Truth and soul

My head is still reeling from having watched the cult classic Putney Swope (dir. Robert Downey, Sr., 1969) for the first time—it’s such a disarmingly funny and strange movie that after it’s over you’re not quite sure what just happened but you’re pretty certain it was brilliant.  The off-beat rhythm of the dialogue, the caricaturish bit parts, and the general zaniness almost recall Preston Sturges, while the irreverence and willful disregard for “good taste”—along with the way the movie is structured out of small strokes, vignettes, gags—look ahead to modern-day sketch comedy.  It’s like some sort of blaxploitation screwball comedy.  Weirdly, even its “tasteless” bits feel stylish and supremely cool.  This is a film that looks and sounds fresher than most comedies of the last twenty years.    

The randomness of the opening scene is like something out of Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story or Christmas in July: a bunch of cartoon-like ad executives, all white men except for one, sitting around a conference table, when the CEO suddenly and inexplicably keels over mid-sentence.  The rest of the men vote in a new boss, and, reluctant to vote for any of their white rivals, unwittingly elect the lone black executive, Putney Swope, who promptly fires all of them and re-staffs the office with black artists, pitchmen, secretaries, and bodyguards.  (It's like a spoof of what hysterical white people fear would happen if black people took over a corporation; all of the white characters in the movie are turned into maids, chauffeurs, etc.)  Putney and co. set to work dreaming up outrageous print ads (one depicts a white woman salaciously sucking on a black bottle of Coca-Cola) and commercials that resemble experimental short films (a bevy of airline stewardesses hold a lottery to determine which lucky passenger will join them for an in-flight orgy).  The film skewers everything—advertising, race relations, black Islam, the Panthers, the Presidency, board-room politics, even Sidney Poitier, the face of the non-threatening black masculinity, whose poster gets torn off the wall during a bout of lovemaking (see above).  

Where Poitier had become one of the first black crossover stars because of his utterly refined demeanor, Putney Swope is totally uninterested in advancing an image of black refinement or in winning over white audiences.  It is a true black comedy in every sense of the term: a comedy that is about and for black Americans (in spite of its white director) that is radically, aggressively separatist in its politics, that doesn’t want to make friends, that operates under a principle of total anarchy.  It inspires laughter, but often the laughter is nervous, confused.  Satire is not the right word for a film like this, because as Nabokov pronounced, “satire is a lesson,” and Putney Swope is uninterested in giving us a lesson.  It is only interested in making a wild, hilarious mess of things, and it does so ingeniously.  


  1. excellent double entendre on "black comedy"

  2. I can't take full credit for it--it comes from studying black comedy with Joe Litvak last spring.

  3. The all adds another level of complexity to Robert Downey Jr's role in Tropic Thunder. In fact, Tropic Thunder strikes much the same tone as Putney Swope seems to, except it lampoons Hollywood classism instead of ad agency racism.

  4. Yeah, I thought of Tropic Thunder too! I haven't seen it, but the Downey connection seems too perfect to be a coincidence.