Popeye (1980 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Altman
Produced by Robert Evans
Screenplay by Jules Feiffer
Story by Robert Altman
Based on Popeye 
by E.C. Segar
Starring Robin Williams
Shelley Duvall
Music by Harry Nilsson
Cinematography Giuseppe Rotunno
Edited by John W. Holmes
David A. Simmons
Paramount Pictures
Walt Disney Productions
King Features Syndicate
The Hearst Corporation
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
(North America)
Buena Vista Distribution
Release date(s) December 12, 1980
Running time 114 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $20,000,000
Box office $49,823,017 (US)[1]
$60,000,000 (worldwide)[2]:88

Popeye is a 1980 musical comedy live-action film adaptation directed by Robert Altman and adapted from E. C. Segar's Thimble Theatre aka Popeye comic strip. It stars Robin Williams (his film debut as an actor) as Popeye the Sailor Man and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl.

It premiered on December 6, 1980 in Los Angeles, California, to mixed reviews and disappointing box office. The film has since been released on DVD as well as digital download. Harry Nilsson's soundtrack received mostly positive reviews.


Popeye (Robin Williams), a sailor, arrives at the small coastal town of Sweethaven ("Sweethaven—An Anthem") while searching for his long-lost father. He is immediately feared by the townsfolk simply because he is a stranger ("Blow Me Down"), and is accosted by a greedy taxman (Donald Moffat). He rents a room at the Oyl family's boarding house, whose daughter, Olive (Shelley Duvall), is preparing for her engagement party. Her hand is promised to Captain Bluto (Paul L. Smith), a powerful, perpetually angry bully who runs the town in the name of the mysterious Commodore. In the morning, Popeye visits the local diner for breakfast ("Everything Is Food") and demonstrates his strength as he brawls with a gang of provocative ruffians who give him and the other customers a hard time.

On the night of the engagement party, Bluto and the townsfolk arrive at the Oyls' home. Olive, however, sneaks out of the house, after discovering that the only attribute she can report for her bullying fiance is size ("He's Large"). She encounters Popeye, who failed to fit in with the townsfolk at the party. The two eventually come across an abandoned baby in a basket (Wesley Ivan Hurt). Popeye adopts the child, naming him Swee'Pea, and the two return to the Oyls' home. Bluto, however, has grown increasingly furious with Olive's absence. He realizes that she means to break off the engagement. He eventually flies into a rage and destroys the house ("I'm Mean"). When he sees Popeye and Olive with Swee'Pea, Bluto beats Popeye into submission and declares heavy taxation for the Oyls.

The taxman repossesses the remains of the Oyls' home and all their possessions. The Oyls' son, Castor, decides to compete against the local heavyweight boxer, Oxblood Oxheart (Peter Bray), in the hopes of winning a hefty prize for his family. However, Castor is no match for Oxheart and is savagely beaten and knocked out of the ring. Popeye takes the ring in Castor's place and defeats Oxheart, putting on a show for the townsfolk and finally earning their respect. Back at home, Popeye and Olive sing Swee'Pea to sleep ("Sailin'").

The next day, Olive tells Popeye that during his match with Oxheart, she discovered that Swee'Pea can predict the future by whistling when he hears the correct answer to a question. Wimpy (Paul Dooley) overhears and asks to take Swee'Pea out for a walk, though he actually takes him to the "horse races" (actually a form of carnival game as depicted in the movie) and wins two games. Popeye, however, is outraged, and vents his frustrations to the racing parlor's customers ("I Yam What I Yam"). Fearing further exploitation of his child, Popeye moves out of the Oyls' home and onto the docks; when the taxman harasses him, Popeye pushes him into the water, prompting a celebration by the townspeople. In the chaos, Wimpy, who has been intimidated by Bluto, kidnaps Swee'Pea for him. That night, Olive remarks to herself about her budding relationship with Popeye ("He Needs Me"), while Popeye writes a message in a bottle for Swee'Pea ("Swee' Pea's Lullaby").

Wimpy sees Bluto taking Swee'Pea into the Commodore's ship; he and Olive inform Popeye. Inside, Bluto presents the boy to the curmudgeonly Commodore, promising that he is worth a fortune; however, the Commodore refuses to listen, reminding Bluto that his buried treasure is all the fortune he needs. His patience with the Commodore exhausted, Bluto ties him up and takes Swee'Pea himself ("It's Not Easy Being Me"). Popeye storms the ship and meets the Commodore, realizing that he is his father, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). However, Pappy initially denies that Popeye is his son; to prove it, Pappy tries to feed Popeye spinach, which he claims is his family's source of great strength. However, Popeye hates spinach and refuses to eat it. Bluto kidnaps Olive as well and sets sail to find Pappy's treasure. Popeye, Pappy, and the Oyl family board Pappy's ship to give pursuit. Bluto sails to Scab Island, a desolate island in the middle of the ocean, while Pappy argues with his son and rants about children ("Kids").

