Perhaps it wouldn’t be such an odd idea nowadays, now that cartoons, comic books, and even comic strips are acceptable — even ideal — fodder for big live-action Hollywood films. In fact, you can probably subtract $25 million from your opening weekend if your film isn’t based on some colorful funnybook creation.
But 1980 was a different world. Superman had been a success two years before, but that was more of an anamoly than the true beginning of the comic/movie phenomenon. And it made sense. Superman was a great character on which to base a film. But…Popeye?
A balding, muttering, one-eyed sailor with a seemingly stroke-induced speech impediment, a filthy, chewed-up corncob pipe jammed in the corner of his slack mouth at all times (even while asleep), freakishly swollen forearms and possibly rickets (or at least severe hip dysplasia)? This was leading man material? Someone evidently thought so…
Most people of my generation are familiar with Popeye due to the showings of the old theatrical animated shorts in syndicated cartoon packages on after-school TV. Originally, there were two distinct waves of these. First were the old black & white shorts created by legendary animators Max and Dave Fleischer in the 1930s. Independently produced, they were released through Paramount Pictures. These creaky old shorts may have begun with the jaunty toot-toots of the famous theme song created for them, but my Lord, they were fucking grim. They were full-on Depression: garbage-filled alleys, soot-covered shipyards, run-down shanty houses and grubby tenements. Popeye & Bluto were covered in grime, they bellowed and grunted minimal dialogue at each other, and brawled violently in the streets over the shrill and hideously unattractive Olive Oyl with an air of reckless desperation because they knew they could do no better. Paramount then bought out the Fleischers’ animation studio, fired the Fleischers, and produced Popeye shorts through their own animation division, Famous Studios. We got color and a more toned-down domesticated Popeye through the late ‘40s and ‘50s, doing things like dog-sitting, trying to nap through the antics of his nephews (who were miniature clones of him, which I thought was intensely creepy and wrong even when I was five), or escaping a sex-crazed 500-pound hillbilly woman with a shotgun in her hand and matrimony on her mind. The Fleischer and Famous shorts were mixed up haphazardly by the TV syndicators and pumped into living rooms across the country for decades for consumption by the last wave of Baby Boomers and the first wave of Gen X’ers (Your Humble Narrator included).
(The made-for-Saturday-morning TV version concocted in the ‘60s — where Bluto’s name was changed to “Brutus” — was a cheap embarrassment for everyone…)
Purists, though, know that the character of Popeye pre-dated his animated appearances, and that he is a creature of the newspaper comic strips. Cartoonist E.C. Segar had started Thimble Theatre in 1919, showcasing the comedy-fantasy adventures of the Oyl family living in the seaside town of Sweethaven, populated by the kind of eccentric grotesques who ran rampant in comic strips of that era. Popeye the Sailor was introduced as another one of these supporting characters in 1929, and quickly eclipsed the rest of the cast members. Before long, the strip was renamed after him. The first Popeye cartoon hit movie screens in 1933, he became a comic book staple beginning in 1944, spinach sales skyrocketed, and television etc. etc. (see above).
Even so, Popeye was an odd choice to transform into flesh-and-blood live action. Even odder was the creative team assembled to do it.
Robert Evans (left), the notorious super-slick Hollywood producer whose preening shallowness was matched only by his ego, wanted to do the film version of the musical Annie, which had just opened (1977). Discovering he could not get the rights, he arbitrarily decided that one comic strip character was pretty much as good as another. A little research showed that Paramount Pictures (his home studio) was collecting $75,000 in royalties each year on the “Popeye the Sailor Man” theme song alone, meaning Popeye cartoons were being shown…a lot. In the 5% of his brain that was not dedicated to acquiring and consuming cocaine, he reasoned that the character’s popularity could be translated into box office cash, which included a cut of the profits for him, which he could use to get more cocaine.
Evans’ first choice to play Popeye…Dustin Hoffman. (You can kind of see that, can’t you?) Hoffman signed on.
Playwright and long-time Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer (below) was hired to write the screenplay. Feiffer could quite accurately be described as the Original Hipster. He told Evans he had no interest in the Popeye of the animated cartoons that were beloved by millions. He preferred the largely-forgotten original Segar comic strips that “most people didn’t know about.” Evans responded, and I believe this is pretty much a direct quote: “Fine, whatever, just make sure Popeye is in it,” and went off in search of more cocaine.
