#527) Putney Swope (1969)
OR “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Complying”
Directed & Written by Robert Downey Sr.
Class of 2016
The Plot: When the chairman of an ad agency dies unexpectedly, the board takes a vote for a replacement. Unable to vote for themselves, the board picks Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), the company’s token African-American. As soon as he’s appointed, Swope replaces almost every White employee with an African-American one, and under his management the agency starts producing subversive, taboo-busting commercials. When Swope announces his company will not promote alcohol, tobacco, or war toys, he receives a call from the President of the United States (Pepi Hermine) who considers this business strategy “a threat to national security”. There’s plenty of twists and turns in this counterculture satire from Robert Downey Sr.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “wildly irreverent” and “[a] cult classic from an earlier time”. There’s also quick blurbs from Vincent Canby and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who liked the movie), as well as Wanda Hale (who hated it).
But Does It Really?: “Putney Swope” was nowhere on my radar before starting this blog, and it came out swinging. With its takedown of race relations and corporate America, “Putney Swope” is one of the sharpest satires I’ve ever seen. The film has a lot to say, and while it does run out of steam towards the end, it’s still a funny, unique ride. “Putney” earns its spot on the NFR thanks to its satiric edge, its encapsulation of time and place, and its representation of underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.
Shout Outs: At one point, Putney refers to The Arab as “Lawrence of Nigeria”.
Everybody Gets One: A native New Yorker, Robert Downey got his start making low-budget short films, his absurdist streak meshing well with the growing counterculture movement of the 1960s. While working for an experimental commercial studio, Downey learned he was getting paid more than a Black co-worker who did the same job, which inspired him to write “Putney Swope”. And yes, Robert Downey Sr. is the father of movie star Robert Downey Jr., who as a child appeared in several of his father’s films.
Wow, That’s Dated: Although most of the film’s humor still holds up today, “Putney Swope” is also definitely 1969. Everybody “digs” everything, and there are so many slurs that wouldn’t fly today.
Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Putney Swope” or any of Robert Downey Sr.’s movies. Although his son has been nominated twice, Robert Jr. has yet to win either.
- Downey’s major stumbling block with the production of “Putney” was when the Screen Actors Guild raised concerns about the film’s “sub-standard wages and conditions” for its members. Already on a tight budget, Downey opted to make the film non-Union, meaning that lead actor L. Errol Jaye (among other SAG members) had to leave the production. Downey replaced Jaye with Arnold Johnson, who had such difficulty memorizing his lines that Downey dubbed over his dialogue himself in post-production.
- Mainly I was just blown away by the bite this movie has. “Putney” is taking jabs at race relations, corporate politics, and modern advertising in a way no one else was in 1969. There’s a little homework that needs to be done to truly appreciate the writing, but the film still has its laugh-out-loud funny moments.
- Several sources state that comedy legend Mel Brooks appears in this movie. While there is an actor named Mel Brooks listed in the credits for playing the minor character “Mr. Forget It”, I am here to tell you: It’s not that Mel Brooks. At this point in time Mel Brooks was already an Oscar-winning screenwriter and the 2000 Year Old Man; there’s no way he would be making cameos in low-budget indies.
- My favorite parts of the movie are the commercial parodies. Filmed in color (as opposed to the black-and-white cinematography of the rest of the film), these scenes contain the kind of sharp skewering that SNL would later perfect in their commercial parodies a decade later. Among my favorites: Dinkleberry Chicken Pot Pie. “Oh fuck off, Bert.”
- Various large corporations in the movie comment on trying to be publicly perceived as morally responsible during politically divided times. You could have written this movie yesterday.
- Given the film’s episodic nature and marathon of parodies, “Putney Swope” could have easily turned into a sketch comedy movie a la “Kentucky Fried Movie”. The film’s satiric edge prevents that from happening.
- Shoutout to Laura Greene, the actor who plays Mrs. Swope, and the only SAG member to cross the picket line to be in this movie. Her acting career ended shortly after “Putney”, but hey, she’s on the list.
- The President of the United States is played by Pepi Hermine, a little person. According to Downey, he wasn’t trying to make some sort of political commentary with this casting; Hermine simply had the best audition.
- The “If I give you a raise, everybody’s gonna want a raise” exchange between Swope and his White employee is verbatim what one of Downey’s (White) bosses said to his Black employee, thus prompting this whole movie.
- The German car that Swope is asked to advertise is called the Borman. Get it?
- Gotta love any movie with a smoking nun (and no, that’s not a typo).
- One of the new war toys pitched to Swope is the game “Cops and Demonstrators”. Goddamit, why is that the joke that came back around to being true?
- Sometimes a movie ends and I say something to effect of “What is happening?” or “Wait, that’s it?”. While I had a similar response to the ending of “Putney Swope”, I trust Downey et al enough to admit that it probably just went over my head.
- After completing “Putney Swope”, Robert Downey Sr. screened the film for several distribution companies. Everyone passed except for Don Rugoff at Cinema V (which distributed fellow underground NFR entries “Nothing But a Man” and “The Cool World”). “Putney” was the first of Downey’s films to get an actual distribution deal.
- While “Putney Swope” put Robert Downey Sr. on the map, he continued to be an underground filmmaker, albeit a well-known underground filmmaker. Downey’s next movie was “Pound” (featuring the film debut of Robert Jr.), and his last film before his retirement was the 2005 documentary “Rittenhouse Square”.
- Among the filmmakers who have cited Robert Downey Sr. as an influence is Paul Thomas Anderson, who not only named one of his characters in “Boogie Nights” after Putney Swope, but cast Downey in a small role in the film as well.
Further Viewing: Robert Jr. dipped his toe into documentary/social commentary filmmaking as the subject of the 1993 film “The Last Party”. Mark Benjamin & Marc Levin’s film chronicles Downey as he investigates the major issues of the 1992 presidential election (Back when that was the most important election of our lifetime. How quaint.) While an entertaining takedown of American politics, the film is also a surprisingly touching attempt by Robert Jr. to further connect with Robert Sr.