Film Review

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: POPEYE (1980)

As the seventies came to a close and a new day was dawning on Hollywood, filmmakers and studios began to shift their work and business models to better prepare for the type of film they needed to make. Sure, the point of any movie studio at any time in the history of motion pictures had always been to make a profit. But after watching truckloads of cash show up at their doorstep after the release of films such as Jaws and Star Wars, it was no longer enough to just turn a profit. Movies began to come together in board rooms and designed to be less as entertainment vehicles that would make money and more unstoppable machines that would print money. So this is why it made a certain amount of sense for Paramount Pictures and the Walt Disney Company to join forces for a slate of films that would be geared towards the entire family but would be just a smidge more sophisticated than what could be expected from a live-action “Disney movie” which, by the 1980’s, had a certain kind of downmarket reputation and wasn’t exactly raking in the cash.

This partnership produced exactly two movies, Robert Altman’s Popeye in 1980 and Matthew Robbins’s impressive Dragonslayer, released the following year. That it produced anything is a small miracle as Popeye, first on the slate, was an absolutely cursed production from top to bottom and any sane assessment of the film reveals that fact many times over. From on-set fighting to the cocaine bust of producer Robert Evans, the production of Popeye kind of had it all. It wasn’t quite a Heaven’s Gate but it was definitely the last thing director Robert Altman needed at that point in his career. After owning the first half of the 1970’s, Altman’s work was continually met with diminishing returns which culminated in HealtH, his previously completed picture, getting completely buried and unreleased by 20th Century Fox. He needed a hit in the worst way and Popeye was a tee-up for him.

But the fact of the matter was that there was no real certainty Popeye would be a hit. All that was there was a vague notion that the monster Broadway success of Annie meant that there was sure to be a motion picture adaptation and, therefore, something had to be crafted to catch that similar wave of upscale family fare. Paramount owned King Features and, therefore, the universe of the Popeye comic strip so why not hire Harry Nilsson, the genius but inveterate alcoholic pop star on the downslope, to write the tunes and Robert Altman, an independent, bullheaded filmmaker whose last huge hit had been a whole decade earlier, to direct? I mean, it looked good on paper to somebody and I can’t help but think that somebody was Robert Evans whose career, like Altman’s, was also in jeopardy after a string of poor decisions teetered his reputation for rescuing Paramount Pictures in the late sixties from impatient creditors who were ready to engage the studio in a complete fire sale.

Another thing not considered is that by 1980, there was a giant delta that separated audience’s understandings of the Popeye from his origins in the Thimble Theatre comic strip created by Elzie Crisler Segar in 1919. In that iteration, Popeye (introduced in 1929) was but a supporting player in the larger world of Sweethaven, a cockeyed seaport town crawling with strange, yet lovable denizens. After becoming the star of the strip, Max Fleischer’s studios popularized Popeye and the majority of the Thimble Theatre characters in a series of cartoon shorts which usually put Popeye and company in contemporary and urban settings. By the time Paramount’s Famous Studios began producing the cartoons, Popeye and Olive Oyl were fully suburbanized and Popeye would frequently appear in shorts in which he would be battling his nemesis Bluto over trivial things like front lawn maintenance and seats at a baseball game. When Altman and screenwriter Jules Feiffer took the story back to its roots, it looked a lot like a world unfamiliar to many of the people who had become accustomed to Popeye as the confident, spinach-swilling, language-murdering hero who always had Olive Oyl by his side and Bluto at his feet.

But, oh, Lordy Moses, did people bitch when Popeye hit the theaters. Save the Wolf Kroeger production design and the incredible sets constructed in a Maltese cove (that are still standing and function as a tourist attraction, by the way), there was virtually nothing in the film that didn’t prove distasteful to at least one person in some shape or form. It did decent business but, unfortunately, was made at a time when it wasn’t enough to do good business if the business wasn’t good enough. Because of this attitude, Popeye has since been remembered as a magnificent disaster and a flop of a film, neither of which are remotely true. It’s a wild film in Altman’s canon and looking at it from the highest peak of Mt. Objectivity reveals an absolute mess of a final product but it’s also not out of line to rule Popeye a film where the sum of the parts are definitely better than the whole. As if it were built as if it were a number of cartoon shorts strung into one whole movie, Popeye is a movie without much drive but with a whopping ton of energy which can be joyous and fun but, at 114 minutes, feels like a juggernaut that could even wear down the last, most energetic person on the Studio 54 dance floor.

