Blu-ray Review: Putney Swope



Film is supposed to be revolutionary. But rarely does it care to be that revolutionary. Studios and movie theaters want you to buy tickets and popcorn. They don’t want to start a conversation that questions elements of your life. They just want you to consider coming back in a week to see the movie they teased with a trailer and buy another beer from their draft wall. But once and a while a revolutionary film sneaks into theaters, entertains an audience and gets them thinking differently about a subject. Most of the time this film is a documentary. Often the emotions the documentary elicits from the audience is tears and anger. Putney Swope is a comedy that dares to attack Madison Avenue and takes no prisoners.

Deep in the boardroom of a major advertising agency, a radical research professor arrives looking like a member of a biker gang. He informs the agency of the truth about why beer drinking has gone downhill with the general population. As the meeting progresses, the head of the firm arrives and dresses down of his staff including his incompetent son (Nashville‘s Allan Garfield). The ran ends with him having a heart attack and dying on the conference room table. Before anyone calls medics, the board calls for an election of a new chairman. Since you can’t vote for yourself, everyone votes for Putney Swope thinking who else is going to vote for the music director. What other stuck up white guy would vote for the firm’s only black member? Those expecting Swope to just let everyone proceed as before are severely mistaken. Swope clears house and renames the firm “Truth and Soul.” While this new direction leads to a mass loss of clients, Putney’s first big ad campaign for a mousetrap is a hit. Companies line up with bags containing a million dollars and a promise that he’ll come up with a radical new campaign. While he becomes a sensation, there’s quite a few powerful people on Madison Avenue and bigger addresses wanting to take him out since he refuses to work for booze, cigarettes and war toys.

Putney Swope is a pointed satirical attack on advertising agencies like an episode of Mad Men if it was processed through the Chappelle Show. Many of the spoof ads seem like things that would have been done during Dave’s two seasons on the air. The film plays on racial role reversal. A plucky white employee gets explained why he’s the lowest paid member of the staff by Putney. Robert Downey (the father of Robert Downey Jr) not only wrote, directed and produced the film, but was the gruff voice of Swope. Actor Arnold Johnson physically nails the role and went onto a career that included Shaft, Sanford and Son, Hill Street Blues and Menace II Society. Playing the president of the United States is Pepi Hermine from Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small. Fans of M*A*S*H* will recognize Allan Arbus. Once more Antonio Fargas (Starsky and Hutch) just adds so much to the screen as The Arab. He’s a staffer who won’t be held back by the man and even Putney.

What’s big news about this Blu-ray release is that George Lucas paid for this new transfer. This fact alone makes me no longer want my $9 back for enduring Phantom Menace.

This is a film that still seems revolutionary in its approach to its subject. Granted now there’d be a whole segment about creating phony viral videos to push products. But the core of the film is that pushing limits to grab eyeballs is still being concocted on Madison Avenue. They want to push products on us and rarely do we question this machine that fills our eyes all day long. Putney Swope shows a guy who does away with the subliminal seduction and gets blatant in commercial breaks. Putney Swope does for advertising what Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove did for nuclear armageddon. Putney Swope is a masterpiece of revolutionary filmmaking.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The film was shot black and white with the commercials in color. This switch works so nicely. This is the best this film probably has ever looked since the first print was struck in 1969. George Lucas certainly spent my $9 from Phantom Menace on the right thing. The audio is DTS-HD MA mono. The sound is crisp. You won’t even notice that Putney’s been revoiced. The movie is subtitled.

DVD of the movie and bonus features.

Audio commentary with director Robert Downey Sr. gives a tour of the film. He actually met one of the actors as they used an outdoor phone booth. He points out where he had to stash part of his cast in the conference room. Plenty of fine stories.

Video interview with Robert Downey Sr. from 2001 on Putney Swope (16:08) talks about how he worked at a film house that made commercials to show advertising agencies what they could do.

Video interview with Robert Downey Sr. from 2008 on Putney Swope (11:32) has him talk about the frustration with digital filmmaking. He sense people aren’t diving into the media and merely auditioning to make bad Hollywood films. He talks about how they made films for fun in the ’60s.

Q and A from the film’s screening at the 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival (25:13) also includes his introduction. This was videotaped by someone in the audience so the quality isn’t great, but well worth watching. He shares how he experienced watching a black co-worker getting told why he can’t get a pay bump. He talks of how the laugh moments have changed over the years with the audience. He talks about how Martha Plimpton’s mom is in one ad.

Audio interview with cinematographer Gerald Cotts (19:41) has him talk about getting involved in the film. He had just gotten out of the NYU film project when he worked on an earlier Robert Downey film. He had never shot 35mm, but the director trusted him.

Audio commentary with film critic and historian Sergio Mims goes into the significance of the film and how it reflected the realities of an advertising agency.

Original theatrical trailer (2:31) focuses on the fake ads. Audiences must have gone nuts during the pimple cream ad with a couple recounting them hooking up behind a hotdog stand.

Massive archival article & promo gallery (6:00) includes posters, press kit, lobby cards and newspaper clippings. They censored the poster in newspaper ads.

Vinegar Syndrome presents Putney Swope. Directed by Robert Downey Sr. Screenplay by: Robert Downey Sr. Starring: Arnold Johnson, Joe Madden, Antonio Fargas, Allen Garfield & Mel Brooks. Rated: Unrated. Running Time: 85 minutes. Released: July 2, 2019

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