Classic Film Review: Downey Sr.’s “Putney Swope,” aging like fine…vinegar

I remember seeing “Putney Swope” with an audience once, and I remember it landing laughs.

As that audience was at a whiter-than-white midwestern university film society, and this was some years ago, perhaps that’s telling. Robert Downey Sr.’s silly, broad and crude swipe at racism and Madison Ave. plays as an inside joke for insiders who are by and large outsiders of the experiences celebrated and skewered in it.

Seen today, what was funny in this energetic and flippant 1960s satire is occasionally still amusing. But the picture’s crude craft — part of its underground energy and appeal back then — just looks sloppy, glib and unknowing now.

The core concept is a clever one, although not as original as it is given credit for. Mainstream Hollywood films were always sending up “Mad Men” in the ’60s, generations before “Mad Men” became something worth taking more seriously. If a spoof made its way into a Tony Randall or Rock Hudson rom-com, you’re hardly dancing on the cutting edge.

It’s the racial component to this send-up that makes the film important.

The opening shot is bracing — a biker-vested white-haired geezer makes his NYC entrance by helicopter, skull and crossbones and Confederate flags flying from the open chopper door. He and his briefcase are escorted into the Elias agency and a board meeting. It turns out this freak is an academic consultant, a Ken Kesey “Merry Prankster” type.

“Beer,” he tells the ad-men, “is for men who doubt their masculinity,” which is why they consume so much of it in public, at sporting events.

That insight isn’t likely to help the Mad Men sell “the worst beer on the planet,” one of their clients. But there you go, thousands of dollars for a consultant, and this is what you get.

The agency’s aged founder (David Kirk) shows up, reminds them all of their job to “manipulate the consumer,” strokes out and dies. One subordinate keeps bellowing “How many syllables, Mario?” He thinks the seizure is a game of Charades.

While Elias’s corpse is still on the board room table, the power grab begins. Will the top job go to the senior man (Stan Gottlieb), to the son of the founder (Allen Garfield), somebody else? The bylaws say it has to be put to secret ballot vote. And that’s when this sea of white men outsmart themselves. Lots of them vote for the “token” Black man in their ranks (Arnold Johnson) thinking “no one else would vote for him.”

Thus does Putney Swope, formerly the firm’s music consultant, take over a giant agency and proceed to upend advertising. His promises not to change “much” notwithstanding, he immediately bans cigarettes and “war toys” advertising.

“Deny a young boy the right to have a toy gun, and you’ll suppress his destructive urges,” the agency man in charge of those accounts whines. “And he’ll turn out to be a homosexual. Or worse.

The ad-men’s banter is peppered with gay slurs, tapping into the public attitudes of the day.

But next thing we know, the newly-renamed “Truth & Soul” agency has run off most of its white execs. Let word be passed to Boss Putney that “there’s a bunch of lilies shooting a commercial in our studio,” and Putney brings the palace guard and half the office (almost all Black now) to storm in and stop whatever deceptive nonsense they’re committing to film.

Antonio Fargas, later to find fame as a pimp/informant to those ’70s hip cops “Starsky & Hutch,” is the office’s resident ranter, “The Arab.”

“Get on out! Yeah, no more taking pictures of no jive cans and jive bottles and skinny-legged broads with stockings on them. Get on out of here! We’re gonna have some greasy fingers and some chicken and all the beautiful things that people have – who have it! And you ain’t got it!”

Truth & Soul proceeds to upend advertising, mostly based on the gut-reactions and whims of its mercurial, Dick Gregory-as-Black-Revolutionary leader. Swope repurposes a foul-smelling window cleaner that they can’t sell as “a ghetto soft drink,” and lays down the law to clients, who line up in the agency entrance to beg for the Truth & Soul touch.

“We don’t need your ideas. We don’t need your advice. And we don’t need no ‘lames’ in the hallway!”

Downey sends up the high-handedness of white culture imposing itself on “The People” via advertising by having this crackpot “genius” flip the script and impose his off-color, off-topic commercials on the masses.

“Putney is confusing originality with obscenity,” one of his own Black executives admits.

There’s a bit of The Beatles movies of the era in the crackling banter of Q&A sessions with the Rolls-Royce driven Swope facing down a rabid press corps.

“Mr. Swope, did you sleep with your wife before you were married?”

“Not a wink.”

Downey Sr. — the Mad Magazine inspired “Up the Academy” and the Robert Downey Jr.-starring “Too Much Sun” were his lone shots at mainstream Hollywood — was an underground filmmaker with just enough experience with American advertising agencies to send them up. But as mock ads became a staple of TV comedy in the ’60s and were perfected on “Saturday Night Live” in the ’70s, it’s somewhat grating to see how clumsily Downey handles them here.

The intent is pointed and almost funny, but the execution is half-assed.

Downey dubbed all of his African American leading man’s lines, speaking in a sort “I speak jive” growl that isn’t noticeably false until it is.

“Brothers, you can’t change nothing with rhetoric and slogans; because, if a man’s really got the truth in his pocket, he doesn’t talk about it. He hangs it out on a shingle where people can see it.”

Perhaps remembering that informed his son’s wild blackface turn in “Tropic Thunder.”

A lot of what passed for edgy and hilarious about this movie in its time isn’t aging well. Sure, casting a dwarf (Pepi Hermine) as President, having a famous photographer who wants to work for the agency show his portfolio, including shots of “the Agnew funeral” (the corrupt Spiro Agnew had been vice president for just a few months when “Putney” came out) tickles and stings.

The rampant sexism and homophobia, some of it sent up, some of it played as accepted wisdom, can make you wince.

As Downey bounces back and forth between color scenes and black and white, the dominant film stock used here, you look for reasons. Is he showing us the fantasy lives created by commercials in color, and reality the much more stark monochromatic? No, nothing that obvious or coherent is evident in this strategy.

The film’s manic 84 minutes start to pass ever-more slowly, the longer it plays. “Frenetic” and choppy can only seem fresh for so long.

Look for Mel Brooks in a cameo, and Allan Arbus, best-known for his visiting psychotherapist turns on TV’s “M*A*S*H” in bit parts, here.

The Golden Age of Cinema Satire covers an era roughly marked out by “Lolita” as its beginning, with “Network” heralding its end. “Swope” has its novelty, grappling with race and a whitewashing advertising culture. But it’s entirely too close to the instantly-dated Warhol “experiments” of the ’60s for my taste. It’s not on a par with “Medium Cool” or “The Loved One,” not polished enough to be “The Magic Christian,” misfiring as often as not in an “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad” way.

Kind of over-the-top, but too underwhelming for its own good, in other words.

Rating: R, sex, nudity, profanity

Cast: Arnold Johnson, Antonio Fargas, Allen Garfield, Laura Greene, Pepi Hermine, David Kirk, Ramon Gordon, with Allan Arbus, Mel Brooks

Credits: Scripted and directed by Robert Downey. A Cinema V release, on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:24

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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