Back to School (Part 10)
By now in our study of education in animation, television was firmly entrenched, and could no longer be relegated to the category of a passing fad. Its effects were putting the squeeze on budgets, forcing many theatrical animation units to close. Their out of work staff found it increasingly ncessary to embrace the small screen medium, either in the form of made for TV cartoons or commercials, in order to stay afloat. Thus, most big names in the business found themselves with credits at new studios or new television divisions of the majors, designed to exploit the new media at the possible expense of artistic quality and fluidity. As we will find, however, a reasonable degree of creativity still continued to exist in the writing and directing of these films, such that glimmers of past sparks could still from time to time be seen, and the prestiguois names of the past would not as a whole need to hang their heads in shame for “selling out” to the home audience or sponsors. Amidst this atmosphere of change, the need for education remained – expressed right in the average family living room with such programming as Miss Frances’s “Ding Dong School” and “Romper Room”. The new televison animation houses, as well as a handful of studios still able to support theatrical animation, would thus continue to produce titles with a focus upon the school days experieced by a wide percentage of the target audience, hoping to continue to present stories about class, with class.
Disney’s take on the legend of Paul Bunyan (Disney, 2 reel special, 8/1/58, Les Clark, dir.), features brief activity in the classroom. Paul is discovered on the shore of a coastal town in Maine as a shipwrecked infant on a raft in a giant cradle, after the effects of a Sou’easter storm. No one knows where he came from (I’d check up the nearest beanstalk), so the whole town adopts him. Soon, he is old enough to go to school. He is described as a bright student, and never tardy. Of course, there is no way he’s going to fit inside the schoohouse, so as the teacher calls for the class to be seated, Paul seats himself outside, upon the roof of a neighboring building. The teacher asks the first student to solve an addition problem to rise and present his answer. Listening to the instructions through the schoolhouse window, Paul works with chalk and slate on the calculation, then shocks the teacher, presenting his answer by lifting off the ceiling of the schoolhouse like it was a flip-top lid. The nervous teacher commends Paul, “That is correct. But for heaven’s sake, don’t raise the roof.” Immediately after class is dismissed, Paul is a favorite of his schoolmates, as he joins them for a dip at the local swimming hole. He is so big, he can only wet his chest in the pond, while his back stays “high and dry”. But he has fun livening up the activities for his fellow students, who are able to perform high dives off of his extended hand, nack and broad shoulders.
While several early installments of the “Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks” series produced by Hanna-Barbera for “The Huckleberry Hound Show” owe considerable amounts of their inspiration to previous eposodes of the directing duo’s “Tom and Jerry” theatrical cartoons (including, among others, close plot parallels between “Judo Jack” and the earlier Jerry’s Cousin; between “Heavens to Jinksy” and Heavenly Puss; and even a resemblance between “Jinks Jinior” and the earlier-reviewed Professor Tom, though Jinks lacks a diploma or formal mortarboard), Little Bird Mouse (Hanna-Barbera, 11/13/58) has the unique distinction of precisely matching the title of a reported unfinished project in the storyboard stage at MGM when Hanna and Barbera received the abrupt news that the plug was being pulled on the MGM cartoon studio. It may thus, aside from addition of dialogue replacing the former Tom and Jerry roles, represent a fairly literal translation of what might otherwise have been a late theatrical entry. This allows for some interesting imaginary speculation as to how nuch improved the project might have been if completed for the origial characters (likely including Tuffy in the Dixie role) – although admittedly, budgets of the late T&J episodes had already been so slashed compared to earlier classics, that perhaps the differences between the TV and theatrical products wouldn’t have been so earth-shaking after all).
Again, we appear to have a nod to Ralph Phillips’ dreams in From A to Z-Z-Z-Z, the first scene looking surprisingly familiar to such episode. Pixie and Dixie attend grade school under the tutelage of a mouse professor, for once teaching basic mathematics instead of how to avoid cats. Dixie, however, has his nose buried in a book which is not part of the class’s recommended reading, entitled, “How To Fly”. His eyes lazily wander to the window, where a small bluebird sings ourside. Wandering away from his desk, Dixie admires the bluebird in a half daze at the windowsill, following it with his eyes as it takes off from a tree limb. “Ahem”, grumbles the professor, as Dixie begins to copy the movements of the bird, flapping his arms with all his might, his eyes closed in dreamy delight. “Dixie!”, the professor shouts, and the mouse is placed under the traditional dunce cap, and told to write over and over upon the blackboard, “Mice don’t fly”. As Dixie sits engaged in his task, his eyes wander to the window again. This time, a hummingbird appears outside. Seeing the blur of wings by which the hummingbird hovers, Dixie gets a new idea for propulsion. Extending his overside ears like wings, and rotating them a quarter-turn so they can flap up and down instead of from side to side, Dixie begins to wiggle his ears with all his might. In a few moments, he finds himself rising off the dunce’s stool, and smiles a broad smile of surprise to the camera. In a well timed shot guaranteed for a laugh, we see Dixie pass in slow, hovering flight behind the professor at his desk, moving from left to right across the screen, writing on the blackboard as he passes a sequential trail of repetitions of “Mice don’t fly”. Running out of blackboard and of room, Dixie sails out the window, to enjoy a day in nature from this new vantage point.
