Upon revisiting the movie the other night, I thought I’d write a little bit about this mostly forgotten eccentric gem of the early 1980s, Robert Altman’s Popeye. But first, some backstory.
When Robin Williams was first starting out he was busking in Los Angeles, using his over-the-top style of humor to make the crowds laugh, and hopefully put some change in his hat. He was relatively unknown, struggling to get stand-up gigs, when Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley), who was looking for a new character, an alien for Happy Days, sent his right hand man, Anthony Marshall, out to find the perfect candidate.
Anthony Marshall was looking at a young comedian that everyone at the time was crowing about. Jay Leno was a relatively new chin on the stand-up scene, but he had people talking, and Anthony went to see him one night, not realizing that the opening act, a relative unknown named Robin Williams, was not actually Leno. Williams’ crazy improv style really impressed Anthony, and he took his experience to Garry, who called Williams for an audition.
Williams did not disappoint. He didn’t even read the script, preferring to improvise his way through the audition, at one point sitting upside down in a chair on his head, impressing and entertaining his captive audience. A few days later he was called back to play Mork from Ork on an episode of Happy Days. Up until this point Williams had a few small roles on shows such as The Richard Pryor Show on NBC, but his appearances were never repeated. He figured that this would be a one time appearance, and boy was he wrong.
His guest spot on Happy Days, My Favorite Orkan, was an instant hit; the audience had never seen anything like it. After a call-back episode, Williams was given his own series. Mork and Mindy ran from 1978-1982, and was a hit right out of the gate. Williams’ star was on the rise, and during season 3 of the hit show Williams was pegged by Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park) to star in a highly ambitious live-action, musical comedy feature film of the classic comic strip Thimble Theater, better known to most as Popeye.
At the time there were two studios, Columbia and Paramount, vying for the rights to make a film based on the comic strip Annie. Paramount Pictures lost out in the end, but still wanting to make a film based on a comic strip asked a room full of executives what comic strip characters they retained the rights to. One of the men assembled mentioned Popeye. King Features Syndicate retained all television rights, but Paramount held theatrical rights, due to their releasing of theatrical cartoons featuring E.C. Segar’s sailor man back in the day.
Soon after, studio head Robert Evans approached famed cartoonist and satirist Jules Ffeiffer to pen a script with Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin in mind to play Popeye and Olive Oyl. That casting was not to be however, and they ended up casting Robin Williams in his first starring film role as the titular character, with Shelley Duvall cast as his opposite. No matter your feelings on the film as a whole, this casting could not have been more perfect.
The movie was filmed during Williams’ hiatus from Mork and Mindy, mostly. Filming did go a bit long, and Mork and Mindy did have to push back their filming dates a bit to accommodate Williams. There were many things going against this film from the start, but filming continued on. The studio knew they would have a hit on their hands. The spot-on casting, Ffeiffer’s script, Altman as director, and original soundtrack by Harry Nilsson all but guaranteed it, right?
Not necessarily. It was a valid effort put forth by all involved, but the final product did not hold up to the sum of its parts. The final film was a mish-mash of bizarre uneven humor, mostly lackluster songs, and awkward over-the-top performances by many of its stars. Trying much too hard to be like the strip, the film ends up being all over the place tone wise, with some incredibly brilliant bits, and some not quite so.
Don’t get me wrong; Robin Williams in all of his coked out glory, Shelley Duvall being the embodiment of Olive Oyl, and Paul Dooley as Winfred J. Wimpy were all truly inspired casting, inhabiting their respective roles with abandon. Even Ray Watson as Poopdeck Pappy was a brilliant choice, as little as he is seen in the whole of the film. The background characters look like they stepped right out of Segar’s own Thimble Theater. The problems lay in the uneven script. There are some genuinely funny parts, but as a whole it mostly falls flat. Little of the charm from the comic strip or cartoons is present. The only scene that truly feels like the source material is the big boxing match scene.
