many times over now, so I have a fair idea what’s happened in it. I’m still struggling with why these particular things should have happened. I think it spent too much time establishing Bluto’s loose tooth, and squeezing out plot time from the attempt to pull it. More time for the failed attempts, I think, would have rewarded the short greatly. It might never make sense that Bluto’s tooth turns gigantic. But more time to process the events could have made it feel less tiring.

This is the cartoon that leaves me with the question: do teeth float?

This and my other reviews of Popeye’s Island Adventures cartoons should be here.

Some Arrogant Vegetables And Their Enablers


Because people were wondering after the spinach discovery:

An Arrogant Vegetable Its Enabler
Cress Sunflowers
Peas Apples
Radicchio Flamingos
Watercress Less watered cress
Grape leaves Jacobins
Sea lettuce Sea grapes
Cassava Status-seeking artichokes
Pumpkin Halloween

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

There are signs of imminent smugness coming from certain areas of the analyst community. Though there are no warnings yet posted residents are advised that sudden squalls of incredible self-righteousness accompanied by fast-moving clouds of “if you had listened to me in the first place then I wouldn’t have to point out how right I was about the whole thing” may break out at any moment. Be ready with an evacuation plan, including several sensible changes of clothing and two days’ water and snack foods, just in case.

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Meanwhile In Cyborg Spinach News


While we were all busy with whatever it was keeps us busy BBC News had this article: ‘Bionic’ plants can detect explosives. And while all we children of the 70s are thinking of a field of grain waving in extremely slow motion while that na-na-na-na-nanananana sound effect somehow suggests … speed or strength or something the lede tops us:

Scientists have transformed the humble spinach plant into a bomb detector.

I bet they’ve also made it not so humble either. I can picture spinach plants now calling out to other plants in the area. “Yo, eggplant over there, you ever save lives and protect property? Huh, how about that. Hey, broccoli! You ever detect a bomb? I thought not! Ooh, you sprig of lemon balm! You — oh, wait, never mind,” it says, falling back, as it remembers lemon balm’s courageous service for spinach’s father in the Clome Oven Wars. So it’s not completely full of itself. But it’s lost a certain natural humility too.

Researchers said they meant this as a proof of concept, that concept being that they can now get lunch to message their iPhones. This could see a future in which the whole process is fully automated and none of us have to interact with the salad courses ever again. Should be a great future we’re making somehow.

Here is the necessary link to that crazypants Popeye pinball game backstory. You’re welcome.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose four points, bringing it back to the 100 that it started at so very long ago. Now traders are split on whether they should call the whole thing off as a near catastrophe narrowly averted or whether the whole sub-100-era should be written off as a learning experience and they’ll do much better now. Ah, but imagine if we were able to learn from experience. What would be totally different, wouldn’t it?

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