In theory, Robert Downey Sr. should have been the perfect man to bring Mad magazine to the silver screen. At their dizzyingly inventive best, Babo 73 and Chafed Elbows suggest Jean-Luc Godard directing a live-action adaptation of the magazine. As a young iconoclast, Downey radiated cheerful contempt for a corrupt materialist world he seemed to feel was desperately in need of a lemon meringue pie in the face and a swift kick in the ass, possibly at the same time. Like Mad, Downey was an anti-authoritarian whose righteous contempt knew no bounds. Downey’s freewheeling social satires took aim at politics, pretension, religion, corporations, manners, sex, relationships, propriety, racism, race, and societal iniquity. But, again like Mad, which nobly eschewed advertising for much of its duration (and lost much of its soul when it finally relented), he was especially vitriolic about the world of advertising. Yet it was that world that both employed him—the liner notes for his Eclipse box set mention that Downey was paid handsomely to write and direct wild, original ads that never aired—and served as the subject for what is widely held as his masterpiece, 1969’s Putney Swope, which admirer Louis C.K. has publicly hailed as the film that made him want to become a filmmaker. Yet when Downey was actually afforded an opportunity to direct a Mad magazine movie, 1980’s Up The Academy, the result was so dire that the satirical institution actually paid Warner Bros. $30,000 dollars to take its name off it for the video release. Then again, Up The Academy was a studio project penned by other screenwriters, and Downey always worked best without restrictions.
In 1964’s Babo 73, Downey and his co-conspirators seem to be making up the rules as they went along. Along with Kenneth Anger, Russ Meyer, Shirley Clarke, Andy Warhol, Jim McBride, and the cinéma vérité movement, Downey operated on the fringe of the fringe. He was forging his own path as much by necessity as intention. In the early days, Downey didn’t have money for anything, let alone such bourgeois niceties as sets, professional actors, color, synchronized sound, polished scripts, and professional dubbing, so he transformed liabilities and restrictions into strengths. Downey cast himself, his buddies, and most notably his ex-wife Elsie (the mother of his greatest creation, Robert Downey Jr.), essentially wrote his films through post-dubbing and editing, and shot his films wherever and whenever he could. Partly because he couldn’t afford to make movies like everyone else, his films looked, sounded, and felt unique, with their impressionistic and sometimes comic use of dubbing, highly caffeinated pacing, and extensive, intensive use of still photographs.
What Downey’s early films lacked in polish they made up for in energy, ingenuity, and manic inspiration. Babo 73 is ostensibly about the disastrous reign of a president (Taylor Mead) so milquetoast and ineffectual he resembles a cross between Adlai Stevenson III and a jelly doughnut, but it’s less a conventional narrative film than a rapid-fire succession of blackout sketches, absurdist gags, and random silliness. Like his kindred spirits in the French New Wave, Downey was casually reinventing cinema with a street-level approach, plugged into both tumultuous cultural zeitgeist and the rebelliousness of a rising counterculture. Nearly a half century later, Babo 73 still feels fresh and original, especially the daftly charming lead performance of Mead, a New York fixture with the angelic face of Stan Laurel and the voice and delivery of Emo Phillips. (Mead was so inherently fascinating as an actor and human being that Gary Weis made short films about him for Saturday Night Live in the ’70s, and Andy Warhol literally made a film about his ass—the cleverly titled Taylor Mead’s Ass, released the same year as Babo 73.)
1966’s Chafed Elbows follows faithfully in Babo 73’s zigzagging, purposefully meandering footsteps, only this time the protagonist is a New York neurotic undergoing the latest in an endless series of nervous breakdowns in a city that resembles an open-air mental hospital more than a proper metropolis. Like Babo 73, Chafed Elbows straddles formats and genres. Where Babo 73 at times recalls a radical, experimental spin on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, Chafed Elbows anticipates early Saturday Night Live at its funky, New York-centric best combined with the dyspeptic cleverness of Woody Allen. Downey didn’t set out to make grand cinematic statements; he made goofy, ramshackle larks to amuse himself and his buddies, and his earliest efforts benefit from the freedom that comes with disregarding commercial considerations of any kind.
