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!
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.
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.
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?!?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
“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.
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.
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.