When Robert Altman died last month, critics professional and amateur alike wasted no time in saying farewell to one of the great maverick film directors. Most every summation took care to mention his 1980s career lull, which ended with The Player(or Vincent and Theo, depending on a critic’s personal taste) and began, everyone agreed, with 1980’s Popeye. Even those articles which made cases for Altman’s lesser-known films skimmed over Popeye; A. O. Scott’s paean to Altman “at his worst” defended the honor of such flawed films as H.E.A.L.T.H., Prêt-à-Porter, and Dr. T and the Women, but about Popeye only had to say: “A big budget, and a big flop. It ams what it am.”
But what ams Popeye? I first watched Altman’s comic-strip musical in a Milwaukee cinema within a few weeks of my sixth birthday, in December 1980. Baffled and bored by it at the time, I have more distinct memories of the pizza dinner my family shared afterward. But 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.
Popeye is a movie built of such pleasant folly. Start with the very idea of Altman—a scathing satirist and a pioneer of naturalistic acting and dialogue in film—directing a stylized musical based on a comic strip. Aside from Duvall and title star Robin Williams (in his first movie role), a collection of character actors populated Altman’s film, most of whom possessed little musical experience and rather thin voices. And he staged the entire extravaganza on a set that had been built to look as if the next storm to blow through would wash Sweethaven into the sea.
Sweethaven’s shabbiness can be traced to its overzealous taxation policies: the always absent Commodore, who runs the town, has delegated authority to Bluto (Paul L. Smith), and Bluto’s taxman rides around Sweethaven on a rickety motorbike taxing anything and everything he can think of. When Popeye lands onshore at the film’s opening, the taxman (Donald Moffat) is the first Sweethaven resident he encounters, and the two have the following conversation:
The Taxman: You just docked?
Popeye: I has.
The Taxman: Aha, let’s see here, that’ll be twenty-five-cent docking tax.
Popeye: What for?
The Taxman: Where’s your seacraft?
Popeye: It ain’t no seacraft, it’s me dinghy, and it’s under the wharf.
The Taxman: Aha. This your goods?
Popeye: They is.
The Taxman: Yeah. You’re new in town, right?
Popeye: If you call this a town, yeah.
The Taxman: Well, first of all, there’s seventeen-cent new-in-town tax, and there’s forty-five-cent rowboat-under-the-wharf tax, and one-dollar leaving-your-junk-lying-around-the-wharf tax, so all together, you owe the Commodore a dollar eighty-seven.
Popeye: Who’s this Commodore?
The Taxman: Is that the nature of question? There’s a nickel question tax.
Popeye only escapes when a group of kids gathers around and the taxman chases them away with an angry “Kids! Curiosity tax!”
In Popeye, as in many Altman movies, authority—in the form of Bluto and his taxman—is not to be trusted, but the gently antiauthoritarian spirit of Jules Feiffer’s script fits not only Altman’s 1970s iconoclasm but the spirit of Segar’s original Popeye strips, which began at the height of the Depression and tapped into the poor man’s mistrust of the rich. Indeed, the citizens of Sweethaven don’t really like anyone to get too big for his britches. If the leaving-your-junk-lying-around-the-wharf tax in Sweethaven is a dollar, the artifice tax must be a hundred dollars, for everyone in Sweethaven resolutely ares what they ares.
Which is to say, they are comic-strip characters, as set in their ways as Dick Tracy, Charlie Brown, or Bill the Cat. Feiffer and Altman populate Sweethaven with not only the familiar characters from the old Popeye strip—Wimpy, who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today, and Bluto, and Swee’pea the baby—but with dozens of characters that only Popeye completists would ever recognize, each with his corresponding character trait. Olive Oyl’s brother, Castor Oyl, who dresses like a child and talks endlessly about money. Her father, Cole Oyl, who believes everyone owes him an apology. Scoop, the town reporter. The Walfleur sisters, always bridesmaids, never brides. Geezil, the Jewish peddler. (And how easily cartoons shade into caricature!) The closing credits reveal the names of other characters, seldom spoken aloud in the film but authentically Popeyeian: Ham Gravy, Rough House, Bill Barnacle, Harry Hotcash. Mayor and Mrs. Stonefeller; Oxblood Oxheart and his mother, Mrs. Oxheart. Von Schnitzel the German. Gozo the Italian. The women: Daisy, Petunia, Violet, Pickelina. Chizzelflint, Swifty, La Verne, and Splatz.
The film’s engaging, low-key songs, written by Harry Nilsson and arranged by Van Dyke Parks, echo this comic-strip sensibility, making their points through repetition and face-value declaration. Popeye sings:
And I am what I am what I am and I am what I am and that’s all that I am ’cuz I am what I am.
And I gotta lotta muskle and I only gots one eye,
And I’ll never hurt nobodys and I’ll never tell a lie.
Top to me bottom, from the bottom to me top,
That’s the way it is ’till the day that I drop.
What am I? I am what I am!
Popeye’s not the only one who’s easily defined. Olive Oyl warbles a song about her almost-fiancé, Bluto, titled “He’s Large.” Bluto grunts a song about himself called “I’m Mean.” This simplicity of feeling reaches its peak in Olive Oyl’s love song about Popeye, “He Needs Me,” the chorus of which goes:
He needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me.
He needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me, he needs me.
Da da da da da da da da da da dum,
Da da da da da da da da da da da!
(This song was later used to nice effect in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to the depths of heartfelt simplicity, Punch-Drunk Love. Anderson and Altman were close, in fact, and Anderson served on Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion, as the “backup director” required by the production’s insurance company to stay on set in case Altman fell too ill to complete the movie.)
The plot follows Popeye, played by Williams with a squint, a corncob pipe, and impressively swollen forearms and calves, as he lands in Sweethaven, woos Olive Oyl away from Bluto, and searches for his long-lost Pap. (All he has to go on is a framed picture—or rather, a framed piece of cardboard on which he’s written ME POPPA.) This plot mostly serves as a structure on which Altman and Feiffer can overlay vaudevillian set pieces big and small, from the boxing match between Popeye and the enormous Oxblood Oxheart (and his combative mother, played by the diminutive Linda Hunt, who a few years later would win an Oscar for The Year of Living Dangerously) to the delightful bits of comic business performed by Bill Irwin (of the 1990s Broadway clowning classic Fool Moon and, now, Sesame Street, where he plays Elmo’s helpful but hapless neighbor Mr. Noodle). No one will ever accuse Altman of being a kinetic photographer of these sequences, but in some ways his haphazard treatment of Popeye’s fights and flights of fancy suits the picture’s scattershot sensibility.
Like most of Altman’s films of that era, Popeye features long takes of wide shots zooming into medium close-up, and a soundtrack peppered with overtalk. The marriage between Altman’s signature shooting style and Popeye’s cartoon sensibility is a shaky one, and there are scenes one wishes were shot by a director a little less freewheeling. On the other hand, there always seems to be something interesting going on just outside the edges of the frame, and there’s great pleasure in catching the fragments of activity and dialogue that a more rigorous director might never have left in.
A prime example is Williams’s sotto voce malaprop-filled monologue, in homage to the comic-strip Popeye’s predilection for talking to himself. It begins with Popeye grumbling on the wharf after the taxman’s visit (“Tax this, tax that, oh I’m mad, I’m disgustipated. Ah, ya pays a tax, ya oughta receive a cervix”) and continues through the movie. Popeye’s muttering is funny, charming, ridiculous, and annoying all at once. A more reasonable filmmaker would have kept it to one or two tagline-ready examples, tossed off by Popeye at moments of great anger or triumph, but Altman’s stubborn enough—and Feiffer devoted enough to the spirit of the comic—to play the joke long past its utility. (Adding to the humor is that Williams’s patter often doesn’t match his onscreen lips in the slightest; reportedly most of Williams’s dialogue was re-recorded in a studio after he was inaudible and incomprehensible on set.)
Williams’s performance is pleasant enough, much more low-key than contemporary viewers would be led to expect. The rest of the cast is exemplary, led by Duvall, who’s an addlepated wonder as the beanpole-thin, dithering Olive Oyl. The sight of her skinny neck poking out of a ship’s ventilation shaft as she hollers “Heeeyulp! Heeeyulp!” is gorgeous, the perfect marriage of actor to action. Wimpy is played by Paul Dooley, best known as Molly Ringwald’s dad in Sixteen Candles. Swee’pea, Popeye’s “infink,” is played by Altman’s grandson, Wesley Ivan Hurt, who was less than a year old at the time of shooting and whose comic timing is remarkably managed by Altman and his editor. (According to the Internet Movie Database, Hurt is a schoolteacher in Missouri and has no memory of his one perfect film performance.)
The most enjoyable scenes in the film occur as it nears its end, when Popeye finds his Pappy, played by the uncannily cast Ray Walston. Walston, a veteran song-and-dance man (and star of My Favorite Martian, and Mr. Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High), plays Pappy as a Popeye gone sour, protesting mightily when Popeye claims he’s his son. As the two stare face-to-face, wearing identical clothes, chewing on identical corncob pipes—cartoons of a father and son—they argue:
Popeye: I’m your one and only exspring. See, we got the same bulgy arms.
Pappy: No resemblance.
Popeye: We got the same squinky eye.
Pappy: What squinky eye?
Popeye: [Mutters] That’s gonna be hard for you to see. [Out loud] We got the same pipe, Pap.
Pappy: You idjit, you can’t inherit a pipe! I am poppa to no male, nor no female child, that no court could prove otherwise.
Pappy hates kids in general and his own son in particular, and the final fifteen minutes of the film enjoyably track his melting at the charms of Swee’pea and Popeye both. (It also follows Pappy’s attempts to get Popeye to eat spinach, a food he hates—just as in the comic strip, though not the later animated shorts.) As Pappy and Popeye chase Bluto—who has kidnapped Olive and Swee’pea and is off in search of Pappy’s fabled treasure—Pappy proclaims, “Children! Phooey!” He launches into a patter song:
Kids! They cry at ya when they’re young, they yell at ya when they’re older, they borrows from ya when they’s middle-aged, and they leave ya alone to die. Without even payin’ ya back.
Children! They’re just smaller versions of us, you know, but I’m not so crazy about me in the first place, so why would I want one of them?
But 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.