A butterfly passes Dixie in flight in the opposite direction, and settles upon a flower. A paw reaches out from behind the trunk of a nearby tree, carrying a butterfly net. “Gotcha!”, comes a shout, as Mr. Jinks makes his appearance, as a butterfly collector, making his first catch of the day. To his shock, along cames Dixie, carelessly whizzing by him, then approaching again, passing into one of Jinks’s ears and out the other, then backtracking into Jinks’s head to admire the view through one of the cat’s eyeballs. As Dixie finally continues on, Jinks reacts, “Jeesh!”, and consults a reference book for explanation of the phenomenon. A page marked “Specimen Index” includes a strange entry: “FLYING MOUSE – There is no such thing. Note: But is there was a flying mouse, WOW! Ir would be worth a fortune.” (I wonder how many other non-existent species this text cross-refereces?) Jinks responds, “Wow and double Wow! I’ll be a zillionaire!” Jinks gives chase with his butterfly net. Out the windows of the school, the professor and Pixie catch sight of the chase – and of Dixie’s remarkable flying power. Dixie keeps Jinks at bay, keeping one eye on the cat while engaging in high speed flight backwards to avoid capture. He finds the time to stick out his tongue at the cat and to mock him with “Nyah Nyah”s, until an open mailbox looms ip ahead of Doxie, and he blindly flies right into it, with a metallic slam as the mailbox door vibrates shut. Jinks seizes hold of the mailbox, holding its door shut, and counting his fortune before it is hatched. “Release the prisoner, you scalawag”, shouts the professor. “Don’t be silly, Willy, I’m gonna cash this mice in”, responds Jinks disdainfully. But the professor smacks Jinks a good one on the foot with his pointer stick, causing the cat to howl in pain, and pursue the professor – forgetting entirely about his fortune already in the can. The mailbox door pops open, and Dixie is free. An action chase in multiple directions ensues, much like an average Tom and Jerry episode, with Jinks smashing face first into a tree, while Dixes asks, “What’s the mattter, no brakes?”, a booby trap of a paper bag full of water dropped by Dixie from above like a surprise bomb, and a rope strung at neck-high level across Jinks’ path, as Dixie observes “Give a guy enough rope, and he’ll hang himself”, while Jinks spins in rotation aroind the rope by his neck. The ending is lifted right out of T&J’s The Flying Cat, as Jinks pursues Dixie into a railroad tunnel, only to exit, pursued by a train in the opposite direction. The final shots have Dixie teaching hs own class, with the motto, “Mice do fly” on the blackboard, and Pixie and the professor as anxious pupils, the professor being the first to successfully “get things off the ground.”
Hookey Daze (Hanna-Barbera, Huckleberry Hound, 12/29/58) – Truant officer Huckleberry Hound is called to bring in the Vanderblip Twins, a brother duo who have been absent from school five times this week. “And it’s only Tuesday?”, observes Huck. Huck curiously is animated in this short with a slow motion, slouched over walk that closely resembles that of the wolf in MGM’s Blackboard Jumble, suggesting some cross-pollenation of staffers between the two productions. Huck enters the grounds of the Vanderblip estate, and rings the doorbell. Out of it shoots a jet of water into Huck’s face. “Real fun lovin’ kids”, comments Huck. He guesses that the twins will next try the old “bucket over the door” gag when he enters. To outthink them, Huck pushes the door open real fast and without entering. The expected bucket falls to the floor without hitting its target. “Reckon I fooled you boys”, says Huck, poking his head inside. His boast is met by the thud of an anvil falling upon him, also planted somehow over the door. “These kids are gonna be a real challenge”, states a flattened hound.
