Putney Swope


1h 25m 1969

Brief Synopsis

An unexpected member of the executive board of an advertising firm is accidentally put in charge.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Comedy
Satire
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 10 Jul 1969
Production Company
Herald Productions
Distribution Company
Cinema V Distributing, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 25m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White, Color (Eastmancolor)

Synopsis

Putney Swope is the token black man on the executive board of a large Madison Avenue advertising agency. During a promotional meeting, the elderly company chairman, while addressing the board, drops dead of a heart attack. The other board members vote to elect a successor and, through a company rule which prohibits voting for oneself, Swope wins by a landslide. Putney promptly replaces all the white board members with blacks (leaving one token white man), renames the agency Truth and Soul, Inc., and refuses accounts for commercials on liquor, cigarettes, and war toys. Truth and Soul revolutionizes television advertising by creating shock-effect commercials for such products as Face-Off Acne Cream and Ethereal Cereal. The agency's unorthodox policies are regarded by the President of the United States, Mimeo, a marijuana-smoking midget, as a serious threat to his vested interests. As cash deposits accumulate in the Truth and Soul basement, dissidents in the agency threaten Putney's authority. Putney meets with Mimeo, who tells him that unless Truth and Soul begins advertising liquor, cigarettes, and war toys, as well as promoting the unsafe "Borman Six" German roadster, the government will picket Truth and Soul. Following an assassination attempt by a white messenger boy who has been continuously abused by Putney and his staff, Putney abandons the agency, dressed in Castro garb and carrying a sack of money. As he does so, a dissident Arab tosses a Molotov cocktail into the plexiglass vault containing the company loot--and all of Truth and Soul's cash assets go up in smoke.

Cast

Arnold Johnson

Putney Swope

Stan Gottlieb

Nathan

Allen Garfield

Elias, Jr.

Archie Russell

Joker

Ramon Gordon

Bissinger

Bert Lawrence

Hawker

Joe Engler

Mr. Syllables

David Kirk

Elias, Sr.

Don George

Mr. Cards

Buddy Butler

Putney's bodyguard

Vincent Hamill

Man in white suit

Tom Odachi

Wing Soney

Ching Yeh

Wing Soney, Jr.

Spunky-funk Johnson

Mr. Major

Joe Fields

Pittsburgh Willie

Norman Schreiber

Messenger

Bob Staats

Mr. War Toys

Alan Abel

Mr. Lucky

Sol Brawerman

Mr. Dinkleberry

Ben Israel

Mr. Pit Stop

Mel Brooks

Mr. Forget It

Louise Heath

Barbara Clarke

Secretaries

Catherine Lojacono

Lady Beaver

Johnjohn Robinson

Wayne

Charles Buffum

Director

Ron Palombo

Assistant director

Wendy Appel

Script girl

Antonio Fargas

The Arab

Geegee Brown

Secretary

Vance Amaker

Wall Man

Al Green

1st cowboy

Chuck Ender

2d cowboy

Anthony Chisholm

3d cowboy

Walter Jones

Jim Keranga

Khaula Bakr

Mrs. Keranga

Melvia Marshall

Annette Marshall

Andrea Marshall

Little Kerangas

Laura Greene

Mrs. Swope

Ed Gordon

Mr. Victrola Cola

Eric Krupnik

Mark Focus

George Morgan

Mr. Token

Abdul Hakeim

Bouncer

Allan Arbus

Mr. Bad News

Jesse Mcdonald

Young militant

C. Robert Scott

Militant #1

Leopoldo Mandeville

Militant #2

Vince Morgan Jr.

