One of Robert Altman’s trademarks is the way he creates whole new worlds in his movies — worlds where we somehow don’t believe that life ends at the edge of the screen, worlds in which the main characters are surrounded by other people plunging ahead at the business of living. That gift for populating new places is one of the richest treasures in Popeye, Altman’s musical comedy. He takes one of the most artificial and limiting of art forms — the comic strip — and raises it to the level of high comedy and high spirits.
And yet Popeye nevertheless remains true to its origin on the comic page, and in those classic cartoons by Max Fleischer. A review of this film almost has to start with the work of Wolf Kroeger, the production designer, who created an astonishingly detailed and rich set on the movie’s Malta locations. Most of the action takes place in a ramshackle fishing hamlet — “Sweethaven” — where the streets run at crazy angles up the hillsides, and the rooming houses and saloons lean together dangerously.
Sweethaven has been populated by actors who look, or are made to look, so much like their funny-page originals that it’s hardly even jarring that they’re not cartoons. Audiences immediately notice the immense forearms on Robin Williams, who plays Popeye; they’re big, brawny, and completely convincing. But so is Williams’s perpetual squint and his lopsided smile. Shelley Duvall, the star of so many other Altman films, is perfect here as Olive Oyl, the role she was born to play. She brings to Olive a certain … dignity, you might say. She’s not lightly scorned, and although she may tear apart a room in an unsuccessful attempt to open the curtains, she is fearless in the face of her terrifying fiancé, Bluto.
“He encouraged me to be myself on the screen, to never take acting lessons or take myself too seriously,” Shelley Duvall said of the director of Popeye. “When I play a character, at that moment nothing else exists. Certainly no theory. I try not to intellectualize. As Popeye says, I yam what I yam what I yam… and that’s ALL that I yam!”
As for her relationship with Williams, they got along great. “I had a great time on Popeye,” Duvall said. “Robin, I loved Robin. He was so much fun to work with. He came up with the best jokes outta nowhere, like off camera.”
The Sweethaven set that was built for the film still exists, and it is now a popular tourist attraction known as Popeye Village. According to Parish, Robin Williams referred to this set as “Stalag Altman”.