Putney Swope (1969)

R | 84 mins | Satire, Comedy | 10 July 1969

Director:

Robert Downey

Writer:

Robert Downey

Cinematographer:

Gerald Cotts

Editor:

Bud Smith

Production Designer:

Gary Weist

Production Companies:

Herald Productions, PS Productions
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HISTORY

The 6 Oct 1968 NYT and 9 Oct 1968 Var reported that independent writer-director Robert Downey was ready to begin filming Putney Swope in New York City the following week, on 14 Oct 1968. The $200,000 production was scheduled to last ten weeks. Floyd L. Peterson was listed as producer, and stage actor L. Errol Jaye had been hired to portray the eponymous “Putney Swope.” Calling the film “a kind of black Marx Brothers satire,” Downey claimed it would feature “about 200 actors, 80 percent of whom are Negroes.” However, according to several sources, including the 18 Oct 1968 DV and 23 Oct 1968 Var, Downey’s production company refused to sign a contract with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the union threatened disciplinary action against any member involved in the film, claiming that “PS Productions is exploiting the actors by hiring them at sub-standard wages and conditions.” L. Errol Jaye, along with eight other SAG members, left the production, and non-union actor Arnold Johnson replaced him. Producer Peterson told Var that since Putney Swope required 300 extras for mostly weekend scenes, there was no way to maintain union requirements, which included “double-pay” overtime, on a $200,000 budget. He rejected SAG’s suggestion that the production severely cut its roster in order to maintain the union pay scale. Also, Laura Greene, an African-American actress who portrayed a woman that marries Putney Swope, ignored the union’s demands, according to the 27 Nov 1968 Var. Floyd L. Peterson and executive producer Arthur M. Dubow took the case to the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that since ... More Less

