• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Putney Swope, Revolutionary Mad Man

Putney Swope, the 1969 indie film by satiric playwright, screenwriter and movie director Robert Downey Sr. (yes, the father of film star Robert Downey Jr.), is a clash of social commentary and unbridled comedy. In 2016 it was selected by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress citing that it is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". What an understatement! Swope is a scathing, taboo-busting, hysterical farce about the foibles of the American advertising industry particularly referring to the racial prejudices of the times (and since). The plot turns on the concept that a predominantly white-shoe (emphasis on white) Madison Avenue ad agency's chairman suddenly drops dead and is splayed out on the boardroom table and Putney Swope, the company's token Black ad exec (played by Arnold Johnson, who was later featured on "Sanford & Son," "Family Matters" and the movie Shaft), is unintentionally elected as the new chairman. A cultural revolution ensues.



After his unforeseen election, the stunned array of venal white hierarchs plead with Swope not to accept the position. But seizing the moment, in one fell swoop, Swope fires all but one token white exec, replaces them with Black Power apostles, renames the company Truth and Soul Inc., and proceeds to wreak politically incendiary havoc.


Throughout the film are sprinkled comic and satiric TV commercials for acne and depilatory creams to electric fans (a precursor of SNL's TV commercial parodies) that targeted the industry's inherent racism and overall consumer manipulation. In one of the faux commercials an infant Robert Downey Jr. briefly appears in his first screen role. Incidentally Swope's gravel-sounding voice was dubbed by Downey Sr.


Downey's sharp-edged comedy did not substantively alter the systemic disparity between black and white employees at major (or any) ad agencies, but as an absurdist view of an alternative reality it made one think hard -- between laughs -- about the rampant and usually ignored status quo of inequality and humiliation.


In an interview I did with Downey Sr. in the late 1990s for Scenario magazine (a PDF of which can be found here), he explained Swope's genesis: "I was making experimental commercials at a place called Filmex, and there was a black guy there who was doing what I was doing. One day, he said to me, 'I saw your paycheck, you're getting more money than I am.' So I said we should go see the boss, and I said a line that ended up in Putney: 'I'm making twice as much as this guy, give him a raise or give me less.' Without even looking at the guy, he said to me, 'If I give him raise, I've got to give you a raise.' And I said, 'No, I don't want a raise.' He said no anyway. So in that repartee there was a film about black guys in advertising."



[See a reel of classic Putney Swope one-liners (above) or watch the entire film (below)]



Putney, above, left, watches passively as the agency's chairman drops dead.
Instantaneously the board is replaced.

Putney Swope took unprecedented, right-on swipes at the white-honkey Madison Avenue culture, using an array of absurdly stereotypical yet also surprisingly original characters. One of them, the only white person left in the agency, was my friend and colleague Stan Gottlieb (below). We worked together at an underground newspaper. Without acting experience, Downey cast him because, as manager of the legendary Bleecker Street Cinema, he had given Downey free office space. Stan later went on to co-star in major films, including Slaughterhouse-5, The Anderson Tapes with Sean Connery, Cold Turkey with Dick Van Dyke and Norman Lear's Hot l Baltimore, an ensemble TV comedy.


Stan Gottlieb

In the history, such as it is, about Black representation in the advertising and graphic design businesses, Putney Swope does not get its full due as an "agitator". Yet this film must be considered an outlier; a cinematic MAD magazine of social and cultural protest and dissent. What 1964's Dr. Strangelove did to help shred the peoples' belief in government's lies about nuclear deterrence, Putney Swope was a shot fired against the rock-ribbed established order in what evolved into the culture wars and social justice uprisings of the present day.


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