Popeye the Sailor Man was born 76 years ago as a crusty, word-mangling, pipe-smoking comic-strip character with enormous forearms. His spinach diet reportedly sparked a 33-percent surge in consumption of the leafy green vegetable during the 1930s. Clearly, the American public once embraced this goofy caricature that later starred in cartoons.
That enthusiasm seems to have waned by 1980, when actor Robin Williams gave him human form in director Robert Altman's whimsical live-action movie. Popeye -- screening this weekend at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier -- originally met with limited ticket sales and mixed reviews.
Critic Roger Ebert deemed the effort "sophisticated entertainment," while his colleague Pauline Kael saw mostly a "cluttered, squawky and eerily unfunny" mess. With an offbeat cast, a script by humorist Jules Feiffer and music by Harry Nilsson, perhaps the picture was ahead of its time.
Contemporary Hollywood hits such as Finding Nemo or Shrek appeal to all ages, but audiences were more compartmentalized when Altman brought his unique sensibility to a nominally youth-oriented genre. "Possibly, the film was too adult and the studio didn't know who to market it to," theorizes Allan Nicholls, a Burlington resident and filmmaker who has a cameo in Popeye as a tavern owner named Rough House. "Bob always said, 'People will eventually get this.'"
Kids probably can enjoy the acrobatic slapstick, some of it courtesy of Big Apple Circus performers. Virtually everyone in Sweethaven, the weather-beaten seaside town where Popeye finds his destiny, tumbles, trips or flies through the air. Grownups may appreciate the socio-political satire: a government official imposing a variety of silly taxes, or Williams mumbling a quick aside about Calvin Coolidge when the Great Depression is mentioned, for example.
"Jules definitely had specific dialogue in mind, but if Robin thought of something more Popeye-ish, he jumped in and did it," Nicholls recalls.
Shelley Duvall makes an ideal Olive Oyl, the cranky, klutzy, wistful heroine. She and Popeye don't begin to bond romantically until they "adopt" Swee'Pea, the abandoned orphan played by Altman's adorable baby grandson Wesley Ivan Hurt. The kid just about steals the show. "He had that crooked little smile," Nicholls says.
The soundtrack is memorable. As opposed to big song-and-dance numbers that would halt the proceedings, Nilsson's songs are subtly woven into the narrative. Olive delivers wonderful, high-pitched vocals on a solo ditty about Popeye ("I Knew He Needed Me") and on a duet with him revealing their disparate ideas of happily-ever-after ("Sail With Me/Stay with Me").
"The music is so fluid," observes Nicholls, who has been a composer on several Altman productions. "They just come out of that time and place."
That place was Malta, then popular with vacationing Danes. The Scandinavian tourists were wryly dubbed "the Svens" by the Popeye people, who spent months shooting their movie on the tiny Mediterranean island.
"On location, we were a family," Nicholls recalls. "We created our own society. Every Friday night, we put on talent shows. Robin would host them, still in character. One week, he hosted as a Danish comedian." A Sven, perhaps?
The experience proved to be a crossroad in Nicholls' career. "Popeye was the last Altman 'summer camp' I did," he adds, referring to the ease of acting rather than working behind the camera -- he served as production manager or assistant director on their subsequent collaborations. "God, we had fun. I didn't want to leave."
Although the film itself apparently didn't leave a lasting impression with the masses, it was a unique assignment for Altman. His credo could easily be Popeye's "I yam what I yam." As a pioneer in the comics-to-cinema category that includes X-Men and Spider-Man, he demonstrated the idiosyncratic finesse of a true auteur while depicting a cultural icon from the printed page.
"Bob was offered a Superman at one point, but he'd never do that," Nicholls says. "He likes to shape something and make it his own. The guy is a great storyteller."
The two men might be joining forces again soon on a feature adaptation of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion." Nicholls, also potentially on tap as the assistant director for a Showtime episodic series, muses: "Right now, I play the waiting game."
Popeye screens Saturday, February 26, 11 a.m. Children's Film Series, Savoy Theater, Montpelier. Call 800-676-0509 or visit http://www.savoytheater.com  for more details.