West Indian

Al Browne

Moderate

Marie Claire

Eugenie Ferlinger/nun

Eileen Peterson

Narrator

William H. Boesen

Bert/Mr. Lunger

Carol Farber

Secretary

Cerves Mcneil

Youngblood

Carolyn Cardwell

Borman Six girl

Chuck Green

Myron X [Rufus]

Pepi Hermine

President of the United States

Ruth Hermine

First lady

Paul Storob

Secret Service man

Lawrence Wolf

Mr. Borman Six

Jeff Lord

Mr. Bald

Tom Boya

Mr. O'Dinga

Major Cole

Idea Man #1

David Butts

Idea Man #2

Franklin Scott

Idea Man #3

Paul Alladice

Idea Man #4

Exit

Idea Man #5

Ronald Dyson

Face Off boy

Shelley Plimpton

Face Off girl

Elzbieta Czyzewska

Putney's maid

Paulette Marron

Air conditioner girl

Delilah

1st stewardess

Carol Hobbs

2d stewardess

Birgitta

3d stewardess

Marco Heiblim

Lucky passenger

Grania

Interviewer

Peter Maloney

Putney's chauffeur

Larry Greenfield

Lead reporter

Lloyd Kagin

Billy Reilly

Perry Gewirtz

Sonny Williams

Herbert Kerr

Bodyguard #2

Hal Schochet

President Mimeo's chauffeur

George Marshall

Mr. Executive

Donald Lev

Poet

Fred Hirshhorn

Mr. Bourbon

Donahl Breitman

Mr. Ethereal Cereal

Peter Benson

Mr. Jingle

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Comedy
Satire
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 10 Jul 1969
Production Company
Herald Productions
Distribution Company
Cinema V Distributing, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 25m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White, Color (Eastmancolor)

Articles

The Gist (Putney Swope) - THE GIST


Madison Avenue satires were nothing new in 1969. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Lover Come Back (1961) had made comic four course meals out of side dish material in films only peripherally concerned with the advertising business, from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) to North by Northwest (1959). The popular sitcom Bewitched (which debuted in 1964) was set in part in a swank Manhattan public relations firm while radio satirist Stan Freberg milked merriment from the ad game with a loose-knit collection of gags pressed onto the 1965 album The Madison Avenue Werewolf. Based on the 1951 novel The Build Up Boys by Jeremy Kirk, Twentieth Century Fox's Madison Avenue (1962) was an odd drama (which the studio shelved for two years before releasing) starring Dana Andrews as an ad man trying to start his own firm while learning a valuable life lesson about the back end cost of manipulation. As the contemporary hit TV series Mad Men endeavors to illustrate, the ad man became the archetypal American male post-Camelot, possessing the sartorial sensibilities of James Bond and the alchemist's gift for transforming lead into gold. By 1969, however, the association of marketing with la dolce vita began to tarnish. Public awareness of public relations informed in part by Marshall McLuhan's 1964 book Understanding Media led to disenchantment with the half and quarter truths of Madison Avenue, leaving the industry vulnerable to criticism and ridicule.

A bawdy, irreverent lampoon of the excesses of advertising, Putney Swope (1969) was the brainchild of Robert Downey. Born in Tennessee in 1937 as Robert Elias and the son of model turned magazine editor Betty McLoughlin, Downey lied about his age to enlist in the Army (where he adopted his stepfather's surname, which he retained). While there he excelled as a Golden Gloves boxer. Back in civilian life, Downey wrote plays, acted and waited tables at such celebrated Manhattan cabarets as Billy Reed's The Little Club on East 55th Street and Julius Monk's The Upstairs at the Downstairs on West 56th Street. Downey began directing his own 8mm films as early as 1961. His short subjects won him praise and put him in the company of such experimental filmmakers as Robert Frank, Stan Brakhage and Ron Rice, whose works were exhibited at Charles Theatre on the Lower East Side. Downey had been encouraged in this regard by the Village Voice writings of Jonas Meekas, who had averred famously that "anybody could make a movie." Composed entirely of still frames, his first feature, Chafed Elbows (1966), won him a job at a Manhattan production company servicing Madison Avenue ad agencies. By the end of the decade, Downey was ready to try his hand at something slightly more commercial and the result was Putney Swope. A freewheeling, bawdy and often mercilessly spot-on satire of the madness of Madison Avenue, the film might have gone entirely unseen were it not for the eleventh hour sponsorship of Don Rugoff, the eccentric art house cinema impresario who demanded exclusivity for the films he exhibited but rewarded filmmakers with extended runs. Turned down by the majors for distribution, Putney Swope became a hit in Rugoff's hands, returning stellar box office, repeat business and plaudits from a high enough percentage of the nation's critics to make all the difference.

