Popeye battles Woody Woodpecker for the love of the art world


Today’s King Features Popeye cartoon is an interesting one. It’s one I like without having to apologize for its limitations. And there’s a mystery behind it.

Take It Easel is a Gerald Ray-produced cartoon. There’s no story or writing credit. The Internet Movie Database credits Bob Bemiller as director and Milt Schaffer as writer, on what basis I don’t know. Well, director I know; it’s there on the title card. It’s got a nice roster of eight credited animators, though, promising that as with most of the Gerald Ray cartoons, there’ll at least be a bunch of good pictures to look at even if they don’t move much. So here’s 1960’s Take It Easel.

This is a well-crafted Popeye cartoon. Popeye and Brutus are art students. There’s a contest in the art magazine, a thousand dollars for the best flower painting. Popeye and Brutus become rivals for the prize, and they set out to the desert. They find a lovely purple-petaled flower growing alone in the sand, and spend the rest of the short trying to paint the picture and undermine the other. Finally it all gets serious enough that Popeye has to eat his spinach. He smashes Brutus and the flower together in a canvas and presents that to the art world, which admires his bold work and lifelike nature.

There is a lot of good stuff this cartoon. Not just in the storyline but in the jokes. Some of them are throwaway bits: the letter carrier whacking Popeye in the head twice with deliveries. Or Popeye leaping from the loft window right into his car, and Brutus leaping from the same window to … right where Popeye’s car was. Some of them are fourth-wall-breaking experiences, which was always a way to make the young me love your cartoon. But they seem to echo the artists-at-work theme of the cartoon. Brutus correcting his off-center painting by grabbing the thumb in it and sliding the thing over. Popeye’s painting of a flower wilting in the heat. Brutus painting a swimming pool. In setting up the climax, Brutus painting train tracks and the rope to tie Popeye. Popeye painting his can of spinach.

Popeye studiously painting a desert flower, while Brutus draws a railroad track underneath him.
Brutus knew the flower was going to get run over by the train too, right? He just didn’t care at that point?

And there’s a lot of good back-and-forth dialogue, Brutus and Popeye sassing the other. Which allows for a deft bit of plotting. Brutus’s undoing is always letting Popeye get spinach. Why give Popeye a paintbrush, when experience indicates that any tool will let Popeye summon spinach from the misty void? Well, because he’s sassing Popeye back. It is a really well-crafted cartoon throughout. There’s even a bonus bit of Popeye signing his rhyming couplet, about people calling him Van Gouher when he paints a flower. It’s just another nice small bit of business.


The cartoon is also a remake. In November 1956 the Walter Lantz studios released the Woody Woodpecker cartoon Arts and Flowers. The director was Paul J Smith, and the story’s credited to Homer Brightman and Frank J Goldberg. Smith directed roughly a hundred billion Woody Woodpecker theatrical cartoons. Brightman wrote about a billion of them. Goldberg is credited with this short alone. I don’t know whether this reflects him usually being credited under a variant name or whether this reflects “Frank J Goldberg” being a pseudonym summoned just for this one short. It stands out to me that Milt Schaffer was still getting story credits for Walt Disney shorts through 1956, then got a couple story credits for Woody Woodpecker, before going and joining Gerald Ray’s team.

To me, this matters. If Frank J Goldberg was Milt Schaffer, then there’s no real harm done. It’s no crime to plagiarize yourself. If he wasn’t, though, then someone deserves a surely-posthumous-by-now scolding.

I don’t know of an official YouTube channel for the Walter Lantz studios. I can share links which have Arts And Flowers, but there’s no reason to think they’re going to stay stable. So, let me know if the link rots and I’ll do my best to find a replacement. But Here’s one YouTube source for the cartoon, and here’s the cartoon from a web site I never heard of before looking this short up.

There are important differences. The animation in the Woody Woodpecker cartoon is better. Walter Lantz’s studio was a second-tier theatrical place, but second-tier theatrical was still way ahead of even ex-Disney-animator television. Woody Woodpecker isn’t established as an artist or art student right away; he seems to get interested just by peeking at his neighbor’s mail. The art contest is more narrowly defined as being for a “desert flower”. And it promises only a big prize, rather than a thousand dollars, which turns out to be a picture of a bag of money. Artful Art — I never knew this name, but Wikipedia seems to have settled on it — and Woody Woodpecker sabotage each other right away, even before they’ve reached the desert.

We get some of the same jokes, like Woody and Artful shoving their easels in front of the other. Here, it carries on until Artful falls off a cliff; on TV, Brutus is just baffled to find the flower no longer in front of him. I’m not sure which is the better joke. The Popeye version lets the cartoon move faster to the next beat.

The Woody Woodpecker cartoon has a joke dropped from the remake, in which Artful gets distracted by a laughing hyena. The joke’s better off dropped. It’s funny enough, allowing that the idea of a crying hyena is of course a sufficient joke. It’s that the story is Woody versus Artful. Why throw in a distraction character? Put this in the short where Woody is trying to paint and nature conspires against him instead.

