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 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|
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).|
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.|
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 Rarefilmm.com.
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.)
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.
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|
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.|
|Downey directs Putney Swope.|
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.
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.
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.|
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.
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.
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.
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 Rarefilmm.com and Robert Nedelkoff for referring me to the rarest films discussed in this piece.