About a week and a half ago, I learned that the soundtrack album from the 1980 movie Popeye had been re-released with tracks not included on the original album. I loved this movie when it came out and I bought the soundtrack on vinyl. The movie was one of the few bright spots I remember in the weeks immediately following my father’s death. Listening to the songs over again sent me to my DVD of the movie for a rewatch. As always, I enjoyed this lighthearted Robert Altman romp with its funky island setting and a set crowded with extras who feel like fully realized characters. What struck me this time around were how many steampunk sensibilities appeared in the film.
I’m sure some of the steampunk “feel” of the film is the result of screenwriter Jules Feiffer’s attempt to write a story heavily inspired by E.C. Segar’s original comic strip, Thimble Theatre. The strip, born soon after World War I and very much in the steam era, will celebrate its centennial in 2019. Popeye was introduced as a supporting character ten years after the strip began and soon supplanted most of the regular cast. At the time Popeye was introduced, the strip generally was about the characters going on some zany quest or another in search of riches or to help someone. In the movie, Popeye arrives on a quest to find his lost father—a powerful theme for me at the time. Quests are certainly the narrative basis of a lot of steampunk, though they are by no means exclusive to steampunk.
The first thing that struck me about the film is how much of it is concerned with manners and etiquette. Olive Oyl’s father, Cole, is always asking for an apology for some perceived slight. There’s an early dinner scene where Popeye struggles to be polite among a cacophony of voices and flailing arms and limbs, only to be left with nothing to eat for his trouble. Of course Popeye has always been a defender of the weak and those unable to protect themselves. It’s even in his theme song: “Keep good behavior, that’s your one life saver with Popeye the Sailor Man!”
As I mentioned at the outset, the movie is set in a funky village outside of time. The village, built for the movie, reminds me of Nantucket, except that it’s clinging to rocks of Malta. There are no vehicles except for the rotting ships in the harbor and the tax man’s bicycle. The whole thing feels like it’s set at the time of the original comic, late in the steam era. In fact, there’s even kind of a builder sensibility evident in Poopdeck Pappy’s boat at the end. The whole thing looks like a steamboat cobbled together from odds and ends in someone’s garage. It’s not beautiful, but it might just get a few admiring nods at a seaside steampunk convention because it floats and it works!
The circus is important to many in the steampunk community. After all, it was an important nineteenth century entertainment. Many of the steampunk events I’ve attended have a real love of circus performers. Abney Park even released an album called The Circus at the End of the World. One of the things that’s striking about Popeye is all the circus performers working as extras, showing off their talents in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The whole movie has a very steampunk-feeling circus atmosphere.
I’d be hard pressed to call Popeye a steampunk film, but Robin Williams’ Popeye is a misfit with a good heart who could easily walk into many steampunk stories I know and feel surprisingly right at home. Some steampunk characters would probably look askance at him in his dingy sailor suit and corncob pipe, but he’d scowl and just tell them, “I yam what I yam!”