Huck seeks out the kids inside the mansion. He knows they’re behind the furtniture because he can hear them breathing. One brother appears, carrying a small toy bow and arrow. He threatens to shoot, and Huck decides to humor them and go along with the harmless gag. Except the second brother makes an appearance above the first, carrying a full size bow loaded with a plunger for an arrow, and fires, smacking Huck into the opposite wall with the plunger stuck to his snout. The kids run for it through several rooms of the mansion, while Huck pursues in slow motion, as a relentless “bloodhound” on their trail. He follows through one too many doors, one of which opens from an upper story to am outside diving board, which Huck plummets off. A swimming pool waits below, but the brothers pull a plug, emptying the pool. As Huck smacks into the pool bottom, he comments to the audience. “Lucky the pool was empty, ot I mighta drowned.”
Huck tries the nonchalant method, waiting in one of the mansion’s easy chairs, and “counting to ten” for this kids to come out, before he gets mad. The kids surprisingly appear without a struggle before the count is concluded, and claim they want to mae friends. They offer Huck a cigar. Huck expresses mock surprise that they actually expected him to fall for the old exploding cigar gag, and removes a small firecracker from the cigar’s core. Planning to now smoke what is left of the exposiveless gift, he accepts a match from one of the brothers – which has its own fuse, and blows up in Huck’s face. Huck ultimately finds himself tied to the tiny tracks of a toy railroad set, as the brothers prepare to release the train. Huck thinks the idea cute and unthreatening, and pretends to yell for help to complete the imaginary game. Until his yell changes to a real cry for assistance, as the brothers pilot a real train down the tracks. As it passes, Huck claims it didn’t hirt a bit, but rises with his middle torso segmented apart from his upper and lower portions, like a badly-stacked set of blocks.
Huck concedes defeat, and exits the mansion door, closing it behind him. The brothers pull open the door to follow, shouting to Huckleberry, “What’s amatter? Can’t you take it?” But Huck has laid a trap of his own, in the form of an animal cage set up at their height just outside the door, on which he drops the cage door as they step through the doorway. “Yeah, an’ I can dish it out, too”, Huck answers to the boys’ inquiry. The twins are delivered to the schoolhouse, still locked in the cage, which is placed to straddle across two desks for their class attendance. “Kids were never like that when we went to school”, observes the professor to Huckleberry. “We? I never went to school”, blurts out Huck. Before Huck can leave, the teacher grabs him by the neck, and plants hum in a desk behind the twins. Class begins with simple addition. The twins correctly handle 1 + 1, and 2 + 2, but Huck gets stuck on “3 + 3″, responding, “Uh, 5? 7? 4? 16!”
Truant Student (Lantz/Universal, 1/5/59 – Paul J. Smith, dir.) – Windy and Breezy were a father-son team of bears, who first appeared as featured guests in a Woody Woodpecker short, Fodder and Son. Both characters were voiced by Daws Butler, using old familiar voices from his bag of tricks. Breezy, a small, school-age bear, was virtually lacking in any recognizable character traits except for ending most episodes with the phrase, “That’s my pop”, and utilized Daws’ standard juvenile voice also used for Augie Doggie and Elroy Jetson. Breezy, a large ne’er do well, usually of impecunious means, was given Daws’ standard impression of Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, already in use for Warner’s “Honeymousers” mini-series. The duo failed to make many waves, appearing in only about five cartoons (some of which had a longer shelf life than expected, only due to home-movie distributor Castle Films’ idea to lump any Lantz cartoon featuring a bear into a catch-all category of releases under the banner heading, “Pierre Bear” (a character who, in fact, only existed in one Lantz short, Woody Woodpecker’s “After the Ball”)). Thus, if you’ve seen the characters at all, there is a good chance you never knew their correct names, despite one of their shorts actually using their names on the title card, and this subject film in particilar including some verbal references by name in the spoken dialogue.
The bell is ringing on the local little red school house. Breezy announces to Pop he is off to school, and ezits their tumble-down home. Windy notices that Breezy forgot to carry along his achoolbooks, and grabs the strap of books to go chasing after his son. Almost identically to Scrappy’s “Graduation Exercises”, Windy is distracted by the sight of jumping trout in a river adjoining the path to school, and forgets his errand to deliver the schoolbooks, in favor of pulling out a rod and reel for a little fishing. Unfortunately for Windy, he has left the strap of schoolbooks hanging from his arm in plain view. Enter the inevitable truant offcer (played by another recurring guest character who would overlap into several series, Willoughby (a mild-voiced little man with a big black moustache, closely modeled to parallel Droopy in personality). Seeing the schoolbooks, Willoughby jumps to the conclusion that Windy is a truant playing hookey from school (though he does take note of Windy’s unusually huge size, commenting “My, what a big boy.”) Willoughby introduces himself and states his official capacity, attempting to shame Windy for not being in school. “Me? In school? Har har har!”. laughs Windy in disbelief at the little man’s naivete. But if there’s one thing Willoughby became known for, it’s an unshaken determination to carry out his duty (accordingly, he would later be placed in his own series, always on the trail of the criminal element, as “Inspector Willoughby”). He thus grabs hold of Windy’s hand and begins to drag him off to school. Windy lifts a gag twice used by Tex Avery, as well as lifted by Michael Lah for “One Droopy Knight” – placing a key in Willoughby’s back, winding him up like a toy, and sending him mechanically waddling away. Willoughby is soon back, atop Windy’s fishing pole. After a really dumb firecracker gag where Windy tries to prove he’s already smart (unsuccessfully), Windy shoots Willoughby off in a slingshot, saying, “Get lost.” Of course, Willoughby is back five seconds later. Windy reaches for him. “I thought I told you to get l- – – “ He never finishes the sentence, as Willoughby unexpectedly grabs his hand, and flips the bear repeatedly, smashing him forcibly into the ground. “That’s judo, sonny”, explains Willoughby.
