Popeye: Robert Altman—De-Animator

The whirling, dreamlike slices of life that make up Robert Altman’s films, when he is truest to himself (they’re like pies with a different flavor in every piece), may make you think of animation. People drawn from their physical personalities must be a dream of Altman’s, as he so often looks for the soul of his characters in the gait of his actors. Three years before Popeye, Shelley Duvall emerged as his dream princess in 3 Women, his little girl pretender who could grin through big teeth as she ate half a slice of life and saved the rest in the fridge to maintain her figure. In that film, she’s a Hollywood icon boxed into a girl with a voice like a tea kettle and eyes that quest after meaning as innocently as they do in any mythology. How this dream and this prospect of human animation applies to Popeye is a study in how they could fail each other. It could not be more specific if it was made for the purpose.

The film opens with a grey sky filled with lightning as a dingy drifts into a seaside shantytown. A sailor hobbles onto the deck and is immediately slapped with taxes for landing, hobbling, for the rain, for his questions, and for his squinty eye. One wonders why the audience isn’t taxed for watching. The sailor, of course, is Popeye (Robin Williams).

The question of “appropriateness” is bound to come up in reference to an adaptation of famous material. But let's go on record as admitting that adaptations must change. New mediums demand it -- new artists applying their unique emotional contexts need room to grow within an old formula. However, it is still worthwhile to look at an idea of appropriateness as a way to gauge a creator’s motivations. Starting the Popeye film, not with cheery blue skies in a seaside 1940s Norman Rockwell postcard town, but with rain and taxes and wooden shanties, is as bold as opening The Flintstones in a prison camp. It is permissible to do it. But I expect to discover a good reason.

None reveals itself. It’s never entirely clear why Popeye seems as devoted to dreariness as you would expect it to be cheerful. The realization that it’s a musical helps in dissecting its motivations as a movie production, as I’ll explain, but it does nothing to liven the aesthetic – that’s the problem that goes beyond its studio troubles. Popeye gambols into town after paying his taxes, Williams’ re-recorded lines punching the front of the mic (they had to redo them all because his mumbling couldn't find room to be heard in his crowded mouth), and the people of Sweethaven begin singing in the sunshine that Giuseppe Rotunno gave to the later Fellini films like Amarcord and De Sica's marriage comedies. Popeye is cut from the same canvas sky, though the town authorities have yet to get the memos out to the masses.

The people of Sweethaven are drab; they drag their patchy feet and ill-fitting shoes, heads downturned. Their singing is blunt and deep, almost Gregorian – songs like the queasy depression ballad "Every Day is Food" bring to mind flagellation before any semblance of Americana (I kept thinking of the self-punishing monks from Monty Python and the Holy Grail but without the irony). What’s more, they wander the wooden planks of the Maltese fishing village (built for the film as a constant reminder of its excessive devotion to dreariness) in a kind of systemic trance normally reserved for depictions of Communist countries in old Disney cartoons. It’s the kind of place where all the windows seem boarded up, built sideways, ready to topple; the air is stale and cold, though the sun is shiny and the sky is Meditteranean-blue like it was when bakers whistled at Sophia Loren's legs on any old Saturday in the old neighborhood. “Sweet Sweethaven,” they sing in rhythm, chain gangs with self-made chains, “God must love us.” It’s a twisted hate-child between a show-tune and a prison chant. It’s “Annie: Beyond Thunderdome.”

In an autopsy, you’re looking for what went wrong with the body; if Popeye was a corpse, the doctor would say, “Hand me my scalpel. Let’s check out the ‘Sweethaven’ song.” It demonstrates the energy that toxified the idea of making a film based on Popeye before anyone had even thought of it. It was a proactive death.

Paramount lost an intense bidding war for the film rights to Annie – this is the first thing that “inspired” a cheery musical film based on the beloved Popeye cartoons (you see now that starting with drab rainclouds is not merely inappropriate but prophetic). Paramount considered what property they owned that could possibly become an Annie-style musical to rival it at the box office. They realized that through a release deal initiated back in 1932, they still retained the theatrical film rights to Popeye. Naturally, adding songs to it would only liven it up; how could it miss?