The Oyl’s eldest son, Castor, decides to compete against Oxblood Oxheart, hoping to win the prize money for his recently destitute family. Popeye watches from the sidelines as Castor gets the beating of his life, finally punched so hard that he goes flying right out of the ring. Popeye’s had as much as he can stand, and he can’t stand no more as he bounces into the ring in Castor’s place. This whole scene is ripped right from the cartoons, as we finally see Popeye’s signature fighting moves. The scene is quite funny as well, as Popeye dodges Oxblood’s mighty swing, and simply pummels him in comical ways as only Popeye can. The fight ends with one punch, as Popeye winds up his fist and lays Oxblood out; chirping birds and everything. This is one of the fairly few inspired moments in the film, story-wise.
There were so many places this movie could have taken us, deeper themes and meanings were everywhere, but wholly ignored. Themes of class struggle were very briefly touched on through the relationship the Tax Man had with the townspeople and his boss, Captain Bluto, working for the mysterious Commodore. Olive Oyl and her family were never taxed while she was Bluto’s suitor, but as soon as he dumped her, her family was charged back taxes, leaving them penniless. This theme should have been explored more fully, giving the film a socio-political message, but was completely ignored for the most part.
The film also could have explored much deeper what it’s like to be lonely, as both Popeye AND Swee’Pea are abandoned by their parents, left to live as orphans. This lost chance by the filmmakers is all too present in the finished product, even if Swee’Pea is eventually adopted by Popeye and Olive. Also, the woman who switches baskets with Olive, giving her Swee’Pea in the first place, is never mentioned again. This glaring bit just seems forced, a way to shoehorn in a plot-point for Popeye and Olive to bond over. Basically, the script touched on many themes, and then promptly forgot them, leaving the film sorely lacking in substance. It really couldn’t figure out WHAT it was trying to say.
The songs by the popular at the time Harry Nilsson also bring the film down. Uninspired and half-assed, he was really phoning it in for a big payday, and it shows. He took a break in the middle of production on his album Flash Harry to do the score, and you can tell he wanted to get back to it as soon as possible. Musically, the songs are inherently Nilsson-esque, but the lyrics are where they fall flat. “I’m Mean”, Bluto’s big number is repetitive, without ever actually saying anything other than “I’m Mean”. And that is indicative of the rest of the soundtrack as well, with few exceptions.
There are some reasons to love this film, however. The setting, Sweethaven, a shantytown on an undisclosed island, is brilliantly realized. A mixture of realism with cartoonish embellishments, it is an odd, yet wonderfully quirky town that looks like nothing else on celluloid. The perfect setting for this film, the town is almost a character in it’s own right. According to Wikipedia, the town, called Popeye Village now, is a tourist attraction on the island of Malta, with an open-air museum, a puppet show, a cinema, and many props from the film available for visitors to see. As one of the most memorable parts of the film, it is easy to see why tourists flock here.
The direction by the usually great Robert Altman is mostly flawless, given the material he had to work with. He raises the film above a disaster, to a mostly entertaining, eccentric film. Any other director would have failed miserably at this task, but Altman almost saves the film with his assured style and good eye for the perfect shot. It may have a pretty terrible plot, but Altman almost makes us forget that fact. Almost. In the end we have a severely disjointed, yet somewhat entertaining film, with not a lot to say.
With Popeye, Paramount thought they had a contender, something strong enough to go up against Annie, but much like Oxblood Oxheart, they thought too highly of themselves, and in the end got knocked the fuck out. Still, for lovers of all things fringe, Popeye is a pretty entertaining film, in a surrealistic fever dream sort of way, and I do recommend seeing it at least once. The film was a modest success, making back its initial budget, but with lackluster viewing figures it was considered a flop. In a perfect world this bizarre and highly ambitious film would have major cult status, but as it is it’s mostly forgotten. And that’s a shame, because despite its faults, Popeye is an interesting bit of cinema unlike anything else out there. The casting alone makes it worth checking out at least once, maybe while doing copious amounts of coke. Maybe the it will make sense, like it seemed to to the filmmakers.