Roughly halfway through Robert Downey Sr.’s Chafed Elbows, Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan) comes across a man painting a white strip down the middle of an alley. “You have to draw the line somewhere,” the man explains. With Chafed Elbows, Downey confirmed with this second feature that he had no intention of drawing the line anywhere.
Take the film’s opening joke. Walter is awakened in bed by his lover who compels him to leave. “He’ll be home any minute,” she urges. As he exits, she tells him, “I love you, Walter, more than anything else in the world.” Walter responds, “I love you, too, Mother.”
So, as a disgruntled voice is heard to ask at film’s end, “What the hell kind of picture is this, man?” It’s a day in the life of Dinsmore’s annual “November breakdown,” as seen and heard through a mix of live action and still photographs (that Downey had developed at a drug store). Dinsmore is discovered to be pregnant and gives birth to $1,890 (he swallowed a nickel as a boy), visits a psychiatrist who speaks in fluent Groucho Marx, becomes an extra on a low budget movie, is shot, ascends to heaven where he is greeted by St. Peter (“How about a kiss?”) and the Virgin Mary (“Just call me Mary”) and is sent back to Earth (“You tell Charlton Heston I’m waiting for him,” Mary says) where Dinsmore becomes an aspiring poet. All this and more in about an hour.
Downey, who in his early films billed himself as “a prince,” was a New York underground film legend. “When we think about underground cinema, experimental cinema, we sometimes mistakenly have this notion that it's all heavily symbolic, incredibly art-y, filled with deep meanings — and somehow you need a PhD to understand all this stuff," New York Times critic Bilge Ebiri told NPR in July 2021, when Downey died at age 85.
Which is why Chafed Elbows is still a potent piece of prevarication almost 55 years later. Downey has audacity and wit to spare, and he wields them to undercut underground cinema’s more abstruse tendencies.
New York’s underground arts scene was already ripe for parody in 1967, when Chafed Elbows opened at New York’s downtown Gate Theater. Roughly two years earlier, The Dick Van Dyke Show aired a fourth season episode, “Romance, Rye Bread and Roses,” in which Laura Petrie attended an avant-garde play, “Waiting for an Armadillo.” “Avant-garde,” jokes one of the show’s characters, comedy writer Buddy Sorrell, “that’s French for garbage…I understand (the play’s) so wild, you can’t even understand the intermission.”
For Chafed Elbows, incest is only the beginning. Downey offers scabrous takes on analysis, contemporary art, fetishism, pretentious low budget filmmakers and motherhood. He credits the New York Police Department with “a special hindrance.”
Dinsmore can’t be called a picaresque hero. As one character observes, he “radiates emptiness and despair and futility.” In one of the film’s more inspired bits, he is stopped on the street at gunpoint by an artist who paints his initials on him, certifies him “a piece of living art” and directs him to report to the Washington Square Gallery. “I’m pricing you at $1,700,” the artist declares. “Once you’re sold, you’re on your own.”
There is a percolating Beat sensibility at work. The film is peppered with absurdist dialogue (“Did you know that the whale in Moby Dick was really Esther Williams in a leather jacket?”) and jokes, some inspired (“The only thing about these low budget films is all the action is behind the camera”) and some straight out of vaudeville (“I’ll be there with bells on.” “Please don’t, my mother sleeps late”).
A scene with a desperate woman who loves to sniff socks anticipates John Waters by almost a decade. (All the women in the film are portrayed by Downey’s first wife, Elsie Ford.)
Chafed Elbows was made for a reported $12,000. It played for months at the Gate and moved to the art house Bleecker Street Cinema, where it played for 11 weeks paired with Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963). Perhaps this cult success spurred Downey onward. His next film would be titled No More Excuses (1968).
Chafed Elbows faded into oblivion until it was restored in 2008 by the New Anthology Film Archives. Martin Scorsese, on the Film Foundation’s board, told The New York Times that Downey’s formative films are “an essential part of that moment when a truly independent American cinema was born.”