Movie Review: Putney Swope (1969)

Title: Putney Swope
Release Date: July 10, 1969
Director: Robert Downey Sr.
Production Company: Herald Productions

This independent satirical film from 1969 feels way ahead of its time but also incredibly dated in the way it deals with racial prejudice and sexual matters, not to mention its frequent deployment of profanity and nudity.  After the death of the chairman of the board at New York City advertising firm, the board votes for a new leader with almost every member strategically selecting the board’s token Black member, Putney Swope since they can’t vote for themselves.  Arnold Johnson portrays Swope, but his bizarre gravely voice is dubbed by the director Robert Downey, Sr. which immediately brings to mind the use of “white voice” in Sorry To Bother You.

The plot, as much as there is one, involves Swope firing all the white employees (except for a few tokens who are made to ride the freight elevator), replacing them with Black people and renaming the firm as Truth and Soul. Swope becomes more corrupt, firing employees wily-nily as he steals their ideas, eventually becoming a Fidel Castro-like tyrant. Meanwhile the U.S. President (played by a little person named Pepi Hermine) begins to maneuver against Truth and Soul as a threat to national security.  All of this is intercut with the extremely surreal commercials created by the firm which are in full color while the rest of the movie is in black & white.

The movie is most interesting as an artifact of 1960s counterculture than anything that is rewarding to watch for entertainment or insight. The movie was clearly made by and for people using recreational drugs and watching this movie while sober means most of the jokes fell flat for me.  Advertising is an easy target for parody and most of the jokes are more just raucous thumbing the nose at authority than anything insightful. Putney Swope was made about halfway between two great Hollywood satire films, Dr. Strangelove and Network, and it has elements of each.  But I find it is more of a forerunner for scattershot spoof movies of the 1970s like The Groove Tube and Kentucky Fried Movie.

Rating: **