Strong to the Finich: In Defense of Popeye the Musical

I’m working on a new book called Play / Back: A Different History of Movie Musicals, and it’s been such a fun exercise for two reasons. First, I’m discovering incredibly weird, cool movie musicals I had never heard of before, like Madam Satan, Volga-Volga, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Zachariah, and lots of others.

Second, I’m really studying films that I have seen before, but I’m seeing them with entirely new eyes, and finding so many wonderful new details. Especially with those films that I love that the world mostly hates, this is such a great chance to show people just how cool some of them are. Very much like what I do with my musical theatre books.

As one example…

Maverick film director Robert Altman’s 1980 oddball, live-cartoon movie musical Popeye is often on “Worst Films” lists, but don’t believe it. Popeye is a virtuoso exercise in style, coming as close as anyone had (up till then) in creating a cartoon with live actors on concrete sets. In every detail Altman’s Popeye is relentlessly true to its source material, evidently too close for some critics, who had never seen a film that came so close to the rubber-band physics and gravity-defying hijinks of these 1930s comic strip characters.

In retrospect, Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park, et al.) was the only right artistic choice, an infamously nonconformist film director to make a nonconforming film (nobody had ever done a “live-cartoon” like this before), about one of the greatest icons of nonconformity in American pop culture, Popeye the Sailor Man.

Hollywood super-producer Robert Evans hired award-winning cartoonist and satirist Jules Feiffer to write the screenplay, and Altman lobbied hard to hire quirky (arguably washed-up) pop songwriter Harry Nilsson to write the music and lyrics. In Altman’s smartest preproduction move, he hired Fellini’s favorite cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who had also filmed Fosse’s All That Jazz. Sharon Kinney was hired to choreograph, with Hovey Burgess credited as “circus choreographer,” and Lou Wills credited as “dance style creator for Mr. Williams.”

The production design by Wolf Kroeger captured with breathtaking accuracy the original cartoon’s run-down, physics-defying disrepair of all the buildings, the dock, the boats, etc. Kroeger and Altman discovered concrete parallels for every device and convention of the original cartoons. The Sweethaven set took an international crew of more than 150 construction workers seven months to build, completely from scratch. When they finished, the village consisted of nineteen buildings, including a hotel, a schoolhouse, a store, a post office, a church, and a tavern. The set still stands as a tourist attraction. In Malta.

The fearless cast of character actors obviously studied the cartoons and committed utterly to the quirky physical and vocal attributes of the cartoon characters. Popeye’s ensemble cast included Robin Williams as Popeye, Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, Paul L. Smith as Bluto; and a group of utterly committed, skilled character actors, Paul Dooley as Wimpy, Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy, Richard Libertini as Geezil, Donald Moffat as The Taxman, Bill Irwin as Ham Gravy, Linda Hunt as Mrs. Oxheart, and lots of others.

Many of the citizens of Sweethaven, especially those who had to do crazy physical stunts, were recruited from European circuses, primarily the Pickle Family Circus. Every actor was tasked with creating a distinctive walk and physicality for their character, and that simple detail goes so far in giving the film a weird almost-reality.

Screenwriter Jules Feiffer’s smartest choice was to give both Popeye and Olive families, to give both of these usually two-dimensional, single-trait characters some backstory, some history, some humanity, some stakes.

Allowing Popeye to have backstory, to have a childhood, to have emotions, lends the two-dimensional “sailor man” real humanity, especially in the hands of Robin Williams – who nobody knew yet in 1980 was an even better serious actor than he was a genius comedian. Altman and Williams knew it wouldn’t work to imitate the cartoon character, or to caricature the original. Like any smart director and actor in this unusual situation, they knew the key was to understand Popeye’s inner life, backstory, relationships, wants, needs, etc.; and Williams played him as he’d play any other character, not consciously as a cartoon, but as Popeye the Sailor Man.

The whole film is so wild and weird that people routinely overlook Robin William’s sensitive, subtle performance, as the narrative eye of the hurricane, the glue that holds all these wacky characters together.

Altman solved the Chinese puzzle box of the film musical, defusing that stubborn dissonance between the reality of film and the unreality of musicals, by draining the reality of all its reality. Other filmmakers had sort of done this, with reality-defying stories (Lost Horizon, Rocky Horror), or reality-defying forms (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, All That Jazz), or reality-defying casting (Bugsy Malone, The Muppet Movie), or a reality-defying universe in which the story unfolds (Pufnstuf, Forbidden Zone, Shinbone Alley). But they all still had elements of reality “grounding” them.

In Altman’s Popeye, reality is absent.

Every inch of Sweethaven is stretched, skewed, and seemingly contrary to the laws of physics – as are the personalities, physicality, even the speech patterns, of these characters. Columnist Eric Spitznagel wrote in Vanity Fair that Popeye is “the cinematic equivalent of eating too many pot brownies.” Exactly. This is an alternate reality in which singing doesn’t seem any stranger than anything else does.

The songs in Popeye are the inverse of musical theatre songs, dissonant, upside-down, like almost-familiar Bizarro World versions of well-made theatre and film songs. And yet they still fulfill the functions of musical theatre songs, but often in sly, back-door, sneak attacks, quite often telling us things by not telling us things, as in Olive’s un-love song, “He’s Large.”

Lots of people would call Popeye escapist entertainment, but this oddball film nicely illustrates the Big Lie of Escapism. The truth is that audiences don’t want escape; they want connection.

Sweethaven, as distorted and cartoony as it may be, is a funhouse microcosm of the real world at large; and Popeye as protagonist stands in for us, watching the insanity of the world swirl around him, feeling disconnected, feeling like the Other, having to learn all new rules. (It’s the moment that the concept musical Songs for a New World is all about.)

It would have been so easy to mock these characters, mock their community, to condescend to the audience; but Altman and Company never did that, from the obvious commitment of so many veteran character actors, to Van Dyke Parks’ dynamic orchestral underscoring for the film’s climactic battle, to the exquisitely detailed production design and gorgeous cinematography. This is a serious comedy, about how easy it is to be corrupted in a corrupt society.

Popeye opened in 1980. The budget ballooned to $11 million, then $13.5 million, then finally $23 million. To hedge their bet, Paramount took on Disney as a co-producer. Ultimately, Popeye made about $60 million, one of the top ten moneymaking films of the year, but Paramount had expected more, so it was declared a flop.

Not cool, Paramount.

Watch this movie. It’s really wonderful.

Now back to my book...

Long Live the Musical!