The remainder of the film is a back and forth battle. Windy substitutes a bull for himself, allowing the bovine to be dragged off in his place, but picks this inopportune moment to mop his brow with a red handkerchief – with the expected charging result. One of the better sequences, which appears to be a Smith original, involves a railroad bed with two tracks. A train is approaching from horizon distance. Windy ties up Willoughby, laying him on one of the tracks, and of course stupidly stands upon the other. He has misguessed which track the train is approaching on, and gets mowed down himself. He repeats the action, swapping locations with Willoughby, and gets struck again on the second track. Windy spies a switching platform, and pulls the lever on the track switch. Unexpectedly, instead of merely aiming all trains onto one track, the device merges both tracks into a single set of rails! Assured that he now has left nothing to chance, Windy places Willoughby on the railroad ties again, and climbs up a telephone pole to a vantage point of safety. The train whistle is again heard – and where is the locomotive? Highballing at full speed atop the telephone wires! With engineer Willoughby at the throttle, Windy is caught on the cowcatcher, and shouts “I’m being railroaded!” (Smith seems to have felt he could carry the sequence one better, and did so within about a year, in Willoughby’s own starring debut, “Rough and Tumbleweed”, using better perspective allowing the camera to see the same view as the victim, never sure ourselves on which track the train is approaching, and working the gag up with split-second timing involving about nine trains.) The film’s ending is a bit unexplained, showing Willoughby at the schoolhouse, ringing the bell as students file inside, including Breezy. (Has it taken this long for Breezy to reach the school? Did he take the scenic route? Or are the events we’re seeing now taking place the next day?) Before entering the class, Breezy looks up at the bell steeple, and remaks, “That’s my pop”, as the camera reveals that the bell has been altered to substitute a tied-up Windy as clapper, as punishment for his errant ways.
(Editorial note: I’m avoiding chronological treatment of a certain UPA star with strong school ties, to discuss his academic adventures as a group next week – so bloggers, please don’t jump the gun, we’ll get there soon enough.)
Donald in Mathmagic Land (Disney, 3 reel special (Donald Duck), 6/26/59 – Hamilton Luske/Wolfgang Reitherman/Les Clark/Joshua Meador, dir.) – Instructional films were nothing new to Disney. He had turned out quite a batch for the servicemen during WWII. His “Mickey Mouse Club” had presented new opportunities for such films to appear on a regular basis, hosted by Jiminy Cricket in such series as “I’m No Fool”, “You, the Human Animal”, “Encyclopedia”, etc. What was unusual was for one of such films to make the theatrical release calendar. It is quickly apparent that this is not your typical Donald Duck cartoon – no temper tantrums, no nephews, chipmunks, bears or rangers as foils. Only the first few minutes briefly resemble a standard cartoon setup. Donald appears amidst a dark and strange, wierdly-colored landscape, dressed in the outfit of an African explorer on safari. Carying a rifle for big game, he ventures into the shadows, finding a terrain where nearly all objects and plants are fashioned out of numbers. He finds a trail resembing footprints, but they are all shaped like numbers too. Wondering what kind of a creature made them, he follows them to a bird-like creature likely left over from Alice’s Tulgey Wood, whose beak and body are shaped out of a pencil, drawing the numbers on the ground. The bird pauses upon meeting Donald, to trace a tic tac toe board before the duck, and quickly beat him in a contest of “x”s and “o”s. Our hunter encounters a stream, where numbers float down a waterfall, encountering rocks along the riverbed which divide each number into pairs of smaller deniminations. Donald ventures further into the brush, discovering a weird variety of tree with – wouldn’t you know it – square roots. Here, the visual puns laregely end – no, this will not be the modern equivalent of a 1930’s Silly Symphony. Instead, Donald calls out to see if anyone else is around, and encounters the voice of a narrator (Paul Frees), who identifies himself as the “true spitit of adventure.” Hearing the wotd, “adventure”, Donald says, “That’s for me.” But upon learning that this is Mathmagic Land, Donald reacts that mathematics is for “eggheads”. The spirit decides to show Donald that eggheads aren’t so square. Inquiring if Donald likes music, the spirit transforms Donald’s clothing into an ancient toga, and whisks him off to Ancient Greece to meet Pythagorus, who is holding a “jam session” with his fellow eggheads in a secret society where they can share their mathematival discoveries. The spirit demonstrates with harp strings that the musical scale was developed from precise fractional division of lengths of string. Donald gets the idea, but thinks the group’s results are a bit on the slow side. “Give me something with a beat”, Donald says, grabbing an earthen vase and turning it upside down to serve as a bongo drum. The music livens up, and Donald is accepted into the society by a handshake from Pythagorus, which leaves an imprint on Donald’s hand of the secret emblem of the society, the pentogram. “Well I’ll be a pi-squared egghead”, Donald remarks.
