Monday Editor’s Pick: Popeye (1980)

by on August 2, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Aug 3 at 7:00 & Mon Aug 8 at 9:00 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]


Despite making three times its production cost, Robert Altman’s marijuana-fueled venture into family entertainment was widely regarded as a notorious bomb. As a TBS staple in the 80s & 90s, it holds a very special place in the hearts of Alt Screen’s generation and you know what? It holds up too. So there.


Hollywood Musicals of the 1980s” continue at Anthology thru August 9.


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

With neither production companies (Paramount and Disney, for heaven’s sakes!) nor critics able to make up their minds what a maverick iconoclast like Altman was doing turning EC Segar’s comic strip into a live-action musical, this film was virtually doomed to failure and neglect. Certainly, with Williams giving a virtuoso fast-mumbling performance as the hero, and gags ranging from expertly choreographed slapstick to subtle verbal infelicities (Popeye muttering about ‘venerable disease’), it is far too sophisticated to function merely as kids’ fodder. Nor is its story – in which Popeye searches for his lost Pappy while courting Olive Oyl – any less discursive, fragmented or off-the-wall than Altman’s finest work. Indeed, the film may be seen as a weird and wonderful variation on the McCabe and Mrs Miller theme, with the immaculately designed township of Sweethaven, the vividly drawn characters, and Harry Nilsson’s songs of inarticulacy all contributing to a portrait of a bizarre society at once recognisably human and fantastically dreamlike. Often, watching the actors contorting themselves into non-human shapes, you wonder how on earth Altman did it; equally often, you feel you are watching a wacky masterpiece, the like of which you’ve never seen before.



More critics demand a Popeye reappraisal, Eric Henderson for Slant:

Altman’s legion of cinephile fans have all but writtenPopeye off as another charred remnant of the auteur’s spectacular burnout at the close of the ’70s—virtually indistinguishable from HealthA Weddingand Quintet (all equally underrated films). But Popeye is in need of a serious critical rediscovery, because virtually every one of Altman’s signature hallmarks—that teeming sense of community gathering habits, concern for social inequalities, and fondness for earnest, country-fried comic bits—are very much alive in the film. Anyone new to Altman is likely to be put off by the film’s unique worldview. Known for building American communities from the bottom up, the director took a well-established slice of Americana and seemingly refused to distance himself through irony or radical departures (like having Popeye on the front lines in the Korean War, for example). Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oyl trip and mumble their way through exaggerated love-triangles just like they did in the original serial comics and short films. But if you strip away the film’s loyalty to its source material, it’s not difficult to see that, in many ways, Popeye is Altman’s comic spin onMcCabe & Mrs. Miller, even substituting McCabe‘s whore house with a floating gambling house and brothel. Like Warren Beatty’s John McCabe, Robin Williams’s Popeye has a habit of vocalizing his inner dialogues.


For a movie often dismissed as kiddie fare, there are a surprising number of Altman concepts that are likely to fly right over the heads of youngins. The town of Sweethaven, where Popeye lands in search of his Pap, is cheerfully oblivious to the fact that they are in a state of severe economic and social oppression. Bluto represents the strong arm of the law (the beanpole constable jumps out of windows whenever the man-mountain enters the room) and the noodly taxman represents its sticky fingers. Both work for a shadowy dictatorial menace known as the Commodore. “Next to Wimpy, I hate him best,” the Topol-like Mr. Geezil privately bellows. The hints of a far more menacing political situation undercut most of the jokes. Wimpy’s immortal “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” sounds like it’s coming from a man blissfully ignorant of his severe dependency on credit currency. To kids, he’s a hamburgler. To adults, he’s the recently laid-off neighbor. Also, most kids probably can’t grasp what Olive Oyl’s arpeggio-ridden ballad to Bluto’s “large” qualities is really about. Altman directs the complex web of social interactions with a frame that’s both inclusive and prying. And the actors he collected and dropped in Malta’s simulated community help evoke an atmosphere that is genial yet guarded. Shelly Duvall couldn’t possibly have played Olive Oyl badly. And to watch Williams’s sweet interpretation of the hyperviolent original character here is to mourn what we lost when he bamboozled his way into the hearts of Oscar prognositcators looking for an easy dark horse with roles in films like Patch AdamsBicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar.