This is why Popeye, a property that features very few children, has such an off-kilter worldview when turned into this film. Patchwork ragamuffins singing about the dire straights of their childhood is twisted-sweet; Annie must be the softest throw to Schadenfreude on any stage. If you translate the comical misery to an adult world, however, it becomes a regime: taxation, starvation, depression, poverty. The erratic movements of the deliberate gags become a kind of weariness: animators become overlords (the first in the film is a man who can’t seem to grab his hat from the ground as the wind pushes it; rather than funny slapstick it seems more like a teeny Job parable). “God must love us,” the song goes; the mise en scene of Popeye, whose cheeriness turns to accidental irony, seems to silently answer within only a few minutes: “To punish us so much.” Annie works in spirit four feet from the ground, where there’s no agency. Any taller, and people start to seem responsible for their own misery, which takes the fun out of it.

This applies to how every character is written into this world. Jules Feiffer’s script operates under the assumption that the real world cannot damage a cartoon antic. As a cartoonist, his failure here makes sense: every scene in Popeye is four panels long with one punchline and no through-line.

The problem he has with this (it’s a problem of an undeveloped worldview) applies to the smallest literal detail and the largest conceptual development. In the tiny details, consider a man eating a glass cup; we listen to the shards crunch between real teeth. You’ve seen people take perfect crescent-shaped bites out of cups in cartoons, but have you ever winced while they chewed, or imagined glass shards in your gums and under your tongue and between your teeth? The real world blanches out the charm of antics like these.

Then consider the larger concepts. Bluto (Paul L. Smith) was simply a romantic rival for Popeye in their many cartoons. Here, seemingly to fit his bulk into a real-world context, he’s more interested in his social standing than in the affections of Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall). He’s the figurehead of the regime that taxes Sweethaven, runs the local gambling circuit, and sponsors local sporting events. He’s Ebenezer Scrooge in a bull’s body. Both those things have been known to work in cartoons.

The problem is not that they tried to recontextualize the Popeye formula into feature-length, but that in the spirit of the cartoons, every event in the film is still as self-contained as a one-off gag. Despite technically being betrothed to Olive, as we learn in Bluto’s only major scene, in which he destroys the Oyl house after eating their coffee cups and blundering through a song (it’s unclear which is the greater offense), he confronts Popeye only once before the ending of the film. Popeye comes to town to find his lost Poppa, but doesn’t commit to looking for him, or find even one clue before finding the man; he saves the town from tyranny, but not by saving the Oyls – both aspects of the same coincidence are themselves coincidences. Nothing builds on anything in this movie. Things merely happen, as an alienated audience tries to make sense of it.

To explain Feiffer’s devotion to not making the film feel like Popeye, it’ll only take one scenario.

After Bluto destroys the Oyl house, he taxes the Oyls out of their livelihood for owning a destroyed house. The Oyl son (Donovan Scott) sees a contest flyer to fight a champion boxer for a ten-day tax exemption. He goes and loses, being punched into the floor with the same antics that we’ve seen drawn a million times, though we’ve never been reminded of scoliosis until now. Popeye, of course, jumps into the ring and saves the day. Bluto watches from a distant throne, waiting for the day that he and Popeye can have a scene together outside of their initial meeting, which consisted of a couple of unsettling punches. Popeye’s body reacts to being punched as it does in the cartoon, by bending into rubber to absorb the blows. In this context, the audience can’t decide whether to laugh or wince.

Most maddening of all, Bluto is not himself the big palooka in the ring that Popeye fights, both vying for Olive’s affections; Feiffer explicitly conceives this with several convenient workarounds so that this is not the case. He fights an unrecognized strongman named Oxblood Oxheart, who is much larger than Bluto, begging the question of what the fuss with him is all about. Oxblood’s statue topples in a deliberate shot that is so falsely epic it seems almost eerie. The result is not victorious but wearying. What’s more, Popeye wins and no explanation is offered for what becomes of the prize money; it seems to have no effect on the plot. The contrivance is conceived to navigate around the fact that Popeye and Bluto aren’t fighting for reasons of a common character goal, but it’s also ignored as soon as the contrivance is accomplished; there’s no greater end. The contrivances are the film.

If the contrivances were all in the service of gags, I might say Feiffer achieves the physical looseness of the Fleischer cartoons where most people would have written a conventional movie plot. But the contrivances are all plot-based. The film has that conventional plot after all; it just makes it as difficult as possible to see.