Popeye catches Bluto and fights him, but despite his determination, Popeye is overpowered. During the duel, Pappy recovers his treasure and opens the chest to reveal a collection of personal sentimental items from Popeye's infancy, including a few cans of spinach. A giant octopus awakens and attacks Swee'Pea and Olive from underwater. With Popeye in a choke hold, Pappy throws him a can of spinach; Bluto, recognizing Popeye's dislike for spinach, force-feeds him the can before throwing him into the water. The spinach revitalizes Popeye and boosts his strength; he knocks Bluto down in one punch, then swiftly deals with the giant octopus, sending it flying hundreds of feet into the air. Bluto turns yellow and he swims away as Popeye celebrates his victory ("Popeye the Sailor Man").



According to James Robert Parish, in his book "Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops", the idea for the Popeye musical had its basis in the bidding war for the film version of the Broadway musical "Annie" between the two major studios vying for the rights, Columbia Studios and Paramount Pictures. When Robert Evans found out that Paramount had lost the bidding for "Annie", he held an executive meeting in which he asked about comic strip characters that they had the rights to, that could also be used in order to create a movie musical, and one attendee said "Popeye".

At that time, although King Features Syndicate retained the television rights to Popeye and related characters (Hanna-Barbera was producing the series "The All-New Popeye Hour" at the time under license from King Features), Paramount still held all theatrical rights to the Popeye character, due to the studio releasing cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios, respectively, that lasted from 1932 - 1957.

Robert Evans commissioned Jules Ffeiffer to write a script. In 1977 he said he wanted Dustin Hoffman to play Popeye opposite Lily Tomlin as Olive Oyl with John Schlesinger directing.[3]


Popeye premiered at the Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on December 6, 1980, just two days before what would have been E.C. Segar's 86th birthday.[4]:123


The film grossed US$6,000,000 on its opening weekend in the U.S., and made US$32,000,000 after 32 days.[4]:123–124 The film earned $49,823,037[1] at the United States box office — more than double the film's budget — and a worldwide total of US$60,000,000.[2]:88 Although the film's gross was decent, it was nowhere near the blockbuster that Paramount and Disney had expected, and was thus written off as a flop.[5]

It received overall mixed reviews: some favorable, from critics such as Roger Ebert; others unfavorable, from critics such as Leonard Maltin, who described the picture as a bomb: "E.C. Segar's beloved sailorman boards a sinking ship with this astonishingly boring musical. A game cast does its best with an unfunny script, cluttered staging and some alleged songs. Tune in a few hours' worth of Max Fleischer cartoons instead; you'll be much better off."[6] Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 57% "Rotten" rating with the critical consensus stating [that] "Altman's take on the iconic cartoon is messy and wildly uneven, but its robust humor and manic charm are hard to resist."


Popeye (Soundtrack)
Soundtrack album by Harry Nilsson
Released 1981
Recorded 1980
Genre Pop Music
Label Boardwalk
Producer Bruce Robb
Harry Nilsson chronology
Flash Harry
Popeye (soundtrack)

The soundtrack was composed by Harry Nilsson, who took a break from producing his album Flash Harry to write the score for the film. He wrote all the original songs and co-produced the music with producer Bruce Robb at Cherokee Studios. The soundtrack was unusual in that the actors sang some of the songs "live". For that reason, the studio album did not quite match the tracks heard in the film. Van Dyke Parks is credited as music arranger.

In the U.S. trailer for the film which contained the song "I Yam What I Yam", the version heard of the song was from the soundtrack album, not the film.

"I'm Popeye the Sailor Man" was composed by Sammy Lerner for the original Max Fleischer cartoon.

  1. "I Yam What I Yam" – (2:16)
  2. "He Needs Me" – (3:33)
  3. "Swee' Pea's Lullaby" – (2:06)
  4. "Din' We" – (3:06)
  5. "Sweethaven—An Anthem" – (2:56)
  6. "Blow Me Down" – (4:07)
  7. "Sailin'" – (2:48)
  8. "It's Not Easy Being Me" – (2:20)
  9. "He's Large" – (4:19)
  10. "I'm Mean" – (2:33)
  11. "Kids" – (4:23)
  12. "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man" – (1:19)
  • The song "Everything Is Food" was not included on the album, while the song "Din' We" (which was cut from the film) was.
  • The song "Sweethaven—An Anthem" is the only song heard twice in the film.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Box office statistics for Popeye (1980)". The Numbers. Retrieved 2010-05-11. 
  2. ^ a b O'Brien, Daniel (1995). Robert Altman: Hollywood Survivor. New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-0791-9. 
  3. ^ At the Movies: Producer Sets Hoffman's Sail For 'Popeye' Flatley, Guy. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 14 Oct 1977: 58.
  4. ^ a b Plecki, Gerard (1985). Robert Altman. Boston: Twayne Publishers (G.K. Hall & Company/ITT). ISBN 0-8057-9303-8. 
  5. ^ Prince, Stephen (2000) A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989 (p. 222). University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, California. ISBN 0-520-23266-6
  6. ^ Martin, Leonard (2006). Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. Signet Books. p. 1017. ISBN 0-451-21265-7. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Parish, James Robert (2006). Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-69159-4. 

External links[edit]