Another Look: Jeremy Carr on Robert Altman’s ‘Popeye’

Robert Altman's Popeye is retro cinema at its finest

Robert Altman’s ‘Popeye’

It may be the most underrated film ever made. Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) was a box office bust and was widely panned upon release. Even today it is frequently seen as one of the great filmmaker’s lesser works. For many it’s rather odd at best, for others it’s simply bad. The critical tide has turned somewhat, however, so that now the picture is occasionally greeted with words of knowingly-contrary praise (“Of course it’s good. Obviously.”) But that often fails to sufficiently salvage what is one of Altman’s most purely enjoyable movies.

That said, it is easy to see why Popeye opened to such a pessimistic response. First, Altman had to contend with his own prior accomplishments, films like MASH (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975). Other idiosyncratic titles managed to spring up from time to time, but how do you compete with that kind of quality?

Popeye was not what audiences were expecting from this iconoclastic director. Ironically, it was perhaps too unusual and too unclassifiable, even for those who appreciated Altman for being just that. Related to this, Altman was working against the newly accepted and anticipated norms of Hollywood. This was now the realm of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Superman (1978). These were big-budget spectacles driven by special effects, conventional characters, and straightforward narratives.

While these movies are laudable in their own right, this was a harsh climate for the likes of Robert Altman, and things only got worse as the 1980s progressed. Blockbuster productions grew in size and scope (and cost) and Altman went the opposite direction.

In any event, amidst the industry flux, there is Popeye, featuring a mumbling, squinting Robin Williams in the title role and Altman regular Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, the part she was born to play. The plot is simple, like one of E.C. Segar’s source comics. Popeye arrives in a dilapidated seaside town, lovingly christened in song as “sweet” Sweet Haven.

There he meets assorted eccentric inhabitants (including the burger-loving Wimpy, played by Paul Dooley), many of whom are geared up for the engagement between Olive and the brutish Bluto (Paul L. Smith). Despite his gruff grunts and warthog personality, Bluto apparently has his virtues, one of which Olive naughtily sings about, but the relationship is far from idyllic.

And as Popeye and Olive grow romantically entwined (Duvall’s solo rendition of “He Needs Me” is a sweet testament to their touch-and-go courtship), their bond is further cemented by the sudden arrival of discarded baby Swee’pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt, AKA Robert Altman’s grandson). All bets are off on the marriage, and Bluto is predictably displeased by the turn of events.

After learning of Swee’pea’s uncanny clairvoyance—particularly lucrative when it comes to gambling—he manages to kidnap the baby. Added to the storyline, which could admittedly use about 20 minutes’ worth of trimming, is the reveal of Popeye’s long-lost father, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston), who abandoned his boy and, as Popeye laments, often threw him in air, but was never there when he came down.

Partly contributing to its initially hostile reception, Popeye is directed and performed like a live-action cartoon, and as such, several sequences are overly exaggerated or downright preposterous. Similarly, the characters are erratic in the extreme and certain scenes are at times quite bizarre. Yet such comic tomfoolery is what gives Popeye much of its charm. It has an unaffected playfulness: over-the-top, amusingly absurd, but extremely affable. It requires a surge of tolerance to accept the cartoon tone and sensibility, but that’s a leap worth taking.

Popeye is also a musical of sorts, or at least a Robert Altman musical. Celebrated for his innovative use of sound (especially overlapping dialogue), here he also experiments with the structural conventions of the genre. The songs—music and lyrics by Harry Nilsson—drift in and out, many starting as spoken word musings and many emerging without classically clear breaks in the narrative. Having employed Federico Fellini’s regular cameraman Giuseppe Rotunna, Altman imbues in Popeye a madcap mania that bears more than a few “Felliniesque” touches, with its own intricate orchestration of audio-visual chaos, animated sound effects, breakaway props, and frenzied pratfalls.

Serving as a labyrinthine backdrop is the phenomenal Sweet Haven set, an architectural arrangement so impressive it was left standing as a tourist attraction. Situated on the island of Malta, construction of this rickety structure took around nine months, and under the auspices of producer designer Wolf Kroeger, involved a crew of 165. Strung together like a game of Mouse Trap, it’s one of the film’s most astonishing features, and it ate up a good deal of the budget (hence the less-than-convincing octopus monster at the end).

Producing Popeye was successful Paramount mogul Robert Evans, who repeatedly clashed with Altman on set (both temperaments no doubt hampered by the steady flow of booze, pot, and cocaine). But keeping the whole production moving in front of the camera is, of course, Robin Williams, then a big-screen newcomer known for his television turn on Mork and Mindy. He delightfully embodies the iconic strongman with a robust physicality, playing off Popeye’s side-mouth smirks, his firmly implanted pipe, and his overblown prosthetic forearms.

His nearly inaudible one-liners, many of which had to be re-dubbed, are cunningly hilarious. Confronted by an inhospitable populace sent into a tizzy by his presence, Popeye preserves his admirable integrity, practicing what he preaches with his famous “I yam what I yam” dictum.

Written by Jules Feiffer, Popeye is at once warmly faithful to Segar’s original Thimble Theatre strip, more so than the popular cartoon—eg. this Popeye hates spinach—but the script is also laden with political parody and social satire. It wouldn’t be an Altman film without it. And if there’s one thing this quirky picture is, it’s a Robert Altman film.

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