Bet your quarantine bingo card didn’t include staying up late discussing morality as applied to different adaptations of E. C. Segar’s Popeye. But this seemingly long outdated but perennial figure, a silly cartoon sailor whose gimmick could pass for propaganda paid off by Big Spinach, is far richer than one might imagine, a conduit for profound, timeless themes. And the flawed 1980 live-action adaptation, which Indiewire glaringly misidentified as a Francis Ford Coppola project (the blurb apparently written by somebody who’d never seen a Dave Fleischer cartoon), is far better than its reputation.

Producer Robert Evans had previously struck gold for Paramount with such critical and commercial smashes as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. In 1977, Evans had originally wanted Dustin Hoffman to star as the sailor man, with Lily Tomlin and later Gilda Radner proposed for Olive Oyl and John Schlesinger behind the camera. One can understand why the final product underperformed on multiple levels. It was a disappointment for fans of the Fleischer brothers madcap cartoon (screenwriter Jules Feiffer preferred Segar’s vision); it fell short of director Robert Altman’s typically dense dramas of overlapping dialogue; and it was a letdown for fans of hyper-driven standup comic, TV’s Mork from Ork, Robin Williams. But contrary to its reputation, Popeye made money, even in 1980. Though flawed, it today reads as a remarkably shaded portrait of American society in crisis—and one outsider’s heroic attempt to set things in order.

The difference between the Fleischer brothers’ inventive vision and Segar’s—and Feiffer’s—more sober seaman is instructive. In Dave Fleischer’s 1934 short “The Two-Alarm Fire,” Popeye and his rival Bluto respond to a fire at Olive Oyl’s house, and while the sailor man does save the day after a can of spinach gives him the strength, he waits till Olive’s house has almost completely burned down. Commentators on the essential DVD collection Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938 Volume One repeatedly note that Popeye is a good guy, but as far as these wildly and sometimes psychedelically inventive animations go, the good guy, like many a modern superhero, more often than not leaves chaos in his wake (the same goes for the Fleischer’s even wilder Betty Boop shorts).

Feiffer’s—and Altman’s—Popeye was a different force. As the movie begins, he doesn’t even like spinach, turning it down from a produce vendor. Based on a vintage Segar plotline, the film follows Popeye as he arrives in the town of Sweethaven (constructed on the remote island of Malta, in a set that remains intact and open for tourists) in search of his father. The sailor carries a picture frame around as a memento, but only after he kisses the frame do we see that it’s merely a blank cardboard square with the printed words “Me Poppa.”

For those accustomed to Williams’ free-associative hijinks, such pathos was a downer, but Williams was perfectly cast. While he would resort to some of his then-signature improv on set, straying far from Feiffer’s script, the screenwriter pleaded with Altman to recut, for instance, Popeye’s initial meeting with Olive Oyl to concentrate on the budding relationship, which was diminished by Williams’ additions. The result was a stronger scene, and you can see that without the frenetic wordplay that made him a breakout star, the young comic revealed an even deeper talent: he convincingly portrayed a tragic figure searching for his pappy.

Williams would make fun of Popeye for years (“It wasn’t good for anyone!” he blurted out bitterly in one routine), but it’s hard to think of a comedian making a more sensitive big-screen debut than this. Behind the exaggerated rubber musculature and the inarticulate mumbling, there’s a bittersweet story of broken families and lost lives, married to the sea and reluctant to reveal what’s truly important to them. For the buried treasure that drives much of the plot, whose secret is kept by the mostly absent Pappy (Ray Walston) turns out to be not a bucket of gold, but a chest of family mementos: the young Popeye’s baby shoes, a matching blank frame marked “Me Son,” and the kid’s birthright, a can of spinach, which by the end of the film he’d rightly claim in order to set things right in the world.

Shelley Duvall has said, “who wants to admit that she was born to play Olive Oyl?” She too is perfectly cast, and gets one of the film’s best musical numbers, the Harry Nilsson-composed “He Needs Me,” famously reprised in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. But the moral core of the film belongs to Popeye, and if it seems odd that such a product would even have a moral core, that’s part of what makes the character and the movie both timeless and out of time. Popeye comes to Sweethaven as an outsider; the town is overtaxed, thanks to the corrupt Bluto (Paul L. Smith), and when the orphaned infant Swee’Pea is left in Olive’s basket, it’s Popeye who takes the parental role. Swee’Pea turns out to be unable to tell a lie, but when the tyke wins Olive a bundle at the horse races, money she desperately needs to pay off Bluto’s exorbitant taxes, Popeye refuses to use such ill-gotten gains. He may be a misshapen freak with an idiosyncratic language, but he’s absolutely clear on what’s moral, and he knows very well that two wrongs don’t make a right.

There’s beautiful, heartbreaking stuff here, but moments of slapstick don’t really come off right; Altman doesn’t have that kind of visual flair. With the production running out of money before the final act could be completed, the closing set piece, which included a giant octopus model that they couldn’t afford to run, ends up being a messy, missed opportunity. But if the action isn’t finally resolved, the family dynamic is; Pappy turns away from his corrupt ways and fights for good with his son, and Popeye listens to his Pappy and eats his spinach and fights to the finish. It’s a ridiculous arc, but the beauty of Segar’s character is that such an out-of-step figure can bring order to a chaotic world, laughs to children’s faces and tears to parents who want to ensure that their kids will inherit a world filled with goodness, not evil. Who knew that Popeye had so much to teach us?

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