Overlooked & Underseen: Popeye (1980)
Now, now, hear me out. Robert Altman’s Popeye deserves a rewatch. Look, I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t a perfect movie. It isn’t even close. But it is a good movie. My Canadian friend, Jonathan White says, “Popeye is a coke-fueled masterpiece.” He’s right, of course. There is a hell of a lot going on in Popeye, and a lot of it is worth a look.
We’ll start with Harry Nilsson. His score and songs (with the help of Van Dyke Parks, no less!) are as wacky as they are genius. Shelley Duvall’s songs “He’s Large” and, singularly, “He Needs Me” are standouts; the latter being especially poignant due to Duvall’s recent troubles. Williams has a lovely moment when he sings “Swee’Pea’s Lullaby” as he writes a letter to his lost adopted son.
The ensemble cast is fantastic; Paul Dooley plays “Wimpy”, forever trying to scam a burger, wherever he can. Linda Hunt and Dennis Franz are there as well, stirring the pot and generally making Popeye’s life a misery. Klaus Voormann even shows up! Anything that Voorman is in is instantly awesome. Bill Irwin, who really deserves his own entry in “Overlooked and Underseen”, is a national treasure and should be treated as such. Although Popeye is his first feature film, Irwin has been around since the 1970s when he revived the old-timey Vaudevillian stage clown. He plays “Ham Gravy” in the movie and his skills and cartoon-like slapstick are put to good use. If you have kids, or you are one, you probably know Irwin best as “Mr. Noodle” from Sesame Street.
Shelley Duvall plays “Olive Oyl” like a cartoon sketch come to life. In the cartoons, I always thought the ‘toon Olive was annoying as hell but Duvall makes the character likeable. Let’s face it, Olive is fickle as fuck, but Duvall’s portrayal makes the character rather endearing. Bud Spencer lookalike Paul L. Smith as “Bluto” lumbers and glowers his way through the film, as Bluto should. The beloved Ray Walston shows up as Popeye’s “Pap” but by this time, the movie has gone arse over apex.
Well, the elephant in my piece that I’ve purposefully avoided talking about until now is Robin Williams. I mean, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? He’s pretty magnificent. Just as Duvall is Olive, Williams transforms himself into Popeye. My husband and I had a great time trying to catch all of the dialogue Williams was muttering underneath his breath. Turn on your subtitles. It really helps.
Recently, Film Twitter (it’s a thing) were listing their “Top 8 Altman Films” and very few people listed this movie. Dismiss it all you want, it is an Altman film. It has that feel, especially in the ensemble scenes. What he managed to do was to make a film that is a literal interpretation of the E.C. Segar cartoons. The film is packed with scene after scene of cartoon/silent movie slapstick. There are always multiple things going on in the background in any given scene, down to the bearded old man that photo bombs throughout the entire picture. If one were to call this film “busy”, they would not be wrong.
The best scene is when Popeye decides to fight “Oxblood Oxheart” (to get Olive and her family out from under a mound of taxes). This scene showcases how brilliantly Altman is able to replicate the cartoon into film. The choreography of the background crowd at the fight perfectly replicates Segar’s cartoons.
Again, I know it isn’t perfect. For me, it all becomes a cluster-fuck once everyone sets sail, under Poopdeck Pappy’s command, trying to rescue Swee’Pea from Bluto. From there on out, the movie just becomes too much. Also, the closing showdown between Popeye and Bluto is weirdly staged. The action takes place in some sort of closed off lagoon. Given the elaborateness of the rest of the film, the location seems claustrophobic and messy. But I can overlook the last act because I enjoy the first two so much.
I would have loved to see a sequel with Eugene the Jeep and the Sea Hag.
We really do owe this movie an apology. If you haven’t seen Popeye, please do yourself a favor and add it to your watchlist. If you have seen it, give it another chance, why don’t ya?