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”I yam what I yam.” Why Popeye is Altman’s forgotten masterpiece

Upon researching for this piece, I discovered that you can still walk around the streets of Sweet Haven. The people of Mellieha, Malta, where Altman’s Popeye was filmed, lovingly took over the upkeep and care of the village, even hiring actors to play Popeye and Olive Oyl. Over 20 wooden structures were built with the tree trunk logs imported from Holland and wooden shingles brought in from Canada, in order to construct the set.  Eight tons of nails and 250 gallons of paint were used in constructing the set and a 250-foot breakwater was even built to protect the filming area from the high seas. Despite the film being a ”box-office bomb” (although we’ll discuss why it wasn’t the commercial disaster as we are led to believe later), Mellieha kept the village going, and one has to wonder whether they saw something that few others did? They saw the magic contained within the musical comedy that was Robert Altman’s Popeye.

The film’s plot is relatively simple – remember this is a family film (it isn’t really, but we will get to that later). Buff, one-eyed sailor-man Popeye (played by the larger than life Robin Williams) arrives in an awkward seaside town called Sweethaven. There he meets Wimpy (Paul Dooley), a hamburger-loving man; Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall), the soon-to-be love of his life; and Bluto (Paul L. Smith), a huge, mean man who takes his frustrations out on the town of Sweet Haven. Popeye and Olive discover an abandoned child, called Sweet Pea, and become the child’s ”parents”. They soon find themselves butting heads with Bluto over Sweet Pea’s unique gift, which results in a kidnapping (or should that be babynapping?). During all of this commotion, Popeye is searching for his long-lost Poppa, who abandoned him as a child. Throw in some amusing songs, a boxing match and the odd can of spinach here and there, and you have yourself a wonderful hour and a half of pure entertainment.

popeye happy family.jpg

The sheer fact that a live action version of Popeye came to be is an interesting back story. The film’s inception was the result of the bidding war for the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Annie between the two major studios, Columbia and Paramount, fighting for the rights. When Robert Evans found out that Paramount had lost the bidding for Annie, he held an executive meeting in which he asked about comic strip characters that they had the rights to which could also be used in order to create a movie musical, and one attendee said “Popeye”. Evans commissioned cartoonist Jules Feiffer to write a script and was eager to have Dustin Hoffman to play Popeye opposite Lily Tomlin as Olive Oyl, with Midnight Cowboy’s John Schlesinger directing. However, for whatever reason, Hoffman, Tomlin and Schlesinger dropped out of the picture and it Disney joined the film to co-produce the picture,  signing Altman as director.

The film works on a number of levels, but mostly due to its leading performances from Williams and Duvall. This was William’s debut, and already he seems a natural and at home performing before the camera. There’s a lot of slapstick involved in his performance, which we can see most evident in the arrival scene at the start of the film, where he clumsily staggers around, nearly being knocked about by falling pianos and  beaten up by temperamental old lady. Williams takes this physical acting in stride and gravitates across the scene like a classically trained ballet dancer. He delivers a faithful imitation of infamous cartoon character, but never does Williams slip into caricature. It would have been easy for Williams or another actor to play this character in an exaggerated manner, but somehow the actor was reeled back from his manic performing style that he was known for, most likely the result of Altman’s directing (Robin Williams described working on the set as belonging to “Stalag Altman”.)

Robin Willaims Popeye.jpg

However, Popeye is actually Shelley Duvall’s film – it belongs to her. There’s something so poetically tragic contained within Duvall’s performance as she presents Olive as a fragile, highly strung woman who is jittery and overwrought. I believe that Duvall brought the experience and emotional baggage that she’d endured during the filming of Kubrick’s The Shining, to the set of Popeye. Shelley Duvall had just wrapped The Shining before arriving on Altman’s set, and it tinges her performance. There’s an indication that Olive is a damaged soul, and it’s not just because she’s written as a tragic character, but rather that Duvall was recovering from a gruelling experience with Kubrick.

Pauline Kael picked upon in the power of Duvall’s performance, stating in her review, “she’s an original who has her own limpid way of doing things—a simplicity that isn’t marred by conventional acting technique, but that by now she has adapted to a wide range of characters…Shelley Duvall takes the funny-page drawing of Olive Oyl and breathes her own spirit in to it. Possibly she can do this so simply because she accepts herself as a cartoon to start with, and, working from that, goes way past it.” I don’t think I can really add much to this, Kael has managed to sum it up perfectly. The reason that the performance from Duvall is so strong is because she simply lets go of any restraints and allows herself to go. This sense of freedom must have made for a refreshing change considering the excessive bombardment and demanding take-after-take that she’d endured on the set of The Shining.

set popeye

The film also works due to its offbeat, and surreal soundtrack written by Harry Nilsson (who performed “Everybody’s Talkin'” for Midnight Cowboy). Nilsson’s songs are so counter-culture, and uncommercial that it must have seemed like a nightmare to Disney. I can only imagine how the studio executives would have lost sleep over lyrics such as “Hurray hurray Sweethaven, Flags are wavin’, Swept people from the sea, Safe from democracy,” which seemed to poke fun about the idea of democracy and utopia. As Eric Spitznagel discusses in his piece for Vanity Fair, “the songs are written in minor keys, so everything sounds like a lament, full of remorse and fear and barely repressed rage. The voices are flawed and scraggly, and barely make an effort beyond melodious muttering.” The fact that the singing is so imperfect and flat in places only adds to the charm of the film. It is worth mentioning that the song ”He Needs Me” was used in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002) which is a touching homage by PTA to Altman, whose work PTA respects and admires.

The end result was that Popeye wasn’t the commercial bomb that many believe. In fact the film grossed $6 million on its opening weekend in the U.S., and made $32,000,000 after 32 days. The end result is that the film earned $49,823,037 at the United States box office — more than double the film’s budget — and a worldwide total of $60 million. Although the film’s gross was decent, it was nowhere near the blockbuster that Paramount and Disney had expected, and was thus written off as a flop which just goes to show how the situation in Hollywood was changing. Even Altman made this observation in an interview with Roger Ebert back in 1980, “It looks like the only pictures of any value in the next few years will be independent productions – on everything else, they’re selling the deal, not the movie.”

Popeye is a gem of a film which almost always appears on lists of Altman’s films as his worst, but I think it’s actually my favourite of his. It’s a film which could have just been an average run-of-the-mill live adaptation, but Altman managed to rescue it and put his unique stamp on it. Just like Popeye, Robert Altman was his own individual and I can imagine him singing along with “What am I? I yam what I yam.”




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