Movies · TV

Don Draper Has Nothing on the Late-’60s Mad Men of ‘Putney Swope’

While ‘Mad Men’ was at its peak, Christopher Campbell used the occasion to spotlight and recommend this cult classic by Robert Downey, Sr.
Putney Swope
Cinema V
By  · Published on July 10th, 2014

If there’s one movie I’d like to see referenced on Mad Men before it’s all over and done with, it’s Putney Swope. The cult classic, about an advertising agency run by an increasingly militant black man, opened in New York City on this day in 1969. That puts its initial release as just before the events of the most recent episode of AMC’s TV drama (the last before the season 7 hiatus), aired back in May. But the movie continued its remarkable success through the fall, giving Don Draper plenty of time to go see it. If he can take a few months to catch up with I Am Curious (Yellow), and if both the show and the character are hip enough to that art film’s existence, they’d have to be to Robert Downey Sr.’s record-breaking hit, especially when it’s a satire of his very industry. Whether or not he’d recognize any similarity between his own work and what’s depicted on screen is another story.

Putney Swope follows its title character (played by Arnold Johnson yet featuring dubbed vocals by Downey) as he goes from being an ad agency’s token black executive, specifically its music director, to head of the company, through a board vote gone wrong. He renames the place Truth and Soul, Inc., fires most of the old white guys who just put him in charge, and ceases business with all clients who produce war toys, alcohol, and cigarettes (Draper would be proud). He forms a new team that is all black save for a token white guy and becomes a sensation for producing commercials filled with explicit sex and profanity, as opposed to the implicit sort common to the business. A handful of those fake commercials are shown in the film, and cleverly they’re in full color while the rest of the scenes are shot in black and white.

When the movie came out, Downey was not a fan. He thought it was too tame, according to a Life magazine profile from November of that year. He would get depressed if he went by the cinema showing Putney Swope and saw no walkouts, though that was very rare. After all, the film offends all races, much like Blazing Saddles would do half a decade later only with a more conventional sense of humor (Mel Brooks, by the way, makes a brief appearance in Putney Swope). Still, it was Downey’s first 35mm feature, his first to get proper distribution and, in part as a result of that, his first real breakout. And if its own maker didn’t like it, that’s fine, because it’s a favorite of Louis C.K., the Coen Brothers (evident in the boardroom of The Hudsucker Proxy) and Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Boogie Nights features Downey in a small role, and a character named Buck Swope and a familiar firecracker bit.

I’m probably more in line with legendary exhibitor/distributor Donald Rugoff, who booked Putney Swope after telling its director, “I don’t understand this movie, but I like it.” I do get the gist of the plot, the main point, and a lot of the jokes, yet it’s hardly a straightforward film. I’ve always liked this sort of surreal, anarchic comedy, though, even if much of it doesn’t work, at least not today. The rest works surprisingly well, especially the slang and a lot of the crude dialogue that seems much more modern than 45 years old. That’s a benefit of independent film of that era, how it offers a more realistic sense of how people talked compared to what we got from Hollywood pictures. The commercials are probably the most enjoyable part of Putney Swope, particularly the Lucky Airlines spot with the bouncing, half-naked stewardesses. Also, from another, “You can’t eat an air conditioner” is a really terrific nonsensical slogan.

Admittedly where I tend to get lost, or bored, is with the subplot involving the President of the United States, who is a dwarf, as is the First Lady (played by brother and sister Pepi and Ruth Hermine). Maybe it was funnier back then simply for the fact that he was a little person, but no longer. The ending isn’t very satisfying, either. And prior to that, a whole recurring thing with a delivery guy finishes with a whimper of a violent climax (it made me think of the stronger finale of the not-yet-existing Network). As far as accessibility for current audiences, it also doesn’t feature the director’s son, Robert Downey Jr., who made his debut at age 5 in his father’s next and even weirder movie, Pound.

Regardless of what any of us think of the movie, though, it’s surprising that Putney Swope isn’t more recognized in the halls of film history. Essentially it’s a blaxploitation movie before that movement/genre even began. In a way, it reminds me a lot of Watermelon Man, another little-remembered movie, which was released in 1970 by one of the big studios even. In that, Godfrey Cambridge plays a normal, white, suburban family man who wakes up one morning with darker skin and experiences pros and cons of being black. That’s a much tamer satire, of course, being made by Hollywood, but it is also a pretty stunning idea for a Hollywood comedy of the time. Its director, Melvin Van Peebles, would go on to help pioneer blaxploitation the next year with the far more recognized Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

Meanwhile, Downey would go on to have his most widely seen feature (according to votes on IMDb) be an Alyssa Milano rom-com in the 1990s. Fortunately, thanks to the Criterion Collection, you can check out this and a few other early films of Downey’s via a two-disc box set called Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr. (clearly there are some who acknowledge the filmmaker’s significance). Even if you don’t wind up loving them as much as P.T. Anderson does, they’re necessary viewing as a part of American film history. Also, in the case of Putney Swope, my fingers are crossed that it’s at least alluded to in one of the final episodes of Mad Men next year, and if so you’ll be prepared to get the reference.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.