Putney Swope's confabulation of the backstabbing world of advertising with dissention within the ranks of the rising Black Power movement imbues it with a nervous crackle that it retains to this day. What makes the film remarkable forty years on is Downey's disinclination to turn in a recognizable Hollywood feature. Putney Swope served as an apt curtain warmer for the "New Hollywood" of the 1970s. Its laid back, anything for a joke vibe might well have inspired Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), whose poster (a human hand forming the peace symbol) seems inspired by Putney Swope's use of a curled fist raising an arrogant middle finger that has been replaced by a seductive black woman. Shooting guerilla style, with and without permits, Downey's film seems both a product of its time and remarkably fresh and alive (when Downey filmed the boardroom scenes, half of his cast hid under the conference table, awaiting their cues).

The mock commercial spots (the only portion of the film in color) reflect a glib, snarky school of satire that endures on such programs as Saturday Night Live and Mad TV. Among Downey's extended cast are such familiar faces as Antonio Fargas (whose scene in the stall of a men's room may be a cinema first), Allen Garfield (between gigs for Brian De Palma), Shelley Plimpton (who moved on to higher profile roles in Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant [1969] and Jim McBride's Glen and Randa [1971]), Allan Arbus (estranged husband of fashion and freak photographer Diane Arbus) and Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, at the time married to journalist David Halberstam and persona non grata in her own country.

Robert Downey continued to follow his bliss through the next two decades, working at his own pace and saying no to offers to direct films more often than yes. (Downey directed second unit on Norman Lear's Cold Turkey [1971] but turned down a chance to take over Mother, Jugs and Speed [1976], a job that was passed to Peter Yates.) Based on his own Off-Off Broadway play, Pound (1970) reteamed many of the actors from Putney Swope in a parable set in a dog shelter. (Paramount bid for distribution rights believing the film would be animated; when Downey turned in his cut, the baffled studio dumped the feature into art house play dates with Fellini's Satyricon [1969].) Greaser's Palace (1972) was an independently financed Christ parable in a spaghetti western setting and Up the Academy (1980) a regrettable Animal House (1978) cash-in that Warner Brothers tried to retrofit in postproduction as a Mad magazine style (which the studio owned) satire. Downey tried unsuccessfully to have his name removed from the credits of America (aka Moonbeam, shot in 1982 but unreleased until 1986) and he has since alternated directing films (Too Much Sun in 1990, Hugo Pool in 1997) with playing small parts in such films as William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA (1985) and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999). His own accomplishments notwithstanding, Downey is most widely known as the father of film actor Robert Downey, Jr., who made his debut in Pound and is currently the star of such popular box office hits as Ironman and Jungle Heat (both 2008).

Producers: Robert Downey, Henri Pachard
Director: Robert Downey
Writer: Robert Downey
Cinematographer: Gerald Cotts
Editor: Bud S. Smith
Music: Charley Cuva
Art Director: Gary Weist
Cast: Arnold Johnson (Putney Swope), Laura Greene (Mrs. Swope), Stan Gottlieb (Nathan), Allen Garfield (Elias, Jr.), Tom Odachi (Wing Soney), Antonio Fargas (The Arab), Elzbieta Czyzewska (Putney's maid), Allan Arbus (Mr. Bad News), Peter Maloney (Putney's Chauffeur), Ramon Gordon (Bissinger), Shelley Plimpton (Face-Off Girl), Eric Krupnik (Mark Focus), Robert Downey (Voice of Putney).
BW/C-84m. by Richard Harland Smith

