60s Popeye: Weight for Me and a cartoon that’s aged without a single flaw


We have another Gene Deitch-directed cartoon here. So the only credits I have are that the animation was by Halas and Batchelor. No idea about story credits and all. The producer is Producer William L Snyder.

There’s a content warning, though, as you maybe guessed from the title. And as you maybe inferred from the screen grab YouTube uses for its previews. If it gives the same preview to everyone, I mean. The premise is, Olive Oyl is fat! And Popeye wants to fix here! So there’s a bunch of fat-phobia and body-shaming going on here. If you don’t need that, and you don’t want to see Popeye being casually ugly, you’re absolutely right. We’ll meet back up in a week.

For those who can put up with that, or want to see how this plays out, here’s Weight For Me, another cartoon from 1960.

Popeye and Brutus are back from six months at sea! And while they were away, Olive Oyl was so lonesome that she overate, and now she’s fat. It’s that most startling of thing to see thirty years into a franchise: a new premise. Where was this when Famous Studios was gradually whittling down the number of Popeye’s nephews all through the 50s?

It’s obvious the cartoon has to be about losing weight, then. It’s not quite required that Olive Oyl end the cartoon skinny again. (The other resolution would be that after a lot of diet and exercise she and Popeye end up enormous.) But is required that she try. Brutus likes the fat Olive Oyl, though. It’s presented with this interesting energy, as though even he didn’t realize he was going to like her being fat. And this sets up what should be a crackling good conflict. Popeye trying to make Olive Oyl skinny versus Brutus trying to make her even fatter.

Where it goes wrong is that word, make. Popeye never asks Olive Oyl if she wants to be thin again, or if she wants any help. Brutus never asks Olive Oyl if she’s happy being fat. You can argue Olive Oyl clearly wishes she were thin, but thinks trying is hopeless. You can argue that Olive Oyl finds being fat more comfortable. Certainly having ambiguous feelings about it is natural and normal. Olive Oyl’s fickleness works here to make her more psychologically realistic than normal.

Brutus offering a big box of chocolates to an extremely overweight Olive Oyl. The sofa they're sitting on is buckling under her weight.
You might think it sexist that the sofa is crumpling under Olive Oyl’s weight, when there’s no chance she’s heavier than Brutus. But this is because a guy can be five times as overweight as a woman before suffering the same sorts of social penalties.

But gads, the worst thing about being fat? Other than how doctors will blame your weight for any ailment, including Covid-19, a broken arm, and seven cop bullets in your back? Meddlers telling you how to stop being fat.

So Popeye starts out really ugly here. And he never gets better, as he keeps putting Olive Oyl through exercises after she says she doesn’t want to. Brutus never asks Olive Oyl what she wants either. But he at least does invite her to a malt shop or to a steak dinner and she accepts. She might be eating for emotionally unhealthy reasons but she’s at least asked.

There was, a decade-plus ago, a web site article that asked whether the Famous Studios animators were on Bluto’s side. It listed all sorts of plots where Popeye’s more clearly the jerk. This one fits that tradition.

Apart from that, though? … It’s a well-done cartoon, is part of the thing. The animation’s decent limited-animation work. It hasn’t got as much small movement as Potent Lotion. I assume that’s because everybody’s energy was put into drawing Olive Oyl to a strange model sheet. But it does have small filigrees of movement. When getting off the ship, for example, Brutus quickly welds Popeye by a chain to the ship’s deck. And Popeye uses his pipe to free himself. It’s nothing needed for the story; it just makes the cartoon better.

Popeye has assembled a bunch of weight loss machines; the enormous Olive Oyl is caught in the one that wraps a belt around your waist, or in her case her rump, to shake around. There's also a machine with rollers on arms that go up and down, and another semicircular machine with several small long cylindrical rollers. In the foreground is what looks like a three-part foldable cot with a record turntable hanging off the side.
Very disappointed we did not get to see how that sectioned cot with a vertically-slung record turntable was supposed to lose anybody weight.

