60s Popeye: Myskery Melody, a cartoon people have been asking for


For today I have a 1961 Paramount Cartoon Studios-produced cartoon. Myskery Melody is credited to Seymour Kneitel for the story and the direction. And it features something that Garrison Skunk has been asking for! So let’s watch the cartoon.

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.

Dark, foggy, swamp-bound scene of the Sea Hag on a raft, the full moon in back of her. She plays her flute with her vulture sitting up ready to launch.
I don’t know why she covers her face to play the flute. I know she was introduced that way in the comic strip, as part of making her the more mysterious and inexplicable, but I don’t know if that signifies anything more than we’re supposed to find her mysterious.

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.

In a bright purple sitting room, young Poopdeck has opened his eye in horror that the woman he's kissing is the Sea Hag.
I’m looking at how Sea Hag’s shoulder and neck have to be twisted so she can hold her hands like that while kissing Poopdeck. I can’t see where that’s comfortable for her.

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.

The Sea Hag runs, screaming, down a hill while Eugene the Jeep shoots electric bolts from his tail, jabbing her back.
This seems harsh but you do have to remember, she kissed Poopdeck without revealing that she was secretly ugly. Also there was that thing where she kidnapped Poopdeck too.

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.

Wimpy, speaking of the Sea Hag: 'Do you think she really has passed on?' Popeye: 'A'course, I ain't positiff, but I think the Jeep turned her into a mummy. ... We can't leave her standin' there against the wall ... le's put'er into a easy chair.' Wimpy, exiting: 'Well, that's that. Let's be going.' Popeye: 'Jus' a minute, Wimpy.' A somber-looking Popeye carries a pillow over, and sets it behind the seated, mummified Sea Hag's head. He walks off, mournful, and carrying his hat in his hand.
Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre for the 22nd of August, 1937, reprinted the 20th of August, 2020. The story had been quite a lot of silly fun before this, and right after this bit of Maybe Eugene Just Killed Her, went into several weeks of jokes about what they could do with the Jeep’s electric-power tail. Elzie Segar: master of a consistent and not-at-all jarring tone.

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.

60s Popeye: The Glad Gladiator and wait, is that Ham Gravy? I think that’s Ham Gravy!


This week’s King Features Popeye cartoon is another with story by Cal Howard. The only other Cal Howard cartoon I have got noted is Tiger Burger. The animation director is Eddie Rehberg, last seen doing everything on Frozen Feuds, that weird Alice the Goon picture. Jack Kinney’s the producer and ultimate director. Back to ancient days, then, with The Glad Gladiator.

Is deliberate anachronism funny? Sure, when it’s The Muppets doing it. But everybody else? I don’t mean whether it’s funny to snarkers pointing out historical inaccuracies in Hagar the Horrible. I mean to a normal audience.

This cartoon opens with the message that it’s set in Rome, 800 BC. Popeye ends up in a gladiator fight in the Colosseum. Before the eyes of the Empress, Olive Oyl. There’s a background gag where the restrooms are marked Ben Hur and Ben His. And then I come back to: 800 BC? For a Roman Empire setting?

This is not something anyone should care about. The setting is “Ancient Rome” and Popeye is there to do some stuff riffing on Roman Empire epic movies of the time. Fine and respectable enough. But then why set this to 800 BC, a time when Rome barely existed and none of the stuff that’s featured, including the Appian [Free]way Popeye riffs on, were around? Why give it a date at all? Other than to tease someone who’d know?

A historical story — book, tv show, movie — is always a battle between historical truth, story economy, and verisimilitude. (You could do a story with samurais tromping around 17th century Mexico, but would people buy the premise?) A cartoon especially has no reason to care about getting the historical details right. So why is this detail there at all? Did Cal Howard just write in an ancient-days number and not care afterward? Or was he doing this mindfully? Of course this Popeye cartoon isn’t history. But now it’s so much not history that even the seven-year-old watching it, who might know the legend of Rome’s founding being in 753 BC, would know it was off?

If he was being wry, I’m not sure it was a good joke. In part since I’m not sure a joke was meant. That’s a hazard of wryness, though. But if it were meant, it’s a very slight joke. “Ha ha, I know this quickly-made Popeye cartoon is of dubious historical integrity?” Am I making too much of an arbitrary choice? Maybe. But if something works, I like to credit it as deliberate. Even if the writer went with whatever came to mind, they chose to use that impulse, and to not edit it out. There’s judgement even in the arbitrary. And then there’s the crowd scene.

Scene of the audience in the Colosseum. The front two rows are filled with mostly minor characters from Popeye/Thimble Theatre.
Wait, but why aren’t Cole Oyl and Nana Oyl sitting next to each other? Oh wait yeah because it’s funny when husband and wife don’t actually like being around each other. Forgot.

We do get a couple glances at the audience in the Colosseum and the front two rows here are filled with minor Thimble Theatre/Popeye characters. And that is an interesting choice. I’m not sure about everybody because they’re out of their usual garb, and it turns out when you remove accessories, Elzie Segar used the same face a lot.

If I’m identifying things right, and I’m open to other opinions, in the upper row, left-to-right, are: Ham Gravy, original Olive Oyl boyfriend, who vanished after about 1930. Cole Oyl(?), Olive’s father. The Sea Hag, who’s appeared once or twice this series. Oscar, introduced to the comic in 1931 so Popeye could have a really dumb crewman. Nana Oyl, Olive’s mother. (Her name is a reference to “Banana oil”, 1920s slang for “nonsense”. Also 1920s slang for “nonsense”: any two-word phrase.)

Lower, front, row, left to right: George W Geezil(?), pawn shop broker and Wimpy-hater. John Sappo, bland protagonist of Elzie Segar’s other strip, the one that brought us O G Wotasnozzle. O G Wotasnozzle (or, possibly, King Blozo hunched down). Alice the Goon. I have no explanation for how Ham Gravy makes the cut and Wimpy or Rough House do not. Also, yeah I’m not positive whether Nana Oyl is sitting in the first or second row either.

Filling a crowd shot with minor Popeye characters? Sure. Anyone could do that. They’d put in Wimpy, Sea Hag, Alice the Goon, Swee’Pea. If you have to dig deep put in Rough House or Geezil. Someone had to think to put in Ham Gravy. Or Sappo. Or Oscar for crying out loud. Someone thought “we need a quick shot of Ham Gravy”, and had that vision carried out.

This, yeah, is the sort of deep focus I get into as I look for what’s interesting in the cartoon. We get Popeye in a Vaguely Roman-ish makeover for his sailor’s suit. It’s a nice look for him. But I expect being on a different model like that to require the rest of the animation to be cheaper. That expectation holds up; there’s a lot of characters sliding around or disappearing. And the story is all a lumbering push to have Brutus and Popeye fight each other in the arena. The opening credits for the cartoon run at 16:59 in the YouTube video link. They actually start fighting about 20:57, for a cartoon that ends at 22:45. And it’s not like we’re stuffed full of a lot of gags about contemporary America recast as Ancient Rome. The sign for the intersection of Columbus Circle and XXVIII Street is about it. That and — get ready to laugh — a guy twirling pizza dough! Shows how mores have changed. As a child of the 70s and 80s I know it’s sushi that’s the instant-laugh zany food. Not pizza. Pizza is boring.

And that’s my trouble with the cartoon. It has a few fleeting moments of personality. But it’s mostly a slow march to a small fight. The title card that maybe heightens the anachronism humor, and the attempt to identify all the bit players in the stands, is about all I’ve got.