Archive for March 26, 2008

Thimble Theater

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2008 by dcairns

He yis what he yis

Popeye the sailor’s first appearance in E.C. Segar’s newspaper strip Thimble Theater is fairly well documented. In the space of weeks the character had evolved from a grotesque walk-on part, to lead character and all-purpose superhero, displacing Olive Oyl’s beau, Ham Gravy, to boot.

(A note on names: when you’re called Elzie Crisler Segar, you probably think nothing of naming your characters Jack Snork, Glint Gore or Battling McGnat.)

The early Popeyes are now reprinted as part of a mammoth project to republish all of Segar’s ten-year run from the 1930s, daily and Sunday strips both. I had just started reading the first volume when I was struck down by my recent flu, and I found it an excellent companion in times of illness — buy it, it could work for you too.

Anybody who enjoys ’30s Warner Bros films and Dashiell Hammett novels and the like is going to enjoy the arcane slanguage paraded between these (deluxe, hard) covers. While Popeye’s garbled English (“I got personal magnecism an’ sex repeal.”) is one source of pleasure, the depression-era badinage from the other characters is at least as amusing. “Everything is hotsy-totsy.” ”


Popeye himself may be one of the most complex comic characters ever. Noble-hearted and fearless, he is also dishonest and opportunistic (like everybody else in the strip). Simple (“I thinks with me fisks.”) and superstitious (“I ain’t afraid of nuthin’ ‘cept evil spiriks.”) he can still outsmart his “emenies”. Introduced into a whodunnit, he socks the butler in the jaw on general principles, only to discover, pages later, that (spoiler alert) the butler did it. When he vows (about once every couple of weeks) to quit fighting for Olive’s sake, he is generally sincere, and will maintain that unassailable sincerity even while slugging some yegg in the breadbasket a panel later.

Magnum Force

At first, Segar’s fondness for repetition is a little disconcerting. But as with Laurel and Hardy, a certain familiarity with the characters, a certain predictability, can add to the comedy. There’s generally a variation in the way a gag is delivered, even if it’s the same old gag. And Segar’s glee at repeating a favourite joke is infectious — swimming instructions to an enemy, “Lie back and open your mouth, there’s nothin’ to it!” is even better the second time around, since it has the familiarity of an old friend.

Guns in the Afternoon

This being the ’30s, there’s a sense of danger to the constant political incorrectness. Guns are blasted left right and centre in a way that might cause concern to modern editors. Olive is both victim of violence from bad guys (Popeye even slaps her at one point) and perpetrator, shooting thirteen cattle rustlers in the shoulder, one after the other. “I’m too kind-hearted to blow his head off,” she remarks of one fallen foe. “I’ll drop him into the cellar — maybe he’ll break his neck.” Golliwog-like cannibals are seen to menace our heroes, and animals are enthusiastically assassinated.

The Hospital

Throughout it all, Popeye displays the near-invulnerability of the superman, which Segar is able milk for a surprising variety of comic and dramatic situations. When Popeye hits a man so hard he breaks his own arm, it’s further proof of his own toughness. The other characters always react as if Popeye was normal, cringing and blanching as he is hit with furniture or plugged with slugs. “Pour lead into him till he sinks to his neck in the desert sands,” instructs John Holster, bad man. But Popeye ignores bullets.

With his gambling, drinking and fighting, not to mention a surprising emotional vulnerability, Popeye still has plenty of weaknesses, and part of the strip’s interest comes from putting him in the wrong and watching him struggles his way to the right.

Eat your greens

The Popeye of the Fleischer bros’ animated cartoons is altogether less complicated. It’s a strange feature of the movie-comic relationship that when cartoon characters are adapted for the big screen, they’re generally simplified. Movie snobs would expect them to require the addition of depth and nuance, but this is more usually subtracted. “I think most comic book movies are made by people who don’t read comic books and despise those who do,” says Guillermo Del Toro.

Olive and Let Die

Despite the fact that there’s really only one plot (Popeye must eat spinach and rescue Olive from Bluto) in the Fleischer toons, they are things of beauty in their own right, due mainly to the sheer artistry of the animation and the pitch-perfect vocal perfs of Jack Mercer and Mae Questel (also Betty Boop). With moving images at his disposal, Popeye could also partake of more strenuous forms of knockabout, with more elaborate consequences. I was always wowed as a kid by the way the hero could punch an offensive building so hard it would breaks into pieces, fly through the air, and reassemble in some new and more innocuous form. It’s no accident that the Fleischer studio was also behind the early SUPERMAN cartoons.

