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American vaudeville meets Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) in Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980). Every character that touches on the central narrative of the film is played with a life that extends beyond the frame. Each actor playing one of these supporting characters gives them a bit, a running gag, some sort of physical comedy that serves as a marker so to who that character is. Sweethaven is very much alive, a continuation of the spirit of Presbyterian Church. There’s so much going on around Popeye (Robin Williams) that it’s impossible to catch it all in one viewing. It’s staggering to think, given the famously troubled production of Popeye, that Altman could carry this off as well as he did.

E. C. Segar’s world is literally translated to screen. Altman takes the famous character designs, grafts them to living actors, and shoots in his own traditionally muddied style with plenty of zooms and tons of deep focus shots. Adaptation becomes a thing of reimagining in Altman’s hands. This even carries over to Harry Nilsson’s original score which is consistently undermined by Altman in the mix, favoring background noise and chit-chat. Nilsson’s first original feature length score since Skidoo (1968) disappears and is ingested into Altman’s all encompassing vision of Sweethaven.

But Altman’s Popeye, an unsung masterpiece to be sure, is really a kind of Valentine to his long time collaborator Shelley Duvall (playing Olive Oyl). All of Duvall’s talents are front and center in Popeye, focusing on the comedic, serving as a companion piece to 3 Women (1977). 3 Women is a fantasy born out of crisis while Popeye is a fantasy born out of joy and pleasure. In each film Shelley Duvall is central; she steals the show. Duvall’s numbers are a masterclass in physical comedy. Not to mention her voice which, though technically not very good, carries a genuine sweetness with it that is sublimely effective.

For a long time watching Popeye has been considered as much of a nightmare as the production of Popeye and that’s a shame. This is Robert Altman at his best. Forget what you’ve heard, forget about Robert Evans and see Popeye again or for the first time.