The 6 Oct 1968 NYT and 9 Oct 1968 Var reported that independent writer-director Robert Downey was ready to begin filming Putney Swope in New York City the following week, on 14 Oct 1968. The $200,000 production was scheduled to last ten weeks. Floyd L. Peterson was listed as producer, and stage actor L. Errol Jaye had been hired to portray the eponymous “Putney Swope.” Calling the film “a kind of black Marx Brothers satire,” Downey claimed it would feature “about 200 actors, 80 percent of whom are Negroes.” However, according to several sources, including the 18 Oct 1968 DV and 23 Oct 1968 Var, Downey’s production company refused to sign a contract with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the union threatened disciplinary action against any member involved in the film, claiming that “PS Productions is exploiting the actors by hiring them at sub-standard wages and conditions.” L. Errol Jaye, along with eight other SAG members, left the production, and non-union actor Arnold Johnson replaced him. Producer Peterson told Var that since Putney Swope required 300 extras for mostly weekend scenes, there was no way to maintain union requirements, which included “double-pay” overtime, on a $200,000 budget. He rejected SAG’s suggestion that the production severely cut its roster in order to maintain the union pay scale. Also, Laura Greene, an African-American actress who portrayed a woman that marries Putney Swope, ignored the union’s demands, according to the 27 Nov 1968 Var. Floyd L. Peterson and executive producer Arthur M. Dubow took the case to the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that since most of the film’s actors were black, SAG’s actions were discriminatory. In addition, SAG did not have enough African American members to satisfy the film’s casting requirements, nor enough of the “New York types” that Downey wanted. The producers likened Putney Swope to an off-Broadway stage show, which had a separate wage standard from mainstream Broadway. They sought a deferred payment plan with SAG actors, who would eventually receive the difference between their salaries and the union scale when the film recouped its producers’ investments.
       The 13 Nov 1968 Var broke down the list of the film’s investors, as filed with the New York County Clerk’s office on 22 Oct 1968. The “general partners” were Downey’s Goose Down Productions and Floyd L. Peterson’s Herald Productions. “Limited partners,” who would share in fifty percent of the profits, included C & S Associates of Boston ($40,000); executive producer Arthur M. Dubow of New York ($23,000); Fred Hirschborn, Jr. of Connecticut ($22,000); Thomas J. Coolidge, Jr. ($10,000) and Charles Higginson ($10,000) of Washington, D.C; Thomas Urmston, Jr. of New York ($10,000), and William Waits of New York ($3,000). It was Downing’s filing with the county clerk’s office that originally convinced the New York branch of SAG that the budget of Putney Swope was high enough to require union standards.
       According to the 29 Dec 1968 NYT, the first day of shooting took place in a trash-littered alley in the Bowery section of Lower Manhattan, where Putney Swope’s advertising agency was filming an advertisement for the “Fan-A-Way” electric fan. To lend the scene authenticity, Robert Downey hired a real derelict for $10 and four bottles of wine, and directed him to lie sleeping on a mound of trash. A Method actor at heart, the derelict passed out after drinking his wine and delivered his performance perfectly. David Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters stood in for Swope’s “Truth and Soul” advertising agency offices.
       The film was shot in black and white, and Truth and Soul’s television commercials were filmed in color.
       Near the end of the film, audio from Robert Downey’s previous film, Chafed Elbows, can be heard on a television set, as a mother repeatedly tells her son, “I love you, Walter.”
       According to various sources, Robert Downey overdubbed all of Arnold Johnson’s dialogue with his own voice.
       Don Rugoff’s Cinema V refused to confirm or deny to the 9 Jul 1969 Var that he paid Downey a $250,000 advance to distribute Putney Swope. The film was set to open at the Cinema II in New York City the following day. However, the 16 Jul 1969 Var claimed it opened a day later, on 11 Jul 1969, and was “breaking records.” Critical response was generally positive. In the 11 Jul 1969 NYT, Vincent Canby called it “funny, sophomoric, brilliant, obscene, disjointed, marvelous, unintelligible and relevant.” However, New York’s Daily News critic, Wanda Hale, quoted in the 16 Jul 1969 Var, blasted Putney Swope as “The most offensive picture I’ve ever seen…violently anti-Negro, anti-Chinese, anti white, including Jews.” The 9 Jul 1969 Var felt that “nothing much beyond marginal interest occurs.” When the film finally opened in Los Angeles six months later, on 21 Jan 1970, the next day’s LAT called it “a very gaudy and exhilarating…slam-bang satire,” and acknowledged that having already achieved “a very large overground commercial success elsewhere,” the film was “certain to be a smash here.”
       After eighteen months of distribution as “a self-imposed X”-rated picture, Putney Swope was submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and granted an R-rating, the 30 Dec 1970 DV reported.
       The U.S. Library of Congress (www.loc.gov) inducted Putney Swope into its National Film Registry on 14 Dec 2016.
       End credits contain the following acknowledgment: “Special thanks to John Simon, The Guggenheim Foundation.” More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
18 Oct 1968
p. 1.
Daily Variety
30 Dec 1970
p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
20 Jan 1970
Section D, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
22 Jan 1970
Section D, p. 1.
New York Times
6 Oct 1968
Section D, p. 19.
New York Times
29 Dec 1968
Section D, p. 13.
New York Times
11 Jul 1969
p. 19.
Variety
9 Oct 1968
p. 7.
Variety
23 Oct 1968
p. 16.
Variety
13 Nov 1968
p. 7.
Variety
27 Nov 1968
p. 5.
Variety
4 Dec 1968
p. 7.
Variety
9 Jul 1969
p. 5.
Variety
9 Jul 1969
p. 6.
Variety
16 Jul 1969
p. 3.
Variety
16 Jul 1969
p. 22.
Variety
16 Jul 1969
p. 27.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
In Order of Appearance:
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANIES
PRODUCTION TEXT
Produced by Herald Productions, Inc.
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Dir, ("a prince")
Prod supv
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Asst cam
Lighting
Lighting
Head grip
Head grip
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Asst
COSTUMES
Cost des
Cost coord
MUSIC
Original mus
Mus eng
SOUND
Assisted by
Mixed by
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
PRODUCTION MISC
Scr supv
Prod coordinator
Prod asst
Prod asst
SOURCES
SONGS
["Face Off Pimple Cream jingle," sung by Ronald Dyson and Shelley Plimpton.]
DETAILS
Release Date:
10 July 1969
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 10 July 1969
Los Angeles opening: 21 January 1970
Production Date:
14 October--late December 1968
Physical Properties:
Sound
Black & white with color sequences
Eastman Color
Duration(in mins):
84
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Putney Swope is the token black man on the executive board of a large Madison Avenue advertising agency. During a promotional meeting, the elderly company chairman, while addressing the board, drops dead of a heart attack. The other board members vote to elect a successor and, through a company rule which prohibits voting for oneself, Swope wins by a landslide. Putney promptly replaces all the white board members with blacks (leaving one token white man), renames the agency Truth and Soul, Inc., and refuses accounts for commercials on liquor, cigarettes, and war toys. Truth and Soul revolutionizes television advertising by creating shock-effect commercials for such products as Face-Off Acne Cream and Ethereal Cereal. The agency's unorthodox policies are regarded by the President of the United States, a marijuana-smoking midget named Mimeo, as a serious threat to his vested interests. As cash deposits accumulate in the Truth and Soul basement, dissidents in the agency threaten Putney's authority. Putney meets with President Mimeo, who tells him that unless Truth and Soul begins advertising liquor, cigarettes, and war toys, as well as promoting the unsafe "Borman Six" German roadster, the government will picket the agency. Following an assassination attempt by a white messenger boy who has been abused by Putney and his staff, Putney abandons the agency, dressed in Fidel Castro garb and carrying a sack of money. As he leaves, a dissident Arab tosses a Molotov cocktail into the plexiglass vault containing the company loot--and all of Truth and Soul's cash assets go up in ... +


Putney Swope is the token black man on the executive board of a large Madison Avenue advertising agency. During a promotional meeting, the elderly company chairman, while addressing the board, drops dead of a heart attack. The other board members vote to elect a successor and, through a company rule which prohibits voting for oneself, Swope wins by a landslide. Putney promptly replaces all the white board members with blacks (leaving one token white man), renames the agency Truth and Soul, Inc., and refuses accounts for commercials on liquor, cigarettes, and war toys. Truth and Soul revolutionizes television advertising by creating shock-effect commercials for such products as Face-Off Acne Cream and Ethereal Cereal. The agency's unorthodox policies are regarded by the President of the United States, a marijuana-smoking midget named Mimeo, as a serious threat to his vested interests. As cash deposits accumulate in the Truth and Soul basement, dissidents in the agency threaten Putney's authority. Putney meets with President Mimeo, who tells him that unless Truth and Soul begins advertising liquor, cigarettes, and war toys, as well as promoting the unsafe "Borman Six" German roadster, the government will picket the agency. Following an assassination attempt by a white messenger boy who has been abused by Putney and his staff, Putney abandons the agency, dressed in Fidel Castro garb and carrying a sack of money. As he leaves, a dissident Arab tosses a Molotov cocktail into the plexiglass vault containing the company loot--and all of Truth and Soul's cash assets go up in smoke. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.