This means that when Popeye finds out that his father (Ray Walston) is actually behind the town’s misery, he also forgets about it to keep the plot moving. The script grinds up Hollywood origin stories, the concept of action climaxes and revelations, puts them in a Popeye cup and chokes them all down. The slow chase across the gorgeous Maltese waters in sluggish rafts, people talking almost in time with music, almost out of earshot of the audience, is the most embarrassing abuse of a studio budget in the history of licensed films (Walston particularly is a scabby substitute for his younger costars, bringing a Thespian’s boisterous cynicism to a part that could only be as close to being pleasant as it is close to sincerity). The climax of this scene is a fight with a rubber octopus, which halted the production when it failed to work properly (you may remember this from Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster as well, wherein Bela Legosi famously had to wrestle a rubber octopus in a way that made it look like the effect was operational). With far more sincerity, Spielberg blew his budget on the indulgent disasterpiece, 1941. At least he had the decency of blowing mostly his own money. Around the time they built the boats, Paramount cut Altman off from any more budget increases and ordered the crew to come home, no matter what the movie looked like.

This indulgence makes the effects seem sad where they should be exciting; they read like expenses, even when you don’t know the story of the production. This is partly because the same indulgence makes even simple scenes of dialogue seem as much like an expense, and a slog to get through. Popeye is a drudgery to watch because of pauses, as characters maneuver around both the stilted anarchy of the cartoon’s mumbling style and a need to relate and be heard, factors essential to films and nonexistent in Fleischer shorts. The “cricket chirp” sound effect is applicable to every conversation in this film.

The physical antics are just as slow: Jackie Chan films are more of a tribute to Popeye than Popeye. Altman labors over the stunts in this movie; he shoots backflips from unimpressive angles, exactly as though he’s never done one himself. The cartoon windups on corkscrew punches don’t speed up; they putter. The inflatable arms (they were notorious hindrances on the set, with many shots having to be cut to keep them out of frame) are veiny and bloated. In animation, it’s a stylistic perspective on a sailor’s working arms; the joke is that he’s strong. In a live-action film, it looks like something a doctor should check out. Other than punching out a few bullies, Popeye performs few strongman stunts in the film (he doesn’t bend one anchor, though he does punch a piano at one point). Reality is too limited – the arms are vestigial.

The silent comics would have had a handle on this material: Popeye could have been a great Keaton film, whose boxing butler character has more physical prowess, more command over chaotic slapstick elements than Williams has, tied down to the sluggish sailor’s spirit (I was also thinking of City Lights throughout this movie). His mouth is equally shackled to the pipe as to the physical limitations, rendering Williams’ manic, fast-talking presence (he should have been called “perfect” for this part) hardly necessary. Imagine Chaplin with his eyes covered.

The result feels like the early sound films that attempted slapstick but failed to recapture the silence. Without meaningful banter or a grasp of how to pace concrete humor, the feet-dragging slapstick and soft-shoe numbers feel like emulations; you get the same feeling when high schools put on Broadway shows. Significantly, Altman isn’t trying to do a ton of Popeye gags: it’s his own aesthetic applied to the limitations of the idea of this adaptation that he can’t satisfy, and worse (it may be his counterargument). It feels like the Marx skits that focus on Chico and Zeppo, the ones that you fast forward through as a kid (not that there are many Marx Brothers VHSs still floating around, but I can only relate to my own experience). “I Yam What I Yam” is a stodgy number in a gambling parlor that feels like they intended it to be climactic; Popeye sings it in response to a character revelation that doesn’t happen (more like a character reiteration). His slow, deliberate movements, Williams trying to break out of limitations, Altman trying to find the crowds in a world comprised of movie stars, the rerecorded lines floating uneventfully over a second mic, makes the whole thing queasy and not a speck triumphant. It feels like a sequence from The Sting guest-directed by John Waters. Maybe you’re thinking you’d like to see that? I doubt you’d want to see it for two hours.

The most surprising aspect of the experience of watching Popeye is the gem in the silt, the one element that works on the level of old Hollywood irony and taps its toes to its version of that tune; it doesn’t just sparkle – it’s willing to sparkle. If you know anything about this film, you know what I’m talking about. Let’s talk about Shelley Duvall.

Duvall waltzes through the film like a silent comic. Chaplin batted his eyes; Duvall bats her whole body. She has debutante energy and a Gumby body: she’s the element of animation that makes Popeye bearable. Even her two songs, “He’s Large” and “He Needs Me,” are triumphs of sincere dissonance (you may recognize the latter from its tribute in Punch-Drunk Love, a film Duvall would have been perfect for, once). She takes every step with her floppy shoes pointed inwards, swooning and grinning like she’s in a movie as delightful as she is, her neck bent in one straight surface like a piece of string cheese; she’s Gene Kelly and the lamppost in one body.

Her eyes are wide, though she’s not impressed by anything except Popeye. The feats are so wimpy that you’d wonder if they even happened without Duvall to see them as wonderful. Due to the speech impairment (language is his battlefield), Williams has never been less funny. Duvall’s physical acting steals his show; you leave the film thinking she could do better than anyone in town, even though she looks like a Hollywood actress flattened by a few passes with a rolling pin. You end up falling in love with a thumb toy.

