Monday, December 1, 2014

POPEYE (1980)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

In my review of LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER, I said:

... though Hollywood expressed interest in a lot of franchises-- including, incredibly enough, PLASTIC MAN-- the possibility of more big-time movies of this type was killed for a time by three major flops: FLASH GORDON and POPEYE in 1980, and LONE RANGER in 1981.

I had always heard that all three of these films flopped at the box office. Upon belatedly checking Wikipedia, though, I found it asserted that both FLASH GORDON and POPEYE made decent if not exceptional profits, in contrast to the RANGER's unquestionable failure. I might still assert that the less-than-blockbuster box office of the first two films may have some effect on the way most adaptations of the next eight years-- that is, all those prior to 1989's BATMAN-- remained generally mediocre, as seen by such winners as 1982's SWAMP THING, 1984's SUPERGIRL and SHEENA, 1986's HOWARD THE DUCK and 1987's MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.

Anyway, POPEYE was not a flop in 1980. I remember mildly enjoying it, though I noticed a lot of problems in pacing and a lot of mediocre music. Like most reviewers, I found that Shelley Duval and Olive Oyl proved a perfect match, while Robin Williams and Popeye were only fair by comparison.
Director Robert Altman and scripter Jules Feiffer certainly understood the quirky humor of the original Elzie Segar comic strip, and they translated several regular strip-characters-- Rough House,
Geezil-- who had never been adapted to film before.  Altman, no small talent with quirky characters himself, chose to set the entire shebang in "Sweethaven," a ramshackle East Coast fishing-village, convincing his backers to let him build an entire town on the island of Malta.  This enabled Altman to put said backers at a distance, creating his own little Popeye-world.

The film's greatest down side was that of action. The filmmakers were obviously aware that they had to provide some adventurous stunts, since the audience's strongest associations with the one-eyed sailor was their familiarity with the hyper-violent Fleischer Brothers cartoon.  In those pre-CGI days, it was clearly impossible to create the illusions POPEYE sought to create-- the sailor-man twisting his own arm around and around to deliver a "twister punch," or his body being turned into a rolling wheel by the force of Bluto's blow. Yet I forgave the obvious limitations of the period then, and I still found the phony effects somewhat charming today.

However, there's one thing that the Segar strip and the Fleischer Brothers had in common that Altman and Feiffer did not see fit to emulate: the free-wheeling sense of adventure. The animated cartoon frequently had Popeye venturing to strange climes to fight Sinbad the Sailor or Aladdin's Lamp, and while Segar's strip focused somewhat more on domestic comedy, the artist also pitted the sailor-man against exotic menaces like the Sea Hag and his mindless Goons.

The Altman-Feiffer Popeye, however, is largely rooted in a naturalistic universe. Sweethaven is patterned on dozens of Old West towns dominated by moneyed tyrants: the opening song-- one of Harry Nilson's few strong contributions-- mentions that the denizens of Sweethaven are "safe from democracy." Here the tyrants are Captain Bluto-- who is engaged to marry Olive Oyl, much against her will-- and the mysterious, never-seen Commodore. To this enslaved community comes Popeye, the marine version of the lone cowboy-hero, right down to the fear he invokes in the sheep-like inhabitants of the town.  However, there's one big difference between Popeye and the classic cowboy: the sailor-man has daddy issues. He's come to Sweethaven in response to a "visikayshkon" that tells him to look for his lost father there. On his first day he even finds a corncob pipe, though he doesn't connect it to his quest.

It's no great reveal to state that the mystery of Popeye's father and that of the Commodore are one and the same. I won't dwell on this because I find it one of scripter Feiffer's weakest plot-threads, and even though POPEYE is full of lots of mugging actors, Ray Walston as "Poopdeck Pappy" is one of the muggiest.  Considerably better is the introduction of the "infink" Swee'pea, who brings Popeye and Olive closer together, though I didn't care for Feiffer's introduction of a subplot which gives Swee'pea psychic powers. This proves to be nothing but a plot-device that serves two purposes: to provoke a quarrel between Olive and Popeye, and to give Bluto the idea of using the baby to find the Commodore's hidden treasure.

The latter development is a half-baked attempt to provide the film with a bang-up finish; instead, it's one of Altman's worst-paced sequences. Altman is obviously comfortable with the domestic comedy of Segar's strip, and his main strategy for livening things up is to throw in bits of slapstick wackiness. I suspect Altman, given his stated antipathy for the "storytelling" aspects of mainstream films, would not have been comfortable with a more "adventurous" Popeye, even one leavened by a lot of humor. But in focusing on dozens upon dozens of "bits of business" throughout the film, Altman and Feiffer don't deliver much payoff to Popeye's quest for his lost daddy.

I note in passing that though many of Williams' muttered Popeye-asides don't work very well, he does this aspect of Popeye quite well-- though one of the best was reworded. I seem to remember hearing the first release of POPEYE utilize the salty expression "I wonder who stuck a feather you know where," as referenced in this Amazon review-- but the dialogue on the current DVD definitely does not use that phrasing.

The only marvelous element of the film, aside from Swee'pea's psychic power, is the super-strengthening effect of spinach on Popeye. As in the cartoons, Popeye is sometimes seen performing feats of phenomenal strength even without spinach, but there's no explanation for these, aside from the Roger Rabbit explanation: "he can do it because it's funny." Feiffer's best conceit is that Popeye has hated spinach since he was a tyke being raised by Poopdeck Pappy, but the history of the sailor and his pappy is so muddled that it doesn't have any psychological resonance.  Still, the irony of the end-fight, in which Bluto force-feeds Popeye spinach precisely because the sailor doesn't like it, is a fair twist on the now predictable image of Popeye reaching for his spinach-can.

In conclusion, POPEYE is very much a mixed bag. I didn't find that not having viewed in for many years made any difference in my opinion of it. What I had liked or disliked in 1980, I still liked or disliked. Given the period in which the film was produced, it's lucky that it's as good as it is.

ADDENDA: I've been reliably informed that the character Geezil did make some brief appearances in three POPEYE cartoons of the Classic Hollywood years, most notably A CLEAN SHAVEN MAN.  I'm going to guess, though, that the Altman movie does seem to be the first time Geezil gets to do his main Segar schtick , in which he heaps epithets on Wimpy for either swindling him, mooching off him, or some combinations thereof.

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