60s Popeye: Duel to the Finish, one of the good ones


Today’s is another Seymour Kneitel festival: he gets credit for the story, direction, and production of this 1960 Paramount Cartoon Studios piece. Here’s Duel to the Finish.

It’s hard to have no sympathy for Wimpy. He’d have taken over Thimble Theatre, if only Popeye hadn’t been there first. He has this great blend of gluttony and larceny. He pairs well against Popeye. There’ve been a couple cartoons that pitted him against Popeye. The most notable was 1939’s Hello, How Am I. In that one Wimpy pretends to be Popeye so he can get hamburgers out of Olive Oyl. Here …

All right, there’s a certain overlap. But it has a different start, and different progression. Here, Olive Oyl is bored with Popeye, and we can see why. She wants to make him jealous, so starts making hamburgers to woo Wimpy. And Popeye sees this for what it is, Olive Oyl and Wimpy using each other. It’s not until Olive Oyl offers a kiss that Popeye cares. Which is a nice dramatic irony as Wimpy couldn’t care about such things as kisses. So it’s a duel.

A contented Wimpy sits at the table, surrounded by dirty plates, with three hamburgers in front of him, a hamburger in his right hand, and a fork holding a chunk of hamburger in his left hand.
Olive Oyl has a lot more plates than I do. Also, Wimpy has the power not just to eat hamburgers with a fork but to single-handedly cut out a slice of hamburger using a fork.

Wimpy makes it an eating duel, challenging to see who can eat the most hamburgers. He’s not a stupid person; it’s just amazing Popeye accepts it. Right away we see Olive Oyl worn out from making burgers, and Popeye struggling to chew. And Wimpy puttering along, happy, even eating burgers with both hands. One of those hands has a fork. I’ve heard of people eating New York-style pizza with a fork, but hamburgers is a new one. And he beats Popeye! This is the rare cartoon where, not only does Bluto/Brutus not appear and not be the antagonist, but Popeye also doesn’t win. You have to appreciate Wimpy’s cunning.

But Popeye has to win anyway, and it comes about by forfeit, again a rare event. Olive Oyl can’t cook another hamburger. This breaks Wimpy’s interest in her, because he’s unaware that she might be able or willing to cook at a later date. The beaten Popeye grumbles at Olive Oyl for having started the whole mess, and that’s the end.

Bedraggled Popeye and Olive Oyl slumping on the couch after being exhausted in the eating contest.
In retrospect, this makes Popeye being boring at the start of the cartoon look like wisdom.

Wimpy goes home. It’s never clear what he thinks about this whole day. That he recognized a chance to eat if he flattered, yes. He had a similar relationship with the Sea Hag, at least in the comic strip. He came in, spotting an advantage he could take, and used it for as much as he could, and wandered out again. It’s as though he barely notices the mortal lives of Popeye and Olive Oyl and drifts in, like a magical creature, while there are rewards to be had.

The whole cartoon’s a story well-established by the characters in place here. And it explores consequences that aren’t obvious from what we already knew of them. Solid stuff. Could have been a quite good theatrical cartoon.

60s Popeye: The Whiffle Bird’s Revenge and Rough House’s Screen Debut


Journey with me now back to 1961 and a Paramount-produced Popeye cartoon. The story’s by I Klein and direction, of course, by Seymour Kneitel. The Whiffle Bird’s Revenge is aware there’ve been a bunch of werewolf movies recently. Let’s see what it has to say in response to that developing genre.

And here, finally, it is. 91 cartoons in, and something like 81 of these reviews in, and we finally see Rough House. He and his diner have got some mentions before. This is the first time we’ve seen him in animated form. I don’t know whether this was the first cartoon produced with him in it.

I know, you’ve got questions, the most prominent of which is: so what? Yeah, fair enough. He’s been in the comic strip since 1932, or a year longer than Swee’Pea, if that helps. He runs a cafe and sees through Wimpy but kind of tolerates him. Yeah, he’s basically Geezil without the bad ethnic coding. For whatever reason the Fleischers never used him. Nor did Famous/Paramount Studios when they were making theatrical cartoons. The King Features cartoons, though, they tend to run a little dull. Bringing up the extended roster of Thimble Theatre characters is one of the thrills.

And we get a double dose of the extended roster, as the Whiffle Bird returns. And she’s called ‘she’. She’s not given a name; in the comic strip, she’s Bernice. Also in the comic strip, she does not have the power to speak or bestow lycanthropy on people. But you always change stuff in adapting to new mediums.