Another segment of the film shows Donald how mathematics works itself into games. The spirit transports Donald onto the squares of a chessboard, and references the literary work of mathematician Lewis Carroll in setting action of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” on such a board. Disney gets to briefly lampoon itself, by placing Donald into the blue dress and hairdo of the stydio’s previous “Alice in Wonderland”, having Donald confronted by the Red Queen and King, who believe he is a lost pawn. Donald escapes the attack of the chess troops by eating from a box labeled, “Hurry, eat one,” and growing back to his usual height. The spirit demonstrates that the playing fields of other games are also mathematical, including baseball, football, and even hopscotch. A demonstration of billiards clues Donald into the science of counting table diamonds to calculate precise angles of three-cushion shots. Donald tries his own calculation, getting his numbers into a complex knot. “You’re making it difficult for yourself”, warns the spitit, but Donald strikes a forceful blow on the cue ball, causing it to make an impossible nine cushion bounce along the table walls before encountering the two balls on the table for a winning shot.
The final sequence attempts to explore the imagination, first by the spirit examining the internal workings of Donald’s mind for capability. He finds old, battered file cabinets full of files such as “Antiquated Ideas”, “Bungling”, “False Concepts”, “Superstition”, and “Confusion”. To properly prepare for the next step, the spirit tells Donald he must “clean house”, as a broom apears inside Donald’s skull for a “clean sweep” of Donald’s mind. Clouds of dust appear out of Donald’s ears, as his eyes roll. But Donald is cleared for straight thinking, and at the spirit’s invitation, begins to imagine geometric figures, disecting them into cones, elipses, etc., and figures within geometric figures, continuing indefinitely to an imaginary infinity. An endless row of doors appears, with Donald entering one after another, each discovery leading to a new discovery. But he finally encounters a section of doors that won’t open and remain locked. The spirit informs him that these are the dors of the future, to be unlocked by inquiring minds. And the key, as Donald observes, is “mathematics!” Have we driven our point home enough? As the unknown secrets of the galaxy swirl before the camera, the spirit closes with a quote: “In the words of Galileo, ‘Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe.” While no actial school apears in the production, this film was guaranteed to have a presence within schools as a constant entry in rental film catalogs for Disney’s educational division. Even in the DVD era, it has been made available in special packaging for instructors including materials to assist in its presentation to classrooms. It also had the distinction of providing half the program for the first broadcast of Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on NBC.
Venturing slightly out of chronological order, at least four Popeye episodes produced in the King Features run aired circa 1960 deal with the subject matter of school. The Spinach Scholar (Paramount Cartoon Studios, Seymour Kneitel, dir.) has Popeye in his usual romantic mood, bringing posies to Olive, while piping heart-shaped smoke rings out of his pipe. But Olive has already had prior words with Popeye, and reminds him that she told him she would not go out with him again unless he got an education. Popeye responds that he’s been at sea ever since he was a kid, and never had a chance for formal education. “Well, it’s never too late to start”, replies Olive, slamming the door in his face.