The joke where Artful kicks Woody out of the scene, opens up his easel, and Woody’s in there is lost too. That’s a good joke but there’s no way to make that work with Brutus and Popeye. The joke of the desert daffodil shrinking into the ground and reappearing could have gone in the remake, though, and I’m curious why it didn’t. We get an undermining joke in which Brutus digs beneath Popeye and he sinks into the ground instead. Although come to it, we don’t actually see the moving flower is Woody’s doing, or how he does it. I’d just assumed, since, what else makes sense?

Artful Art painting a flower while Woody Woodpecker draws train tracks underneath him.
So who wore it better? I have to credit Woody for drawing train tracks that are much more realistically train tracks, even showcasing the complicated structure of the rails. But Brutus did think to draw enough track that the train could be coming from over the horizon, which is putting a lot of effort into killing your rival artist. Anyway, I think Woody Woodpecker comes out ahead, because he had more lines, which is the official ISO-approved measure of how good a drawing is.

Most interesting, though, are two bits. In one, Woody paints an oasis. As is traditional for stuff cartoons paint on rocks, he can swim in it and Artful can’t. In the other, and most important difference, it’s Woody that paints the railroad tracks and railroad into existence. In the remake, these are tasks assigned to Brutus. To the villain. Woody Woodpecker was always a difficult protagonist. He’s supposed to be this zany agent of chaos. I think it’s telling that the stuff the audience is expected to root for in 1956 is so naturally slid over to the antagonist in 1960. I still like Woody Woodpecker, but appreciate more that he can only work if he’s harassing somebody who deserves it. Put him up against a well-meaning vague shape of protagonist dough, like Andy Panda, and Woody Woodpecker is awful.

In the Woody Woodpecker cartoon, the ability to paint things like the train into reality is set up early. Woody paints a cactus that jabs Artful. Woody paints a woman holding a vase, who hits Artful with the vase. Woody paints a bulldog into existence to bite Artful’s tuckus. But is setting that up necessary? I didn’t have trouble believing that Brutus could paint a train into existence, and given that, Popeye painting spinach into the world is fine.

So. Let me put forth the hypothesis that “Frank J Goldberg” was a one-off pseudonym used by Milt Schaffer. That Schaffer was working at Disney through 1956 suggests that maybe he had a foot in the door at Lantz, but didn’t want his name noticed before he had left Disney. This seems plausible enough. The Woody Woodpecker cartoon Niagara Fools came out the 22nd of October, 1956, with Schaffer’s name on it. This is before the release of Arts and Flowers, on the 19th of November, with I assume Schaffer’s name hidden. But that doesn’t say much about when production on the shorts got started or what whimsies of fate might have pushed Arts and Flowers to later in the year. It suggests that production of Niagara Fools started after Schaffer had left Disney, at least.

Having done all this detective work, I’m just assuming there’s an article on Cartoon Brew or Mark Evanier’s page that describes all the various pseudonyms that Schaffer used and why he used them, and that I’m twelve years late to the party. That’s all right. That is closer than I normally ever am.

Thoughts While Pondering The Year Without A Santa Claus, Plus Trains


What if Santa isn’t always cancelling Christmas because he’s kind of a jerk and instead he’s just wracked with the sort of Imposter Syndrome that my whole generation is dealing with all the time? Like, “This mouse wrote something mean in an upstate New York newspaper in September! A competent Santa doesn’t have to deal with issues like that! … And it’s snowing too? Oh I can’t even.”

Which I’ll grant is not all that deep an observation, but the alternative is to fret about the ways the rules of that snowfall magic seem to get tossed willy-nilly about in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland. I mean there’s something about just tossing in a snow-parson into things that seems dangerous. So let me conclude with this observation from Wikipedia’s page on Frost’s Winter Wonderland:

The engine on the train is a 2–4–2 or an American type steam locomotive. Locomotives of this wheel arrangement were used most common during the 1800s on American railroads, and from the 1830s until 1928, were given the name “American” in 1872, because of how they did all the work of every railroad in the United States. These types of engines have eight wheels (two leading wheels, four driving wheels, and two trailing wheels).

This means something. (It means I’m very tired.)

Bob and Ray and the Campaign Microphone


I feel like listening to something today. Here’s an October 1959 episode of Bob and Ray Present the CBS Radio Network. As often for these shows it’s a set of several sketches, all done by Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. None of the sketches really involve one another so if you don’t care for one premise — a Broadway actor going over the failure of his musical; a political-news interview with a possible candidate for the upcoming presidential election; the Bob And Ray Trophy Train arrives in Memphis — you can zip ahead a few minutes and enjoy the next. I wouldn’t.

