Putney Swope: Robert Downey Sr.'s Scorching Satire Comes to Criterion
The Film: Putney Swope (1969), now available via The Criterion Collection's Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr. box set
Why It’s an Inessential Essential: Filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. is probably more famous for being the father of Iron Man's megastar than he is for his scathing and surreal comedies. As part of the New York underground scene of avant garde filmmakers, Downey’s films, like the 1979 absurdist acid western Greaser’s Palace, are probably more linear and narrative-driven than most of his peers’ films. So it’s fitting that the stand-out title in the Criterion Collection’s new box set is both his most popular film and also his straight-est comedy.
Putney Swope is a black comedy that suggests that power not only corrupts but that there’s also no real way to “keep it real.” The title character, played by Arnold Johnson, is democratically voted president of an ad agency which he proceeds to gut and then run into the ground according to his negotiable principles. Swope’s Black Panther-like comrades quickly replace a bunch of mealy-mouthed white guys, but everyone in the film has their own money-minded agendas to pursue.
For starters, the old, white Madison Avenue ad executives — like the one who demands a raise, a private box at Shea Stadium and 22 weeks of vacation per year — want security and promotions. Next, Swope’s new sycophants — like the guy that suggests communicating via the drum — want money and status, too. And their clients are just as unscrupulous: As long as an ad campaign is successful, they don’t care how their product is sold, even if it means selling acne cream called Face Off with a facetiously sentimental jingle about "dry-hump[ing] behind the hot dog stand" and "beaver"-flashing.
Worst of all, Swope is totally corrupt — both morally and creatively bankrupt. His idea of a good commercial for an airline involves naked women, a trampoline jump and a lottery ticket. And because nobody knows what they’re doing, Swope and his company, rechristened Truth and Soul Inc., makes a mint. With its neo-screwball dialogue and bizarre sight gags, Putney Swope is a demented good time.
How the DVD Makes the Case for the Film: The box set featuring Putney Swope doesn’t doesn't include any special features or interviews with Robert Downey Sr., but it does include four of his other films (Babo 73, Chafed Elbows, No More Excuses, Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight). Of these four, the one that’s closest in tone to Putney Swope is No More Excuses (1968), which pokes fun at the very idea of being “liberated” during the sexual revolution. However, film critic Michael Koresky does contribute an informative and well-written pair of essays on Downey’s films and the historical context within which they were made. For starters, Koresky points out that Downey drew on his own personal experiences as a disgruntled ad executive when making Putney Swope; Downey made a Preparation H commercial where a Chinese woman says, “No matter what your ethnic affliction, use Preparation H and kiss your hemorrhoids goodbye!” As Koresky points out, that commercial was rejected in real life — but it is featured in No More Excuses.
Other Interesting Trivia: One of the more interesting bits of trivia featured in Koresky’s essays is a tidbit about Putney’s voice: Downey Sr. dubbed over Johnson’s voice with his own. According to Koresky, Downey did this because Johnson couldn’t remember any of his lines.
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Simon Abrams is a NY-based freelance film critic whose work has been featured in outlets like The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vulture and Esquire. Additionally, some people like his writing, which he collects at Extended Cut.