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Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 1

Monday, August 20th, 2012

I have a new essay in the journal Film International, entitled Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s.

It’s a long piece, so the journal is running it in four parts, one each Monday starting today, Monday August 20, 2012. You can watch this space for further installments in the series; for the moment, here’s the beginning of the essay for your delectation;

“There’s a story about an adolescent boy who was taken to a psychiatrist. The doctor drew a rectangle on a sheet of paper and showed it to the boy. ‘What does it make you think of?’ he asked. The boy looked at it and said, ‘Sex.’ The doctor got the same response when he drew a circle on the paper. When he had drawn a triangle and an octagon and an ellipse with the same results, he said, ‘Son, you need help.’ The boy was amazed. ‘But, doc,’ he protested, ‘you’re the one that’s drawing the dirty pictures!’” (Zern 1958: n.p.)

In the 1960s, themes which had previously been dealt with only in the most serious fashion were suddenly subject to burlesque, or parody, as filmmakers and audiences sought to move beyond the strained seriousness that characterized many of the most respected problem films of the 1960s. In such films as Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and A Bucket of Blood (1959), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst (1967), Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), William Castle’s The Old Dark House (1963), George Axelrod’s Lord Love A Duck (1966), Mel BrooksThe Producers (1968), Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), Roy Boulting’s I’m All Right, Jack (1959), Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s ’is Name (1967), Karel Reisz’s Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope (1969), to say nothing of Richard Lester’s The Knack… and How to Get It (1965), as well as Kevin Billington’s acidic political comedy The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), viewers embraced a new vision of the world unfettered by the constraints of prior censorship, and wedded to a sense of the absurdity of life, in which all previous values were suddenly called into question, and found either morally or socially bankrupt. These films, which treated such subjects as war, sex, death, the workplace, national politics and the family with studied irreverence, found both a willing audience, and a place in the emerging national consciousness of the post JFK assassination era.”

You can read the rest of part one by clicking here; see you next week for Part Two, and so on.

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.

Monday, May 14th, 2012

At last! At last! At last!

Robert Downey Sr. has been a friend of mine since the late 1960s, and his films have been criminally neglected since then, and for years he’s been telling me about a box set of his movies coming out, and now, finally, it’s here from Criterion.

As Criterion’s notes point out, “rarely do landmark works of cinema seem so . . . wrong. Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture. In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.

The set includes Babo 73 (1964), in which Warhol superstar Taylor Mead plays the president of the United Status, who conducts his top-secret international affairs on a deserted beach when he isn’t at the White House (a dilapidated Victorian), in Robert Downey Sr.’s political satire. Downey’s first feature is a rollicking, slapstick, ultra-low-budget 16 mm comedy experiment that introduced a twisted new voice to the American underground scene;

Chafed Elbows (1966), a breakthrough for Downey Sr., thanks to rave notices. Visualized largely in still 35 mm photographs, it follows a shiftless downtown Manhattanite having his “annual November breakdown,” wandering from one odd job to the next;

No More Excuses (1968), in which Downey takes his camera and microphone onto the streets for a close look at Manhattan’s swinging singles scene of the late sixties. Of course, that’s not all: No More Excuses cuts between this footage and the fragmented tale of a time-traveling Civil War soldier, a rant from the director of the fictional Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and other assorted improprieties;

Putney Swope (1969), Downey’s most popular film, an oddball classic about the antics that ensue after Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, his voice dubbed by a gravelly Downey), the token black man on the board of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is inadvertently elected chairman. Putney summarily fires everyone else, replaces them with Black Power apostles, renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc., and proceeds to wreak politically incorrect havoc; and finally;

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
(1975), ‘a film without a beginning or an end,’ in Downey’s own words, this Dadaist thingamajig—a never-before-seen, newly reedited version of the director’s 1975 release Moment to Moment (also known as Jive)—is a cascade of curious sketches, scenes, and shots that takes on a rhythmic life. It stars Downey’s wife at the time, Elsie, in an endless succession of off-the-wall roles, from dancer to cocaine fiend.”

Downey Sr. is a one of a kind original, a brilliant satirist, and a take-no-prisoners filmmaker. Buy this set immediately; these films are essential documents of the 1960s, and some of the funniest films ever made, and I honestly never thought they’d see the light of day.

And now they’re out on Criterion, no less! Congratulations, Bob; long overdue!!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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