Popeye arrives at the door of the principal of the local grammar school, asking if this is the place to enroll for a education. The principal replies in the affirmative, and asks him to “Bring the child right in.” “I yam the child”, responds Popeye coyly. A bit taken aback, the principal regains his composure, observes that Popeye looks bright enough, and proposes that he begin instruction in their highest class in 8th grade. Popeye is pleased at this compliment, and eagerly presents himself to the class teacher, taking a seat in the front row. The teacher is in the middle of a lesson on Shakespeare, and asks the class what Julius Caesar said as he was stabbed by Brutus (no reference to the renamed Bluto as he was known in this series). Popeye waves both hands to the teacher and toots his pipe, confident he knows this answer. He is called upon, and Popeye responds in one word: “Ouch!” The class breaks up in laughter, and Popeye’s head transforms into that of a jack-ass. A dissolve, and we see Popeye entering the door of a new classroom – 7th Grade. He again is seated at the front of the class, as the question is posed, “What is a verb and an adverb?” Popeye’s hands again wave frantically in the air. “A verb is an aminal, and an adverb is a female verb.” The classroom breaks into howls again, and Popeye’s head now assumes the shape of a dumb bell. Making his way sullenly to yet another classroom, Popeye mutters. “A verb ain’t no bird, and it ain’t no fish, so I thought it must be a aminal.”
Popeye is now demoted to 5th grade. A new question is posed. “How would you divide four apples among five children?” Popeye’s hand raises again. “Makes applesauce!” Ths time, Popeye shrinks from sight amidst the laughter. Anyone for 3rd grade? Now the desks are so small, Popeye has to pusg aside the chair and sit on the floor to get his feet underneath. “How much is 10 and 15?” asks the teacher. Popeye is about to raise his hand, but defensively grabs one arm down with the other to avoid the usual consequences. A kid behind him chooses this moment to hit Popeye on the head with a well-placed peashooter shot, causing Popeye’s hands to reflexively fly upward. Called on again, Popeye is never able to give the answer, as, after counting all his fingers and toes, he finds he hasn’t enough digits to complete the calculation. Dragging himself once again down the school hall, Popeye moans, “This is my last chance, on account of, there ain’t no lower grade”, as he enters the door to Kindergarten. The teacher asks who can spell “Cat”. Popeye clutches with both hands to his seat to restrain himself from volunteering, but the teacher calls upon him anyway. Perspiring profusely at finding himself on the spot again, Popeye turns to his only recourse – his trusty can of spinach. A swallow, and Popeye’s head swells momentarily to huge proportions. He quickly responds “C-A-T, Cat!” receiving the approval of teacher and class. The scene dissolves back to Olive’s house, where Popeye presents another bouquet of posies to Olive. She inquires what happened on his schooling, and Popeye answers to her satisfaction, “Why, there was nothing to it, Olive, I went through the whole school in one day!”
What’s News? (Paramount Cartoon Studio, Seymour Kneitel, dir.) – Popeye buys the newspaper office of a remote hick town named Puddleburg – a town whose railroad station sign boasts “The laziest town on earth”. Knowing the reputation of the town, Popeye feels he will have no problem running a newspaper despite his lack of book learning, as he will only write in plain, simple English so the populace desn’t feel he’s high-hatting them. Arriving in town with Olive as his assistant, Popeye finds all the town’s sparse population either asleep or half asleep. Asking a sheriff snoozing outside the walls of his jailhouse where the town is, the sheriff informs him, “Ya blamed fool, you’re in the heart of the town right now.” Convinced that Popeye is trying to insult the town, the sheriff threatens that he’d lock Popeye up, if the jailhouse wasn’t so far away – as Popete observes the jailhouse door a mere three feet from the sheriff’s hand. Olive finds a staton baggage man, who she asks for directions to the newspaper office of the Puddeburg Splash. Without moving a muscle, the man responds, “Point around a bit, and I’ll tell ya’ when you’re right.” After several random points in various compass directions, the man finally says. “Yup”, and Popeye and Olive are on their way.
