Sunday, August 17, 2014

Popeye & Thimble Theater

Directed by
Robert Altman
Written by Jules Feiffer, based on characters crated by E.C. Segar
Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini
IMDB Entry

In memory of Robin Williams.

When you make a comic book movie, people expect it to match their expectations and that it sticks to an authentic vision of the character.  The problem with Popeye, which was savaged by critics when it first came out, was that it didn’t match expectations, and that it was an extremely authentic and accurate portrayal of the character.  It’s jut that people didn’t know the original character.

A little history.  Popeye was originally introduced in a long-running comic strip. Thimble Theatre, which showed the comic adventures of Olive Oyl, her brother Castor Oyl, and her boyfriend Ham Gravy.  In 1929, Olive and Ham were looking for someone who knew how to captain a boat.  Coming up to a likely looking guy in a sailor’s hat and with immense forearms, they asked if he was a sailor.  The reply was “What do you think I yam? A cowboy?” 

Thimble TheatreSoon the non-cowboy took over the strip and it was renamed.  Ham Gravy and Castor vanished, to be replaced by Bluto and a cast of memorable characters like J. Wellington Wimpy, George W. Geezil,* Swee’Pea, Alice the Goon, Eugene the Jeep, and many others.

In 1932, King Features started producing cartoons starring Popeye, directed by the Fleischer Brothers.**  It quickly became a formula, as Popeye would end up getting in danger, then eating a can of spinach which gave him the strength to defeat his foes.  In 1941, the Fleischers were fired and other people took on the cartoons, which were further simplified in format.

Meanwhile, the strip had gone its own way, with complex stories that lasted many weeks.***  Popeye only rarely used his spinach ex machina.  The stories were wonderful, but Seger died in 1938 of leukemia and the strip went into other hands, making the change to a daily joke strip and dropping many of the characters.

By 1980, when it was decided to make a live action version, the original Thimble Theatre starring Popeye had been forgotten, and the early Fleischer cartoons were not as well known at the later Paramount/King Features/Associated Artists versions.

Popeye was put on screen after Paramount lost out on the bidding war for Annie.  Producer Robert Evans wanted a comic book musical, and picked Popeye, since Paramount held the rights.  He hired Jules Feiffer to write the script.

If you don’t know the name, Feiffer is one of the greats in the comic strip field.  His strip, Feiffer, still seems to be running**** and he wrote successful plays, animated cartoons, and histories of the genre.  A Feiffer decided to go back to the original Seger version.

Meanwhile, Robert Altman was brought in to direct.  It’s an odd choice; Altman was best known for ensemble comedy/drama with overlapping dialog and sexual situation.  He also had a long history of critical successes but financial flops; he still managed to get work regularly though, partly because he had once directed M*A*S*H to immense success and producers thought he might do it again.

Altman built an entire cartoon village on Malta***** for his film, and, indeed, Sweet Haven is one of the characters.  In the movie, Popeye (Robin Williams) come to town and ends up falling for Olive Oyl (Shelly Duvall) while helping the town get out from under the thumb of the pirate Bluto (Paul L. Smith). He also meets his Pappy (Ray Walston) and gets between both Wimpy (Paul Dooley) and Geezil (Richard Libertini).

The characters were the perfect visual representation of Segar’s.  Some of this was makeup, of course, but everyone agreed that Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive.  Few critics noticed that Richard Libertini was the perfect representation of Geezil, however; most critics and fans had no idea who he was.

Williams did feel overwhelmed by the part, but I think he acquitted himself well.  Once use of his talent was having him ad lib while muttering under his breath; that was how Popeye spoke in the Fleischer cartoons.  However, the makeup and other prosthetics made it a strenuous role.

Since the movie was referencing things few remembered, it confused audiences.  Some said it wasn’t faithful to the cartoons, a clear case of missing the point.  It still made some money however, even if it wasn’t a blockbuster.  It’s considered a flop, but if you know its background, you’ll look at it quite differently.

*Arch enemies.  Wimpy would mooch from Geezil and always left him frustrated.  Wimpy’s one catchphrase, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” made it into the movies, but his other one “Come to my house for a duck dinner.  You bring the duck” did not.

**The original Fleischer versions can be identified by the credits appearing on a ship’s hatch as the doors open and shut.

