A collection of five of Robert Downey Sr.'s fairly infamous underground satire films, The Criterion Collection's Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr. collection contains some of his most important work spread out over the two discs that make up this set. As this release is part of the Eclipse Series, there isn't much in the way of extra content, but fans of bizarre underground films will appreciate this regardless - there's some seriously interesting stuff to go through here. These were movies that Downey made locally, using friends in the cast and crew and probably never expecting them to find an audience outside of the people he made the movies with and whoever he may have screened them for around the time they were made - but here they are, decades later, preserved on DVD for those with a taste for the bizarre to enjoy all over again.
Babo 73 (1964):
This fifty six minute opening number stars Taylor Mead as Sandy Studsbury, The President Of The United Status in the once future year of 1973. He's in charge of the country with a little help from some of his cabinet members, all of whom he meets with on a lovely picturesque beach where they all sit on chairs. Once assembled, they discuss who it would be in their best interests to kill, the benefits of racism, and whether or not to go to war with Albania. Most of this is made up of strange slapstick comedy and odd back and forth dialogue but it then out of nowhere bursts from black and white into color to take us by surprise. A run down Victorian era home stands in for the White House and Mead seems more than just a little bit high for most of the film, but there's some really interesting footage of the era spliced in here, including shots of Mead being filmed in character wandering around a military parade that you just know they didn't have permits to shoot. Not the best film in the set but a genuinely funny one at times and quite an interesting bit of foreshadowing as to where Downey would go with later efforts.
Chafed Elbow (1966):
This second film clocks in at fifty-eight minutes and stars George Morgan as a man named Walter Dinsmore who sleeps with his mother (played by the director's wife, Elsie Downey) who is also his lover - they kiss each other and proclaim their love to one another each morning as if it were perfectly normal. Walter has also got a carnal relationship going on with his female cousin (also played by Elsie Downey), who he accidently knocks up and then murders by tossing her out of a hotel window. Walter later goes to Heaven where Jesus Christ himself kicks him out for not being as dead as he needs to be - oddly enough his mortal sins are not discussed, he's simply not dead enough, so he continues to wander around late sixties era New York City finding trouble to get into. Shot using a lot of 35mm stills, this one will definitely push some buttons. Not only does it deal with incest but it takes pot shots at religion, politics and pretty much any other sacred cow you'd care to name. Again, Downey uses some completely unexpected color footage to add some visual flair to the film, and the humor here, as acidic as it will be to some, is still very effective, biting and poignant. This one did well enough in art theaters when it first played that it brought Downey some unexpected attention in certain New York City art circles of the era.
No More Excuses (1968):
Finishing off the first disc in the set is the first of two films that the director would make in 1968. Downey made No More Excuses as his star was starting to rise but chose to push things even further than he did with his last picture. This one is the shortest movie in the set and clocks in at just over forty-five minutes in length. Downey himself plays a Civil War soldier who wakes up in late sixties era Central Park and wanders around the city and eventually gets into trouble at Yankee Stadium. While this is going on, we get some man on the street interviews with people discussing their sex lives, and a truly mind boggling rant from Alan Abel who plays the leader of the Society For Indecency To Naked Animals, a group who want animals to cover up while interacting with humans. A few more seemingly completely random characters pop up in the film and there's a scene where a woman sleeps with a chimp. The whole thing just gets increasingly strange as it goes on - but you can't help but laugh at all of this.
Putney Swope (1968):
With Downey's career taking him on an interesting voyage through the world of commercial advertising (where most of the ideas he was asked to come up with were flat out rejected), he saw a different side of the world and it was this glimpse into big business that inspired him to make what is probably his best known film, 1968's Putney Swope, which actually clocks in at a feature length eighty-four minutes in length.
When the movie begins, the chairman of a Madison Avenue advertising agency chokes and dies in the middle of the meeting. The rest of the board members waste no time in electing a new leader, and as nobody can vote for themselves, the token black guy on the board, Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson dubbed in post by Downey himself reportedly because Johnson had trouble remembering his lines) winds up winning the election. Since the rest of the board members, all white guys, figured nobody else would vote for the black guy, they all wound up inadvertently voting for him. He pretty much fires all of the white employees right out of the starting gate, replacing them with black men and women - and then he changes the name of the company to Truth & Soul Advertising.
From here he decides his company won't work on campaigns for booze or cigarettes and soon finds that his unorthodox tactics are taking off. He lands a few new campaigns but soon finds that it isn't always easy to stick to your guns in an industry like this one and soon enough we see him on a downward slope that looks like it's going to wind up very much like where his predecessor wound up. A very well made film and still quite an experimental one at that, Downey shot the movie in black and white but cleverly uses full color for the 'advertisements' that appear in the film. The movie is just as subversive as his other pictures but more linear in its approach to narrative and a little more structured than what we saw earlier in the set. The movie seems to be pretty influential by today's standards and you can see the impact that it had not just in cinema but television as well. It's a very clever, well made film that will make you think as often as it will make you laugh and it's the crown jewel in this set.
Two Tons Of Turquoise To Taos Tonight (1975):
Last but certainly not least, Downey made this film after shooing some marginally more commercial endeavors like Greaser's Palace. Originally called Moment To Moment, the final film in this set is a strange return to bizarre form for Downey that has appeared in various forms over the years. The story, such as it is, once again casts Elsie Downey as every woman in the film as she, in various roles, wanders around the city getting into various encounters with equally odd characters. She attends an unconventional baseball game, uses her underwear as food for a man who is into her, and gets into other strange and completely random predicaments. There's really very little that you can call linear here, and the film is completely erratic and at times feels unfinished. As an experimental picture it is interesting and there are moments of very clever humor here. At just four minutes shy of an hour it's definitely worth watching, and Elsie Downey is rather fetching at times, charming at others and pretty much always just cool to watch here - but it's out there, very out there, and will likely be harder to get into than the other films in the set for some viewers.
The five films here are presented in their original aspect ratio (which is 1.33.1 across the board save for Putney Swope which is presented in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen) and look pretty good despite the fact that four of the five were obviously taken from 16mm elements that were in less than pristine condition. Expect print damage throughout in the form of scratches and debris but the image is generally stable and about as clean as you'd probably hope it could be. There's some contrast boosting in certain shots but that doesn't really seem to hurt things and the periodic use of color looks good, if occasionally just a little bit faded. The image quality here isn't perfect but it's good considering the age and obscurity and low budget origins of the films. Two Tons Of Turquoise For Taos Tonight is taken from a video master and is interlaced and in noticeably worse shape than the other four films, all of which appear to be sourced from film elements.
Audio quality is on par with the video quality here. The English language Dolby Digital Mono mixes contained in the set aren't perfect but they'll do. Sometimes the levels jump a bit and there's the occasional pop to be heard but overall things sound pretty decent, if limited by the source material. There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided for any of the film films.
Aside from menus and film selection, this release includes a selection of liner notes printed on the reverse side of the sleeve art which provide a nice history of the films included here and some interesting details on the man who made them. It's a shame that the commentary track and director interview created for the 2006 Home Vision DVD release of Putney Swope weren't carried over.
As bizarre as the collection of Downey's movies included in this set are, they're also remarkably creative and refreshingly unhampered by a need to conform to studio norms or coast on the advantages provided by big budget backing. The presentation is, as expected, a bit rough around the edges and these certainly aren't movies for all tastes but Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr. offers fans of obscure underground cinema a chance to dig into some of the filmmaker's earliest and most interesting efforts. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.