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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.
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) has to 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 are 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!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Putney Swope rates:
Supplements: Commentary and interview by Robert Downey Sr.; liner notes by Charles Coleman
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 15, 2006
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