The Gist (Putney Swope) - The Gist

The Gist (Putney Swope) - THE GIST

Madison Avenue satires were nothing new in 1969. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Lover Come Back (1961) had made comic four course meals out of side dish material in films only peripherally concerned with the advertising business, from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) to North by Northwest (1959). The popular sitcom Bewitched (which debuted in 1964) was set in part in a swank Manhattan public relations firm while radio satirist Stan Freberg milked merriment from the ad game with a loose-knit collection of gags pressed onto the 1965 album The Madison Avenue Werewolf. Based on the 1951 novel The Build Up Boys by Jeremy Kirk, Twentieth Century Fox's Madison Avenue (1962) was an odd drama (which the studio shelved for two years before releasing) starring Dana Andrews as an ad man trying to start his own firm while learning a valuable life lesson about the back end cost of manipulation. As the contemporary hit TV series Mad Men endeavors to illustrate, the ad man became the archetypal American male post-Camelot, possessing the sartorial sensibilities of James Bond and the alchemist's gift for transforming lead into gold. By 1969, however, the association of marketing with la dolce vita began to tarnish. Public awareness of public relations informed in part by Marshall McLuhan's 1964 book Understanding Media led to disenchantment with the half and quarter truths of Madison Avenue, leaving the industry vulnerable to criticism and ridicule. A bawdy, irreverent lampoon of the excesses of advertising, Putney Swope (1969) was the brainchild of Robert Downey. Born in Tennessee in 1937 as Robert Elias and the son of model turned magazine editor Betty McLoughlin, Downey lied about his age to enlist in the Army (where he adopted his stepfather's surname, which he retained). While there he excelled as a Golden Gloves boxer. Back in civilian life, Downey wrote plays, acted and waited tables at such celebrated Manhattan cabarets as Billy Reed's The Little Club on East 55th Street and Julius Monk's The Upstairs at the Downstairs on West 56th Street. Downey began directing his own 8mm films as early as 1961. His short subjects won him praise and put him in the company of such experimental filmmakers as Robert Frank, Stan Brakhage and Ron Rice, whose works were exhibited at Charles Theatre on the Lower East Side. Downey had been encouraged in this regard by the Village Voice writings of Jonas Meekas, who had averred famously that "anybody could make a movie." Composed entirely of still frames, his first feature, Chafed Elbows (1966), won him a job at a Manhattan production company servicing Madison Avenue ad agencies. By the end of the decade, Downey was ready to try his hand at something slightly more commercial and the result was Putney Swope. A freewheeling, bawdy and often mercilessly spot-on satire of the madness of Madison Avenue, the film might have gone entirely unseen were it not for the eleventh hour sponsorship of Don Rugoff, the eccentric art house cinema impresario who demanded exclusivity for the films he exhibited but rewarded filmmakers with extended runs. Turned down by the majors for distribution, Putney Swope became a hit in Rugoff's hands, returning stellar box office, repeat business and plaudits from a high enough percentage of the nation's critics to make all the difference. Putney Swope's confabulation of the backstabbing world of advertising with dissention within the ranks of the rising Black Power movement imbues it with a nervous crackle that it retains to this day. What makes the film remarkable forty years on is Downey's disinclination to turn in a recognizable Hollywood feature. Putney Swope served as an apt curtain warmer for the "New Hollywood" of the 1970s. Its laid back, anything for a joke vibe might well have inspired Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), whose poster (a human hand forming the peace symbol) seems inspired by Putney Swope's use of a curled fist raising an arrogant middle finger that has been replaced by a seductive black woman. Shooting guerilla style, with and without permits, Downey's film seems both a product of its time and remarkably fresh and alive (when Downey filmed the boardroom scenes, half of his cast hid under the conference table, awaiting their cues). The mock commercial spots (the only portion of the film in color) reflect a glib, snarky school of satire that endures on such programs as Saturday Night Live and Mad TV. Among Downey's extended cast are such familiar faces as Antonio Fargas (whose scene in the stall of a men's room may be a cinema first), Allen Garfield (between gigs for Brian De Palma), Shelley Plimpton (who moved on to higher profile roles in Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant [1969] and Jim McBride's Glen and Randa [1971]), Allan Arbus (estranged husband of fashion and freak photographer Diane Arbus) and Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, at the time married to journalist David Halberstam and persona non grata in her own country. Robert Downey continued to follow his bliss through the next two decades, working at his own pace and saying no to offers to direct films more often than yes. (Downey directed second unit on Norman Lear's Cold Turkey [1971] but turned down a chance to take over Mother, Jugs and Speed [1976], a job that was passed to Peter Yates.) Based on his own Off-Off Broadway play, Pound (1970) reteamed many of the actors from Putney Swope in a parable set in a dog shelter. (Paramount bid for distribution rights believing the film would be animated; when Downey turned in his cut, the baffled studio dumped the feature into art house play dates with Fellini's Satyricon [1969].) Greaser's Palace (1972) was an independently financed Christ parable in a spaghetti western setting and Up the Academy (1980) a regrettable Animal House (1978) cash-in that Warner Brothers tried to retrofit in postproduction as a Mad magazine style (which the studio owned) satire. Downey tried unsuccessfully to have his name removed from the credits of America (aka Moonbeam, shot in 1982 but unreleased until 1986) and he has since alternated directing films (Too Much Sun in 1990, Hugo Pool in 1997) with playing small parts in such films as William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA (1985) and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999). His own accomplishments notwithstanding, Downey is most widely known as the father of film actor Robert Downey, Jr., who made his debut in Pound and is currently the star of such popular box office hits as Ironman and Jungle Heat (both 2008). Producers: Robert Downey, Henri Pachard Director: Robert Downey Writer: Robert Downey Cinematographer: Gerald Cotts Editor: Bud S. Smith Music: Charley Cuva Art Director: Gary Weist Cast: Arnold Johnson (Putney Swope), Laura Greene (Mrs. Swope), Stan Gottlieb (Nathan), Allen Garfield (Elias, Jr.), Tom Odachi (Wing Soney), Antonio Fargas (The Arab), Elzbieta Czyzewska (Putney's maid), Allan Arbus (Mr. Bad News), Peter Maloney (Putney's Chauffeur), Ramon Gordon (Bissinger), Shelley Plimpton (Face-Off Girl), Eric Krupnik (Mark Focus), Robert Downey (Voice of Putney). BW/C-84m. by Richard Harland Smith