***A hallmark of most newspaper strips of the time.

****In The Village Voice for many years.

*****It’s still there as a tourist attraction.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Metamorpho (comics)

image(1965 – 68)
Created by
Bob Haney (writer) and Ramona Fradon (artist)
Wikipedia Page

Comic book heroes come and go, and it’s hard to keep track of which of the older ones are still around, but one of the most interesting heroes of the early 60s was Metamorpho, since it didn’t follow the usual tropes.

Metamorpho was created by Bob Haney.  DC at the time was trying to create offbeat and “different” superheroes, and Metamorpho certainly fit.

Rex Mason was an adventurer hired by unscrupulous millionaire Simon Stagg to retrieve the “Orb of Ra” – a one-of-a-kind Egyptian artifact hidden in a pyramid.  On the way to Egypt, Rex fell for Stagg’s daughter, Sapphire, giving Stagg a reason to dislike him.  When trying to steal the orb, Rex is knocked out by Simon’s henchman Java* and exposed to the Orb.

As everyone knows, being exposed to magical devices causes great changes and Rex turned into a strange looking man with a chest that was half orange and half purple, with a ghostly white head and legs of mismatched colors.  He also developed the ability to change into any element.

Unlike most heroes, Rex hated the transformation and wanted to return to being human.  He also wanted to leave Simon Stagg’s employ, but Stagg discovered that Rex’s only weakness was the Orb, and used that to control him.  So Rex took on the name Metamorpho and reluctantly became a superhero.

The series premiered in The Brave and the Bold** in January 1965. It must have been a big hit, since he was given his own comic within a year.  The comic had a high degree of parody in the way it portrayed the villains Metamorpho faced, but Rex’s plight was handled seriously:  he hated being a superhero and looked for ways to become human again, even turning down a membership in the Justice League because he expected to change back.

The comic ran for 17 issues.  A female version, Element Girl, joined him for a few episodes*** and Metamorpho joined the Outsiders over the years. 

*Supposedly named because he was a “Java man,” a caveman skeleton of the time.  I don’t remember if Java’s origin was ever described.

**Usually new characters were premiered in DC’s Showcase comics; The Brave and the Bold featured Batman team-ups.

***Her most memorable appearance was years later in Sandman #20.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Written and directed by
Whit Stillman
Starring Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, Ella Thompson
IMDB Entry

There was one name that didn’t quite fit when the nominees for best original screenplay came out for 1990.  You had Bruce Joel Rubin, who had written the phenomenally popular Ghost. They there were Woody Allen, Barry Levinson, and Peter Weir, all of whom had made their mark as writers and directors.  But the fifth was an obscure name who had written (and directed) his first film:  Whit Stillman.  His nomination for Metropolitan certainly was unusual:  it was a small independent film that made less than $3 million in the US.  Why was he up there with the others?

Because, quite simply, he deserved it. 

Metropolitan is about a group of upper-class New York college students during debutante ball season.  Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) gets involved with the group as a way to spend time with Serena Slocomb (Ella Thomson), who he has a crush on, even though she’s seeing someone else.  The cynical Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) starts to give Tom advice, as the group goes through the season, aware it is a dying tradition, but also too much a part of it to want to give it up.

The story goes through a passel of romantic complications, but it’s less a movie about plot than it’s one about dialogue.  Stillman had a gift for it, and the characters are articulate and very funny, sort of a mix between John Sayles Return of the Secaucus Seven and half a dozen Woody Allen films.  The words draw you in and make the plot only an afterthought.*

Of course, Stillwell was not going to win, but the nomination helped him to make more movies.  His next, Barcelona, saw the same sort of people as in Metropolitan only with the added complication of being outside the US.  It shared some themes and references to Metropolitan, and his third film, The Last Days of Disco, saw the social group involved in the disco scene.**  There are references between the films (especially the first and third) and the two make up a thematic trilogy.

But, in the blockbuster world that came up in the 90s, the films were squeezed out.  It didn’t help that The Last Days of Disco flopped, and it was 11 years until Stillman directed again.  Still, the trilogy is filled with smart dialog and plenty of entertainment value.

*The acting also could have been better; most of the cast did not appear in much other than this.

**Whitman wrote a fascinating novel from the screenplay, based on the premise that one of the characters in the movie was writing about what the movie got wrong.  The Last Days of Disco, with Coctails at Petrossian Afterwards, is usually listed as a novelization, but that conceit made it more than just a retelling of what was on the screen.