By 1968’s No More Excuses, Downey’s eccentric methods were beginning to yield diminishing returns. No More Excuses is a curiosity even by his standards, an oddball comedy that juxtaposes documentary footage of real New York singles discussing single bars and single life with scenes of a Civil War soldier (Downey) in contemporary times and a gloriously deadpan activist from the fictional Society For Indecency To Naked Animals delivering an impassioned speech on why cats and dogs must be forced to wear clothes. Downey’s early smorgasbords of prankish wit and absurdist provocation are so deliberately random and scattershot that segments from one could easily be edited into another without sacrificing their nonexistent narratives, but his films thrived on freshness and originality, and by 1968, he was repeating himself, albeit in an audacious, uncompromising fashion.
Nevertheless, Downey made a big leap forward with 1969’s Putney Swope. Where Babo 73, Chafed Elbows, and No More Excuses were largely plotless experiments well under an hour long, Putney Swope actually looks and feels like a proper feature. Downey’s most ambitious and accomplished film spoofs the warped values and greed of the advertising industry through the satirical tale of a black adman (Arnold Johnson) who is accidentally elected president of a powerful advertising firm. After the big promotion, Johnson channels his inner Huey Newton and vows to get out of the war toy, alcohol, and tobacco racket and empower the black masses through his work at a company he has renamed Truth And Soul, Inc. and populated with black employees of varying degrees of militancy. Johnson’s unconventional approach does wonders for his flagging company, but power corrupts, and it isn’t long until Johnson is engaged in the kind of shady practices he abhorred as a righteous employee. In Putney Swope, the new boss is the same as the old boss, albeit bolder, blacker, and more beautiful. Downey’s breakthrough film is shot through with anarchic, subversive wit, even if it leans a little too heavily on the facile shock of professional-looking television commercials filled with nudity and profanity. Putney Swope represented the first time Downey channeled his boundless energy into something that felt like a proper movie people might actually see, instead of goofy footage to show friends. He was evolving as a filmmaker, even if he remained a perpetual adolescent sneering at corrupt authority and the demands of propriety.
Putney Swope’s success paved the way for Downey to direct studio films like Pound and Greaser’s Palace, but he returned to his roots with 1975’s tellingly titled Moment To Moment, which has been re-edited and re-named Two Tons Of Turquoise To Taos Tonight for the box set. According to the liner notes, the film is Robert Jr.’s favorite among his father’s films, and it’s easy to see why. Two Tons Of Turquoise To Taos Tonight is less one of Downey’s plotless, free-form assaults (though it is of course that as well) than an extended love letter to his wife Elsie, who played nearly all the female roles in her soon-to-be-ex’s early films and dominates Turquoise with her magnetic presence. Elsie and Downey divorced the year Turquoise (or rather Moment To Moment) was made, and the film has a weirdly lyrical, elegiac, and romantic quality lacking in his earlier films. A scene of Elsie snorting cocaine with a cartoonish cowboy would be sad and weirdly poignant even if the director and leading lady’s son didn’t grow up to be one of the most famous and famously troubled celebrity drug addicts of our time.
The uneven but lively and engaging Robert Downey Sr. box set proves there’s a whole lot more to the filmmaker than Putney Swope and being Iron Man’s dad. Films like Babo 73 and Chafed Elbows deserve to be restored for posterity, even if the idea of the classy folks over at Criterion putting their stamp of approval on Downey’s transgressive low-budget foolishness feels like a demented joke worthy of one of the filmmaker’s early provocations.
Grades: Babo 73: B+; Chafed Elbows: B+; No More Excuses: B-; Putney Swope: B; Two Tons Of Turquoise Tonight: B-