To the uninitiated, Popeye is about the titular character (Robin Williams in his film debut) arriving in the seaside town of Sweethaven in the search for his father, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). During his hunt, he becomes entangled with and falls for the dizzy Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall in her final bow for Altman), takes charge of abandoned infant, Swee’ Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt, Altman’s impossibly cute ham of a grandson), and runs afoul of Bluto (Paul Smith), the burly and hirsute heavy who begins the film as Olive’s betrothed.

Thematically, this is McCabe & Mrs. Miller territory (replete with a direct blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual nod in the floating casino sequence as a zonked-out prostitute examines a ceramic pot as she reclines in her bunk); ultimately a story about how an iconoclast can enter a town and rearrange the structure. The problem with Popeye is that the story never allows the viewer to understand how anything in the town works in the first place. Some of it feels like a parody of shallow American nationalism but the town of Sweethaven is such a sketch, the details the audience has a right to know are either not there or buried. Taxes are being constantly collected but for what purpose and they’re routed where, exactly? The town has a Mayor but the Commodore holds more stroke why? The Commodore is a recluse that nobody has seen for what reason? Is this an isolated island burg in a post-Quintet future that’s surrounded by the melted ice and where the people are only just learning how to be a functioning society again? Because they sure act like it.

But, putting narrative and story aside (which we shouldn’t do but will anyway) is there another movie outside of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy that looks like it was Silly Putty’d right off a newspaper than Popeye? As a retrospective criticism, the film’s bloated budget would be a legitimate concern if every single dollar wasn’t up on the screen and everything didn’t look absolutely gorgeous. The beautiful widescreen compositions by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno capture the sideways-pitched structures against an immensely beautiful green sea where foregrounded primary colors absolutely pop off the screen. The costumes by Scott Bushnell, longtime Altman producer, are magnificently elaborate and detailed and everyone in the cast looks 100% perfect.

Altman’s on-screen choreography with his performers, always a staple in making his movies breathe, might just be at its highest level here as the frame is constantly swishing back and forth, always revealing some new information in the background. In fact, so busy is its canvass that, after forty years of watching the film, I have just recently spotted the caveman that randomly pops up in the far back of the background throughout the movie. Where most Altman films demand a second viewing due to the multi-tracked, overlapping dialogue, Popeye joins ranks with works such as Brewster McCloud and HealtH as needing multiple views due to everything that’s going on everywhere but the center of the screen. Just one instance of this is Robert Fortier’s Bill Barnacle. Sloshing around as the town drunk (ya know, the same character he played in McCabe & Mrs. Miller for those of you keeping score), it’s worth missing everything else that’s happening on the screen each time he appears as his physical performance is likely funnier and more interesting than what’s happening front and center.

And despite his giving up on the project to return to Flash Harry, his penultimate album before his untimely death in 1997, the Harry Nilsson tunes (and their wonderful Van Dyke Parks orchestrations) still soar. “Sweethaven,” “I Yam What I Yam,” “I’m Mean,” “Kids,” and, especially, “He Needs Me” all have a loopy charm and sly humor while “He’s Large,” a song dedicated to Bluto’s… ahem… girth, sung by Shelley Duvall and backed up by the Steinettes, the Greenwich Village doo-wop outfit who served as the Greek chorus in HealtH, is absolutely inappropriate for a family film but, on second thought, perhaps this film deserved such a shot of raunch if to only diffuse the treacle in “Sailin’” and “Swee’ Pea’s Lullabye,” two slabs of straight sentimentality that feel a bit out of place in a bizarre place such as this.

1980 wasn’t terribly kind to Popeye and time has done little to repair its image. Folks that loved it then, love it now. Folks that hated it then are always quick to point out they’ve never revisited it. Contemporary audiences don’t know quite what to make of it. Robert Altman didn’t end up in director’s jail but he would be cast out onto the stormy seas of the 1980’s with almost zero studio support, fully requested by the powers that be that he learn to fend for himself. In the end, Popeye turned out to become a fondly-remembered cocaine film for children and, regardless of the film’s box office returns, we probably needed more of them as the dawn of Reagan loomed large.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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