Feiffer got to work, but was so weirded out by writing the names “Popeye” and “Olive Oyl” as characters in his script, he changed them to “Sam” and “Celia” until he got comfortable. Hoffman bailed when he got a look at the first draft (not so picky when that Meet The Fockers script hit your desk, huh, Dustin?). No one seemed to know who would be a suitable replacement. In a discussion with Paramount’s CEO, Michael Eisner, Evans suggested Robin Williams, pretty much at random. (“I didn’t really know who he was. I think I had seen his name on a magazine earlier that day,” Evans breezily admitted.) Eisner said it was a great idea. Williams’ show, Mork & Mindy, had just gone Top 5 in the ratings. The hyperactive, motor-mouthed comedian was still a fresh face, and not the outdated colossal annoyance we all know today. (Will you be doing that in your hilarious “Gay Fashion Designer” voice, Robin, or your equally hilarious “Black Rap Guy” voice?) Popeye would be Williams’ feature film debut.
Then, the brilliant out-of-left-field decision that proved Evans was occasionally an idiot savant…choosing Robert Altman to direct.
Altman (right) was both a seasoned veteran of the Golden Age of Television, and a free-spirited iconoclast. He loved actors and hated dumbass studio suits. His shooting style was fairly unique, at least in American cinema. He favored a huge ensemble cast, employed a floating, roaming camera, and miked everyone, so during the course of a take, no one on the set knew whose dialogue would be used in the final cut. He encouraged improvisation and ad-libbing. His sound mixes were muddy and ambient, with overlapping dialogue that sometimes required more than one viewing/listening. By the end of the ‘70s, he had two bona-fide classics under his belt: MASH and Nashville (and many would make a case for McCabe & Mrs. Miller). He also had a string of interesting but difficult art-house films like Quintet, Three Women, A Perfect Couple and several others. You can hate the studio suits all you want without repercussions when your films are making money, but when you’re putting out flop think-pieces by the bushel, well…Altman’s career was on the precipice.
The Disney company was co-producing Popeye along with Paramount, and they insisted on the film being a musical. So the final oddity was added to the mix: songwriter Harry Nilsson (left), the voice behind the “Everybody’s Talkin'” theme to Midnight Cowboy and the inane Top Ten novelty hit “Coconut.” Production meetings must have looked like a substance abuse counseling group. Evans’ and Williams’ raging blow addictions, Altman’s non-stop pot-smoking, and Nilsson’s crippling alcoholism probably kept things pretty colorful.
The cast and crew headed for the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the entire town of Sweethaven was recreated among the coastal cliffs (below). Shelley Duvall, fresh off of being psychologically tortured by Stanley Kubrick on The Shining, would appear as Olive Oyl, by her own reluctant admission the “role she was born to play.” Duvall was an Altman veteran, making her seventh appearance in one of his films, and many of the other Sweethaven citizens were members of Altman’s personal “rep” company. He preferred actors to have a familiarity and comfort with each other. To that end, much of the cast of MASH were all members of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Altman repeated the idea for Popeye, and hired several members of the Pickle Family Circus — all experienced jugglers and acrobats — to round out the supporting players. Altman insisted even the principal cast members take weeks of tap-dancing lessons so they would move with the lithe springiness of cartoon characters.
So, Altman’s cameras started cranking, and the results were presented to the American viewing public in December 1980.
If nothing else, Altman was at least an interesting world-builder with Popeye. He created an environment that was naturalistic, yet unmistakably different. Characters familiar to us from the animated cartoons (Bluto, Wimpy etc.) rub elbows with more obscure Segar comic-strip characters like Geezil and Castor Oyl. What was in Fieffer’s script and what was improvised by Williams and the cast of veteran ad-libbers may never be known (we do know that Feiffer left Malta in a huff halfway through production). Sweethaven — all weathered wood and jumbled angles — looks like it has been clinging to those cliffs for an eternity, as its colorful oddball denizens move around it in their own peculiar rhythms. For the first third, it’s a story of family dynamics and everyday small-town problems (albeit acted out by people in bulbous cartoon shoes and ridiculous wigs). You can see the roots of Feiffer’s original “Sam-and-Celia” draft here. Then the story gets going, and by the end, it’s truly a comic strip come to life, complete with a treasure hunt, a frantic kidnapped heroine, and an underwater octopus fight. This is paralleled by the character of Popeye himself, whose portrayal by Robin Williams is never less than inspired. He arrives in Sweethaven as a mysterious stranger, seemingly from the “real world,” an actual, calloused, hard-working sailor. By the end of the film, he embraces his true nature as a cartoon character, eating his spinach, vanquishing his “emenies,” and dancing and backflipping as the credits roll. (The dancing in question was across the surface of the water. Popeye as Christ figure? That’s another blog…)
How does it fare as a musical? Well it might be the most non-musical musical in the history of musicals, which is aces in my book (loyal readers know I do not care for most musicals.) Harry Nilsson’s songs were not over-emotive show-stoppers. (Anne Hathaway would be most unwelcome in Sweethaven). They were more like song fragments, relying heavily on repetition, and more suited to the muttered, musing style of the film’s dialogue. Even Bluto’s theme song, “I’m Mean,” is delivered sort of conversationally as Bluto (gamely portrayed by Paul L. Smith) matter-of-factly dismantles the Oyl’s house. Olive’s love song, “He Needs Me,” is oddly touching, and re-used to devastating effect in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. When a song is belted out in a more traditional style, like Popeye’s mid-movie statement of purpose “I Yam What I Yam,” it’s really a memorable moment due to the contrast. Every damn number doesn’t need to swing for the fences and pummel the audience into submission (are you listening, other musicals?) For what it’s worth, like 2012’s Les Miserables (was ever a film more aptly titled?), the vocals were recorded live on set.