Putney Swope - Madison Avenue Look Out! Here Comes Robert Downey, Sr.'s PUTNEY SWOPE on DVD


The new ratings system made its debut in 1968 but the fun really hit the fan in the spring of 1969. In the space of a few months audiences in big cities were sent reeling by quality R and X-rated films that made anything seem possible: If..., Medium Cool, Last Summer, Age of Consent. In the midst of these came an insane B&W comedy that broke all rules of good taste and acceptable subject matter, Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope. Professionally crafted and wholly independent in spirit, Putney Swope shocked critics and delighted counterculture would-be hipsters already tuned to the satiric wavelength of National Lampoon magazine.

Putney Swope doesn't quite keep its comic invention going for all of its 85 minutes, but when it's cooking there's nothing like it. The world of advertising has been an easy target since the days of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Downey extends the joke with an irreverent send-up of Black Power. 1969 was a ripe year for take-no-prisoners satire, and Putney Swope has a high ratio of ideas per screen minute.

Synopsis: When the chairman of a big New York ad agency dies in the middle of a meeting, the other executives mistakenly elect the 'token black' on the board as their new leader -- everyone votes for him thinking he'll lose. The winner, Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson) disbands the board, fills the agency with militant soul brothers and black attitude and renames it "Truth and Soul Incorporated." The previous clients jump ship, but Swope's arrogance soon wins the firm a new roster of cowardly, obeisant clients that come begging with bags of money and take abuse from Swope's militant employees. Swope mistreats his staff as well, stealing their ideas to create a string of irrelevant and obscene ad campaigns, all of which are touted as a 'new wave' of marketing genius.

