We’re at the Jack Kinney studios in 1960 today. The story’s by Raymond Jacobs and animation direction by Volus Jones and Ed Friedman. Please enjoy Popeye’s Folly.
It’s another cartoon with the Popeye-tells-Swee’pea-a-story frame. The device excuses setting a cartoon anywhere, anytime. It also excuses skipping any boring scenes. I was impressed that Popeye explained that Robert Fulton’s Clermont was “one of the first” steamboats ever built. It’s almost impossible to correctly dub the first of anything historic. So, points for precision to Raymond Jacobs. (And I’m not deducting points for calling the boat the “Clermont”, when Fulton called it the “North River Steamboat”. Clermont is a name — really, the name — by which it’s known.)
I like the setup for this, a story of Popeye’s great-(etc)-grandfathers, Popeye and Pappy, building their own steamboat. And facing down Brutus and Sea Hag, who’re trying to protect their own sailing ship interests. It’s a natural conflict, and it justifies ending things in a contest, a reliable conflict.
Much of the start is Popeye and Grandpappy trying to build a steamship at all. I could watch more of that. Yes, I’m a history-of-technology nerd. But there’s good jokes to make from struggling to invent a thing. The only scene that gets at that is the second attempt at a boat. The one that either Pappy or Popeye forgets to untie from the dock, and that rips apart. An engine that’s too much for the boat is a plausible enough problem. Forgetting to untie the ship seems like a terrible mistake for a family of sailors.
Or they’re not good sailors. In the contest, for example, their steamship almost immediately runs out of coal, as though Popeye didn’t know it was needed? Chopping up the vessel to keep it going has a long history in comedy, but it’s normally set up why they’re out of fuel. It suggests that Brutus and Sea Hag don’t need to sabotage them.
So the plot suffers from this sloppiness. It has some lovely touches, though, particularly in the dialogue. Take Brutus sneering, “Imagine building a ship to use legs when we’ve already got wings”. It’s poetic enough to have confused me about what the legs were. Or sneering that Popeye’s “engine is louder than the whistle”. Which is another insult I don’t quite understand, but never mind. (Also Popeye ends up with an engine that’s very quiet, like the sound was mixed wrong.) Or the Sea Hag speaking of the steamboat as “sailing along like the devil was a-pushing it”. During the race, there’s a nice bit showing Brutus’s ship from the front, the riverbanks receding behind him. Brutus chuckles, “With the Blackhawk wearing her Sunday best and a stiff breeze I can’t lose.” It’s again a more poetic way of describing Brutus’s thoughts. It also trusts that the audience spotted the name of his ship, or could work it out from context.
There’s even a moment of deft plotting. It’s only in setting up the contest that we get a specific reason for Brutus and Sea Hag to want to sabotage Popeye and Pappy. They’re protecting their sailing business. It’s a stronger motive than Brutus and Sea Hag being jerks.
Were I to rewrite the cartoon, the important change I’d make is swapping the first two boat failures. Popeye and Pappy making a boat that tears itself apart, to start. (And find a better reason than “forgot to untie it”.) Then Sea Hag can sabotage the next, when the boat could be competition.