Tag Archives: mae questel

Dec. 17 – Popeye the Sailor – “Spinach Greetings”

Original air date November 15, 1960.

One of the big, early, cartoon stars was Popeye the Sailor. Popeye starred in newspaper strips, radio plays, and theatrical shorts with contemporaries like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. His star has faded over the years, but few would deny Popeye’s place among the greatest cartoon stars of all-time. Come the 1960s though, Popeye and really the entire cartoon industry was going through a change. The era of the theatrical short was basically over as the television came to be the new home for cartoon stars. Studios started to look for ways to continue to keep profiting off of these characters, and while some simply packaged up their shorts for syndication, others developed new cartoons specifically made for TV.

Popeye the Sailor was one such show. It was produced through King Features Syndicate and utilized multiple studios to bring it to life. Because this was TV, and studios either didn’t realize as much money for these airings as they did for a theatrical short or just were more aware of their direct profits, the animation quality had to be compromised. Anyone who has seen a United Artists release or even Hanna-Barbera is familiar with the animation shortcuts TV would often take. Popeye was at the forefront of that, and as we’ll see in today’s subject, some shots can barely be called animation.

Popeye the Sailor debuted in 1960 and would produce 220 episodes lasting all the way through 1963. Following that, the show would be syndicated for decades and shown in various places alongside theatrical shorts and newer cartoons. The show featured familiar characters like Popeye, Olive Oyl, Wimpy, and Brutus. Wait, Brutus? Yeah, apparently someone thought there was a rights issue with Bluto so they went with the similar, but slightly different character, Brutus. No matter. The show also featured villains from the world of Popeye like the Sea Hag, who previously only existed in print.

“Spinach Greetings” is the show’s Christmas episode. It was produced by Paramount Cartoon Studios and aired in November of 1960. Even though it’s a cartoon produced for TV, it’s pretty short. It’s even shorter than some theatrical shorts. In it, Popeye and the gang are getting ready to welcome Santa Claus, only for the Sea Hag to come along and mess things up. It’s a conventional premise with some unusual choices, but hey, it’s Popeye and it’s Christmas!

This is about the only conventional thing about this one.

The cartoon begins in the home of Popeye (Jack Mercer). Popeye is reciting A Visit From St. Nicholas with Swee’pea on his lap and Wimpy (Mercer) and Olive Oyl (Mae Questel) present. Remember how I said there’s a lot of animation shortcuts taken in this show? Well, the only thing animated is Popeye’s mouth, which because of how he’s drawn, doesn’t even require his jaw to move. His pipe actually bobs up and down too. When he hits the line about a mouse, an actual mouse pops out of a hole in the baseboard and nails a stocking for himself on the mantel. Wimpy’s stocking is missing a toe while Olive Oyl’s is exceptionally long.

Well, they’re clearly evil and I’m sure they’re no fans of Christmas.

Outside, the Sea Hag (Questel) and her pet vulture are watching from the window. No one apparently notices her ugly, green, mug in the window. She tells her strange, purple, vulture that she hates Christmas. She blames Santa for Christmas being so terrible and instructs her vulture (who is apparently just named Vulture) to intercept Santa before he can make his first stop this evening. She then does a witch’s laugh as she looks at the camera because she knows the role she’s expected to play.

That is one bizarre looking reindeer.

Inside, Popeye is tucking Swee’pea into bed as he finishes the poem and then returns to the living room setting. On his way, he slams the door for some reason (or rather, he appears to close it quietly, but the sound effect sounds more like a slam) then announces to Olive and Wimpy, in a loud voice, that they should be expecting Santa any minute now. He’s apparently not too concerned with not waking up his kid. We then cut to…a reindeer’s face? No, it’s far weirder. It’s a jet shaped like a reindeer being piloted by Santa! This is the craziest thing I’ve seen in a Christmas special in some time. There was no warning that this was going to happen. Is there something I don’t know? Was there an earlier Popeye comic or cartoon involving Santa trading in his customary sleigh for a fighter jet?! Why are we bothering with this other setting when there’s a far more interesting story literally staring us right in the face?!?

What sort of abomination is this?!?