Given his violent, profane, anti-social nature, it’s an oddity that Popeye should be adopted by the Disney Corporation in 1980. But everything about Disney at that time was rather odd. They would make dark, disturbing films (SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, DRAGONSLAYER, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS) and then not know what to do with them. Only an essentially headless entity, or a brilliantly mad one, would hire Robert Altman to make a childrens’ film.

For some time, I think, POPEYE has been considered a low point in Altman’s career, and it did lead more or less directly to his ten years in the wilderness (ten very productive years, it should be stressed) before his mainstream “comeback” with THE PLAYER. These days, POPEYE is regarded with some affection, I think, cemented by PT Anderson’s use of the song “He Needs Me,” on the soundtrack of PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. At the time, the film was seen as a commercial and artistic disaster.

‘To begin with I thought, “This is great, this is going to be my SUPERMAN. By the end I was thinking, “Please God, get me out of here,”‘ said Robin Williams, right around the time the film was opening. Maybe he just didn’t like Malta, where the movie was shot (you can still visit the crumbling hamlet of Sweethaven. I wonder if its wintry opposite number, the town of Presbyterian Church from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER still stands?)


With Williams, Robert Evans and Don Simpson involved, it must have been a pretty coked-up shoot. Evans lost a suitcase full of drugs and claims he called his evil crony Henry Kissinger to rescue the lost luggage and transport it to safety in the diplomatic bag. Simpson proved himself a prize asshole by objecting to Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl — the best casting decision in human history. “I don’t want to fuck her, and if I don’t want to fuck her she shouldn’t be in this movie,” he is supposed to have said. Altman’s response to Simpson’s early drug-related death on the toilet: “I’m only sorry he didn’t live longer and suffer more.” (Stories come from Robert Evans and Peter Biskind and therefore may be untrue.)

Shelley Winters and Robert Duvall no wait that's wrong

POPEYE’s greatest asset is a script by Jules Feiffer, a playwright, novelist screenwriter (CARNAL KNOWLEDGE) and cartoonist (Tantrum is a great thing) who admired Segar’s creation and had no truck with any subsequent incarnations. Added to his respectful evocation of the strip-cartoon universe Segar created, we have unanswerably correct casting — Williams becomes the character, with the aid of a little prosthetic enhancing of the forearms; Duvall is absurdly perfect; ditto Paul L. Smith as Bluto (whatever happened to Smith?); and Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy, a character reportedly invented by Segar in response to calls to make Popeye less abrasive — Pappy does just that, being even more ornery than his son. “I remembers when I was lickle how he used to throw me in the air,” Williams’ Popeye  reminisces, “only he was never aroun’ when I come down.”


Wolf Kroeger’s Sweethaven design is worthy of a Terry Gilliam film and then some — beautifully wonky and dishevelled. The idea of hiring Fellini’s cameraman, Guiseppe Rotunno, seems inspired. While nothing in the C.V. of Altman’s regular costume designer, Scott Bushnell, would indicate an aptitude for this kind of stylised work, his character designs are crucial in transforming the familiar players into their pen-and-ink counterparts. I would stand that man a pint just for creating Olive’s boat-like boots.

The Lovers

Also: Harry Nilsson’s music and songs. Pretty remarkable! Here we have the lyrical equivalent of Segar’s obsessive repetition. Hmm, maybe they’re a bit TOO repetitive? Still, they’re beautiful.

Altman said of Nilsson, “Everyone said ‘You’ll get in trouble with him — he’ll get drunk; he won’t do it; he’s all washed up.’ As a matter of fact I said all of those things about Harry to Robin myself one day. Then I went home and thought about it and said to myself, ‘Jesus, that’s what some people are saying about me!’ So I called Harry Nilsson, because I had never met him in my life, and we got along terrifically.”

Altman’s biggest handicap as director might be his love of muddle. Slapstick comedy tends to require absolute clarity to work, which translates either into a long-take style that observes the action in a simple long-shot composition of maximum simplicity (Keaton) or a hyperbolic action-movie approach that divides each unit of movement into a brief but legible shot. Altman likes to have everybody talking at once, in a cluttered, busy environment, and his cutting deploys angle-changes almost haphazardly: if the first angle doesn’t show the gag to perfection, the second will allow you another view, from which you might be able to figure out what’s happening. You feel like a reaction shot of a dog cocking its head at some inexplicable human behaviour.

This has the effect of flattening some of the well-staged slapstick, as far as laughs are concerned, but it’s not in itself a displeasing thing. What contemporaneous audiences couldn’t appreciate is that POPEYE isn’t really a children’s film or a comedy or anything normal like that. It’s purpose is not laughter so much as wonderment — it’s a Heath Robinson / Rube Goldberg contraption whose pleasure derives from its beauty and fussy complexity, rather than from anything it actually achieves.


