Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Number 1623: John Severin strongs to the finich

The recent suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams got me searching for a satire on Popeye, his first starring movie role from 1980. Both Mad and Cracked took their shots at the movie. Both used their regular movie artists, John Severin at Cracked, Mort Drucker at Mad. I’ve chosen Severin’s version, “Poopeye,”* from Cracked #179 (1981) to post.

Reviews on Popeye have been mixed. Because of his success on television Williams’ performance was under a microscope, and both Mad and Cracked pointed out his “muttering.” (What? They never saw any Popeye animated cartoons, with Popeye’s muttered asides?) I also have mixed feelings about the movie. There are problems translating a character conceived as comic art to live action. In my opinion it succeeded on some levels,** missed entirely on others. The Cracked opinion of the movie is  negative. However, Severin’s likenesses of the actors are, as always, right on.

*“Poopeye” was also used as a title in Mad #21.

**At the time the general consensus from my circle of friends was that Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl.


Mike Britt said...

Severin made Robin Williams look like Nick Fury with an one-eye squint instead of two and replaced the cigar with a pipe. Altman made a masterpiece although reviled it after release. It wasn't like the comic strip because it is a movie, not a comic strip.

Pappy said...

Mike, "a movie, not a comic strip" — and therein lies the rub. Yes, I admire Altman's movies, but I have a vision of characters stuck in my brain that often doesn't synch with the movie creator's. It is a prejudice, I admit.

I had hoped to get a couple of hours and watch Popeye on Amazon Prime before posting the Cracked version, but so far have not succeeded. (Busy summer.) I would like to see if it is the same film I remember seeing in 1981.

Always nice to hear from you, Mike!

Daniel [] said...

I read at least one review that took that position that Duvall were born to play Olive Oyl.

Williams had done brief imitations of the Fleischer Popeye well before he was cast to play Popeye, and I think that Altman really began with little more than the “high concept” of building a movie from Williams' imitations.

Altman began with a disturbing lack of awareness. At the start of the process, Feiffer had to explain to Altman that, in requesting a script about Popeye, one had to identify whether one were talking about Segar's comic strip, the early Fleischer cartoons, some later comic strip, some later cartoons, or something still else.

The charm of Popeye derives primarily from its sensibilities, even though most never recognize the flavor. Although Thimble Theater and the Fleischer cartoons were not overtly labelled as Jewish, their sensibilities were very much those of American Jews of the early 20th Century. Anybody find that in Altman's movie?

It makes little sense to try to create a movie from what is at its heart a comic strip if indeed a movie cannot or should not be much like a comic strip. (Perhaps a live-action movie cannot or should not.)

BillyWitchDoctor said...

More importantly, at the time the idea of a "live-action cartoon" was simply unachievable. Hollywood should have learned its lesson with Spielberg's 1941, which was much funnier as an unrestrained raunchy, obscene Heavy Metal comic book than a PG-rated movie. Physical effects just cannot match cartoon pacing. (Today we have CGI.)

In 1980, masters of make-up effects could transform Williams into a reasonable breathing facsimile of the Sailor Man, and he played the character beautifully--but as he thrashes around in a studio tank with a rubber octopus that is only slightly more lively than the one in Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster, the pace of the action becomes as waterlogged as Swee'pea's diaper.

Comic-level vitality issues aside, the movie fails because it is about nothing. Misunderstanding the intent of the plot, critics and fans whined about Popeye's spinach-phobia, but the real weakness is that this ugly little loner builds a complete loving family and community while searching for his father...and not once did I get the feeling that this was the intended theme. There is no theme. It's all just "Look! Live-action Popeye! Check out the casting! Isn't Duvall perfect for Olive? Look at the money we spent on Sweethaven! All for nothing! Nothing! Ha ha ha ha (sob)..."

See also: Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. I remember matte paintings from it, I remember big-name cameos from it...but the only complete scene and plot point I still remember is the revelation of Junior's full name. The crummy old RKO pictures are more satisfying and memorable.

Pappy said...

Billy, Daniel, Mike, thanks to all of you for your letters. The movie Popeye seems to stir some strong feelings one way or the other.

My wife, who doesn't like comics and never read a Popeye comic strip loved the movie and told everyone how much she liked it. I winced at her enthusiasm at the time because all I could see in the movie was where it didn't meet my own feelings about the character, about Segar's comic strip, my love of the Bud Sagendorf Popeye comic book of the fifties and the Fleischer cartoons shown every weekday afternoon on television. But in retrospect I knew that going into the theater. I was predisposed to some negativity just based on Hollywood's audacity in trying to bring the comic character to life with an actor. I was surprised there were things I liked (the aforementioned Duvall performance, for instance). I was not as familiar with Williams' work or comedic style because I didn't watch Mork and Mindy. I wonder if that bothered an audience which went to the movie expecting Williams to do more of what they were familiar with of his comedic style.

But the movie itself wasn't the subject of my post, which was a satire of the movie drawn by one of my favorite cartoonists, John Severin. I am usually surprised that what I show, or a remark I may make, can turn the discussion into something different from my original intention.