August 14th, 2014

The Man and his Symbol

One of my favorite Robin Williams films.

I’m not usually prone to doing anything in regards to celebrity deaths beyond the occasional RIP post. However, Robin Williams’ death has struck me on a couple of different levels because of both the nature of his death and the fact that, my criticism of a few of his films aside, the man was a large influence on my life from a very early age. Rather than wax philosophical on the nature of humor, life or suicide (there’s WAY too much of that happening recently) I thought I’d commemorate him in my own way by reviewing one of my favorite Williams films and making a staunch defense of a film that is, undeservedly widely loathed.

Yes, that’s right; I’m talking about Robert Altman’s 1980 “Popeye”.



To be perfectly honest I’m not entirely sure why people despise this film as much as they apparently do. At least this is what I’m told. I know it got panned by critics when it came out and I’ve met many people who have avoided the film because they were told that it was awful. On the other hand my usual remedy for people telling me this is to show them “Popeye” and I’ve yet to have anyone come away hating it. I personally think that the two things that Altman’s “Popeye” had going against it were the time period in which it came out (with the exception of 1978’s “Superman” cartoon/comic book movies just weren’t a thing yet) and the fact that it was far more evocative of the old newspaper comic strips and radio shows (which is where Altman’s childhood love of the character stemmed from) than it was the more sanitized 1950s Lance cartoons which was what most Americans in 1980 were familiar with. Though I didn’t realize it at the time the latter is actually one of the things that makes me truly love this film and why I think it’s held up so well over the years. I was only 5 when this movie came out so I really just heard the words “live”, “action”, “Popeye” and “movie” used in the same sentence together and was sold. In fact when I first re-discovered the movie in late adolescence I was almost afraid to watch it for fear that it would be one of those situations where extreme youth blinds one to all of a movie’s faults and only as an adult can you realize how horrid it truly was. I was delightfully surprised to find that I enjoyed the film every bit as much as I did when I was a nipper (albeit with slightly less putting dish towels around my forearms and dancing about) and have continued to do so well into adulthood. In fact I’ll even go so far as to say that I think that “Popeye” is one of Altman’s better films.



Part of what makes the movie work so well, in my opinion, is the fact that despite it being a film about already established and well-known characters it’s still unmistakably a Robert Altman film. It has a big ensemble cast that is as bizarre and rambling as the town of Sweethaven itself. It has a plot that meanders and functions almost as a McGuffin and an adhesive to give these characters a reason to interact and to give the film shape. Most of all, the world feels extremely complete despite the fact that we are only seeing a tiny 90 minute snapshot of it and it’s quirky inhabitants. One of the reasons why I tend to like Altman films is the fact that he was excellent at creating tactile environments for his characters to live in and “Popeye” takes this to a new extreme. Even 3 ½ decades later the film still looks fantastic. It looks as though someone brought a newspaper comic to life and one of the weirder looking ones at that. Though I get many shocked looks and indignant sputterings when I say it; I actually think that "Popeye" did everything that "Dick Tracy" set out to do and did it more successfully, too. What a difference 10 years can make in audience receptiveness to a thing. I would also go so far as to say that "Popeye" is the more visually interesting of the two films, is truer to the source material and both looks and feels far more like a living cartoon than "Dick Tracy". I also think that the surreal, cartoonish quality of the world coupled with the fact that he was doing something that he’d loved from childhood and was doing a genre of film that was unusual for him (I believe that it was Altman’s only musical) was liberating for him as a director and allowed him to create something that not only broadened his horizons as a filmmaker but that was truly unique. You’d be hard pressed to find another film that looks and feels anything quite like “Popeye” and while, as I mentioned before, it is unmistakably an Altman film it still manages to stand out even in a filmography as eclectic as Robert Altman’s was.

The other thing that this film truly had going for it was the cast.



I cannot think of too many other films that are as well cast across the boards as “Popeye” was. Paul L. Smith was absolutely perfect as the antagonist in arguably the most physically repellant love triangle of all time. As Bluto he was equal parts comedic stupidity mixed with malice and a genuine sense of menace. As goofy as he can be at times the movie never once shies away from the fact that Bluto is dangerous in his mindlessness.



Her many other roles and award winning children’s shows aside, Shelley Duvall was placed on this Earth to play Olive Oyl. Trying to imagine any other actress in this role is like trying to imagine any actor besides Dennis Hopper playing Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet”, it simply can’t be done. From her uncanny resemblance to the comic strip heroine to her shrill, emotionally dysregulated way of interacting with everyone and everything around her Shelley Duvall quite literally brings Olive Oyl to life in a way that is every bit as disturbing as it is delightful. Then there was the late Robin Williams as the title character.



Though he allegedly regretted making the film, Robin Williams was perfect for the title role and (though to my knowledge it was the only time the two worked together) in some ways very suited to being in an Altman film. Altman was big on improvisation which was Williams’ strong suit and the muttered overlapping dialogue was in keeping with both Altman’s strengths as a director and Williams’ strengths as an actor. Also, much like the surreal, ramshackle world that the set and costume designers had wrought for the film, Robin Williams was able to create a live-action interpretation of the iconic, spinach eating sailor that still, in many ways, felt like a cartoon. I also can’t think of many other actors who would have been capable of delivering lines of fairly pithy word play all in the style of a character who routinely mangles the English language beyond all recognition. (I still use the word “disgustipated” to this day.) While the film is rife with examples of this, I think it is best exemplified in the scene where Popeye finally meets his long lost father whom he has not seen since he “was a mere infink”. In the film, Poopdeck Pappy was played by the legendary Ray Walston and the scene where he meets his son for the first time as an adult is a phenomenal example of what happens when two extremely talented comedians are given a simple-yet-ridiculous premise and then largely left to their own devices. The result is a gem of a scene combining physical comedy (especially impressive as one character is tied to a chair for the entire scene) and rapid fire banter consisting largely of misspoken, nonsensical words as Pappy attempts to deny his paternity of the only other person in the entire universe that looks and talks exactly like he does. (Though as he does sagely point out during the exchange “Ya idgit, ya can’t inherits a PIPE!”)



The rest of the ensemble cast is comparably spot-on and the film’s inclusion of truly obscure characters from the original Thimble Theatre comics like Geezil and Olive’s extended family does a lot to populate this well-crafted world with characters who look to be as at home there as the main three characters do. Despite its Altman-esque moseying the film does move along at a decent clip and doesn’t drag and the music is fun and very much an extension of the characters themselves. The end result was a fun, surprisingly well-crafted film that is far more maligned than it has any business being.



If you have seen it, rewatch it. If you haven’t seen it and are looking for a somewhat more obscure Robin Williams film to watch to commemorate the passing of this truly talented and funny man, you may want to consider letting popular opinion be damned and checking out “Popeye”.