March 28, 2017
In 1969 Robert Downey Sr. waited outside a screening of Putney Swope (1969) at the Cinema II in NYC to see if the film was still working as intended. As reported by Stephen Mahoney in Life magazine: “Two couples emerge. A woman is tearing at a handkerchief. ‘Tasteless. An exhibition…Filth’, she stammers. Under the cowboy hat Downey’s face lights up with joy.” Mahoney’s article was entitled “Robert Downey Makes Vile Movies,” a takeoff on a particularly outraged review by the New York Daily News (“Vicious and vile, the most offensive picture I’ve ever seen.”). Putney Swope is a clattering joke-stuffed satire both hilarious and exhausting. It begins as a spoof of ad agency racism, and keeps widening its targets until it takes itself down, a circular firing squad of comedy. Downey wanted his audiences to leap out of their seats, preferably with shock and disgust, and so it includes a horny and despotic little person president, an office flasher and the takeover of an ad agency by black militants who get co-opted by the business they wanted to overthrow. No one gets away unscathed. Putney Swope is streaming on FilmStruck, along with four other Downey films.
Downey Sr. was aligned with the group of underground filmmakers in NYC who were proselytized by Jonas Mekas in The Village Voice. Mekas was an early champion of Downey’s work, who wrote after seeing Chafed Elbows (1966) that, “Bob Downey is the Lenny Bruce of the new cinema,” and that the movie was, “as good as anything done by nouvelle vague.” Chafed Elbows was a bad-taste La Jetee (1963), an incest comedy visualized almost entirely in still photographs. It gained him enough notoriety to secure financing for Putney Swope, his highest budget production by far (Downey put it at $250,000). Putney Swope the character (played by Arnold Johnson and dubbed by Downey because Johnson couldn’t remember the lines), is the only black employee at a large ad agency. After the chairman of the board keels over in the middle of the meeting, there is a hastily arranged vote to elect the new head, with the body cooling on the table. Swope wins and executes wholesale changes, replacing all the executives with black activists aside from one token member (who complains he doesn’t get paid the same rate). He tells the entire staff to write and create commercials, regardless of the department they’re in.
These brilliantly demented commercials air in color, while the rest of the film is in black and white. Freed from any market research, or any relationship to the product at all, these ads are gleeful bursts of pure nonsense. “Ethereal Cereal” executes a slow zoom to a curious black eater responding to the white narrator , “No Shit!” The ad for Fan-A-Way electric fans is even more bizarre. With a funky guitar-organ riff on the soundtrack, a woman in gold lamé sashays past a homeless man in an alley. She stops in front of the camera and says, “You can’t eat…an air conditioner,” and then retreats into a smoke machine. The ad for Lucky Airlines is an absurdly long orgy sequence, while that for Face Off acne cream (the favorite bit of Henry Louis Gates, a Putney Swope fan) shows an interracial couple on a bicycle built for two as they sing, “You gave me a dry hump/behind the hot dog stand.” These are all fabulous wastes of money and disconnect the product from the images on-screen. They aren’t selling but destroying.
Though Swope’s company is initially something of a socialist enterprise, with everyone pitching into the creative, eventually Swope does steal credit, and seemingly marries his mistress just so he can use her ideas for campaigns. He gets so successful he is fielding calls from the President (played by little person Pepi Hermine). But in an abrupt and brusquely violent end, he distributes the profits to his employees and then burns the place down. For a black intellectual like Henry Louis Gates, who called it the first blaxploitation film, Swope “was our secret hero. What we wanted to do…our self-styled revolutionary vanguard that integrated Yale in large numbers-was to go in the system and transform it from the inside.” It’s unclear from the film what Swope actually changed in the system itself, as the greater society in the film is depicted as rotten, corrupt and ridiculous. That is why Swope presumably burns it all down, to start back at zero. But it’s a film of energetic messiness and ideological ambiguity, one can take what they want from it. For example, Louis C.K. is a vocal admirer who has used it as an inspiration for making uncompromising work that doesn’t court a specific audience. On WTF With Marc Maron he recalled finding an old VHS copy of Putney Swope and being amazed something like that could be made. Days later he started getting money together to shoot a movie.
Putney Swope was enormously successful for distributor Donald Rugoff, who told Life, “Once we had this James Bond thing, Thunderball, at Cinema II, and it did this fantastic box office, more than we’d ever supposed possible for any movie, and now Putney Swope is way ahead of it. Isn’t that terrible?” It is not hard to envision its success, considering how outrageous it is (its sketch comedy structure anticipates the Zucker Brothers’ The Kentucky Fried Movie and Mel Brooks’ History of the World) and its eye-catching middle finger theatrical poster. But in its time writer Stephen Mahoney had a more convincing argument for its popularity: “Alice’s Restaurant makes the point that kids could get on fine if it weren’t for funky adults. There’s More, which makes the case that kids could get on fine if it weren’t for funky adults…. In Putney Swope there is no generational self pity. The point to Downey’s film is that nobody could get on fine in any circumstances.”