Putney Swope has shock value but its real power is in presenting ideas incompatible with MPAA-approved film content. In the film's defense, it doesn't have all that much obscene language, at least not of the garden variety. However, when we do get blue words they're so unfamiliar as to be almost scary. Putney Swope's crew of right-on Black Power advertising revolutionaries speak in an argot that intimidates middle class whites -- a threatening language of exclusion.

The movie is too cohesive to be described as a collection of skits. The opening salvo is a killer, with a room-ful of executive lizards (including Allen Garfield and Stan Gottlieb) jockeying for position literally over the body of their dead chairman. Somebody quotes the corporate by-laws that candidates can't vote for themselves, and all the executives crumple their ballots and toss them into the center of the table. Lowly token "Tom" Putney gets his ears boxed for suggesting that the agency refuse to sell cigarettes, alcohol and war toys. A few minutes later, most of Putney's peers are out on the street, and he's running "Truth and Soul Advertising" like a pirate captain looking for plunder.

The first casualty is political correctness. A Chinese client excuses himself contentedly with the words, "I'm a happy Chink." Instead of encouraging a "power to the people" paradise, Putney fashions Truth and Soul as a counterculture terror organization. The creators of Putney's successful campaigns are all fired, allowing him to take the credit. His agency is overrun with phonies, fumbling bodyguards and moody thugs anxious to 'stick it to whitey.' Jive-talking hoodoo expert Arab (Antonio Fargas) must be heard to be believed. The racial satire reaches its zenith when Putney's henchmen rough up a group of ass-kissing white clients, all of whom have brought million-dollar payments just for the privilege of being represented by Truth and Soul. The clients are kicked, slapped and cursed, yet maintain smiles of gratitude.

Putney beds one agency 'mama' and is tricked into marriage by another. He takes phone calls from President Mimeo in Washington D.C. (Pepi Hermine), a dope-smoking midget whose Kissinger-like German advisor (Larry Wolf) offers up horribly tasteless jokes while maneuvering Swope to create ads for his car, the "Borman 6." It's the least palatable and most dated satirical idea in the movie.

The focus of the film is the parodies of TV commercials, which appear in full color. Most are overlong and unfocused but almost all are screamingly funny, especially the classic "Ethereal Cereal" spot and a drawn-out and obscene romantic musical piece between Ronnie Dyson and famous model Shelley Plimpton. Some have no connection whatsoever to the product being hawked, such as a killer disco dance in an alley. The only openly exploitative spot is an airline ad that goes on far too long. Three or four near-nude 'stewardesses' bounce and cavort in slow motion in a padded compartment aboard a "Lucky Airlines" flight. After about four minutes, an announcer says that a certain lucky ticket holder should report to the Prize Room!

Most irreverent (for lack of a better word) social satires are one- or two-joke flops that can't sustain their momentum. Take-offs on advertising, TV, and politics eventually fall apart, through repetition if for no other reason. We only remember individual skits in better efforts like Kentucky Fried Movie. Putney Swope has both the wit and the willingness to go all the way making wicked fun of oversexed blacks with exaggerated egos. Swope terrorizes and patronizes his few remaining white employees, but his men have difficulty with top copywriter Sonny Williams (Perry Gerwitz), who appears to be roaming the city exposing himself and getting thrown in jail. Putney's men finally drag the skinny, bearded Sonny into the agency just as Antonio Fargas' Arab is plaguing Swope with his latest jive critique: Truth and Soul has sold out and lost the dream, blah blah. Sonny appears in the background, and both men turn just in time to see him throw open his coat to proudly expose himself. There! Arab announces -- there's the answer -- that dude hasn't sold out, man, he's doing his thing! The jokes in Putney Swope are always dead on topic.

It's great that Putney Swope on DVD is being released by Home Vision Entertainment, as the transfer and encoding are superb. The film looks terrific, with clear sound and an enhanced 1:78 image.