Time passes, as Popeye puts the presses into operation. But after a month of publication, not one copy has been sold, and the back issues pile up on the office’s warehouse floor. Popeye arrives at the conclusion that the population simply doesn’t know how to read, and decides to coumter the problem by hiring an artist to draw funny pictures instead, giving the public something to buy a paper for. His only applicant for the job is an old geezer well into his 90’s, whose sample of humor is a two panel strip repeating the old wheeze, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (The visual depicts someone fainting backwards at hearing the corny punchline – was this an imside joke at something Segar used to include in the Thimble Theatre strip? Or was it possibly a stab at Bud Fisher’s “Mutt and Jeff”, who were also prone to such fainting spells?) Popeye rapidly ushers the applicant out the door. There is only one solution left – build a school, and let Olive act as schoolteacher, to build up a capable readership. However, as the school is about to open for its first classes, life suddenly springs into the townsfolk, as the warning is shouted that the Bruiser Brothers are coming into town to tear down the new schoolhouse. Three burly siblings stomp their way into town, stating that nobody is going to give the people an education. . One of them comments, “They’ll always be afraid of us, as long as we keep ‘em stupid!” They barge their way into the school, socking holes in walls and chopping desks to pieces with axes. Popeye decides the only way to ward off this menace is to show the townsfolk that even the puniest of them can stand up to the Bruisers. He does this by assuming a disguise – of a litte old lady in a wheelchair, who asks that the Briusers step aside so that she can get an education. A briser stares “her” in the face menacingly, vowing that if she were a man, he’d belt “her” one. “Like this?”, asks Popeye in effeminate voice, and delivers a sock to the bully’s jaw, leaving him prone in a hole through the schoolhouse wall. Brother number two puzzles how an old dame could do that, while the townspeople look on from afar in awe. “Tries tappin’ me one here”, invites Popeye, pointing to his own protruding chin. Bruiser number two lays a full force punch into Popeye’s jaw, which fails to move the sailor even a fraction of an inch – instead resulting only in a metallic clank. Popeye responds with an upper cut of his own, landing Bruiser two in the wall atop Bruiser 1. “Even seein’ it, I don’t believe it”, says Bruiser 3 from inside the classroom. “Then you’ll believe this”, replies Popeye, as he wheels his way inside the schoolhouse, delivering another blow to the jaw that shoots Bruiser 3 up into the school bell tower, where the bell rocks back and forth, using the Bruiser’s head for its clapper. (All this, and Popeye never touched his spinach can! Oh well. I guess he can’t expect the whole town to follow his personal dietary habits.) A dissolve, and Olive seats herself at the desk of the now rebuilt schoolhouse, with her first new enrollees being the Bruiser Brothers. The town eventually becomes smart, and Popeye’s papers sell like hot cakes. “Now since ya’ can read, it’s the newspapers ya’ need, from Popeye the sailor man”, closes our hero.
College of Hard Knocks (Larry Harmon Productions, Paul Fennell, dir.), as with most of Harmon’s contributions to the series, lacks much of the nuancing and detail of the plots of the concurrent Paramount efforts. Brutus (aka Bluto) is a professor at the College of Hardnox (already a plot inconsistency, not matching the film’s title card). Olive is his star pupil, but Popeye, from whom she has hitched a mororcycle ride to class, doesn’t take well to the professor plantng a prolonged gallant kiss on Olive’s hand. “How’d ya like to kiss this fist?”, challenges Popeye. Olive calls Popeye uncouth, but Popeye insists he is “as couth as the average rowdy.” “I could never marry an uneducated ignoramus”, sats Olive. “So, ya want an edumacated ignoramus”, responds Popeye.
Popeye signs up immediately for Brutus’s classes. Registration certificate requires Popeye’s fingerprints – which are applied forcibly by way of a hidden mousetrap spring held behind the paper. Brutus emphasizes learning by experience, setting up various humiliations and booby traps for the sailor, including a lesson on pressure (which leaves Popeye’s face pasted with the contents of a tube of toothpaste), elasticity (wrapping Popeye up in the rubber bands of a chest expander), and gravity (dropping an anvil upon him from s rope suspended above). As Popeye lays in the basement with the anvil on his head, Brutus declares that he’s flunked the course. Olive rather abruptly catches on to Brutus’s plans, suddenly hating the professor – and worse yet running from him as he offers private lessons in “l’amour”. Popeye rises to demand more education, and Brutus tells him to take a study period and think things over, socking him back into the basement. Time for Popeye’s spinach. The anvil is thrown out of the hole in the floor, to impact Brutus’s jaw. Watch for a crazy animation error, as Brutus’s mortarboard lands on Popeye’s head, but for several frames is painted white instead of black despitte ite giveaway shape, as if it was Popeye’s regular sailor hat. “I’m the teacher now, teachin’ you fistical edjamacation,” says Popeye.
Demonstrating the principles of bounce, Popeye rebounds Brutus twice off the walls with his powerful blows, then deliveres a vertical punch for Brutus’s “cittin’ classes”, losing Brutus though a hole in the ceiling. Olive presents Popeye with what appears to e a diploma, declaring him an “educated ignoramus – the kind I might marry too.” The certificate in fact turns out to be a marriage license, prompting a “Yeoww”, from Popeye, and a weak-voiced aside to the audience that “I needs me spinach.”
