Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Putney Swope - Don't Rock the Boat... Sink It!

Putney Swope is probably best known for the reference in Boogie Nights; Don Cheadle's character, Buck Swope, is named after the film. It's somewhere between a 60's head film and a 70's rebel film. It succeeds in some ways and fails in others, but if you like the weird films of the 60's, it's a must. Filmed by Robert Downey Sr., it's the story of a Madison Avenue ad agency that puts its one black executive in charge, and the hijinks that ensue. I'm a big fan of Melvin Van Peebles's movies such as Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song and Watermelon Man, so was eager to see another film of this sort.
Putney Swope and his bodyguard

Putney Swope is the one black member of the board of an advertising agency; when the Chairman dies during a board meeting, they vote by secret ballot for the new Chairman, and since they all want a "token" vote for Putney... he gets elected by a landslide. He immediately takes over, renames the company Truth & Soul, Inc., refuses to advertise cigarettes or war toys, and brings in his afro and dashiki entourage.

It's less of a satire on race relations than a pointed jab at Advertising, and most of the best jokes are either the bizarre commercials Swope and crew come up with, how people and companies both eat it up, or the insane products the companies foist on the public. Swope isn't really a revolutionary, and this is certainly not a "Madison Avenue meets Blazing Saddles" kind of movie. It's more like The Magic Christian and other Terry Southern-inspired films of the 60's that attack the status quo. They poke at the revolutionary fervor of the 60's as well, with Antonio Fargas as a black Muslim and others.
Viva le revolucion, baby.

When someone from the Audie Murphy toy company is raving about their Junior Flamethrower that runs on ordinary lighter fluid, and Swope suggests selling a crappy window cleaner as a soft drink in the ghetto, you know their targets. The commercials themselves vary from amusing to insane, though in my opinion none of them do better than the skit comedy anthology The Groove Tube for laughs, but the satire is biting and poignant. For example there's this ad for Fan-Away, which shows a gal dancing in a trash-strewn alley with a bum passed out in it, and she says "You can't eat an air conditioner." This type of commercial actually made the air later, where street sensibility and an abstract concern about starving homeless people would be used to hawk products and a lifestyle, so the film was ahead of its time with this one.
Another was for Lucky Airlines, which just has 3 sexy girls in slow-mo bouncing their boobies in an airplane, and wrestling with a guy in his underwear, which would have been shocking in 1969 but with a few edits could be an ad today.

Tig Bitty Airline commercial

The commercials are in color and most of the movie is in black and white, so they pop out at you. My favorite isn't on youtube, sadly. A voice-over describes "Ethereal Cereal" and its health benefits as the camera slowly pans in on a black family at breakfast. The man of the family looks oblivious, as he boredly eats his cereal, when the voiceover asks him, "Jim, did you know it also has .002 ESP units of pectin?"
"No shit?"

The film isn't above having products like Dinkleberry's Chicken Pot Pies, either. It's actually quite a bit of fun, as Swope transforms into "The Man" he set out to crumble, begins donning a Fidel Castro outfit as his cohorts call him a cop out. The film starts to fall apart at this point, aiming for absurdity. Swope's rival turns out to be a dwarf, but nothing really funny happens with him. Mel Brooks has a tiny cameo as a customer in sunglasses who says "Forget it, baby!" when Swope takes over, and I wonder if this influenced Blazing Saddles in any way.
Mr. Big

The film does have its comedic moments like when the War Toy manager realizes he'll be out of a job:

A homosexual... or worse!

It also riffs on artists, such as when a photographer is trying to get a job with Swope, starting at an outrageous price and then bargaining himself down because he needs the work.

The sad lot of the freelancer.

The movie isn't perfect, and part of it comes from Robert Downey's decision to dub his own voice over Arnold Johnson's for Putney Swope. He has a plain, gravelly delivery that isn't obviously a dub, but it seems just off enough. He also does a lot of shots with Swope's mouth obscured to make the lip syncing easier. With the right actor this might have been a less forgotten classic. It definitely has its moments, and is commendable for its daring. It just lacks that spark that would catapult it into hilarity, and a more lively, charismatic star using his own voice would have done it.

Who was going to do it, though? Sidney Poitier? There weren't a lot of lead roles for blacks back in '69 and something like this could sink a career. Or make one. 5 years later Cleavon Little would be unforgettable as Bart in Blazing Saddles, but it would be his only lead role. So it's hard to fault it. It's still one of a kind, a great poke at TV commercials, and still funny today.


Rob L. said...

Dude, Greaser's Palace.

tommy salami said...

"He's got the boogie in his fingers and the hubba hubba in his soul!" A Jesus parable in the old west with Herve Villaichez? Sounds delectable. Too bad it's out of print and $142 on Amazon!

Rob L. said...

Damn - it's a trippy movie. Worth viewing alone for the song and dance number in the middle.

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