Popeye also brings in a fun-looking bunch of weight-loss machines. That thing with the strap that goes around your waist and shakes you, for example. And a bunch that didn’t get to be cartoon-and-sitcom famous. This thing with two rollers that go up and down looks amusing, whatever its scam was supposed to be. I have no idea what the thing Olive Oyl ends up trapped on is, the little thing that looks like a dangerous hot dog roller. It looks like fun, though.

We end with Brutus resigned to “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. He’s reading How To Reduce and is on the hip belt thing. Everyone laughs. It’s unusual for everyone to end on the same page and laughing about it. It’s appealing to see. I’m just sad it comes after a lot of Popeye being a jerk.

On This Date: November 17, If You Like


765. Date of the historical incident believed to have inspired, in distorted form, the fable of Jack the Giant-Killer, when seven flies were indeed killed in one blow by a giant rampaging through a middle-Uressexshire hamlet. Less famously the incident is also credited with creating the village of Flattstone-Under-Stompenhedge. It’s a little baffling how the story ended up like we know it today. Most historians of legend suspect “political satire around the time of the Commonwealth or Restoration”. But we’ll admit that’s their answer to everything.

797. Kanmu, Emperor of Japan, changes his residence from Nara to Kyoto but the student loan people find him anyway.

1602. Birth of Agnes of Jesus, who’d go on to become a nun in what seems like typecasting but there you go. Sometimes you just know what your course is in life.

1777. The Colonial Congress sends the Articles of Confederation to the British Parliament for ratification in a deliberately-arranged “accident” that both sides fail to use as a chance to apologize and try to come to some reasonable settlement of the whole matter. It ends up making everybody feel eight percent more awkward.

1810. Sweden declares war on the United Kingdom in order to start the Anglo-Swedish War, since it seems like a shame to have such a snappy name for a war and nobody declaring it or anything. The war ends two years later when they notice everyone’s been so happy with the stylish name and the idea of Sweden and the United Kingdom being at war that nobody ever bothered to fight the other side, and that isn’t even my joke.

1858. Day zero of the Modified Julian Day scheme so that’s why your friend who does all this database stuff with dates is staring wistfully out the window and wondering why we have to have a February even today. We do not; we have a February in-between January and March.

1869. The Suez Canal successfully links the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. Backers fail to reach their stretch goal of connecting the Mediterranean with either the Pacific Ocean, the Baltic Sea at Brunsbüttel, or Albany, New York. But they’re happy with what they did achieve and give out some commemorative coasters.

1933. The United States recognizes the Soviet Union.

1935. The United States recognizes the Soviet Union a second time when Guatemala explains how the two of them used to stand at the window outside the League of Nations building in Geneva staring inside and sometimes putting pickles from the burger stand down the way onto the window to see if they’d freeze in place there.

1946. Last use of a Murphy bed except in a black-and-white sitcom.

1952. Soap magnate Dr Emanual Theodore Bronner, serving his jury duty obligation for the civil court, is asked whether he is familiar with the law regarding trees and shrubs which overhang the property line. Both sides’ attorneys excuse him 36 seconds later. He finishes the first of many extremely considered sentences about the matter in December, and his whole thought about fallen branches by 1954 (estimated).

1961. The United States recognizes the Soviet Union again, but pretends to stumble and have to fiddle with its shoelaces a couple minutes while they pass on the sidewalk.

1973. One of the most successful weight-loss plans of the 70s gets started when Eater’s Digest publishes this compelling bit of reasoning. The reasoning: you can burn off more calories simply by going about your business while wearing weights. But what is fat except excess weight? And, better, weight that you can’t take off even if you want? Therefore simply by walking or standing or breathing or sleeping on your chest you’re burning off excess calories, thereby causing yourself to lose weight on the whole deal. And therefore being fatter is the quickest way to being thinner and, therefore, being overweight doesn’t exist and within two years everybody is.

2015. ‘Bob and Bert’ create the only podcast advertisement ever recorded that makes listening to the podcast sound appealing or desirable or even something other than just a bit of sadness. After the successful advertisement their Wheeler-and-Woolseycast releases one more episode, then misses four months for an unannounced hiatus, returns with a 15 minutes apology and explanation that it’ll be two months before they get back to their twice-a-month-schedule, and then never be heard from again.