Sadly, such films have a history of under-performing at the B.O.


Quote of the Day: A Walking Contradiction

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on March 26, 2008 by dcairns

The Jam 

‘Nick Ray, at thirty-five, had worked with me in theatre and radio. Our collaboration in film was about to begin. He was a stimulating and sometimes disturbing companion: garrulous and inarticulate, ingenious and pretentious, his mind was filled with original ideas which he found difficult to formulate or express. Alcohol reduced him to rambling unintelligibility; his speech, which was slow and convoluted at best, became unbearably turgid after more than one drink. Yet, confronted with a theatrical situation or a problem of dramatic or musical expression he was amazingly quick, lucid and intuitive with a sureness of touch, a sensitivity to human values and an infallible taste which I have seldom seem equalled.

‘From his year’s apprenticeship as a scholarship student with Frank Lloyd Wright, Nick had acquired a perfectionism and a sense of commitment to his work which were rare in the theatre and even more rare in the film business. But in his personal life he was the victim of irresistible impulses that left his career and his personal relationships in ruins and finally destroyed him. He was a handsome, complicated man whose sentimentality and apparent softness covered deep layers of resilience and strength. Reared in Wisconsin in a household dominated by women, he was a potential homosexual with a deep, passionate and constant need for female love in his life. This made him attractive to women, for whom the chance to save him from his own self-destructive habits proved an irresistible attraction of which Nick took full advantage and for which he rarely forgave them. He left a trail of damaged lives behind him — not as a seducer, but as a husband, lover and father.’

~ John Houseman in Unfinished Business.

Ray of light

Whew! Considering how little space Ray then occupies in Houseman’s narrative (there’s a great account of the first day’s filming of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, then almost nothing) this is an excessively detailed and passionate account, also possibly the first published work to suggest Ray’s bisexuality.

(Mis)quoting from memory, there’s also a nice passage in Chuck Heston’s memoirs about Nick R. About to embark on the disastrous 55 DAYS AT PEKING, Charlton asked a friend’s opinion of the director. “Well, he’s very smart. Talented, imaginative. But… I’ve played poker with him, Chuck. And Chuck… he’s a loser.

What Drink Did

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2008 by dcairns

On the Great Knights of the Theatre:

Sir J

Whereas EVERYTHING about Ralph Richardson is quaint and adorable and a thing of wonderment, the main attractive quality of John Gielgud’s personality, to me, is his habit of putting his foot in it. It clashes marvellously with his slightly dessicated air of dignity.

John Gielgud went to see a play with a friend. His friend was not taken with the lead actress. “She’s terrible, isn’t she?”

Gielgud whispered back, “Oh, dreadful. Even worse than Margaret Leighton.”

Then he realised that Margaret Leighton was sitting right next to his friend, and could not possibly have failed to hear.

“Oh, I didn’t mean YOU. I meant the OTHER Margaret Leighton.”


Richard Burton went to the theatre to see the play his friend, fellow drunkard Wilfred Lawson, was acting in. Lawson insisted on accompanying Burton to his seat and watching the start of the play with him.

“Shouldn’t you be going backstage and getting ready?” wondered the Burton.

“No, no, plenty of time,” said Lawson, who had had a few ales.

The play wore on. Burton would occasionally nudge Lawson and suggest that maybe he should head for his dressing room, but the older man was unconcerned.

Some time into the play, Lawson gripped Burton’s arm and whispered, “Ah, now, watch here. This is where I come in.”

Sexual Cowboy and friend

When you’re depending on Burton for your reality checks, you know you’re in trouble. Sue Lyon reported that he was unpleasant to be near on NIGHT OF THE IGUANA because he sweated booze. Later he had an operation to remove crystallized alcohol from his spine, which left him with curiously weak arms. On 1984 his arms had to be operated from below by a stagehand. A classically-trained actor reduced to the status of a muppet.

I love drunken actor stories. I don’t know what they’re supposed to prove, but I can consume an unlimited number of them at one sitting. I myself drink only rarely, of course. I remember getting very tipsy at a Film Festival party held in a funfair (Mark Cousins was running the fest and he threw the best parties) and, after a game of long-distance-arm-wrestling with a mime artist (real), I staggered off through scenes that looked, to me, like something out of MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME, and was adopted by a tribe of fire-eaters.

But I think it’s safer and preferable to enter states of altered consciousness by an act of will, and inspiration, and possibly with the aid of some art (music is good). With the aid of a particularly windy Genesis concept album on my Sony Walkman, I was once able to half-convince myself that I WAS GOD which, surprisingly enough, felt quite nice.