Last year for the Christmas Spot we took a look at the 1960’s TV series Popeye the Sailor and its Christmas episode “Spinach Greetings.” There are a lot of Popeye fans in the world and my assumption is that most would not put Popeye the Sailor above the theatrical shorts that helped catapult Popeye to stardom in the preceding decades. Popeye the Sailor was a TV series produced on the cheap. It wasn’t much to look at and it was missing some of the classic stars, namely Bluto, though it did have the added charm of working in some forgotten foils for Popeye like the Sea Hag.
This year, we’re going back to a more beloved era of Popeye, though probably still not the preferred era, as we have here a cartoon from the Famous Studios era of Popeye the Sailor shorts. These ones are notable for being mostly in color and for not featuring the work of the Fleischer brothers. Their ouster at Paramount is another story, but suffice to say that Popeye would not be a star without their contributions. The Famous Studios era would total 122 cartoons and run from 1942 – 1957. Many of these cartoons would find their way to television and could even be seen on Cartoon Network in the 90s. Not all of them were considered suitable to air though as, you could probably guess, there are some unflattering depictions of Japanese people during the World War II era of the shorts. Today’s selection, Mister and Mistletoe, is the 215th Popeye cartoon and was first released on September 30, 1955 alongside Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry.
The cartoon begins at Christmas time and Popeye’s nephews are present and all ready for bed. It’s Christmas Eve and they’re informing Popeye (Jack Mercer) and Olive (Mae Questel) that they’ve been good and need the adults to relay this important information to Santa Claus upon his arrival. Of note, only three of Popeye’s nephews appear in this one. Popeye usually has four nephews: Pepeye, Peepeye, Pupeye, and everyone’s favorite, Poopeye. I don’t know which one is missing here, but I refuse to believe it’s Poopeye!
The boys are dismissed, but before they head upstairs to bed, they hang their stockings by the fireplace. One nephew, predictably, has an absurdly long stocking. Olive and Popeye then start decorating, while that crafty Bluto (Jackson Beck) lurks outside an open window (even though this takes place in a cold climate). Popeye shows off his impressive Body by Spinach by holding Olive up off the ground one-handed. She’s basically standing in the palm of his hand, but in a seated position, which just looks awkward. Bluto bemoans the fact that Popeye got here first which implies that this is Olive’s house (her name was also on the mailbox in the opening shot). Why are Popeye’s nephews sleeping at Olive’s house on Christmas Eve? I have so many questions!
As Popeye and Olive decorate, Olive remarks how wonderful it is to see children believe in Santa Claus while Popeye wishes there was a Santa for adults. I don’t like Olive’s phrasing here as it implies there is no Santa Claus, but I guess since this was screened with a Hitchcock black comedy maybe kids were never expected to take this one in? Popeye’s comment seems to inspire Bluto to swipe a Santa suit and sack of presents that were by the open window. Now decked out in Santa’s threads, Bluto makes for the chimney and utters his own version of the jolly, fat, man’s signature laugh which gets Popeye excited. He peers up the chimney and as he does Bluto rips the top portion of it from the house and sends it down what’s left of the chimney to smash into Popeye.
Bluto is then able to enter the home and Olive is instantly smitten. Popeye doesn’t seem to mind the mishap with the chimney either and is delighted to see Santa pay them a visit. Popeye and Olive not doubting the man’s identity seems to make-up for the prior comments about Santa. Olive leaves to fetch Santa a cup of hot chocolate while Santa suggests to Popeye a good spot for the mistletoe. Once placed, Popeye excitedly calls out to Olive to set himself up with a perfect opportunity for a smooch only for Bluto to literally pull the rug out from under him exposing a vent in the floor. Popeye goes sailing through an open door leading to the basement with the rug allowing for Santa Bluto to movie-in for a kiss with Olive. Before his lips find hers, Popeye pops up from the vent in the floor and Bluto’s kiss lands on the back of Popeye’s head causing Popeye to giggle and blush suggesting Santa is embarrassing him.
Mildly dismayed by Popeye’s intrusion, Bluto tries to get him out of his beard by asking Popeye if he’d like to help him with the toys. Popeye enthusiastically races over to Santa’s sack and starts filling his arms with toys. Bluto then sneaks up behind him, dumps him into the sack of toys, and chucks it out the window. As the sack of Popeye and toys sails through the air the drawstring snags a pine tree outside. The tree bends back, then snaps forward sending the sack back through the window. When it arrives, Santa and Olive are found seated beside each other on a lounge chair looking cozy while Santa starts to recite A Visit from Saint Nicholas. Olive looks primed and ready so maybe this was an erotic version of the Christmas classic? The sack smashes into Bluto and Popeye pops out looking a bit irritated. Santa Bluto laughs sheepishly and offers an apology.
Bluto suggests Popeye setup the electric train set and we cut to Popeye excitedly doing just that. As he snaps pieces of the track together, Bluto pops out from behind a chair to plug the set in. When Popeye snaps the last pieces of track together he gets a mighty jolt of electricity. Who designed this thing?! This hardly seems safe for children! Popeye lands on the floor on his stomach with his mouth open in a cartoonishly large manner. Track is coming out of his mouth and the train engine soon drives out.
