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
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?”
Soon 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.