Putney Swope(Home Vision Entertainment, 8.1.2006)
"Oh God, some of the jokes in here are painful," explains Robert Downey Sr. in his commentary on this groundbreaking comedy form 1969...and he's right. While the movie was a radical breath of fresh air in its time, it has not aged that well. A satire of advertising and race relations, Putney Swope is set in a moribund New York ad agency transformed when its CEO dies suddenly and is replaced by the African-American title character (Arnold Johnson). Swope immediately jettisons most of his white colleagues and renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc.
Swope refuses to create ads for booze, cigarettes or war toys and creates a series of television commercials that break numerous taboos by using profanity and nudity. In one, an interracial couple (Ronnie Dyson and Shelley Plimpton) sing a ditty about enjoying a dry hump after meeting at the Yale-Howard game, while pushing a pimple cream. Swope is not, however, a moralist. Like his predecessors, he is out for the quick buck. He enjoys soliciting ideas from his minions, firing them for incompetence, and then using their suggestions.
Made for only $250,000, Putney Swope was one of the first independent films to reach a relatively wide audience. It fit the spirit of the era by making fun of the establishment and also presented black people in a context not previously seen. Downey underscores this difference by having Swope rip down his girlfriend's (Laura Greene) Sidney Poitier poster, while making love to her. The film constantly pokes fun at blacks, especially during a meeting between Swope and a group of political activists who make ridiculous demands. Downey says that this scene is a special favorite of Eddie Murphy, who is interested in doing a remake. Dave Chappelle and Samuel L. Jackson are also reportedly big fans of Putney Swope (not ot mention Paul Thomas Anderson, who has cast Downey Sr. in two of his films).
Downey constantly tweaks political correctness, long before the concept existed, as when a Chinese client (Tom Odachi) tells Swope, "I'm a happy chink." When Swope learns that a staffer (Perry Gewirtz) has been arrested in a hotel with a 13-year-old, he exclaims, "At least he isn't superstitious." Putney Swope is also probably the first film to include the immortal line, "I'm gonna bend your Johnson."
The film is also notable for Downey's use of interesting-looking actors, especially the cadaverous Stan Gottlieb as Swope's main rival. The fascinating faces on display here resemble the grotesques seen in Fellini's films and the photographs of Diane Arbus, whose former husband, Allan Arbus, plays one of Swope's henchmen. Of all the actors, only Allen Garfield (as the son of the agency's director) and Antonio Fargas (as an Islamic employee) went on to much fame.
Unfortunately, much of what seemed original and outrageous in 1969 is much less so now. While there are entertaining bits -- the commercials in particular -- too much just doesn't work. A sub-plot about a dwarf president of the United States (Pepi Hermine) is especially cumbersome. Downey says that a scene in which a photographer (Erik Krupnick) gets into bed with the president and his wife (Ruth Hermine) has always made viewers uneasy, but the problem is it's not that funny.
Casting and the difficulties shooting in an office building (which he only had access to late at night) are the center of Downey's commentary. The writer-director is ruthlessly honest, claiming not to like any of his films, only pieces of them. When he saw the famous middle-finger poster, duplicated on the DVD case, he exclaimed, "That's better than the movie."
Many of Downey's comments are duplicated in an on-camera interview (which originally appeared on Rhino's inferior Putney Swope disc from 2001). In both, he explains that he dubbed Swope's dialogue himself because Johnson kept getting his lines wrong. He also explains why he includes "(a prince)" after his name in the opening credits and he talks about the "experimental commercials" he made before Putney Swope, including one with "my kid," then an infant, naked on a rug (Robert Downey Jr., would make his feature debut as a dog in his father's next effort, Pound). There is also a 2-page appreciation of the film by scholar Charles Coleman. Except for the commercials, Putney Swope was shot in black-and-white and its crisp images are presented in an impressive anamorphic transfer.
Downey wants to dispense with the name Mel Brooks among the actors' credits because the individual in Putney Swope is not the Mel Brooks, yet the DVD case proudly gives "the wrong Brooks" second billing. The connection between Downey and the director of Blazing Saddles is appropriate, however, as both are original, hit-and-miss talents. Putney Swope misses much more than it hits, but it still remains an intriguing historical curiosity. -- Michael Adams