What should be the most awkward kiss in movie history, Popeye near-inaudibly expressing his efflections while Olive says “Phooey” to him before giving him the faintest peck, would fit in Punch-Drunk Love’s ironic Hollywoodization because of Duvall. No performance has ever been higher in quality compared to the film around it.

Early Disney and Fleischer cartoons are rubbery; their hearts are full of anarchy. Love never lasts forever in them but neither does pain. Even in scary, racist, sexual, or violent acts, they have a big bright tomorrow in their eyes that gives them the feeling of being hopelessly American. Who wouldn’t want to get drunk on that? Altman’s Popeye couldn’t capture those spiritual physics, either because it’s too devoted to presenting the conventions or too embarrassed by them. Either way, Altman makes the job too difficult to try – his ambition to present the universe of Fleischer animation as a physical reality implies a great film, or the elements of one. Yet when he presents a funny situation – Popeye pulling the doorknob off Oyl’s room, for instance – the audience can’t figure out when to laugh. We’re not even sure if it broke because he’s strong or because the house is falling apart. Often, you’re stuck looking at a visual gag without knowing what it is.

Modeled after City Lights, with a girl and a guy, a few sight gags, some falling down, a boxing match, and a happy ending, Popeye could have clocked in at 85 minutes and made something of itself. Instead, it shackles everyone down – Popeye is recognized in cartoons by his pipe, but to a verbal comedian it’s a ball gag; that’s the tiniest stylistic element being prioritized over an entire central performance, despite Williams’ boyish charm shining through one eye in his moments with Olive. It’s that thinking that sank the ship, even before it decided to turn taxation and ramshackle social paradigms into major plot elements.

The Wimpy character (Paul Dooley) is so devious but without a hint of intelligence that he makes the world of the film seem like a bad idea even as it’s desperately trying to make the audience pleased with it (the cartoons that featured him are the ones that discerning kids turn off – no real fan of the cartoons would ever feature him in a film). This also applies to the baby, Swee’Pea, but he at least has the opposite effect on Popeye: a baby is just about the only thing in Popeye that is cuter in live-action than in animation. He brings people together in its most charming moments. Speaking of which, Duvall is a string of pearls wobbling around the movie’s neck, reminding you it has the means to do better with itself. The song, "He's Large," features her puppet body grasping at the purpose of lingerie while she sings out of tune about how, in lacking a reason to like Bluto, she might as well like that he's large. It's the only scene that plays like Fellini. But appreciating the irony of her honest face in these surroundings cannot substitute for a plot that's literally lost at sea.

When Popeye arrives in town, he makes emphatically clear that he hates spinach (didn’t Bruce Wayne make the same claim of bats in Batman Begins?). They tease it for two hours, hours which I would not recommend spending with kids, by the way, due to the cursing and general confusion (here’s four seconds of the film from the script: “Come on, haul ass, haul ass. They're on the vile body. Miss Oyl, that's me fadder. No! Your pappy's a Commodore?!” Modern parents must think they’re listening to kiddie babble; modern kids must be hearing a foreign language).

When we finally get around to the spinach, it’s force-fed to him while he’s chained up, slopping and juicy, Robin resisting. Maybe it’s good that Altman doesn’t give in to convention, with a series of punching gags and references to the cartoons; he builds worlds before he reconstructs beats. But then why not build something new – why troll the situation at all? Popeye reluctantly builds to the spinach gag anyway, even after all its meandering, but when he becomes strong and punches out the bad guys, it’s all underwater; it’s had the victory soaked out of it. We don’t see it, except for a few flurried snuff film shots in the water, the kind that Ed Wood would have called “realistic.” He’d have called Popeye a human-interest story, a working man romance -- the same creative delusion makes Altman look for more than an adaptation in it. This is how he goes from his early art, that promising structural ambivalence, to Wood’s level through sheer ambition to turn animation into physics. In Popeye, he stressed just as much over the characters’ dynamics as over the same problem Wood did: how can I get the octopus to work? What could be more important than that?

***

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Parmount Pictures

Cast & Crew

Robert Altman

Jules Feiffer

E.C. Segar (strip)

Popeye Robin Williams
Olive Oyl Shelley Duvall
Bluto Paul L. Smith/John Wallace (singing)
J. Willington Wimpy Paul Dooley
Poopdeck Pappy Ray Walston
George W. Geezil Richard Libertini

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