Monday, June 5, 2006

Putney Swope

Putney Swope(1969)
Written and Directed
by Robert Downey (a prince)
Starring Arnold Johnson, Alan Garfield
IMDB Entry

Nearly forgotten today, Putney Swope was a sensation when it came out.  Directed by Robert Downey (before you needed to put a "Sr." after his name), it was a brazen and bizarre little black comedy that tweaked consumerism and race relations in the 60s.

The set-up was simple.  The head of a struggling NYC ad agency drops dead during a meeting of executives.  They have to elect his replacement and scribble on ballots until it's pointed out they can't vote for themselves, at which point the ballots are all discarded.  They vote again.  The winner is Putney Swope, the agency's token black man, who everyone voted for because they thought no one else would.  Swope (Arnold Johnson) stands at the head of the meeting room and says he doesn't plan to make many changes.

Cut to a few weeks later.  All the white faces are gone from the agency, and its name is now "Truth and Soul, Inc."

There's little plot.  Mostly the agency makes ads -- hilarious send-ups of consumerism. For instance, there's Ethereal Cereal:

Commercial Narrator: Jim Keranga of Watts, California is eating a bowl of Ethereal Cereal, the heavenly breakfast. Jim, did you know that Ethereal has 25% more riboflavin than any other cereal on the market? Ethereal also packs the added punch of .002 ESP units of pectin!
Jim Keranga (grinning): No shit.

Swope is out to outrage society; his motto is "Rockin' the boat's a drag. You gotta sink the boat!"  The film is a nasty-funny over-the-top attack on everything.  There are running gags, scathing satire on the concerns of the day, and a lot of weirdness.  The film is in black and white, but the ads are in color. 

It was an impressive film for Downey (he even dubbed all of Johnson's lines; Swope's/Downey's voice is still memorable after 40 years -- a gravelly roar)  Alas, his follow-ups were flops, and he's struggled along, known now only for being the father of his actor son (drugs had something to do with it).    It's not a film for everyone, and certainly not as revolutionary as it was in 1969, but worth a look.

No comments: