Monday, July 19, 2021

The “two eras” of Deceased Artiste Robert Downey Sr. (a prince)

The death of Robert Downey Sr. has brought to mind that unasked question that pertains to so many filmmakers of the Sixties and early Seventies. Namely, what the hell happened to their work after the “maverick” period came to a close when Jaws and Star Wars pointed the way to future Hollywood mega-releases aimed at younger viewers?

In the case of Downey’s work, it was essential “underground” filmmaking that began to be sadly unwatchable even before the advent of the “tent-pole” movie. There are a few clear reasons why his early films are so eminently rewatchable, and every fiction feature after Greaser’s Palace is an incredible misfire. (There was a final, really good documentary by Downey that showed us what we’d been missing in the three decades that preceded it; see below.)

The elements that made Downey’s low-/no-budget films from 1961 to 1973 so imaginative and entertaining are the obvious ones. He worked on threadbare features with scripts filled with absurdist comic situations, with the narration and dialogue being dubbed in afterward. By the time of his best-known film, Putney Swope (1969), he was using direct sound and had actual production value in the images.

Downey acting in his first short
"Balls Bluff" (1961; later incorporated into 
No More Excuses)
The Downey features of this period play with genre and moviegoers’ expectations. He blurred the lines between different movie genres from scene to scene and wasn't averse to throwing in something completely out of left field, as if he was creating a live-action version of a Mad magazine movie parody. (Then, of course, he directed the first Mad movie, but that’s a story for another piece, about his unwatchable later comedies.)

The keynote for the great Downey films was always the cast. He used comic actors from the NYC pool of seasoned vets and had them play bizarre “types.” He regularly used the bald comedian Lawrence Wolf, the raccoon-eyed character actor Don Calfa, the boyish but seedy George Morgan, and he assigned many female roles (all of them, in certain films) to his wife Elsie, who was fearless in terms of playing both sex objects and toothless hags.

Lawrence Wolf (left) in
Putney Swope.
So the half-dozen features made in this period — not including a truly grim and brilliant telefilm and a lost sexploitation film — are all worth your time. But, oh, the films that came after Greaser’s Palace were dismal in new and depressing ways. It’s not difficult to diagnose the key factors that made them so awful:

1. The time period. The energy that infused filmmaking in the Sixties and early Seventies was truly radical and as pioneering as what had taken place in the silent era. Taboos were broken and movies were made that appealed to intelligent, engaged viewers. The blockbusters of the mid-Seventies led the majors to realize they could return to creating “package” pictures.

Downey directs Pound (1970).
At that point filmmakers needed the brazen ballsiness of Robert Altman or the natural gifts of that era’s Martin Scorsese to continue to make personal, adult films funded by the studios. Downey was a “comedy-maker,” so he was lost in the “package” world of Hollywood (where comedies were conceived of as either pictures with high-concept plots or as vehicles for SNL alumni).

2. Drugs. The obits for Downey stressed, naturally enough, his son, whose performances have run the gamut from snarky teen characters (or hammy out-of-control ones), to snarky young adults (or hammy out-of-control ones), to a surprisingly good Chaplin, to snarky middle-aged adults. Part of the oft-told tale of the younger, drug-addled Downey Jr. was that his father introduced him to drug culture as a child.

Drugs seem to have played a role as well in Downey Sr. losing his footing as a filmmaker and going from being an innovator and an iconoclast to a really pedestrian comedy-maker. As for his son, Downey Sr. did one other thing that was detrimental to his son’s growth as a performer — he let him ham it up in his films.

Robert Downeys, Sr. and Jr.
Downey Jr. has run amok in so many films, but the “ad-lib anything — your funny faces and weird comic tics are great!” indulgence went the farthest in his father’s films (and led to high-key-in-every-scene performances, like his intolerable turn in Two Girls and a Guy and in Downey Jr.’s own doc, The Last Party).

Now Downey Jr. is a Hollywood institution who recently played a snarky superhero, a kooky Dr. Dolittle, and countless other wacky roles. He has been off of drugs for a few decades now, but his dad’s indulgence lives on every time he delivers a line in a hipster cadence or veers into a tic that does nothing to define a character (only to establish them as “another figure played by Downey Jr.”).

3. Moving to L.A. Downey Sr. clearly moved to L.A. to enter the mainstream of show business. This meant: the aforementioned bad Mad magazine movie, a script for The Gong Show Movie, and a few package comedies that had terrific performers (Dick Shawn and Martin Mull in Rented Lips; Eric Idle and Andrea Martin in Too Much Sun) but were just plain awful.

The energy and absurdity that bristled through Downey’s NYC films was gone, and so were  the supporting casts of great character people. Like Neil Simon and many others, Downey flourished in NYC and became a mere [favorite current phrase] “producer of content” in L.A. The “micro-budgets” he had in NYC gave him complete control over what he was making, whereas the Hollywood producers who funded his work dictated what the films would ultimately be like. Thus, the difference in tone, look, and casting.

And the films couldn’t be made better with talented performers. Martin Mull and Dick Shawn star in the straight-to-video title Rented Lips (1987). The film is just dreadful with a lame script by Mull — who wrote a great “sit-down” comedy act, wrote several albums of great comedy songs, and later wrote great scripts for his History of White People cable shows, but apparently couldn’t write a great comedy movie script.

The cast is a gathering of superb comic talent, including Shelley Berman, Kenneth Mars, Eileen Brennan, Jack Riley, Pat McCormick, Jennifer Tilly, and Edy Williams (plus a lethally hammy Downey Jr.). And the film is still a waste of everyone’s time (and someone’s money). If you'd still care to see it, it can be found here on

It’s interesting to hear Downey reflect on how bad the later films were, at the end of this interview about Putney Swope. He, of course, knew how bad they were. The only obvious corollary question is: Why didn’t he go back to making truly independent work? Downey’s last film, a mellow little documentary (see below), proved he could have, at any time, gone back to indie filmmaking. But once one has sucked at what Bertolucci called “the Big Nipple” of Hollywood, one can hardly stop sucking…. 


Now to the films that should be seen and are all thankfully in distribution — as noted above, only one film, Sweet Smell of Sex is currently “lost.” A Criterion/Eclipse box called Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. contains four of his entertaining early works, plus one misfire that should’ve either been issued as a short or kept as a Downey family home movie. (As of this writing I’ve been informed that the contents of that box set and Greaser’s Palace are on the Criterion Channel, which I neither pay for, nor get for free.)

Babo 73.
Babo 73 (1964, in the Eclipse box) is a political spoof starring Greenwich Village icon Taylor Mead. It’s fun and extremely goofy, with Downey finding his footing in zero-budget filmmaking.

Chafed Elbows (1965, in the Eclipse box) was the breakthrough. The film, which was reportedly made for $25,000, is a clever and very silly comedy that goes from film to posed photographs, like Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! magazine photo-funnies meeting Marker’s “La Jetée” (1962). 

George Morgan, looking suitably
innocent, in Chafed Elbows.
The film follows a loser (Downey regular George Morgan) who loves his mother too much — so much so that he thinks he’s made her pregnant — and acquires various jobs as he wanders along. Downey talked about Elbows on the CBC in this 1967 interview:


On a casting level, Downey hit on the masterstroke of having his wife Elsie play all the female roles.

Elsie Downey as the mother in
Chafed Elbows.
He also utilized one of his regulars, Lawrence Wolf, onscreen and as the dozens of characters — the film was post-synched and constantly communicates its threadbare nature, with surprises thrown in (like color sequences shot in great NYC locations).


No More Excuses (1968) is an odd creation — a “feature” of 46 minutes that is basically five short projects slammed together. In the mix is Downey’s first short “Balls Bluff,” about a Civil War soldier (played by Downey himself) waking up in contemporary NYC.

The other four threads are: a recreation of the assassination of President Garfield (played by Lawrence Wolf); a speech about clothing animals by notorious prankster Alan Abel; a mini-documentary about the singles bar scene on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (proving Downey threw nothing out!); and a thriller/”romance” narrative about a rapist (Don Calfa), which has a comic punchline.

No More Excuses.
Excuses has some great moments and some not-so-great ones, but at 46 minutes, who can quibble? The restoration on the film was done at the Anthology Film Archives, but the funding for the restoration was provided by The Film Foundation (Scorsese’s film restoration org) clearly went for lots of music clearances. Downey included on the soundtrack then-current songs by the Hollies, Cream, the Who, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Monkees (as well as the theme from A Man and a Woman for the rapist plotline). In other words, Excuses is a thoroughly Sixties creation.

Downey directs Putney Swope.
Putney Swope (1969, in the Eclipse box) is Downey’s most famous film, and rightly so. It’s a radically weird creation that spoofs the advertising industry, the business world, the U.S. government, TV commercials, the “sexual revolution,” and, of course, race relations.

It was in Swope that Downey found the perfect balance for his “Borscht Belt meets Absurdist Theater” approach — the ad satires alone have kept the film relevant (because even today’s “woke” advertising is as ridiculous as the hard-sells of yesteryear). And the cast is filled with great comic performers, from Downey ensemble members Wolf and Stan Gottlieb to Allen Garfield and, in a showcase, role, Funhouse interview subject Antonio Fargas.

Putney Swope.
The film’s oddest touch is that Downey himself dubbed the (black) lead actor Arnold Johnson, because Johnson supposedly couldn’t remember his lines (although he later worked in other movies and TV series). It’s a ballsy and bizarre move (that most surely wouldn’t be tolerated today).

Swope is, of course, a white man’s view of several black characters — the interesting thing throughout, though, is that Downey makes it clear that Swope is trying not to sell out, and all the white characters are entirely profit-driven hypocrites. (Or just cartoons, like the memorably cheery little-man U.S. President and his Nazi-esque sidekick, played by Lawrence Wolf.)

The next film, Pound (1970), is the strangest, most original Downey film and this reviewer’s favorite. Structured like a Theater of the Absurd play, it did first see life as an off-Broadway theatrical production written by Downey; because of the success of Swope, the film was distributed by United Artists and had an X-rating for its theatrical run.

The action revolves around a group of dogs in a pound, awaiting the gas that will kill them. Each breed of dog is played by an actor, and the whole cast hailed from the great pool of character people in NYC. Included among them are (again) Elsie Downey, Lawrence Wolf, and Don Calfa, as well as Antonio Fargas, Charles Dierkop, and Funhouse favorite Marshall Efron.

There are outdoor scenes and a second plotline concerning “the Honky Killer,” but the focus of the film are the scenes set in the pound. There is a definite theatrical feel to these scenes, but that is shattered (at 47:05) by a major musical number written by Charley Cuva, in which all the people-as-dogs dance to a funky, obscene, and very catchy song. (Sample lyric: “"Bow-wow/you're an ugly cocksucker/standin' in the men's room/waiting for a pucker.”)

Some helpful soul has posted the soundtrack “album,” which he admits is a bootleg, but it’s the only opportunity to hear the very catchy score by Charley Cuva without having to rewatch the film and just hear snippets. The poster notes that the lyrics for the songs were written by Downey himself — thus, more evidence of just how creative he really was in his “golden” period. It’s available on YT here

The whole film can be seen here. It has never been officially released in any medium in the U.S., so the best-looking copy anyone has found is one that aired on the Israeli MGM channel (!):


The last great Downey theatrical film is Greaser’s Palace (1972), which is available on DVD and had the biggest budget of anything Downey made during the “golden” period of his work; it is also unquestionably his best-looking film. It is as wonderfully weird as Pound, but this time the weirdness takes place mostly outdoors, as we encounter a Western town that is run by a villain.

Western movies since the beginning of cinema would lead the audience to expect a gunfighter to come and “clean house” in the town, but instead — a man in a zoot suit (Allan Arbus) parachutes into the town and brings a dead man back to life. He claims, “I’m on my way to Jerusalem to be an actor-singer. It is written that the agent Morris awaits me...” He then walks on water and seals the deal — he’s the messiah.

Greaser's Palace.
The film is a wonderfully freaky creation that is carried off beautifully by its ensemble cast, including old standbys and new names like Luana Anders (as the villain’s daughter, a showgirl named Cholera), Toni Basil (as a bare-breasted Indian maiden), and Hervé Villechaize (as a flirtatious, bisexual cowboy). It’s a very quiet movie, featuring nonsense of a higher order. One wishes Downey could have kept the momentum going, but, sadly, Greaser’s Palace was his last truly imaginative fiction film. The whole film can be seen here:


Curiously enough, Downey made a superb TV movie the year after Greaser’s. It’s a very serious piece that could’ve pointed the way to another type of career, but there was never another drama in his filmography after Sticks and Bones (1973).

After being “lost” to the public for several decades (for unspecified reasons), finally a copy of Sticks has materialized. It was last seen on television in the Eighties when it was rerun on a cable arts channel.

Sticks and Bones.
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that this radical play by David Rabe — which both openly condemned America’s presence in Vietnam and satirized the “don’t wanna hear about it” attitude of many middle Americans — aired on a major network (CBS) in prime time. [NOTE: It’s mentioned in the notes to the Criterion/Eclipse box that, after a delay of several months, the show finally aired only “late at night” on certain CBS affiliates; NYC-area editions of TV Guide for the week in question (August 11-17, 1973) show that it aired in its intended prime time slot of 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night, opposite “Room 222.”] The play was certainly fodder for PBS but not a network that was still airing variety shows and wacky sitcoms.

However, this was after the emergence of “All in the Family,” and American television was free (for a short time, at least) to present truly challenging fare. The telefilm was most certainly that, with its plot about an “average American family” (named Ozzie, Harriet, Ricky, and David in the play as performed theatrically) who are confronted with the horrors of Vietnam when the eldest son comes home from the war, blind and shell-shocked. (The best-known cast members are Anne Jackson as the mother and Cliff De Young as the Viet-vet brother.)

Some CBS affiliates refused to air the film — which was shot on video, to make it look more like a sitcom — and one can see why. Not only is Rabe’s play (here adapted by the playwright) an incredibly in-your-face piece, but Downey added to the claustrophobia and the flagrantly theatrical aspect of the play by shooting it with a fish-eye lens that makes the action seem more immediate and assaultive.

Al Hirschfeld's illustration 
of the stars of the telefilm
Sticks and Bones.
Downey clearly drew on his experience shooting Pound, but he also went back to No More Excuses by utilizing popular songs in Sticks. We hear a surprisingly rockin’ Randy Newman song (“Gone Dead Train” from the Performance soundtrack), “Monkey Man” by The Rolling Stones, and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” (used beautifully to underscore scenes with the blind son trying to re-integrate into his family). As he had in Greaser’s, Downey also utilized electronic music, which serves as another distancing technique.

It’s a bit too long and is structured around a very obvious metaphor (the son may be blind, but his family’s apathy toward the war is the true “blind spot”). The telefilm still packs a punch, though, because it unflinchingly presents the all-American family’s resolute racism toward the Vietnamese. (Racial epithets abound but are utterly essential to conveying this very real aspect of the American character.) Its finale is unforgettably grim, reinforced by a final bucolic image with a very ugly detail.

The film can be found on the Rarefilmm site, here. 

Watching Sticks, one laments that it was Downey’s only foray into drama. Watching his next film, Moment to Moment (1975), one is further saddened — but in this case because the film is a complete mess.

Alternately titled Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight, the film can be found in a shorter version in the Eclipse box. It was assembled by Downey as a sort of Valentine/farewell to his wife Elsie (whom he was already separated from). The credits feature the folks who gave him money to complete the project; names on the LONG list include Hal Ashby, Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin, Shep Gordon, Joseph Papp, Haskell Wexler, and Jack Nicholson.

It’s comprised of many shards, which contain many different characters in many different situations. The shards were reportedly shot over two years, but Elsie (who plays every female role, again) looks like she ages or regresses a decade from scene to scene. Cast members — including regulars Wolf and Stan Gottlieb, and a briefly seen Seymour Cassel — show up and then disappear. Some reappear later in the picture; many do not. (And random shots of Downey Jr and his sister Allyson reinforce the idea that the film is basically a protracted home movie, whether it’s an hour or 85 minutes.)

The film does show Elsie’s range as a performer but, since there’s not ever a semblance of continuity, Moment begins the hard-to-watch phase of Downey’s career. The musical score by Jack Nitzsche, David Sanborn, and Arica is the one salvageable aspect of the film, and one wishes it was used for a better picture.

The version found on the Rarefilmm site is the longer cut of the film with the title Moment to Moment. At the 1:04:00 mark, there is a scene where Elsie and Gottlieb snort cocaine. The enthusiasm and eagerness with which Elsie performs this scene is like a visual confirmation that drugs were killing off the brilliance of certain members of the Downey clan (although Robert Jr. noted in his memorial note about his mother that alcohol was her particular demon).

It’s a jarring scene to watch because — like everything else in Moment — it serves no purpose at all, but plays like a harbinger of all of the Downey Sr. misfire films that followed. 

Moment to Moment can be seen on, here.


There is a happy ending to all this, besides the fact that we now can easily access pristine copies of Downey’s best work. That happy conclusion is the well-made and quietly touching documentary Rittenhouse Square (2005), about a Philadelphia park. Someone uploaded the complete film to YouTube after Downey’s death and we can all be grateful, as it demonstrates that Downey never lost his filmmaking prowess — he just should’ve abandoned comedy after Greaser’s.

At 82 minutes, Rittenhouse could have withstood a little pruning, but gone are the days when one could make an hour-long feature and get it booked into arthouses. And while there are a few scenes that could easily have been cut (as with a charity benefit held for Philly’s upper crust to fund the park), some of the best sequences would have been left out of a straighter PBS-style doc — moments where we see local musicians performing in the park (the Curtis Institute of Music adjoins the park), and Downey simply shows us the musicians, their audience of stragglers, and those sitting nearby on the benches.

So while we do get some Rittenhouse history and other socially acceptable sequences (including a day to devoted to children’s amusements), the documentary is most effective when it explores the two themes with which Downey infused it (besides the obvious one — the joy of music in open spaces).

The first is a gloriously un-p.c. tribute to girl-watching. In this case those indulging in this practice are men over 65, so it isn’t as un-“woke” as it may sound. On-camera (as “the questioner”) Downey informally speaks to men in his age bracket, and they honestly note that one of the principal joys of sitting for a time in Rittenhouse is to watch beautiful young women go by. We even hear that one old gent used to harangue his son to get out of the way of his wheelchair when a particularly pretty young woman strolled by.

The other theme — which was inevitable, given that Downey made the film when he was round about 69 — is aging (and its unavoidable sidekick, death). Downey’s discussions with old men and women form a lovely counterpoint to the scenes of the young talented musicians performing in the park. The musicians have clearly got everything in front of them, while the seniors reflect on what is behind them — with some of them being uncommonly honest (one painter regretting a long-ago divorce; a woman noting how deeply she loved her boyfriend but what a misogynist he was).

In this regard Downey gives us two “protagonists” — an elegant older gent who dressed up to stroll through the park (and died during the production of the doc) and a young girl whom we never hear speak, but we watch her go to and from her music classes and see her playing her violin at various points.

Rittenhouse Square forms a great “bookend” to Downey’s career, as one of his first films was “A Touch of Greatness” (1964), a totally serious doc about a beloved teacher who used unconventional methods to interest kids in literature and thought. Clips from that film can be seen in this more recent salute to the teacher. (This clip is apparently about a third of the recent doc.)


So, ultimately, if one watches Downey’s two docs, his best over-the-top creations (Pound, Greaser’s Palace) and, most especially, Sticks and Bones, one laments the “road never taken” by the filmmaker. There never was another drama or a really innovative comedy, but at least Downey’s last feature reaffirmed his talent. Even though Rittenhouse Square was barely seen in the mid-2000s — it mostly played festivals and arthouses — it’s heartening that he went out on a high note.


Thanks to Jon Whitehead of and Robert Nedelkoff for referring me to the rarest films discussed in this piece.

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