In Rough House's Diner, Were-Wimpy holds up a stunned Popeye in one hand while he swallows a tray full of dozens of hamburgers held in the other hand. Rough House looks on, startled.
[ Record scratch ] “Yup, tha’s me! I bets youze is won’nering how I gotsk meself into this sit’chee’ation.”

The plot is a simple one. A hungry Wimpy catches the Whiffle Bird. Since she’d rather not be eaten, she punishes Wimpy by making him turn into a werewolf whenever he says ‘hamburger’. As a werewolf he semi-effectively harasses Rough House’s diner, and Popeye, until Popeye can beg her mercy. There’s good stories to make of that. It’s not a deep plot but it’s got a clear enough fairy-tale logic. Also I like stories with a weird werewolfism trigger. I blame my watching too much Fangface at an impressionable age.

It’s not quite a good cartoon. The plot outline is working hard to make this all come together, and it keeps almost doing so. The animation is also doing its job. It’s your typical Paramount Cartoon Studios work. Everybody’s drawn precisely, and they move rigidly but in well-defined steps. Look at Popeye strolling in at the start of the cartoon; his pace about matches what his walk cycle is actually doing. It’s a small but clear bit of craft.

There’s story logic problems, none of which bothered me as a kid. Like, what caused Were-Wimpy to turn human? The first time he just changes, after walking away, exhausted. The second time it’s after eating a plate of hamburgers. I don’t need the rule explained but I would like to feel confident there is a rule. The tougher problem to me is that Wimpy’s change is set off by his saying “hamburger”. If you knew you’d turn into a werewolf on saying “hamburger”, and you didn’t want to be a werewolf, why would you say “hamburger”? The first time, sure, he’s testing. I understand that. Why ever after that? The Whiffle Bird’s curse doesn’t make sense. This is why usually the transformation is something the werewolf can’t control, like the moon or splashes of water or something. If Wimpy can’t even hear the word “hamburger” then his friends become a threat.

Which is probably something you’d need a longer cartoon to do. More story time, anyway. Five and a half minutes minus the credits doesn’t give room for a complex story. So maybe this is the most intricate werewolf Wimpy story that the series could support.

Whiffle Bird standing, with a wing raised, atop the unconscious Were-Wimpy.
“Funny thing is now I can’t remember how I thought turning Wimpy into a werewolf was going to solve any of my problems. Well, live and learn.”
[ Boop. ]

The bigger story problem: what does Were-Wimpy know? He’s hungry, sure, but so is Wimpy. He’s more aggressive than Wimpy, although we don’t see him actually being stronger. He just has less body fat. This seems strange for a werewolf. But if he is stronger as Were-Wimpy then the Whiffle Bird’s punishment is weird. “To punish you, you’ll sometimes become much bigger and stronger than you otherwise are.” Wimpy seems to be aware he’s Were-Wimpy, and seems embarrassed by the fact. Is it that he dislikes taking food when he should be cadging it?

The cartoon’s a showcase for Jack Mercer’s voice acting. He’d always done Popeye and Wimpy. To my ear, he’s also doing the Whiffle Bird. It also shows, unfortunately, that Mercer couldn’t think of a way to monster up Wimpy’s voice without doing Popeye. Jackson Beck at least gets a few lines in, as Rough House and I believe the news anchor. (Beck was always getting cast in narrator/news anchor voices.)

I’m probably asking too much for a five-minute cartoon. As it is, the story’s sensible, or close enough to sensible for most folks. If you ever wanted a magic bird to turn Wimpy into a wolf, your choices are this or my DeviantArt gallery. But I can feel the premise trying to be a better cartoon than this.

Any amount of Fangface is probably too much Fangface.

60s Popeye: Tiger Burger, which you can go ahead and join in progress


I came pretty near noping out of another King Features Popeye cartoon this week. I’m not saying you’re wrong if you do. Tiger Burger, another from the Jack Kinney studios, has a story by Cal Howard and animation direction by Harvey Toombs.

It is set in “Darkest Injia”. This is bad. But the use of “Injia”, as though Popeye’s quirky pronunciation were the “correct” thing, cut the bad down a little. The start of the cartoon is all like that. If you want to get to the part of the cartoon that doesn’t need excuses? Start from about 19:30 and proceed from there. My embedded link will be the whole cartoon, though.

