King Features Syndicate is a print syndication company owned by The Hearst Corporation. They distribute about 150 comic strips, newspaper columns, editorial cartoons, puzzles and games to nearly 5000 of the dying print medium known as “newspapers.” They own a heck of a lot of famous cartoon characters, many of whom started out as newspaper comic strips. Two of these are Popeye and Flash Gordon. After the monumental success of Superman (1978, Richard Donner) they must have been flustered over who owned their most famous characters and whom they could still sell off.
Flash Gordon was already owned for a long time by De Laurentiis, who produced the film version in his idiosyncratic style. Popeye’s film was a Paramount-Disney co-production, yet also very eccentric thanks to producer Robert Evans giving director Robert Altman virtual free reign to make whatever he wanted of the beloved icon. How did two films about such different matinee heroes get made so similarly by such different hands, resulting in two films both rather infamous for falling short of their critical and box office expectations? We do our best to summarize the good and bad from each oddball romp, one of which is mostly good and the other mostly not so good in this, our “King Features Syndicate” episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast.
Flash Gordon opens with an ominous villain finding out the name of our planet Earth, then pushing a button marked “EARTH QUAKE” to attack us. The rest of the movie is a lot like that: archly theatrical in manners of comic book prose, but also distractingly stupid. The combination of Las Vegas pageantry and low fi special effects has its share of admirers, including famed Marvel Comics illustrator Alex Ross, whom on the special edition DVD recollects being blown away by a child in 1980 and wondering why Star Wars couldn’t be more like it. If only there had been several million more children like him; imbued at a young age with the tastes of grown men who still love ogling women in ridiculous costumes as the males in ridiculous costumes ham it up.
The target audience of Flash Gordon would probably be the same people whose favorite season of the Batman TV show was the final one where they added Batgirl and made her ride around on a motorcycle wearing purple lycra. The screenplay was written by a frequent scribe of that very show, Lorenzo Semple Jr, and he never misses a chance to include innuendos about “teaming up” or the pleasures of torture. Sometimes he just goes ahead and lets Flash remark that some girl really turning him on. There’s also language like “damn you” and “go to hell” and even “you lying bitch!” to tick off parents and titillate the film’s true audience; the adult degenerates enjoying all the scantily clad one name Euromodel-actresses populating the throne room of Ming the Merciless.
Flash Gordon has some amazing sets and costumes, corny special effects which nonetheless jibe with the art direction, and even some decent cast who can deliver lines like “NO!!! NOT THE BORE WORMS!!!” with conviction. Unfortunately the director Mike Hodges doesn’t seem remotely interested in his own movie and the decision to let the special effects look fake feels more like a lack of effort than a purposeful refutation of the new realism in effects introduced by George Lucas. There’s also no surprises to be had after the movie gets going – just more of the same cheese over and over for nearly two hours, the two-dimensional nature of everything becoming more and more of a liability. The only component of the movie with a dramatic arc is the famous soundtrack by Queen. Too slow for children and too silly for adults, Flash Gordon finds a way to disappoint everyone.
Similarly confusing to audiences then and now is Robert Altman’s Popeye, which at least has the benefit of, you know, being directed by Robert Altman. Fans of this film actually have a good case to make for it being one of the most artistically accomplished comic book films ever made: the script by Jules Feiffer incorporates as many characters as possible from the original E.C. Segar Thimble Theater newspaper strips and Robert Altman supplies a roster great character actors like Ray Walston, Richard Libertini and Paul Dooley to bring them to life. Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall were famously cast as Popeye and Olive Oyl, and they’re perfectly qualified. Altman’s choice of songwriter, Harry Nilsson, composes some rambling amble tunes which honor the laconic wit of the old comic strip splendidly, awkwardly as they are placed into the story. In an amazing coincidence, Nilsson actually took a break from recording an album titled “Flash Harry” to work on Popeye. Wolf Kroeger’s production design should have won an Oscar; he literally created an island town where in Malta, Spain where there was once a bunch of rocks and the dang place is still standing to this day as “Popeye Village,” a functioning theme park.
Altman directing musical sequences is something to behold for his fans. Seeing him have a go at slapstick is also something behold and not in a good way. Popeye has problems to be sure, some in common with Flash Gordon: the rambling, the repetitive feeling, the palpable confusion as to whom the film is meant for. On the other hand, Altman is a genius and even the lesser works of a genius are unique visions worth seeing.
It’s a tragedy that comic book movies today don’t have the freedom to fizzle out as spectacularly as Flash Gordon or display as much offbeat charm as Popeye. Of course, the super hero movie is what’s synonymous with “comic book movie” and the rare non-super hero comic book movie is a lonely subgenre rife with experimentation for good or ill.
NEXT EPISODE: AIRPLANE! SPECIAL! AIRPLANE! (1980, JIM ABRAHAMS & DAVID ZUCKER & JERRY ZUCKER) & AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL (1982, KEN FINKLEMAN)