Body-Sculpting The Betty Boop Way


A while ago this year I was on an amusement park cartoons-and-TV-shows-and-stuff kick. It started with a Betty Boop cartoon. Grampy’s Indoor Outing has Grampy work out a way that Betty Boop and Junior can have a day of amusement park fun despite the rain. I noted that many sources speaking of the cartoon identify the kid in it as Little Jimmy, even though he’s clearly called Junior by the other characters in the cartoon. But I also could see where people were coming from. Let me talk about that.

In February 1904 the cartoonist Jimmy Swinnerton started a comic strip, as was normal in those days. What wasn’t normal was that he kept making the comic strip. The days before World War I were ones in which comic strips popped into and out of existence like, well, web comics do. Little Jimmy would stay in the papers until Swinnerton retired in 1958. To give that perspective, that’s five years longer than Peanuts ran before Charles Schulz died. Hagar the Horrible is (currently) twelve years younger than it is, and Funky Winkerbean eleven. For Better Or For Worse ran only 29 years.

That said, I don’t actually know much about the comic strip. Wikipedia says that in the strip Little Jimmy would routinely go off, forgetting what he was supposed to do, and getting in trouble. It supports this with a 1911 Sunday strip in which Jimmy doesn’t go off and forget what he was supposed to do. Wikipedia’s writers may be drawing their conclusions about the comic strip from this cartoon.

Betty Boop and Little Jimmy premiered the 27th of March, 1936. It was probably an attempt to see whether another comic strip character could be turned into an animation character. Popeye adapted brilliantly, after all, to the point the cartoon largely overshadows the comic strip. The Fleischers would make several attempts at launching new characters through Betty Boop cartoons — Sally Swing wasn’t the first — although they didn’t take. (Yes, Popeye debuted in what was technically a Betty Boop series cartoon, but the deal was already made. This is much more a testing of the character.)

With this cartoon you can see why. It’s pleasant enough but nothing happens. Betty gets in trouble on a mechanical vibrating belt, as everyone who ever uses one on-screen does, and Little Jimmy runs off, gets distracted, and bounces back. That’s it. I suppose his attempts at remembering he’s supposed to get an “electrician” should be funny or endearing but it’s a slender thread of personality. There’s not much to support or contradict the idea he might be Junior, seen in Grampy’s Indoor Outing, considering Junior has a similar build and similar soft, low-impact persona.

There’s interesting touches in the cartoon, though. The most prominent is that objects grow faces and voices in the midst of the singing. That’s unusual for a cartoon as late as this, from the latter half of the 1930s. The everything-can-be-alive motif was popular in silent cartoons and the earlier Fleischer work, but by the time they had those lovely watercolor backgrounds and three-dimensional sets (not on display here, incidentally) those had gone away as, I suppose, indiscretions of a more youthful art style.

This cartoon’s got some special meaning to me, by the way. It’s the first Betty Boop cartoon I distinctly remember seeing, back in the days of Cartoon Network’s Late Night Black and White segment. It isn’t first-rate Betty, admittedly, but it charmed me. I would probably inevitably have grown as a Betty Boop fan; my personality just lends itself to black-and-white and silent cartoons. But this is a milestone from how things happened for me.

The mechanical-vibrator belt thing Betty Boop uses — and that many, many other comedies mostly would use through the mid-20th-century — was designed to lose weight by shaking people. As best I understand, the thinking was that by shaking the body up it forces your muscles to contract a lot, and that’s the same as exercise, without the hard part of doing work, right? Yeah, it’s stupid, but for comic value it’s hard to beat.

And after all we’re not really past that. You can still buy silly vibrating belts that do nothing to help you lose weight. They’re just more portable now. When I was in Singapore there was a really catchy silly commercial for one that showed a model who needed no weight reduction wearing one on various parts of her body, while the disembodied voices chanted, “zap zap tummy, zap zap tummy, zap zap tummy” or the like. It’s a subtler silly than Betty Boop’s contraption, but it’s not different.