The oddest Popeye of the four is Gene Deitch’s Intellectual Interlude (Rembrandt Films). After watching a film entitled “Sophisticated Lady” at the locat theater. Olive longs for herself and Popeye to achieve a level of poise and intelligence matching the film’s stars. She thus drags Popeye into a nearby school offering adult education classes, depite Popeye’s protestations that “I yam what I yam, and I yam satisfied.” Popeye faces the same old problem with mathematics, as a teacher asks him how many apples she would have if one student gave her five and another four. “Gimme a hint”, asks Popeye, unable to provide an answer. Even in adult school, there is a dunce stool available, and the teacher orders Popeye to repeat fifty times, “Five and four are nine.” Popeye begins repeating – then the film gets confusing. Without the use of any camera or directing effects except a straight dissolve (so we have no idea if we are still in the real world or the imaginary), the scene changes to the laboratory of a chemist, expeimenting with an extract culled from “intellectual spinach”. A reaction as a few drops are deposited into a beaker, and the chemist shouts, “It works”, and runs hapily out into the street, colliding headfirst with Popeye on the sidewalk. Instead of apologizing, the chemist poses Popeye a question: “Young man, are you allergic to spinach? “Are you kiddin’? That’s me middle name”, boasts Popeye. “You are just the man I’ve been looking for”, says the chemist, and drags Popeye back into his laboratory. He offers Popeye a small drink of “a spinach concentrate such as you have never tasted before”. “If it’s made of spinach, it can’t hoits me none”, concludes Popeye, and downs the drink. His eyeball rolls, he flips, flops, performs a cartwheel, reverses direction, and arrives back in his original seat. “That was some spinach” shouts Popeye with approval. Out of left field, the chemist asks Popeye the random question, “What is the Milky Way?” Our formerly vacuous sailor suddenly begins responding reflexively, as if not needing to exercise any brain power whatsoever to provide the answer, with all the detail of a learned astronomer.
Another dissolve, to a series of newspaper headlines. “Scientist discovers mental guant.” “Popeye solves problem of interplanetary travel.” “Popeye controls weather.” (For unknown reasons, all presently circulating prints of this film on the internet appear to have an edit out of one sequence I recall from my childhood, in which, much as in recent-day installments of “Jeopardy”, Popeye is pitted against a super computer on live TV. A complex question (I believe of math, requiring an answer with about seventeen digits past the decimal point), was provided to Popeye and simultaneously fed into one of those old massive computer brains which would take up a city bock with its memory banks. Popeye succeeds in blurting out the answer before the computer can even finish processing the data, and the computer collapses (in highly stylized animation that makes the machine look like it was actually a wafer-thin movie backdrop, falling in 2D fashion flat upon the floor.) Popeye receives a ticker-tape parade. But hovering overhead looms a helicopyer, carrying two foreign spies. With pinpoint accuracy, they lower a lasso and catch Popeye in his open limousine, hauling him up into the skies, to transport him to a mysterious castle lair on an island overlooking a rocky coastline. We join them as Popeye is tied into a chair, and the spies propose that he join forces with them, so that they may all control the world. “If you refuse…”, they add, handing Popeye over to a behemoth of a henchman, who balances Popeye’s chair on one finger over the side of a balcony railing, letting Popeye view the bevy of jagged rocks far below the cliffs. The henchman brings Popeye back inside the castle. “But that fate is not reserved for you”, one of the spies firther informs him. “It is reserved – for her, if you don’t join up with us.” From out of the shadows, a second henchman produces Olive, also a prisoner. That’s all Popeye can stand, and with a mighty flex of his chest muscles, his spinach can pops from his shirt, allowing the sailor to ingest his secret weapon, and burst his bonds. A few quick blows, and the two spies and second henchman are dispatched as flattened pancakes against the castle’s stone walls. But the behemoth is another matter. Popeye’s best blow to his jaw merely immobilizes the forward thrust of his fist without damage to the foe, while a right from the henchmen crashes Popeye through the castle’s stone outer wall, far past the railing of the balcony, and into mid-air, with nowhere to go but down to the jagged rocks. Olive utters a scream – and the scene suddenly transforms back to the night school classroom. Yes, it was a dream after all. What’s more, not only Olive, but a dozing Popeye who is about to fall off his dunce stool, had the same dream! “Ain’t it a small dream world”, they say to each other in unison. Olive says she’s had enough of this adult education, and proposes they get out of there immediately. This suits Popeye fine, except for one last detail for closure. He walks up to the teacher, and poses her the question, “If a gang of foreign spies was about to throws ya over a cliff, what would ya do?” “Why, I, er…” stammers the confused teacher. Popeye provides the answer, “Eats a can of spinach”, then slaps the dunce cap on the teacher’s brow, as she mumbles, “What’d he say?”.
New math and old jokes usher us further into the 60’s next time. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.