So. Yeah. The first two and a half minutes of this are stuff you have to rationalize to keep watching. It bottoms out about 18:08 when we get the sign “You are now entering Puka-Puka, Fastest Growing Slums In Kasha County” which ugh. This is undercut, not swiftly enough, by going to the sign for the Optimists Club. If this cartoon were aimed at adults, this could be a wry comment on the misery of society. And how some people refuse to acknowledge that, a thing both good and bad. The cartoon is not thinking deep enough to get away with that. Not 60 years on, anyway.

The village of Puka-Puka doesn’t look great either. Not crazy about Popeye wondering about the native hospitality, but at least he does address everyone as “sir”. The cop that Popeye talks to is given a British accent and puffs a Churchill-class cigar, icons that are … oh, a bunch to unpack. They do seem to me to be things that would, to a white middle-class American audience of 1960, signify “civilized” and “respectable”, so there’s that. If the cop had been Jackson Beck trying to do Apu I might have dropped this whole series never to touch it again.

Anyway, all this — all this — is to establish that Popeye and Wimpy are hunting Gonga the man-eating tiger. (Yeah, I see the reference.) Gonga’s given a big build-up as “the most vicious, cruel, meanest, low-down, ferocious, good-for-nothing, low-down, fiendish man-eating tiger in all of Injia”. We don’t see a lot of Gonga’s fiendishness. He just yoinks Wimpy off of their turtle. But since Wimpy’s been whining the whole cartoon about wanting to eat hamburgers it’s hard not being on Gonga’s side.

A tiger has one paw wrapped around Wimpy's shoulder, and looks at the camera, with one eye drooping. Wimpy, both eyes open just a tiny bit, is holding up one finger while looking off-camera and apparently whispering.
Look, let them have their time together.

Monomania usually works great for comic characters. And Wimpy is almost the definition of a monomaniacal comic character. I’m not sure why it doesn’t work here. Possibly because there’s so much of him talking hamburgers with nothing else going on. Wimpy can’t interrupt the action with his little thing if his little thing is all the action.

It’s hard to sell me on a Popeye-hunts-an-animal cartoon. While he’s far from consistent, his “always be kind to children and dumb animals” philosophy is a great statement of goals. There’d be some respectability in the plot if he were protecting the village from a menace. I guess that’s the point of the cop’s declaration of Gonga’s wickedness. But Popeye and Wimpy didn’t know about this tiger going in. And we didn’t see Gonga doing anything particularly wicked. So it’s hard to get past the impression Popeye’s being a jerk here.

There’s a couple bits that try to salvage the cartoon. Popeye challenging Gonga to “come out and fights like a man” and Gonga calling back, “come in and fight like a tiger”. Popeye answering how he didn’t come to India to eat hamburgers which, yeah, I wouldn’t. Or the wacky choice to have Popeye and Wimpy riding on a turtle, rather than an elephant. It seems to have been done for the silliness of a howdah on a turtle. And to let the cartoon stop on a joke about how turtles are slow. And if we just stick to that the cartoon is all right. But it’s not much salvage and it comes after a lousy start.

Math Comics and the Quintessence of Wimpy


Once again over on my mathematics blog there’s a group of comic strips with mathematics subjects. It’s also got a bit of talk about the Rubik’s Cube, which based on the tweets of my friends today turns 40 years old, ah, today. I had no idea and if I had, I’d probably have still fumbled doing something interesting about it. Anyway, I mention the Rubik’s Cube cartoon but don’t watch it because I just know I shouldn’t have watched it to begin with.

Hy Eisman's _Popeye_, 18 May 2014: Wimpy speaks of developing a social networking algorithm. Honest.
A quintessential moment of J Wellington Wimpy: he’s exactly the person who’d decide to develop an algorithm for a social network.

Meanwhile, in other Popeye-based news: while the weekday Popeye comic strip has been in reruns for over two decades now, King Features has for some reason contracted Hy Eisman to draw new Sunday panels. I don’t know why. I guess they just like Hy Eisman and don’t want him to go completely unemployed — they also have him drawing The Katzenjammer Kids For Some Reason on Sundays — but don’t quite like him enough to have him write and draw a daily strip that’s run in like six newspapers worldwide, three of which are the fake newspapers that police officers in cop shows pick up to see that there’s been a new murder or a politician has said something about their case.

Anyway, here is the May 18th installment, in which — with his talk of having “made up my mind to develop an algorithm for a social network” — you just see how Eisman has captured the essential worldview and rhythms of speech and patterns of plotting that really make J Wellington Wimpy, and for that matter, the whole Thimble Theater universe. It’s just perfect Wimpy.