The choreography was light years from the precision prancing of Bob Fosse, and could in fact be described more as “awkward shuffling” rather than “dancing” per se. But it fit well with the overall tone of the film.
Finally, a shout-out to all the pre-CGI practical special effects. From model-building to make-up, movies aren’t made like this anymore. (Lawn. Off.) Williams noted the prosthetic forearms were particularly troublesome, comparing early designs to “two hazmat gloves filled with putty,” and the more successful final design to “wearing two loaves of bread right out of the oven” strapped to your arms for sixteen hours a day.
I saw Popeye at the old Varsity Theater in Davis a few days after my sixth birthday. (I’m pretty sure I saw the vastly inferior Herbie Goes Bananas on my actual sixth birthday.) Anyway, I liked it then, and I like it now. But somehow, over the years, Popeye has become synonymous with “bomb.” Even Robin Williams took delight in denigrating it in every talk show appearance he made over the next two decades. What happened?
The reviews certainly weren’t overwhelmingly negative. Many critics saw the same qualities in the film that I do, and the overall response could be accurately said to be “mixed.” And it was an unqualified box-office success, making a $30 million profit, and out-grossing movies considered to be box-office hits that year, including Urban Cowboy, Caddyshack, and The Shining. Yet Popeye became a punchline.
Not to me, of course. Within a year, it was in heavy rotation on HBO, usually on otherwise-boring Saturday afternoons, and I’ll bet I caught each showing. Every moment spent splashing around in the shallow end of a pool for the next two or three summers was an excuse to re-create the frenetic aquatic climax of the film in my imagination. I even asked my mom to buy me some spinach, and that was the only part of the overall experience that was an abject failure. Canned spinach tastes like pond algae, looks like the contents of a diaper, and in general has no excuse that I’ll accept for existing. (I have recently discovered that fresh spinach sauteed with diced bacon is the proverbial cat’s pajamas.) A little bit later in the decade, I found a used paperback copy of The Popeye Story by Bridget Terry, which was a tie-in “making of” book that was actually quite in-depth and informative. I must have read through it a hundred times, but I no longer have the actual book, so a lot of the facts and anecdotes spouted above are pulled from memory.
I’ll pin the blame of Popeye’s failure on Robert Evans. A relic of the excessive ‘70s, he had succeeded in making everyone in Hollywood thoroughly sick of his self-aggrandizing bullshit (in a city that has a very high tolerance for that sort of thing), and by 1980, the studio bigshots and the press had their knives out. Altman went back to doing small, weird pictures on shoestring budgets until he roared back to life with 1992’s The Player, his razor-sharp satire of shallow, money-grubbing studio executives, and had one of the greatest late-career resurgences in film history. He was responsible for modern classics like Short Cuts, Cookie’s Fortune, and Gosford Park in the last fifteen years of his life. (It wouldn’t be Altman without some bizarre failures like Pret-a-Porter, but he was a revered “elder statesman” by then.) Even Robert Evans had a comeback of sorts when the documentary based on his memoirs, The Kid Stays In The Picture, became a cult classic in 2002. The last film to bear his credit as producer was 2003’s How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. At age 80, he still clings to life, wandering the darkened corridors of his palatial estate, sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber to keep his skin supple, and talking to the ghost of Marlon Brando.* Jules Feiffer recently published a memoir that was pure smugness in book form. And Robin Williams has won an Oscar on one hand, and subjected us to movies that are 10,000 times worse than Popeye on the other. (Club Paradise, Cadillac Man, Being Human, Jack, Flubber, Father’s Day, Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, Bicentennial Man…shall I continue?)
The Sweethaven village still stands as a theme park in Malta.
And Popeye itself? It’s out there, waiting for re-discovery. You can find it streaming in HD on Amazon Instant View, and it’s a cheap DVD (no Blu-Ray yet). Give it a chansk, won’t youse?
*this is probably not true.