We then cut to Santa and Olive, and Santa has his arm wrapped around her, as they place lit candles on the Christmas tree. Every time I see this tradition acted out in old cartoons it floors me that anyone would have ever willingly placed a flaming object on a dead tree in their own house. Santa bemoans to Olive that it’s a shame Christmas only comes once a year and Olive, rather suggestively, replies that he can drop by anytime. Popeye then interrupts to ask Santa if he can help light the tree. Santa Bluto laughs boyishly as he apparently doesn’t mind the interruption and tells Popeye he sure can. We then see why he wasn’t frustrated with Popeye’s intrusion as he produces a stick of dynamite from behind his back. He tells Popeye he saved the last candle for him and instructs him to place it on the top of the tree. Popeye races up a ladder and does as he’s told. With the “candle” lit, he shouts out a hearty “Merry Christmas!” just before it explodes sending him smashing through the roof (Olive now has a busted chimney and a massive hole in her roof). Popeye soars through the air once again and crashes through a frozen river. The water splashes upwards and freezes instantly with Popeye trapped inside.
Admiring his handiwork, Bluto laughs heartedly while Olive looks worried, either over Popeye or the hole in her roof. We also seem to have switched locations in the house as the pair are still by the tree, but it’s now in a corner of the house. As Bluto laughs, he doesn’t notice his beard has landed in a candle and it catches fire. The flames burn away the false, Santa, beard leaving Bluto’s normal beard intact. Once Olive sees that this Santa is a phony she gets angry. Bluto brushes her anger aside and grabs her around the waist and suggests she give him a kiss. She clearly doesn’t want to as she wrestles against this would-be rapist’s grasp and is able to squirm free. She jumps on a tricycle and starts racing around the room on the walls while Bluto chases after her. He too is able to defy gravity by running on the walls. As Olive tries to avoid her attacker, she calls out to Popeye for help.
Popeye, hearing Olive’s cries, wakes up only to find himself encased in ice. He then blows hard on his pipe producing a blast of fire which melts away the ice freeing him. Popeye races back inside the house and, rather than immediately go to Olive’s aid, runs for the sack of presents. We soon see why as he pulls out a golden can of spinach. It’s addressed to “Me Nephews” and it’s from Popeye explaining how he knew it was there. He devours the contents and is then able to morph his left arm into a massive mallet (I love when the spinach gives him absurd powers beyond just ludicrous strength).
Popeye runs into another room and sees Olive go racing past him. When Bluto appears behind her Popeye blasts him with his mallet arm knocking him right out of the Santa suit. He bounces, in his long underwear, along the floor and comes to rest beside the tree. The stars spinning around his head then wrap around the tree and one comes to rest at the top. A very resourceful way to decorate a tree, Popeye.
Popeye then dons the Santa suit and belts out a “Merry Christmas” as he puts on a spare beard. The nephews hear the call of Santa and emerge from their room. They excitedly race down the stairs and dive into the sack of toys. They immediately recognize Popeye and as they jump into the sack each one asks a question of “Uncle Popeye” like “What did you bring me, Uncle Popeye?” “Did you bring me my gun, Uncle Popeye?” Realizing his disguise is no good, Santa Popeye just has a laugh at his own expense and the cartoon fades to black.
It may not have included a wacky flying reindeer airplane, but I feel comfortable declaring Mister and Mistletoe a superior Christmas cartoon to “Spinach Greetings.” It’s a pretty standard Popeye short with Bluto and the sailor battling over Olive only this one is set at Christmas and Popeye is mostly ignorant of Bluto’s advances until the very end. It certainly is a bit confusing as far as the setup goes of Popeye seemingly bringing his nephews along for a sleepover at Olive’s on Christmas Eve, but apparently someone at Famous Studios felt it had to be set at Olive’s house as opposed to Popeye’s. Those two certainly have an odd relationship.
Being a Famous Studios production and not a Fleischer one, it likely comes as no surprise that this isn’t the best looking Popeye short out there, but it’s far from ugly. The animation is fine and there appear to be few shortcuts taken. There are a few hard cuts which are a bit unusual, but maybe that was to imply a longer passage of time. It’s only six minutes long so those kids were basically in bed for a wink or two before getting up for presents. None of the physical comedy is particularly original for a Popeye cartoon as I know I’ve seen Olive ride along a wall like she does in this one before. Popeye getting smashed with an entire chimney is certainly a violent touch, though the mallet transformation was a bit too conventional. Why not have his arm turn into something more festive? This is a Christmas cartoon after all.
Being that this is a fairly typical Popeye short, it’s also no surprise that there isn’t any sort of message baked into it. We don’t expect life lessons from Popeye (at least during this era) so it’s fine he has no Christmas wisdom to share. I do wish they had snuck in confirmation of the real Santa Claus as I do hesitate to show this to my “true believer” kids for that reason. It’s not the electrocution or the smoking that concerns me as a parent, it’s the Santa stuff! At any rate, this one is relatively easy to find online if you wish to make it part of your Christmas viewing this year. And with MeTV airing Toon in With Me and a Popeye show on Saturday mornings, there’s a decent chance this one will show up on television too this year.
Can’t wait until tomorrow for more Christmas? Check out what we had to say on this day last year and beyond:
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