While listening to the Vic And Sadecast, an hourlong podcast about Vic and Sade, my love assessed that I have a love for wordy humor. Not puns, mind you, or jokes that consist only of putting a word where it doesn’t belong. More humor in which there is wonderful care about picking words so that they are just odd enough to be funny even if you can’t point to a specific laugh line. I think my love’s right in this as with so many regards. Bob and Ray sound rambling and improvised; it’s part of their charm. I don’t know how much Bob and Ray and their writing staff got done by editing and rewriting into shape and how much they got done by being really good writers and improvisors. It’s hard to pick any line, though, and find a variation that would be better. You can make lines more obviously meant to be punch lines, but then the whole sketch would be lessened. Anyway, do enjoy, please.

This Still Seems Like The Hard Way Somehow


So the United Kingdom’s astronaut Tim Peake, currently on the International Space Station (I trust; has anyone checked today? Could you double-check just in case?) recently used a remote-control device to drive a little robot car around a sandpit near London. And he succeeded, too, despite a couple of software glitches. It does seem like sending some from the United Kingdom all the way to space in order to drive a remote-control car in a sandpit near London is going awfully out of the way to get stuff done. But you do have to understand that it’s for good reason: it was to advance the cause of space stuff. Yes, that’s the purpose of all space stuff, but still, it’s nice to see done. Really, the only baffling thing is that it was a remote-control car and not a frighteningly elaborate model train set. Maybe they’re getting around to that.

The Journey, By Train


4:52 am. Passengers assemble at the East Lansing Train Station. Passengers will be screened for having gotten more than three hours of fitful, oft-interrupted sleep the night before. Those which have will be assigned a 25-page term paper on the subject of late 19th Century United States presidents and their understanding of how the emerging science of thermodynamics affects railroad painting, worth forty percent of the class, no makeups.

5:18 am. Passengers board the train to East East Lansing where the train service stops and they all get aboard a bus to take them to Toledo, arriving somehow at 3:12 am that same morning, only crankier. Through the bus trip the TV screens will be playing Something, Probably A Romantic Comedy Or Something, with the lower half of the screen glitched out and the audio just loud enough to hear the helicopters and explosions but not the dialogue. Three stars.

7:30 am. Bus arrives in Toledo to transfer to the train station, but immediately gets lost because the driver attempts foolishly to follow “Route 2”, a highway of legendary and purely notional existence.

2:18 pm. The Ohio Coast Guard retrieves the bus from Lake Erie shortly before the desperately paddling passengers manage to cross the border into Ontario and thus provoke an international incident as many of them failed to bring adequate supplies of Canadian currency and someone is trying to pass off a FunZone Game Token as money.

10:40 pm. The Ohio Coast Guard finally gets the bus paddled to shore and after hiring sherpas brings the bus to the train station, whence the train zooms towards Pittsburgh, stopping only after fourteen minutes in order that a freight train with higher priority can be constructed and loaded with freight, a cargo consisting of passenger train cars headed the other direction. On-train Internet WiFi service is reduced from “sluggish” to “laughable”.

Day 2. 2:15 am. The train arrives in Pittsburgh and is immediately taken out over the Monongahela River and dangled by its couplers or whatever they have until every passenger has been subject to a review of the stuff left in the backseat of his or her car to be cleaned out “later, when it’s convenient”. The winner is the one who has the most obviously later-inconvenient item, with bonus points awarded if it is some kind of mould for the fabrication of solid metal objects.

3:20 am. The train just sits outside the Kennywood Amusement Park for a couple of hours to make everyone feel bad that they’re at an amusement park and they can’t go in, plus everything’s closed up. A conductor goes around reminding people they have 23 and a half pages to go and have barely thought about paint.

6:75 am. The train discharges its passengers that they may catch their connecting service, at the far end of the railway terminal in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or maybe Charleston, West Virginia. Check signs for details.

8:26 am. Connecting service on the line to New York City departs wherever, with the conductor reminding people they have 22 and three-quarters pages and the font may not be larger than fourteen point. New sound-dampening cushions allow most of the ride to be soft and quiet except for the guy ranting about you’re not sure what except it’s definitely political and somehow it gets into what you do for your career and he gets that so wrong it’s hard to resist answering.

9:14 am. Thorough investigation of the train establishes that nobody is actually producing the rant. Clearly the problem is a quarrelsome ghost of annoying conversations gone by. Internet service upgrades to “pages load, but only the banner ads and that swirling dot pattern web sites started doing like two years ago in place of showing stuff”.

11:57 am. Start of a four-hour delay so we can sit by the side of a large pile of rocks. Inspires several passengers to include a section about presidential rocks, which falls apart when nobody can remember the name of Gustav … uh … Mount Rushmore Guy without the Internet.

6:12 pm. End of the four-hour delay.

8:55 pm. Train approaches Hoboken, pauses so that passengers can be dangled sideways until the blood rushes to their wrists.

10:10 pm. Arrival, Penn Station, New York City. Technically, legally part of New Jersey because of the lease NJ Transit has on that platform. We are given extensions on the paper.