December 12th, 1980, isn’t that important to many people. Hanukkah had just ended, I wasn’t quite born yet, and Christmas was still just a glow in the distance. What it did bring is Robert Altman’s live-action ode to E.C. Segar’s serial cartoon creation Popeye the Sailor. Headlined by Robin Williams (at the height of Mork mania), Shelly Duvall (The Shining), Ray Watson (My Favorite Martian), Paul Smith (Midnight Express), and a cavalcade of circus performers, comedians, and actors making up the background, Altman’s Popeye seemed destined for greatness. Instead, it’s on just about every list of box office flops; an oddity given it made $60 million off its $20 million budget. What it is considered, 40 years later, is honestly up for debate. Some delight in its comic revelry (me), while most look back on it with distain (just about everyone else). If you’re like me, get ready to revisit the shanty town of Sweethaven in the 40th anniversary of Popeye, bursting with nearly 30 minutes of bonus material and a display that looks like it ate its spinach.
Arriving in a sinking dinghy, Popeye’s (Williams) entrance to Sweethaven seems like it’s going to be a disaster from the jump. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s greeted by the Taxman (Donald Moffat), who takes Popeye for virtually all he has in the name of the mysterious Commodore. To make matters worse, the only place he can find to let him rent a room is with the Oly Family whose daughter Olive (Duvall) is about to be engaged to the Commodore’s enforcer, Bluto (Smith). All Popeye wants is to find the father he lost 30 years ago and, instead, finds himself getting caught up in local politics and becoming the sudden “mother” to an abandoned orphan, Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt). Can Popeye track down the family he lost or will his stop at Sweethaven be just the opportunity to make a new one of his own?
Look, Popeye isn’t exactly a perfect film. Despite having songs written by Harry Nilsson (“Everybody’s Talkin’”), the majority of the songs are not particularly catchy with the only standout being the final song “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man.” Some of this is on purpose as commented in the featurette “The Popeye Company Players” as Duvall was not a strong singer, but her delivery was perfect for Olive Oyl. In watching Duvall’s pitch perfect performance as Olive, one cannot argue that the actor was the right match for the role (physically and performance-wise), but the songs still make a cat screech sound like relief. It certainly doesn’t help that the songs, clearly inspired by the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, are repetitive and unengaging. What saves the songs from being absolutely useless is that the story isn’t dropped just so a character or characters can sing. Rather, like any Broadway show, the action during the songs progresses the story in a variety of ways. The song “Everything Is Food” is practically only memorable for the topic, but the sequence enables the audience a closer look at the background players who make up Sweethaven. In the aforementioned featurette, viewers get introduced to a few of them, highlighting the fact that while Popeye, Olive, Bluto, and Swee’Pea may pull focus, they are by no means the only people in the story. Altman gathered together performers of all stripes so that their presence in any given scene made it feel more alive and realized versus simply being background action. In this scene, we are treated to our first real glimpse of Wimpy (Paul Dooley), the infamous negotiator of food today for pay tomorrow, singing his entreaty to the cooks, wait staff, and diners amid the melody. Simultaneously, characters like Bill Irwin’s Ham Gravy are given equal time to shine as the Wimpy, Popeye, and the other residents of Sweethaven weave their way into the diner for lunch. The song may be so-so, but the performances inside of that scene are laugh-out-loud hilarious. If, however, you really dig the songs, the 40th anniversary includes the ability to jump to any of the songs from the main menu via the “Sailor Man Melodys” option.
Outside of the songs, the whole of Popeye is engaging from start to finish. Sure, the film doesn’t seem a whole lot like the cartoons audiences know the squinting spinach-fueled sailor from, but Altman explains in the featurette “Return to Sweethaven: A Look Back With Robin And The Altmans” that he drew inspiration for the story from the original Segar serials. Building off of that, Altman and scribe Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge) crafted a story which is not so much about reclamation of family, but of coming into ones’ self. Altman explains that Popeye himself doesn’t became the cartoonish version audiences know until he spends more time in Sweethaven, as though the place and its people are what changes him. Knowing this thoughtfulness of intent, you can see the progression of change gradually take affect through the narrative. Granted, I find it strange that the film has Bluto beat on Popeye before Popeye proves his mettle fighting Oxblood Oxheart (Peter Bray), however, the manner in which Popeye gets beaten and the manner in which Popeye responds both physically and verbally is very much in tone with what audiences expect. All of which implies a great understanding of the material from the director, writer, and performer. Frankly, watching Popeye as an adult, as opposed to the last time I watched it as a child, I can see all the specific artistic choices and enjoy them far more now. One such choice was that production designer Wolf Kroeger (The Last of the Mohicans) took away the measurement and leveling tools from the Italian construction crew building the Sweethaven set because everything looked *too* perfect off the designs from the English architects. So, if you wondered why parts of Sweethaven look perfectly straight and other parts off-kilter, it’s because Kroeger wanted the entire set to look more sloven and patchwork. Learning about the intentional nature of Popeye in its design and performances brings to light a certain brilliance about the entire endeavor that, publicly, only a few delighted in, even though, privately, the film was an enormous success.
What’s truly surprising about Popeye’s 40th is how beautiful the film is on Blu-ray. The press materials don’t describe the process of transfer, so I can’t speak with any authority over who supervised it (Altman passed in 2006) or whether it’s a proper restoration or simply a transfer. Honestly, the presentation is so lovely in its clarity and minimal visual noise that it looks like it belongs in the Paramount Presents premium line. The colors are beautiful, capturing the vibrancy of oceanic living even as the surroundings are colored in more earthy tones. Sweethaven looks rustic and, even at its most rundown, possesses the residue of a once opulent past. Frankly, I’ve seen 4K remasters that don’t look as good as this disc. It also doesn’t hurt that the bonus materials are similarly rich with interviews including material from interviews in September 1999 with Altman, January 2014 with Williams, and July 2020 with prop master (and Altman’s son) Stephen Altman. Between the stories the three share, you get a full picture of the kind of vision and artist’s journey Popeye became.
Altman’s Popeye doesn’t exactly qualify as a cult classic given the box office success, but it’s safe to say that it is one. In an interview from January 2014, Williams describes how the premiere audience didn’t respond how anyone hoped and he felt like his career was about to take a dump. It obviously didn’t hurt Williams, or the rest of the cast, in the long run and the film was celebrated when it hit home video. Altman himself comments that the audience for Popeye skewed to children and mature adults in theaters and as a babysitter on home video. Perhaps with the new release of the Blu-ray and digital editions, a whole new set of fans can be introduced to a film that knows exactly what it is. Personally, I think it would make a perfect double-feature partner with the more positively received Dick Tracy (1990), a film similarly plucked from the comics page and given life on celluloid.
Popeye 40th Anniversary Special Features
- Return to Sweethaven: A Look Back with Robin and the Altmans
- The Popeye Company Players
- Popeye’s Premiere
- The Sailor Man Medleys
- Theatrical Trailer
Available on Blu-ray and digital December 1st, 2020.