The extras make an inexplicable film seem like a logical project for creative advertising filmmakers to exercise their wild sense of humor. Robert Downey Sr. carries a commentary and an interview explaining that the movie was made without any notion that it would ever be distributed. It just happened to find a distributor (Cinema V) that spread it far and wide, to appreciative urban audiences. Downey provided the gravelly dubbed voice for Putney Swope, when actor Arnold Johnson couldn't remember dialogue lines. The front cover replicates the film's distinctive graphic (soon to be emulated for M*A*S*H) and its tagline: "Up Madison Avenue." The back billboards an original quote from the N.Y. Daily News: "Vicious and vile, the most offensive picture I've seen." Now that's the kind of plug that fills theaters!

For more information about Putney Swope, visit Image Entertainment. To order Putney Swope, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson

Putney Swope - Madison Avenue Look Out! Here Comes Robert Downey, Sr.'s PUTNEY SWOPE on DVD

The new ratings system made its debut in 1968 but the fun really hit the fan in the spring of 1969. In the space of a few months audiences in big cities were sent reeling by quality R and X-rated films that made anything seem possible: If..., Medium Cool, Last Summer, Age of Consent. In the midst of these came an insane B&W comedy that broke all rules of good taste and acceptable subject matter, Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope. Professionally crafted and wholly independent in spirit, Putney Swope shocked critics and delighted counterculture would-be hipsters already tuned to the satiric wavelength of National Lampoon magazine. Putney Swope doesn't quite keep its comic invention going for all of its 85 minutes, but when it's cooking there's nothing like it. The world of advertising has been an easy target since the days of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Downey extends the joke with an irreverent send-up of Black Power. 1969 was a ripe year for take-no-prisoners satire, and Putney Swope has a high ratio of ideas per screen minute. Synopsis: When the chairman of a big New York ad agency dies in the middle of a meeting, the other executives mistakenly elect the 'token black' on the board as their new leader -- everyone votes for him thinking he'll lose. The winner, Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson) disbands the board, fills the agency with militant soul brothers and black attitude and renames it "Truth and Soul Incorporated." The previous clients jump ship, but Swope's arrogance soon wins the firm a new roster of cowardly, obeisant clients that come begging with bags of money and take abuse from Swope's militant employees. Swope mistreats his staff as well, stealing their ideas to create a string of irrelevant and obscene ad campaigns, all of which are touted as a 'new wave' of marketing genius. Putney Swope has shock value but its real power is in presenting ideas incompatible with MPAA-approved film content. In the film's defense, it doesn't have all that much obscene language, at least not of the garden variety. However, when we do get blue words they're so unfamiliar as to be almost scary. Putney Swope's crew of right-on Black Power advertising revolutionaries speak in an argot that intimidates middle class whites -- a threatening language of exclusion. The movie is too cohesive to be described as a collection of skits. The opening salvo is a killer, with a room-ful of executive lizards (including Allen Garfield and Stan Gottlieb) jockeying for position literally over the body of their dead chairman. Somebody quotes the corporate by-laws that candidates can't vote for themselves, and all the executives crumple their ballots and toss them into the center of the table. Lowly token "Tom" Putney gets his ears boxed for suggesting that the agency refuse to sell cigarettes, alcohol and war toys. A few minutes later, most of Putney's peers are out on the street, and he's running "Truth and Soul Advertising" like a pirate captain looking for plunder. The first casualty is political correctness. A Chinese client excuses himself contentedly with the words, "I'm a happy Chink." Instead of encouraging a "power to the people" paradise, Putney fashions Truth and Soul as a counterculture terror organization. The creators of Putney's successful campaigns are all fired, allowing him to take the credit. His agency is overrun with phonies, fumbling bodyguards and moody thugs anxious to 'stick it to whitey.' Jive-talking hoodoo expert Arab (Antonio Fargas) must be heard to be believed. The racial satire reaches its zenith when Putney's henchmen rough up a group of ass-kissing white clients, all of whom have brought million-dollar payments just for the privilege