From the mid-1930’s to the late 1950’s, Paramount Studios, through first its Fleischer Studios and later Famous Studios companies, produced hundreds of animated episodes of Popeye the Sailor. The character was part of the King Features Syndicate of newspaper cartoon characters, and when new Popeye the Sailor cartoons were commissioned in the early 1960’s, King Features saw an opportunity to offer an animated outlet to some of its other newspaper properties.
But first, the Popeye the Sailor cartoons.
The 1960’s Popeye cartoons were made on the cheap. Super cheap. Although the recognizable voices of Jack Mercer, Mae Questal and Jackson Beck returned to the series, the animination was extremely limited, and musical cues were recycled ad nauseum. Several companies produced the shorts, including Larry Harmon Productions (the company that owned Bozo the Clown) and Czech animation director Gene Deitch. You can definitely see the differences in the animation styles just by the examples shown below.
For example, here”s a Popeye called “Barbecue for Two,” as directed by animator Jack Kinney.
And compare that to “Track Meet Cheat,” a Larry Harmon Pictures creation, which features some early work from Hal Sutherland and Lou Schiemer, who would later found the TV animation studio Filmation.
Then add a bit of surrealism from behind the Iron Curtain, and you get this version of Popeye, in an episode called “Swee’pea Soup.”
So when the Popeye cartoons were released, and became very popular in television syndication, King Features commissioned several of their newspaper properties to be recreated as animated features. And their efforts were … shall we say … totally mixed.
Let’s start off with an animated version of Beetle Bailey, the cartoon about life in the military. The show definitely has most of the standard cast from Camp Swampy, including Beetle, Sgt. Snorkle, Gen. Halftrack, Private Zero and more. No word on whether Wednesday episodes featured Miss Buxley or not.
They also dusted off the hillbilly stories of Snuffy Smith, which were originally a spinoff of the popular cartoon Barney Google. Interestingly, voice actor Paul Frees voiced both Snuffy and Barney as the situation required.
And although animating the episodes took away from this comic strip’s surreal overtones, the romantic trio of Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse and Offisa Pupp received an animated overview, with Gene Deitch controlling the pencils.
I mean, the episodes were cheap and plentiful, and if you needed to stick a six-minute cartoon into the schedule, well, you had plenty available. As for quality … um … well … er …
But if your local television station had a congenial host of a children’s show, that host could intro these cartoons inbetween whatever else was going on with the broadcast. Or you could stitch together an anthology of various six-minute cartoons, along with some theatrical cartoons (heck, the kids won’t notice the difference) and you’ve got a nice children’s afternoon television block.
There’s a bit of a weirdness in watching these shows in 2020, after remembering seeing them as a kid – well, at least the Popeye cartoons, which ran in a block on WTEN with old Three Stooges episodes. Just seeing some of the limited animation, the reliance on similar voice actors, and even the increase in violence (Ignatz keeps launching bricks at Krazy Kat as a major plot point) makes me wonder how I ever understood or enjoyed the original viewings.
Well, maybe I was just a kid, I wouldn’t know any better. Heck, it’s not like Beetle Bailey cartoons encouraged me to enlist in the Army, or to laze out in the Ozarks like Snuffy Smith, but hey, your mileage may vary.
Oh yeah, one more cartoon, and although it’s not from the 1960’s, it was another attempt by King Features Syndicate to craft an animated story that featured their properties. Let me introduce you to the 60-minute film Popeye and the Man Who Hated Laughter, which aired in 1972 as part of a Saturday morning anthology series called the Saturday Superstar Movie. How the heck they found a way to shoehorn every single property, even the obscure ones like Bringing Up Father, The Katzenjammer Kids and The Little King, takes a lot of gumption.