Favorite Musical Scene Theatre: Popeye (1980)
Robert Altman’s oddest and most radical film arguably remains his big studio musical version of POPEYE, starring Robin Williams in his film debut as the titular one-eyed sea dog, one of the great casting coups in movie history — whatever one thinks of the movie. Altman might have seemed a most unusual choice to helm a cartoon musical Christmas spectacular, but given that E.C. Segar’s character is a distinct part of Americana folklore, it’s no surprise Altman and screenwriter Jules Feiffer wanted to put their own subversive spin on Popeye (he even hates spinach). Which they did to the dismay of some, and though the film made an impressive 50 million dollars, it was perceived as a failure, likely due to the critical confusion at Robert Altman shooting scenes with rubber arms and squids.
I saw this opening day and enjoyed it as a child, even though I was underwhelmed by the lack of choreographed spectacle. Altman’s improvisatory style is an uneasy mix here, his trademark sound design apropos for Popeye’s mumblings, but when you want the film to kick in with cartoon pizazz, the intimacy dulls some of the big moments. Still, the casting is pitch perfect, notably Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl, truly born to the role. You have to adore Harry Nilsson’s score, primed as he was to do a proper musical, and in this scene, Popeye has his moment of late 70’s self-realization in a gambling hall to the tune of “I Yam What I Yam.” I love William’s mumbled monologues and even the make-up is terrific; I still think this is his greatest film performance. He’s Popeye, The Sailor Man!