I watched Popi with Alan Arkin on TCM during their Latino Images in Film Marathon, which I posted about for Quelle’s Out of the Past Classic film blog. I remembered loving the film as a kid, but seeing it now the drama is much more clear. Like many films of the late ’60s, such as The Russians Are Coming… The Russians Are Coming! also coincidentally starring Alan Arkin, there is a sense of datedness as Hollywood begins discovering its social conscience in earnest.
Alan Arkin plays Abram, a hard-working Puerto Rican immigrant widower with two sons, Luis and Junior, who he feels he is losing to the streets of Spanish Harlem. He works two jobs and gets 5 hours of sleep, as a super and a hotel waiter; he can’t marry his sweetheart Rita Moreno because he wants to put the kids first. But when he gets mistaken for a Bay of Pigs veteran at a Cuba Libre meeting at the hotel, he gets a crazy idea to go to Miami and have the kids be mistaken for Cuban refugees, so they’ll be taken in by rich benefactors.
Putting Alan Arkin’s brownface role aside- something he also did in the seminal cop buddy movie Freebie and the Bean (full review)- the movie really captures the feel of late-60’s New York and Spanish Harlem especially. The boys steal and jump the subway turnstile, learning from their friends; they fight with a crazy kid in the building, who likes to torture pigeons. The street is portrayed as quite rough and we see it roughening them, despite their good hearts. And this is what’s killing their Popi, who wants them to be able to be children.
Arthur Hiller (who’d directed The Americanization of Emily, and would go on to Silver Streak) manages to make the film feel natural, with a mild comedic energy running throughout. The chemistry between Arkin and the dignified Moreno is good, but the film takes the unfortunate turn of actually having him go through with his crazy plot, which isn’t very funny, and seems very out of character. He takes them on a bus to Miami, teaches them to pilot a boat, and sends them out to sea. Then for three days he’s biting his fingernails, listening to the news, waiting for them to be rescued. When he thinks they’ve died, he throws himself into the ocean to drown himself, only to hear about them on his radio just in time.
The third act has the dehydrated kids in the hospital while he tries to sneak in to see them, and remind them to speak only in Spanish. And it feels forced. I missed the first half of the movie, when he was a worrisome father trying to keep his two boys out of trouble, and yearned for it to be a family comedy-drama that showed them surviving the miasma of ’60s urban malaise. But the two boys- whose acting careers sadly end a few years after this- and Arkin himself are such enjoyable company that the movie remains watchable.
It’s still a very touching relic and made a good point, that at the time the hard-working immigrants who came over were suffering while political refugees seemed to be getting the American dream everyone wanted. And it was a less patronizing portrayal of Hispanics during a time when Hollywood only wanted them with a switchblade in their hand, even if Arkin got the lead role. Rita Moreno got the Poitier role of quiet dignity to help assuage the brownface. It’s still worth seeing today, and while it’s heavier on smiles than laughter, it is still a memorable film.