Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1969. Herald Productions. Screenplay by Robert Downey Sr.. Cinematography by Gerald Cotts. Produced by Robert Downey Sr.. Music by Charley Cuva. Production Design by Gary Weist. Costume Design by Joanne Schielke. Film Editing by Bud S. Smith.
Satire is a hard sell in films, you usually run the risk of stretching one joke out over the length of a feature, but Robert Downey (Sr.) shows us how it’s done in this still fresh and funny comedy. The tone of absurdism is on display from the beginning, when a boardroom of advertising executives spew nonsense at each other before their boss walks in, has a stroke and dies right in front of them on the conference room table. A vote is taken to decide the new chairman and the majority goes for Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, his speaking voice dubbed by Downey), the token African American member of the team who serves as music director at the firm and who wins because everyone else was strategically voting to avoid seeing their enemies win. Swope immediately swings into action and changes things around the place, firing all his colleagues and hiring his fellow black power advocates, changing the agency’s name to Truth and Soul Inc and announcing that they will no longer take on accounts that he considers immoral (cigarette companies, toy gun manufacturers, etc). As we see a series of skillfully constructed scenes of irreverent mayhem play out with performers like Shelley Plimpton and Mel Brooks in featured roles, Swope gradually gives way to the dangers of power that can corrupt even the most ambitiously well-meaning ideologues. Filmed in gorgeous black and white with a few colour inserts of Downey’s hysterical takes on television advertising, it’s a film that is always entertaining despite being about something, and which was filmed in a frenzied low budget spirit but never for a moment looks cheap or thin.