of being represented by Truth and Soul. The clients are kicked, slapped and cursed, yet maintain smiles of gratitude. Putney beds one agency 'mama' and is tricked into marriage by another. He takes phone calls from President Mimeo in Washington D.C. (Pepi Hermine), a dope-smoking midget whose Kissinger-like German advisor (Larry Wolf) offers up horribly tasteless jokes while maneuvering Swope to create ads for his car, the "Borman 6." It's the least palatable and most dated satirical idea in the movie. The focus of the film is the parodies of TV commercials, which appear in full color. Most are overlong and unfocused but almost all are screamingly funny, especially the classic "Ethereal Cereal" spot and a drawn-out and obscene romantic musical piece between Ronnie Dyson and famous model Shelley Plimpton. Some have no connection whatsoever to the product being hawked, such as a killer disco dance in an alley. The only openly exploitative spot is an airline ad that goes on far too long. Three or four near-nude 'stewardesses' bounce and cavort in slow motion in a padded compartment aboard a "Lucky Airlines" flight. After about four minutes, an announcer says that a certain lucky ticket holder should report to the Prize Room! Most irreverent (for lack of a better word) social satires are one- or two-joke flops that can't sustain their momentum. Take-offs on advertising, TV, and politics eventually fall apart, through repetition if for no other reason. We only remember individual skits in better efforts like Kentucky Fried Movie. Putney Swope has both the wit and the willingness to go all the way making wicked fun of oversexed blacks with exaggerated egos. Swope terrorizes and patronizes his few remaining white employees, but his men have difficulty with top copywriter Sonny Williams (Perry Gerwitz), who appears to be roaming the city exposing himself and getting thrown in jail. Putney's men finally drag the skinny, bearded Sonny into the agency just as Antonio Fargas' Arab is plaguing Swope with his latest jive critique: Truth and Soul has sold out and lost the dream, blah blah. Sonny appears in the background, and both men turn just in time to see him throw open his coat to proudly expose himself. There! Arab announces -- there's the answer -- that dude hasn't sold out, man, he's doing his thing! The jokes in Putney Swope are always dead on topic. It's great that Putney Swope on DVD is being released by Home Vision Entertainment, as the transfer and encoding are superb. The film looks terrific, with clear sound and an enhanced 1:78 image. The extras make an inexplicable film seem like a logical project for creative advertising filmmakers to exercise their wild sense of humor. Robert Downey Sr. carries a commentary and an interview explaining that the movie was made without any notion that it would ever be distributed. It just happened to find a distributor (Cinema V) that spread it far and wide, to appreciative urban audiences. Downey provided the gravelly dubbed voice for Putney Swope, when actor Arnold Johnson couldn't remember dialogue lines. The front cover replicates the film's distinctive graphic (soon to be emulated for M*A*S*H) and its tagline: "Up Madison Avenue." The back billboards an original quote from the N.Y. Daily News: "Vicious and vile, the most offensive picture I've seen." Now that's the kind of plug that fills theaters! For more information about Putney Swope, visit Image Entertainment. To order Putney Swope, go to TCM Shopping. by Glenn Erickson

Quotes

I'll work for nothing - I need the work!
- Photographer
I can get anybody for nothing.
- Putney Swope
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!
- Commercial Narrator
No shit.
- Jim Keranga
Putney is confusing originality with obscenity.
- Myron X
I got this great window cleaner. Cleans good and doesn't streak. Smells bad, though. Cleans good, but smells bad.
- Mr. Victrola Cola
As a window cleaner, forget it. Put soybeans in it and market it as a soft drink in the ghetto. We'll put a picture of a rhythm and blues singer on the front and call it Victrola Cola.
- Putney Swope
I'm gonna bend your johnson, Swope!
- Mrs. Swope
I'm ready!
- Putney Swope

Trivia

Notes

Location scenes filmed in New York City.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Summer August 1969

Released in United States on Video January 15, 1992

Released in United States 1996

Released in United States August 1997

Released in United States Summer August 1969

Released in United States on Video January 15, 1992

Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies: Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 25, 1996.)

Released in United States August 1997 (Shown in New York City (Adam Clayton Powell Gallery) as part of program "Harlem Week 1997" August 1-15, 1997.)