(director/writer: Robert Downey Sr.; cinematographer: Gerald Cotts ; editor: Bud S. Smith; music: Charles Cuva; cast: Arnold Johnson (Putney Swope), Stanley Gottlieb (Nathan), Allen Garfield (Elias, Jr.), Antonio Fargas (The Arab), Archie Russell (Joker), Ramon Gordon (Bissinger), Bert Lawrence (Hawker), Mel Brooks (Mr. Forget It), Larry Wolf (Mr. Borman Six), Pepi Hermine (President of the United States Mimeo), Ruth Hermine (First Lady Mimeo), Perry Gerwitz (Sonny Williams); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Robert Downey Sr./Ron Sullivan; Home Vision Entertainment; 1969)

“A way of giving the middle finger to Madison Avenue.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It was funny when I saw Putney Swope with a Manhattan audience of weed smoking hippies, at the peak of the counterculture movement, but it was less funny when I saw it straight on DVD recently. Both the film and me, probably, have aged poorly. I remember more jokes working the other time around, as now too many of the gags never fired on all cylinders and most of the actors were stiffer and more amateur than I remembered. Yet the gags that worked were classics in bad taste, and give the film its unique ‘I’m doing my own thing look.’ This crazy pic is the creation of underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. (“Rented Lips”/Hugo Pool”/”Greaser’s Palace”), who sired Robert Downey Jr. The former advertising man has silly fun with this racial satire that’s also a way of giving the middle finger to Madison Avenue. Downey never made another film that was even close to this one in popularity (it was an arthouse hit), as he seems to have struck the right mood at the right time and could never repeat that magic.

Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), his voice dubbed by a gravely speaking Downey, is the story of a token black man on the board of directors of a large Manhattan advertising firm who is accidentally voted Chairman of the Board when a vote is taken after the current chairman keels over dead while excitedly trying to get out an idea about an ad at a boardroom meeting. Putney received enough votes from the whiteys on the board, who mistakenly thought their vote for him would be his only vote; each maneuvered to get himself elected and were forbidden to vote for themselves.

Upon taking office Putney fires the board and fills the agency with militant soul brothers, except for one token white, and renames it “Truth and Soul, Inc.” He then changes course by refusing accounts for liquor, cigarettes, or war toys. Though most of the clients bolt the ad agency, Putney’s arrogant attitude wins over enough cowering masochistic liberal ass kissing clients to ply Putney with plenty of money. The self-serving Putney also abuses his new staff and steals their ideas without giving them credit, and starts up a new unconventional ad campaign featuring obscene marketing gimmicks for such products as Face-Off Acne Cream and Ethereal Cereal (the commercials made for the best comedy). The film is in black and white, but the ads are shown in color.

Putney’s crew of Black Power adherents, who talk street tough and militantly, give the film its weirdly unpleasant flavor. The funniest characters are the non-stop talking Black Power advocate called the Arab (Antonio Fargas), the Teutonic pot smoking midget American president and his first lady (Pepi and Ruth Hermine) who try to intimidate Putney to push the unsafe “Borman Six” roadster, and the hirsute copywriter Sonny Williams (Perry Gerwitz) running around the city exposing himself.

It’s not a pic for all tastes, becomes too unfocused and incoherent after a fast start, and has too many embarrassing vacuous moments and too much of the humor is shallow and forced; but, even with that being the case, I still liked it for its verve, politically incorrect irreverence, absurdity, shock value and potential to be mind-blowing.

Putney Swope Poster