By Nick Alderink
Today, Cinema Revolution’s first American feature comes from Robert Downey Sr. and his critical breakthrough and comedic satire Putney Swope. Last year, the film was recognized by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registration Board and deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” enough to be preserved along with Thelma and Louise, The Lion King, The Princess Bride, and others. While the film prominently satirizes American race relations, the primary examination is one that demonizes Madison Avenue’s world of advertising in New York City and shows that corruption is a poison that does not discriminate. Although it may not be regarded popularly as one of the greatest comedies in film history, Putney Swope was made with just a $250,000 budget and is arguably the first independent film to find commercial success. It has also been directly mentioned as an influence to filmmakers and comedians alike, including Louis C.K, Jim Jarmusch, Eddie Murphy, the Coen Brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson, who even used Downey as an actor in Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
A Bit You Should Know
Putney Swope begins in an ad agency where a group of white board executives are meeting to discuss their latest campaign. When the Chairman of the Board enters and dies almost immediately, they collectively, albeit accidentally, elect their token black member, Putney Swope, to take his place. Swope changes the name of the agency to Truth and Soul Inc. and immediately sets in his plans for change: “I’m not going to rock the boat. Rocking the boat is a drag. What you do is sink the boat!” and suddenly the room of old white bureaucrats turn into black, hip men and women ready to do business their own way for once. Swope preaches that change is not made by selling slogans and rhetoric, but with the truth: a thesis and philosophy held by Robert Downey and the independent filmmakers he come up with that were making their way in New York City’s underground scene.
Robert Downey had been making films for over a decade by the time Putney Swope was released. He came up with filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, John Cassavetes, and the like who favored the significance of B-movies that relied less on profits and mass appeal and more on shock value and honesty. Their work was cheap and had little commercial value but they sought to tell the truth in a time when that meant pointing out the harsh realities of the American societal infrastructure that was engaged in political and racial upheaval. When it was first released, Putney Swope was turning out to be just as successful as his previous films until the poster caught the public eye and the film picked up reviews in the popular media. The poster depicted an African-American model doubling as the middle finger on a hand pointing up to the tagline: “Up Madison Ave.” Not long after, Jane Fonda saw it and claimed it to be a masterpiece on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. It found a home in American counterculture where the anti-establishment protests were reaching a violent climax.
The truth Downey reveals is found in the aftermath of Swope’s rise to power, as he presents an argument for how societal roles are entitled and influenced by the American media. As Truth and Soul Inc. establishes a position from the point-of-view of the African-American population, with it comes a swap of roles and biases in society. Swope and his wife hire a white maid who they constantly criticize for her laziness and Putney turns down a request for a raise from one of his white employees who argues that his black counterpart makes more money for doing the same job.
But with Swope’s rise to power also comes money, and with money comes corruption and his agency slowly transforms into one that presents itself no differently than the one he replaced. Swope’s first decision as Chairman is to draw a moral line and remove toy guns and cigarettes from his advertisements, but then opts for a shift to sex appeal. His ad for Lucky Airlines features only topless women bouncing up and down in a padded room as an airline speaker calls out the number of the lucky passenger who gets to join them. Swope’s clothing then begins to resemble Fidel Castro as he takes ideas from his pitchmen, fires them, and passes the ideas off as his own. He even hires his own token member to the group, an Arab played by Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch), who is keen to Swope’s intention for keeping him around for the sake of appearance, and then grows to spout his own disgust for the agency’s moral abandonment. To speak around spoiling the finale, what Downey portrays in the end is the natural life cycle of bureaucratic systems in corporate America.
What to Look Out For
- Although played by Arnold Johnson, Putney’s voice was replaced and dubbed by Robert Downey. Critics and audiences have and will theorize the meaning of this, but Downey instead has said he only did it because Arnold Johnson was having trouble memorizing and reading his lines and due to budget constraints, was unable to recast the part.
- The placement of posters featuring popular black actors are commonly seen in the background, such as Sidney Poitier in one particular instance who was a commercially successful star for his time but also represented a white washed imitation of black culture.
- While the film is in black and white, the commercial parodies seen in the film appear in color to imitate American television. These commercials are a comedic highlight to the film and act as a pioneer to a well of material that Saturday Night Live would tap into six years later (Bass-O-Matic anyone?).
Putney Swope will play in the Main Theater tonight, Monday, April 10th at 7:00 PM. Join us again next week for a special Cinema Revolution Double-Feature of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane at 4:00 PM and Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night at 7:00 PM.
We’ll see you at the Michigan!
Patterson, John. “Madison Avenue breakdown.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/sep/28/features.johnpatterson
“Putney Swope: The Most Under-Rated Cult Film of the 1960s?” Dangerous Minds. http://dangerousminds.net/comments/putney_swope_most_under_rated_cult_film
Koresky, Michael. “Eclipse Series 33: Up Al Night With Robert Downey Sr.” Criterion Collection. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2304-eclipse-series-33-up-all-night-with-robert-downey-sr
Other Interesting Reads
- “Arnold Johnson”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/apr/27/guardianobituaries2
- [VIDEO] “Robert Downey Sr. and Paul Thomas Anderson on Putney Swope”. Criterion Collection. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1HU2e4YcsM