Soon the hag’s vulture comes along, his wings not flapping or really moving much at all, and spots Santa. He dives at the jet, and since it’s an open cockpit, he merely grabs Santa and pulls him right out of the airplane. We then cut to the Sea Hag’s lair as she’s tying Santa to a chair. She’s laughing as she does it while Santa doesn’t seem interested in putting up a fight. He just sits there sullenly. The hag, without so much as pausing her laughter, is then shown smashing Santa’s toys with a hammer. The vulture smiles and the camera cuts to Santa’s face as tears run down his cheeks.

Well, blow me down! Someone blew Santa out of the sky!

Back at Popeye’s house, the sound of sleigh bells mixed with the droning of a jet engine can be heard from inside. Olive Oyl declares they need to hide so Santa doesn’t see them, so Popeye jumps into a drawer, Wimpy hides under the kitchen table (and snatches the turkey from the surface), and Olive Oyl hides behind a floor lamp which draws attention to how thin she is. We then hear the unmistakable sound of a plane crash and everyone rushes outside to find the remains of Santa’s plane. Apparently, no one questions why Santa was in a plane and not a sleigh. Popeye finds a black, vulture’s feather amongst the wreckage and no Santa. It’s enough to alert him to the Sea Hag’s involvement though.

Get used to seeing this one on loop.

We’re then shown a castle on top of a mountain and I am lead to believe this is the home of the Sea Hag. Pretty nice for a hag, I expected a creaky cottage in a swamp. Inside the castle, Santa still looks defeated while the Sea Hag has started tossing toys into her lit fireplace. Popeye creeps over to a window to confirm his suspicions, then silently slips in. As he unties Santa, the vulture spots him. The hag commands her minion to stop him and he flies over and wallops the sailor man across the room.

That vulture has a mean right hook…or wing…or whatever.

Declaring that the spirit of Christmas must be saved, Popeye busts out his trusty spinach! Recognizing what is about to happen, the hag tells the vulture to stop him before he eats the spinach, but the vulture is too late. No matter, for he grabs Popeye by the shoulders and flies him out the door high into the air. The hag returns to burning toys (we’ve seen this same shot recycled 3 times now) and then Popeye pops back through the door only now he has a roasted turkey…vulture. It would seem he not only found a way out of that predicament that seemed to have indicated certain death, but he also managed to cook a vulture too.

Popeye is pretty ruthless.

Popeye taunts the hag by asking if she wants her bird with or without stuffing. She doesn’t bother to respond, nor does she seem too broken up over the loss of her companion, but rather pulls a lever that opens up a trap door underneath Popeye. He grabs onto the edge of the floor and looks down to see two alligators staring up at him. The hag comes over and stomps on his hands ensuring that he falls to his death. Only he doesn’t die. Instead, he pops right back up with a new set of luggage! Once again, Popeye did something rather neat, but we don’t get to see it actually happen on camera.

There’s the jolly, old, elf we’re used to!

Santa smiles when he sees Popeye return while the hag lays on the floor and starts crying and throwing a temper tantrum. As she pounds on the floor, it looks like her arms were reversed in the animation or her head wasn’t placed on the proper cel layer for her hands are clearly backwards. At any rate, the image just dissolves to bring us back to Popeye’s house. Apparently they just left the hag to her own devices. The tree has been properly trimmed, there are gifts packed under it, and all of the stockings are full as well. Wimpy, who’s stocking was missing a toe, has a bucket full of gifts underneath it. Even the mouse has a wedge of cheese stuffed into his tiny sock. He runs out onto the mantel to fetch his gift and races back to his hole.

What is going on here?!

Outside, Santa climbs back into his completely repaired airplane. I suppose Christmas magic is to blame. Popeye and his clan look on cheerfully. Santa waves as he takes off and Popeye and friends return the wave and shout “Merry Christmas, Santa!” Santa (I’m assuming he is voiced by Jack Mercer since he and Mae Questel are the only credited voice actors) returns their wishes and adds the customary “…and to all a good night,” bringing this one full circle back to the poem that began it. He adds in some laughter as he flies away. An iris shot ends it on Santa without having him pass in front of a full moon – fail!

I don’t know about you, but I’m really glad the mouse got his cheese.

“Spinach Greetings” was certainly an interesting Christmas cartoon. The story was rather basic as Popeye, a heroic character in most cartoons he’s featured in, is tasked with saving Santa from his nemesis who is simply motivated by a dislike of Christmas. What was bizarre was the lore the short crafted for Santa. I do want to know if this refers to another Popeye Christmas, but at the same time, I don’t really want to look it up. I feel this one will be more memorable if I remember it for just being bizarre.

It’s been a Christmas they’ll never forget.

The animation is terrible though. Shots are looped numerous times and characters move as little as possible. The backgrounds are sparse, and there was that weird shot of the hag having backwards arms. It does make her seem more creepy, though there’s nothing fearful about her. Popeye’s toppling of her obstacles is really just brushed aside. It’s almost amusing in that sense, but I think it’s just done to keep costs down. Santa is surprisingly passive, not even saying a word until the closing seconds, so he’s definitely not interested in defending Christmas.

I hate this thing. GET A DAMN SLEIGH!

This is just an all together weird, little, Christmas special. And emphasis on little as it’s not even six minutes long. It is quite accessible though as multiple YouTube channels have uploaded it, including the official Popeye channel, and it’s also available on DVD with the rest of the Popeye the Sailor show. Should you watch it? Well, I guess if you like Popeye you will and you’ve probably already watched this. If not, well, it’s so odd that I think it’s worth a look since it’s only going to cost you 6 minutes of your life.


Dec. 11 – “Santa’s Surprise”

Santa's_Surprise_title_card

“Santa’s Surprise” first released December 5, 1947

Cartoons were a pretty big deal at one point in time. Any studio that wanted to be thought of as a major studio had its own animation division and its own characters. Everyone knows the big ones from Disney and Warner and then after them I suppose the next biggest was MGM with Tom & Jerry, as well as others. Eventually animation became less important as television invaded the homes of people all around the world. No longer did customers heading off to the movies expect a newsreel, cartoon, and feature and the cartoon short started to disappear. Now it’s largely a novelty and a bunch of the lesser ones have slipped into the public domain.

noveltoon christmas

Paramount’s Noveltoons ran from 1943 until about 1967.

Of the many cartoons that appear to be floating around in the public domain, it would seem a lot belong to Paramount Pictures. They were there early as well, with the likes of Betty Boop and Popeye, but they scrambled for stars in the 40s and 50s. This was a time when the short was fading, and even Mickey Mouse had all but been retired. One of the studio’s stars during this era was Little Audrey. She was basically a replacement for the more popular Little Lulu character that Paramount declined to keep licensing. I wouldn’t say Little Audrey is a total rip-off of the Little Lulu character, but there are certainly some similarities. Paramount was at least smart enough to give her a different voice, and tasked Mae Questel with the honors. Questel is best known as the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl.

santa singing

A rather pleasant looking Santa flies around singing to himself on Christmas Eve. The man loves his job.

The debut for Little Audrey is actually not a true Little Audrey cartoon, but she’s the most recognizable face in it. “Santa’s Surprise” is a 1947 Noveltoons cartoon short that depicts some kids giving Santa a present of his own on Christmas. It opens rather simply with Santa flying around in his sleigh on Christmas Eve. Ahead of him, six chunky reindeer pull his sleigh. It hasn’t come up much this year so far, but my biggest Christmas special pet peeve is when Santa is depicted with less than 8 reindeer. I won’t demand they include the 9th, but come on! There has to be at least 8!

under bed

I guess this kid thinks this face on his pillow is enough to fool Santa. Looks like it worked.

As Santa flies around he enters homes to stuff stockings. From under beds and behind blankets little eyes watch his every move. Audrey has the most auspicious debut when Santa arrives at her house to find she cut a hole in her stocking, thus attempting to trick him into refilling it over and over. Santa laughs and it’s clear he’s having himself a good time. He even stops to take note of a little stocking hanging outside a mouse hole and stuffs a wedge of cheese into it. Poor cartoon mice, all they ever get is cheese.

santa snores

I have my name on my bed too.

With his work done, Santa returns home to the North Pole. His existence in this cartoon actually seems rather sad as his house is empty. No elves. No Mrs. Claus. Just a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Santa is pretty tired and climbs into bed, though he pauses to wish himself a “Merry Christmas!” in the mirror, which is either cute or just further adds to his depressing surroundings. As he snores away, the tassel on his night-cap billowing with each snore, some eyes emerge from his sleigh. It’s a group of multi-cultural children! They’ve stowed away in Santa’s sleigh throughout the night to reach his home. This is clearly not the same Santa of my youth who was impossible to catch in the act.

audrey and kids

Little Audrey, center, is going to tell these kids what’s up.

