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O Captain: Is Robert Altman's Popeye Still A Failure 40 Years On?
David Robb , August 14th, 2020 10:48

In 1980, Robert Altman turned his talents to an unlikely character with a live-action take on Popeye – with Robin Williams in the title role. The confusing plotline and baffling concept troubled audiences at the time – but how does it hold up?

Created by cartoonist E.C. Segar in 1929, Popeye has always been one of the stranger icons of American pop culture. Following the popularity of his early appearances as a minor character in the New York Journal’s Thimble Theater strip alongside main character Olive Oyl, the muscular sailor man was soon given a starring role in a series of animated theatrical shorts. In the now-familiar set-up, Popeye vied for Olive’s affections with a cruel bully sailor known as Bluto, making use of a versatile corncob pipe, tins of super-powered spinach, and his surprising reserves of eloquence and ingenuity. He always managed to thwart Bluto’s devious plans, but never succeeded in winning his beloved’s heart for very long, regularly finding himself spurned again for his stockier rival. A kind of nautical incel Sisyphus, Popeye was lacking in any of the anthropomorphic charm that made Disney and Looney Tunes characters so successful, and didn’t have any catchphrases that really stuck in the memory, opting instead to mutter and chuckle to himself under his breath.

Nevertheless, Popeye’s chirpy demeanour and indomitable perseverance resonated with audiences of all ages, throughout most of the 20th century. And the eccentricities of the character and his supporting cast would, in 1980, prove to be fitting material for a period of Hollywood filmmaking when boundaries between family fun and more grown-up themes were as fluid as those between commercial entertainment and art-house fare.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Paramount’s Popeye, the character’s live-action debut, which is, appropriately, one of the strangest family films to have been released by a major studio. Though Popeye is generally regarded as an unremarkable flop, a minor version of the kind of big-budget fiasco that brought an end to the late ‘70s auteur era, it actually made a tidy profit at the time, and received generally positive reviews. And while it still may be a little closer to Super Mario Bros than Superman on the spectrum of live-action adaptations, rewatching Popeyein our current cultural situation casts it in a much more positive light.

The idea for Popeye originated in 1977, after Paramount lost a bidding war with Columbia for the rights to hit Broadway musical Annie, which was based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. The studio went in search of another property that they could bring to the big screen, and decided on the Popeye strips and cartoons, which had recently been rejuvenated by Hanna-Barbera in a new TV show, The All-New Popeye Hour.

The project stalled several times, before it eventually kicked into gear in early 1980. Paramount's masterstroke, or error, depending on how you look at it, was the hiring of a maverick director who probably wasn’t anyone’s first choice for a production like this: Robert Altman. The decision makes a bit more sense when you remember that Hollywood had recently enjoyed huge success with auteurist figures like Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, and that both David Lynch and David Cronenberg had been suggested to helm Return of the Jedi, which was in production at the time. But even then, it’s still a tough one to get your head around. Though Altman had earned his stripes directing episodes of various network TV shows in the ‘50s and ‘60s, including long-running western serial Bonanza, and the madcap humour and commercial success of his 1970 war comedy MAS*H was likely still fresh in executives’ minds, Altman’s last film for the studio was Nashville – a wildly ambitious portrait of a contemporary music scene that culminates in a shocking act of violence. For the director, however, it’s clear that the opportunity to play around with an American hero and his cultural legacy was one too exciting to pass up.

The plot of the film concerns Popeye’s search for his long-lost “pap”, and it’s mostly too incoherent to explain much beyond that. Featuring scrappy physical comedy that’s closer to a sub-par Three Stooges than Jacques Tati, it’s also regularly punctuated by some deeply mediocre musical numbers, written by Harry Nilsson and sung live by the cast at an often inaudible volume. But where Altman did succeed was in creating a sense of humanity, matching the anarchic spirit of a cartoon with the jazzy spontaneity that the filmmaker is known for. Deploying the occasional dolly zoom, as well as his celebrated depth-of-fields and overlapping sound design, Altman often conjures the same uncanny feeling of belonging that McCabe and Mrs Miller’s frontier mining camp exuded, only here it’s as if you’ve stepped inside a cartoon from your childhood instead of somewhere that really existed in the past. Though hugely different in style and tone, the effect could be compared to Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, expanding on the barest sketch of a place and suffusing it with emotion and warmth. And even when it doesn’t work perfectly, the unrelenting strangeness of the endeavour is never less than entertaining.

