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Favorite Films: Popeye with Robin Williams

Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall Star in the 1980 Film

On Wednesday, i was delighted to find a cheap DVD of one of my favorite films from the 1980s: Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) from Paramount. I don’t really think it’s a great film, but I find it to be a lovable one, especially for the first hour. (It kind of goes off the rails at the end.) Filming in Malta, Altman creates a whole world in the rackety port of Sweethaven. From the first scene, when Popeye arrives at the port in a wild thunderstorm in a tiny rowboat, we are precipitated into an invented world that is different from but not incompatible with the Max and Richard Fleischer cartoons of past decades. At the same time, it is a musical with strange tunes and a dance film with strange moves.

The Set of Sweethaven Which Forms the World of Altman’s Popeye

At first, Popeye is viewed by the village as an unwanted stranger. He manages to get a room in a boarding house run by the Oyl family, where he meets the daughter Olive. Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl is perfect casting, even better (but not by much) than Robin Williams as Popeye the Sailor man. Interestingly, the story is about not only the growing relationship between Popeye and Olive, but also about how Popeye learns the benefits of swallowing large amounts of canned spinach.

Bluto is, as expected, the villain of the piece, along with the shadowy figure known as the Commodore (who turns out to be Ray Walston as Popeye’s pappy). Popeye romances Olive away from Bluto, about whom she could only say that he’s “large.”

I love to lose myself in the rich multitextured goofiness of this film. By now I have easily seen it more than ten times.