"Don't rock the boat. Sink it." That's it's motto. This is a film you won't find at the corner video store, or even at Netflix. I had to special order it from Movies Unlimited online (where, incidentally, you can find many hard-to-get DVDs and videos for cheaper than
retail). It is directed by Robert Downey, Sr., father of the actor now unfortunately infamous not for his brilliant roles in films such as Chaplin, Natural Born Killers, and Less Than Zero but for his numerous arrests and imprisonments for drug abuse. Junior, in fact, has said in interviews that his drug use began at the alarmingly young age of eight, when his father smoked a joint with him. I report this behind-the-scenes-with-the-stars nonsense only because this movie needs that kind of context.
Downey made Putney Swope in 1969 during the then nearly-nascent civil rights movement. It is fascinating to see the fictionally empowered Black characters in this film from the distance of the present era, where Black culture truly has become empowered and the popular culture embraces the supposedly retro pimp-daddy mod fashions that seemingly represent the times of this film. For that reason alone, Putney Swope is worth showing the post-adolescents of 2004.
The idea of the film came to Downey, he says in an interview on the DVD, when he worked for an advertising agency much like the one in the film, where creative and cutting-edge advertisements were made. A token Black man who worked there doing the same work as Downey told him how little his pay was. When Downey expressed outrage to the boss, the boss only said that if he gave the Black man the raise, then he'd have to give everyone a raise, and then things would just be as unfair as they had been to begin with. That absurd scene, mixed with ideas the crew had had for advertisements that had been too bizarre to be used began to develop into the screenplay. Downey said that his budget for making the film had been almost nonexistent. To complicate things, the actor who played the title character had a terrible time remembering his lines, but luckily he had a beard. Since there wasn't any money for the second takes, it was easy to dub his lines, because the audience couldn't see his lips move anyway. Downey himself dubbed the lines--in a his own voice, made stylistically husky. I'm not sure whether knowing that before I watched the movie caused me to be prejudiced, but Putney's voice really bothered me. In fact, the sound quality of the film in general is abysmal. Because it is so muddy, often the action is difficult to follow.
Nonetheless, one still gets the major points and sees the sweep of the film's ideas. From that, rather than from individual lines or gags, I gather that the plot itself is a dark comedy, charmingly so, in a sort of Greenwich Village, idealistic 1960s sort of way that excuses the poor production values and general lack of coherence. I wonder if the students I show it to will have the same patience, raised as they were on Steven Spielberg fireworks and special effects.
In a nutshell, the plot goes that by the fickle finger of fate, the sole Black member of the board of an advertising firm is elected its chairman. Renaming the firm "Truth and Soul," Putney promises not to advertise tobacco or other objectionable merchandise. He is going to be true to his revolutionary brothers, who replace his former white colleagues. The firm prospers because of Swope's radical ideas, but then the agency, just like many idealistic movements, starts to fall apart because of infighting and arguments about power. Swope seems to be selling out, but then he decides to get out. It seems to me to try to prove a point that power corrupts whoever has it, that whether it is the white man or the black man in power, evil occurs because of the abuse of power. Several scenes seem to support that, including one with the token white guy who asks why he is making less than the rest of his (Black) peers. He is told that if he got a raise, then they'd all get a raise, and "that's why you don't get a raise, because you don't think."
I probably could say a lot more about Putney Swope from its political message to its fabulous 1960s afro-fab fashions, but I won't. It will definitely be one I show in class!