A much more promising and bankable prospect than Altman turned out to be his star, the popular stand-up comedian and TV actor Robin Williams. Then most famous for his role in double-act sitcom Mork and Mindy, he made his big-screen debut in Popeye. The film treated viewers to a fresh-faced version of the king of laughs and schmaltz, and Williams fully embodied the happy-go-lucky nature of his character. The actor’s penchant for ad-libs was reined in a little, at Altman’s stubborn insistence, to suit Popeye’s trademark muttering. In a way, the character’s vocal tics are not dissimilar to those of Warren Beatty’s McCabe and Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe, two classic Altman protagonists whose internal monologues are also externalised in a memorably charming way. Meanwhile, Altman regular Shelly Duvall proved to be such a perfect physical match for Olive Oyl that it barely mattered how perfectly she nailed the voice and mannerisms, injecting personality into what was a relatively one-dimensional character.

Though it’s much less serious than his other films, even the broadest comedies, and somehow more confusing than the ones with a dozen overlapping storylines, there’s definitely a sense in which Popeye fits neatly into Altman’s body of work. Flashes of his trademark humanism reveal themselves as he draws parallels between Popeye and Olive’s impromptu relationship with Swee’Pea, an abandoned baby they’re looking after, and the relationship between Popeye and his own father, Poopdeck Pappy. This dynamic leads to what might be the film’s emotional climax, as a whimpering Popeye briefly regresses to an infantile state when he’s forced to taste spinach for the first time. In a similar way to which Altman pays homage to the western, the noir, the country music scene and LA culture in his other films, Popeye depicts and deconstructs another classic American idea – mid-20th century masculinity and gung-ho optimism – with a combination of cynicism and generosity.

Perhaps the best example of the misplaced ambition that elevates Popeye is its elaborate set, standing in for the fictional port of Sweethaven. Consisting of 19 different ramshackle buildings, purpose-built from imported timber, it took around seven months to construct, and still exists today as Popeye Village, a popular tourist attraction on the island of Malta. While advances in CGI mean that it’s now possible to put together something equally impressive in a fraction of time, there’s a real lived-in feeling to this village, something that just can’t be achieved with computers. Popeye’s big foam forearms, on the other hand, would probably have looked a lot less unsettling with a quick virtual post-production effect or two.

Altman struggled to get major funding for most of the next decade or so after Popeye, following Paramount’s decision to pull the plug on principal photography after nearly five drug-fuelled months in Malta. The shoot was already running three weeks behind schedule when it shut down, and the entire budget of $20 million had been spent. The film did go on to gross almost four times that amount, but the revenue was unfortunately still well below the studio’s expectations. In the intervening years, we’ve only seen more of the same rapacious corporate logic that punished Altman’s perceived failures.

Today, cartoon and comic-strip adaptations are getting closer to the norm than a novelty for commercial cinema, and it’s tempting to say that time has been kinder to Popeye than it will be to most contemporary blockbusters. However, the current glut of reboots and remakes seems to be keeping us in a constant cinematic present, with even things that succeed being wiped from memory so fast that it sometimes feels like we imagined them. The aversion to financial risk is now so great, that something as unreliable as an individual artist or movie is rarely left to stand or fall on its own, even with the force of established intellectual property behind it.

In an era of focus-grouped films that often seem to be nothing more than beta testing for the next instalment in the franchise, or for the technology that it will be made on, Popeye demonstrates that true creativity has to allow for human error, and even entertain the possibility of complete failure. Altman’s live-action adaptation of a classic comic strip is a reminder of how weird a lot of our cultural traditions are to begin with, and that whenever they come into contact with lived reality, the results are usually messy and imperfect. But if there’s anything we can learn from both Popeye the film and Popeye the sailor man – it’s that we shouldn’t give up on them just yet.