Dan Kois for The Believer:

Viewed again after Altman’s death, Popeye stands as a worthy entry in the director’s filmography for its charm, its gently countercultural spirit, and its performance by Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, the role—as so many critics noted—she was born to play. Remarkably faithful to the look, rhythm, and spirit of E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theater comic strips, in which the character originally appeared,Popeye, like its antecedents Dick Tracy and Sin City, stands as a testament to the challenges—and rewards—of translating a comic kit and caboodle to film.


Made for a reported $20 million—big money at the time—Popeye had a famously troubled shoot, culminating in rumored fistfights between producer Robert Evans and Altman on the film’s astonishing set in Malta. It’s that set—designed by Wolf Kroeger, and still open to the public—that epitomizes the enjoyably contradictory heart of Altman’s film. Logs were reportedly shipped in from Holland and roof shingles from Canada. Seaworthy boats were purchased and then deliberately half-sunk in the harbor. A 250-foot seawall was built in Anchor Bay to keep back rough seas. In a wonderful example of movie studio largesse, no expense was spared to build, in its entirety, the rickety, ramshackle harbor town of Sweethaven.


During the film’s climactic fight—between Popeye, Bluto, and an extremely unconvincing rubber octopus—Pappy reveals the soft spot we knew he’d been hiding all along. He saves Swee’pea, and cheers on the fight with the baby giggling on his lap. Pappy opens up the “treasure” he’s been hiding all these years. Inside the chest are cans of spinach, Popeye’s bronzed baby booties, and a picture frame. Inside the frame is a piece of cardboard, on which is written: ME SON.It’s not hard to see Poopdeck Pappy in that moment as Altman himself, a famously cranky coot—already fifty-four at the filming of Popeye—hiding a sentimental streak under his crusty exterior. Basking in the Maltese sun with Altman’s own adorable grandson on his lap, watching over an outlandish, slapdash fight—and doing it all on Robert Evans’s dime—Pappy laughs his ass off, and it’s easy to imagine Robert Altman doing the same.



Roger Ebert:

One of Robert Altman’s trademarks is the way he creates whole new worlds in his movies — worlds where we somehow don’t believe that life ends at the edge of the screen, worlds in which the main characters are surrounded by other people plunging ahead at the business of living. That gift for populating new places is one of the richest treasures in “Popeye,” Altman’s musical comedy. He takes one of the most artificial and limiting of art forms — the comic strip — and raises it to the level of high comedy and high spirits.


And yet “Popeye” nevertheless remains true to its origin on the comic page, and in those classic cartoons by Max Fleischer. A review of this film almost has to start with the work of Wolf Kroeger, the production designer, who created an astonishingly detailed and rich set on the movie’s Malta locations. Most of the action takes place in a ramshackle fishing hamlet — “Sweethaven” — where the streets run at crazy angles up the hillsides, and the rooming houses and saloons lean together dangerously.


“Popeye,” then, is lots of fun. It suggests that it is possible to take the broad strokes of a comic strip and turn them into sophisticated entertainment. What’s needed is the right attitude toward the material. If Altman and his people had been the slightest bit condescending toward “Popeye,” the movie might have crash-landed. But it’s clear that this movie has an affection for “Popeye,” and so much regard for the sailor man that it even bothers to reveal the real truth about his opinion of spinach.


