Robert Altman’s adaptation of the seminal comic strip remains a prime example of how to bring a cartoon to life in earnest.
The annals of Hollywood history are littered with any number of instances in which a quirky property goes through the blockbuster machine and turns into a soulless, indistinguishable work. Like virtually everything about it, Robert Altman’s delightfully strange Popeye had this formula backward, initially coming into existence for the crassest of commercial reasons. After first failing to land the screen rights to Annie, producer Robert Evans wanted to make a musical film based on the E.C. Segar comic strip. Yet, it turned out to be one of the most wonderfully bizarre family films of its time and. After looking at the new Blu-Ray from Paramount, it’s confirmed this one holds up beautifully today.
Of course, considering the array of idiosyncratic talents that came together, it would have been a bigger surprise if the film turned out to be conventional entertainment. In addition to Altman and Evans who were both in the middle of career rough patches, the production employed celebrated writer, cartoonist, and Segar acolyte Jules Feiffer to pen the screenplay. Along with him was the brilliant-but-mercurial Harry Nilsson to write the songs and cult favorite Van Dyke Parks to do the orchestrations.
The roles of Popeye and his eventual ladylove, Olive Oyl, were once set for Dustin Hoffman and Gilda Radner. Robin Williams, huge thanks to Mork & Mindy but unproven as a movie actor, was then tapped for the title role. Shelley Duvall, longtime Altman regular born to play the part, then came in as his better half.
Despite all these talents at hand, the question of how to make a satisfying film out of Popeye remained. The cartoons were well known and beloved, but they didn’t exactly lend themselves to a feature-length storyline. Popeye would get into some kind of scrape, usually involving fighting Bluto to win the love of the eternally fickle Olive; eat some of his beloved spinach to gain super-strength; and save the day. In a move that saved the film from an artistic standpoint but would inspire consternation down the road, Feiffer and Altman took inspiration not from the cartoons but from the original Segar comic strips, which featured extended storylines, satirical commentary, and a sprawling cast of characters at the time that meshed perfectly with Altman’s aesthetic.
As the film opens, loner sailor Popeye arrives in Sweethaven in search of his father. It’s a run-down seaport whose denizens are under the thumb of the ruthless, reclusive Commodore (Ray Walston) and his henchman, the brutish Bluto (Paul L. Smith). Popeye takes a room at the boarding house run by Olive Oyl and her family, and while he wants to keep to himself, that becomes complicated when he finds abandoned baby Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt) and develops a relationship with Olive. That puts him in the crosshairs of Bluto, who also happens to be Olive’s fiancee. Will Popeye find his father? Will he and Olive stop their verbal jousting and realize that they love each other? Will a can of spinach turn up at some point during the finale? Sorry, no spoilers here.
The film’s production, which took place entirely on the island of Malta, was legendarily troubled, starting with the fact that the giant forearms designed for Williams proved unusable. As such, Altman had to shoot a number of scenes with him wearing a long-sleeved coat until replacements were complete. Because of this and other problems, including bad weather and shooting the musical numbers with the actors singing live, the film went over-schedule and over-budget. There was further controversy when Evans got caught up in a high profile cocaine bust, a turn that proved was troublesome since Walt Disney Studios had signed on as a co-producer. As a result, the knives were out for Popeye when it finally arrived in theaters. Though I was just eight years old at the time, even I had heard reports that it had all the earmarks of a bomb.
I wasn’t the kind of kid who would automatically embrace any movie I saw even back then, but this one mesmerized me from start to finish. I was amazed by the way the film looked and felt exactly like a cartoon brought to life. I thought Williams was hilarious as Popeye (even if I couldn’t understand half of his mutterings) and Duvall was an absolutely perfect Olive. The two played off of each other so well that I was still interested even when their talk turned to mushy stuff. The songs were so catchy that I immediately went out and snagged the LP of the soundtrack.
[I]t turned out to be one of the most wonderfully bizarre family films of its time and … holds up beautifully today.
So, it’s a great movie for kids, but it would only be later that I’d begin to realize just how brilliant it actually was. By that point, I had become more familiar with Altman’s work and would come to realize the extent to which he made it into something as personal and unique as anything in his oeuvre while remaining true to its source. Popeye is an outsider who lands in an isolated town full of oddball characters, begins a relationship with a prominent local woman, and incurs the wrath of the powers that be. All the while, a series of songs comments on the action. With that, it’s easy to look at it as a companion piece to Altman’s classic McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971).
I was better able to appreciate the myriad ways in which Altman and his collaborators on both sides of the camera leaned into approximating Popeye’s comic strip origins. Not until Dick Tracy (1990) and Hulk (2003) had a film of this type gone so far out of its way to try to recreate its print origins. From the large cast of characters always going about strange bits of business in the background to production designer Wolf Kroger’s incredible recreation of Sweethaven (which still stands today as a tourist attraction), this is a feast for the eyes that offers new treasures with every viewing. Even the most the notion that Popeye goes through most of the movie preferring carrots to spinach until forced to eat the green stuff at the end proved to be a fairly ingenious way to work around a seemingly insurmountable story problem.
To this day, Popeye remains a delightful freak of a film, one that I love as much today as when I first saw it. It has wit and heart and the touch of a filmmaker who couldn’t make a completely impersonal film if he tried. Alas, the film’s perceived failure may have caused great harm to Altman’s career. It would be the last time he directed a film for major studio, and he would spend the next decade or so working on small and little-seen independent projects until making his comeback with The Player (1992). Still, it would go on to become a touchstone film for so many kids over the years. If you have seen it before, then you know just how magical it is.
If you haven’t, perhaps put off by its once-lousy reputation, you owe it to yourself to give it a chance and experience its wonders for yourself. However, you should be warned—after watching it, opening anthem “Sweethaven” will be lodged in your head for a long time afterward.