The board of directors at a Madison Avenue ad agency must elect a new chairman. In the maneuvering to make sure that enemies don't get votes, all the members accidentally cast their ballot for the board's token black man, Putney Swope.
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Robert Downey Sr.
Robert Downey Sr.,
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Robert Downey Sr.
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Dark satire in which the token black man on the executive board of an advertising firm is accidentally put in charge. Renaming the business "Truth and Soul, Inc.", he replaces the tight regime of monied white ad men with his militant brothers. Soon afterwards, however, the power that comes with its position takes its toll on Putney...Written by
Doug Mosurak <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"Putney Swope" Is A Passionate Piece of Cinema History
"Putney Swope" is a unique, low low low budget gem from the late 1960's which probably would have been forgotten in time if it hadn't been for two things: Paul Thomas Anderson (who named Don Cheadle's character in "Boogie Nights", Buck Swope, after the eponymous hero of this film) and the limited DVD release. Watching "Putney Swope" is like listening to hardcore punk rock: it may not make a lot of sense (at least to me it didn't upon watching it for the first time), but you have to respect the film for its passion and unabashedly rebellious message. I didn't understand a lot of things about "Putney Swope", but for the most part, I liked it. The more I think about the movie, the more it grows on me.
The film is advertised as a parody of New York's Madison Avenue, best known in the 1960's as the advertising capital of the world. Members of Generation X and Y may be lost on this concept, but fortunately "Mad Men" is on TV to provide us with this otherwise lost piece of U.S. History. What you need to know before watching this movie is that these ad agencies were largely male, and even more largely white establishments.
With this premise in mind, the movie opens up with an ad agency board meeting. The members are predominantly white except for Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dick Gregory in this film), the token African-American on the board. The board members are so self-absorbed and soulless that when their chairman falls dead in front of them, their only concern is who will become chairman next. Without even removing the body from the boardroom, they begin a paper ballot to elect the next chairman.
Putney Swope is elected by a landslide, but not because the other members think Swope is qualified. Voting for Swope was an ill-fated attempt for these board members to sabotage any other member's chance of being elected chairman. With their plans backfired, Swope takes charge and "sink(s) the boat", firing all but one of the original members and hiring all people of color in their place .
After this point, the film became (for me) very weird and hard to follow plot-wise. There may not have even been a plot, really. The whole idea of the film seems to be a "what if" scenario, with the result being that the new "Truth and Soul Inc." firm would be unconventional, but successful nonetheless. The firm ends up making so much money that the members build a huge glass case to keep the cash in for unexplained purposes. It could be because Swope doesn't trust banks, although that point is not touched upon or explained in the film. It could also be metaphoric in some way, but who knows.
Most of the movie takes place inside the ad agency, with occasional scenes in the White House with a president who, for some unknown reason, is a midget. My assumption is here that some political joke was being made, but I can't figure out what. Were the filmmakers saying that the president is a small, insignificant part of American life? Were they saying that the latest elected officials (Nixon at the time) were insignificant candidates? I don't know. I found it a bit eerie, however, that the man playing the president bore a striking resemblance to future president Ronald Reagan. It is funny to make that connection 40 years after the movie was made.
What this film may have benefited from is showing how consumers outside the ad agency reacted to the new ads. Of course, the ad footage possessed a strange, funny appeal for its unconventional creativity, but did these ads convince people to buy the product? If so, how? The movie hinted on the idea that the new ad campaign was successful through client interaction and the calls from the White House. However, it would have been revealing to see average people, since that demographic has always been most profitable for advertisers.
Although the parodies and political messages this film may have made probably didn't stand the test of time, this film still had a lot of unique qualities. Arnold Johnson had a magnetic X factor to him that benefited him greatly in this film. Swope's rough voice was actually director Robert Downey, Sr.'s voice dubbed in, sometimes poorly, but fit the character so well in being an authoritative outsider. He hires and fires workers at random, but earns the respect of all but one of the employees for revolutionizing the ad agency and seeking out new ideas.
The premise of the film was, and still is, incredibly risky, especially since the film was written and directed by a white man (Robert Downey, Sr.). However, this film declines to fall victim to negative black stereotypes which would lead to the rise and fall of the blaxploitation genre years later. Although some of the sex scenes may be a bit off-putting for some viewers, the main message is that a black owned and operated business can thrive through innovation and risk taking. Many people may not take a positive message away from this movie, but I just did.
"Putney Swope" remains an overlooked movie from a strange era, and Downey, Sr. (even despite his son's recent comeback) never quite got the recognition as a director he deserved. However, if you find a DVD of this movie, buy it and watch it. If it's on Netflix, ditto. It's a movie that can be confusing at times, but is worth watching for its gusto, ambition, and its non-conformist stature even by today's movie standards.
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