Vincent Canby for The New York Times:

In ”Popeye,” the new big-budget, live-action movie based on the adventures of the old Thimble Theater comic-strip characters, Miss Duvall is one of a number of odd, unexpected treasures. You only have to see her for the first time, fretting about the right hat to wear to the party celebrating her engagement to Bluto, to know that here is a woman who was born hollering ”Help!” Miss Duvall is superb – genteely ladylike one minute, a woman of volcanic passions the next.


Nothing else in ”Popeye” is as easily characterized. The film, which opens today at Loew’s State I, is a thoroughly charming, immensely appealing mess of a movie, often high-spirited and witty, occasionally pretentious and flat, sometimes robustly funny and frequently unintelligible. It is, in short, a very mixed bag.


Jules Feiffer, master of paradox, irony and unannounced understatement, wrote the screenplay, which is so bright and low-keyed that one of its best laughs is a reference to a ”faulty flower,” that is, to a flower with an even number of petals so that a game of ”she loves me, she loves me not” comes out wrong.



Anthology series programmer Leah Churner has an interesting reading, from Moving Image Source:

Popeye is to Altman as Skidoo is to Otto Preminger, and they have a composer in common, Harry Nilsson, whose songs for the Disney film included such specimens as “Everything Is Food.” It is easily the strangest musical in this group. In 1975 Altman had claimed, rightly, that Nashville was hard to market because it “didn’t have a shark” (released the same year as Jaws). But after Popeye’s release, he may have been less justified in complaining that “the picture got an odor because it wasn’t Superman.” Popeye was not a passion project like Nashville (it actually had a giant squid), and because it was based on a comic-strip character. But in a way Altman’s statement rings true; though similarly based on a franchise, it does not seem to be an earnest commercial effort like Superman. Perhaps because I’m pro-Altman, I read Popeye as deliberately bad, sarcastically wrought, as if Altman and Evans were deliberately trying to sabotage the Disney brand in guerrilla fashion. (And one wonders, in light of the Evans-Coppola beef, whether or not the Bluto-Coppola resemblance is sheer coincidence.)


Excerpts from Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

___Robin Williams___

Bob was the ringmaster. I think he was kind of watching it, setting it up, kind of taking delight in watching.  I think it was the idea of putting together a three-ring circus as a movie. And I think he loved the metaphor for that, and that the town was full of kind of, you know, strange people, survivors. They’re all shipwreck survivors in Sweethaven. I think that was another metaphor he liked. They’er isolated and they have their own kind of ways and I come in a stranger, you know?


Its a beautiful film, man. It’s done with the same love he made every other film with.


___Robert Evans___

From the costuming to the casting to the production, I loved the film. I think it was possibly his most ambitious undertaking. Because it was so different but not obscure. It’s  terribly entertaining. I think Bob was twenty years ahead of his time. I think the picture is terrific. I think he did a wonderful job on it that no one else could have done.


I think they should rerelease it today. I think the picture is a work of genius. And I’ve watched it recently. If you can see a film and sit there for two hours and laugh and cry during the two hours, and be entertained, I think you have a hit. But I was wrong. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my career. I think it was Bob’s best work.


___Jules Feiffer___

I got a call a few days after its release, from Chicago, from a woman who introduced herself on the phone as [Popeye creator Elsie Chrisler] Segar’s daughter. She said she had heard me on one or two radio interviews talk about her father, and how I was trying to make this movie a testament to him. She thought this was absolute nonsense and didn’t believe it because she had heard people talk this way before and it never, ever amounted to anything. But she’d just come from the screening and she said it was her father up there on the screen, and she wanted to thank me. I thanked her and I hung up the phone and I wept.


___Robert Altman___

You should watch Popeye with a kid. Kids love that movie. They get it.



Shelly Duvall’s rendition of Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me.” Paul Thomas Anderson sampled it in Punch Drunk Love, noting:

It’s a fucking great song … it’s just a great great song. I think I had a little bit of the movie in my head but not all of it and just hearing that, made the all rest of it come alive you know. It was really like a big trigger pound.


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