The kids all climb out of the sleigh and peer into Santa’s home. They take note of the dour surroundings and decide they should do something for Santa since he does so much for the children of the world. Little Audrey is basically the focal point of the group as she’s the one who suggests they help him out. As the white American of the group, I’m guessing the animators thought no one else could possibly lead this bunch. We get a little word from everyone, and boy are there some uncomfortable depictions here. The little black kid somewhat resembles a white kid in blackface. It’s not good. The Chinese child has tiny slits for eyes and speaks in stunted English. There’s a Hawaiian girl that seems to only communicate in hula and another questionable accent on the Spanish girl. This is 1947, folks!

sneeky kids

The kids sneak around, until they realize they don’t really have to.

From here it’s a pretty benign little cartoon. The kids sneak into the house and try to keep quiet as they get busy cleaning up the place. One of the boys gets the seat of his pants set on fire and has to plant it in the snow, which is probably the only real physical comedy here. I did find it amusing how they keep insisting on being quiet so as not to wake Santa, and then Little Audrey just starts singing a song as she dusts the place.

hot buns

The physical comedy is not high in this one, but a kid does set his ass on fire.

When they’re finished, they leave Santa’s tree decorated and with a present under it. He’s startled and wakes up to find the children have fled, but he sees how clean everything is and finds the present under the tree. It’s a music box with all of the faces of the children on it and there’s a little note reminding Santa not to forget them next year. He gives a hearty laugh, and the short is over. How did those kids get home? I have no idea.

dusty fish

Little Audrey, just over here dusting this fish.

If it weren’t for the dated representations of the other cultures of the children, “Santa’s Surprise” would be a totally boring, but sweet, Christmas cartoon short. It’s got a nice, simple, message about repaying acts of kindness with more kindness. Who is more deserving of a Christmas present than Santa Claus himself? It’s not an unheard of thing, and other shorts and specials have tackled the same and probably have done it better. The Prep & Landing short “Operation:  Secret Santa” is one that comes to mind. While it doesn’t feature children giving something to Santa in thanks, it does feature Mrs. Claus trying to get the perfect gift for Santa.

The absence of Mrs. Claus is also rather bizarre. I don’t know if she is more of a modern staple, but it seems like the concept should have been common in the 40s. After all, she was in the agreed upon very first story about Santa. This completely lackadaisical and certainly jolly Santa Claus is both nice and weird. He really doesn’t seem to care if he’s seen or heard and obviously he doesn’t check the sleigh much. I always do enjoy seeing simple homes from this era depicted in cartoons like the ones Santa visits. Maybe we should just go back to hanging a sock for gifts instead of filling up the underside of a tree? My credit card bills would like that very much.

santa prime

“Santa’s Surprise” has been released a bunch of times on video since it entered the public domain.

Paramount isn’t the most well-remembered producer of animation, and if we’re judging them solely on the quality of their animation then it’s relatively easy to see why. This picture is not on par with what the other studios were putting out. It almost looks like it’s ten years older than it really is. The characters are bit rubbery looking and there isn’t a ton of animation that’s out of the ordinary. It’s far from ugly or off-putting, but you definitely know you’re watching something old. It’s also possible this wasn’t preserved all that well and there could be some deterioration at work here as well. The backgrounds are nice though and there’s a cold, yet cozy, quality to them. There’s lots of wood which means lots of wood grain, but nothing seems too busy or cluttered.

If you want to check out “Santa’s Surprise” and other cartoons that feature Little Audrey, then I actually have some good news. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has released some restored cartoons from the public domain and “Santa’s Surprise” is included. At least, that’s according to Wikipedia. It claims it was released on October 11 of this year, but I can’t find anything online and it’s not cited. “Santa’s Surprise” has been released on DVD over the years and it’s not expensive. Since it’s also public domain, you can find streams of it online with relative ease as well, including Prime Video. It’s really not worth seeking out, but if you want something light and have a taste for old cartoons then you might get something out of it.


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