Putney Swope (1969) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Tuna's notes

Putney Swope (1969) was inspired by an incident that took place when Robert Downey Sr. was making off-beat commercials for an ad agency. A black man who did the same job noticed that Downey made much more money. The boss explained that if he gave the black man a raise, Downey would want one too, and they would be right back where they started. Starting with that, and the idea of reversing the racial roles, he wrote the screenplay for Putney Swope.

The head of an ad agency dies at a board meeting, and with him still dead on the table, they hold an election for a new chairman. All but two people vote for the agency's token black man, Putney Swope, who becomes the head of the agency. Cut to a boardroom full of radical black board members. Swope heads the company with outrageous ideas, and amasses a fortune. He is also courted by the president and the first lady, a couple of midgets. They are advised by an obvious Kissinger character.

Arnold Johnson was perfect for the role of Putney Swope, but there was a problem. He couldn't remember his lines. Then the cameraman noticed that his beard covered his mouth, and suggested that it would be easy to dub the lines in post production, so that's what they did, with Downey Sr. doing the dubbing! Downey had a great deal of trouble selling the concept, but finally found financing and distribution, and it did reasonably well. I found it terribly dated, not that biting as social satire, and only occasionally humorous. The film is in black and white, but all of the faux commercials are in color.



  • Commentary by director by Robert Downey Sr.
  • Interview with by Robert Downey Sr.



  • Laura Greene, as Mrs. Swope, shows a breast.

  • Four unknowns show breasts in an airline commercial.

Scoop's notes

Tuna's review brings back some memories. I have only seen Putney Swope once, during its original run, in a Greenwich Village arthouse theater! I was a college student. It was quite the counter-culture rage back in the headiest anti-establishment days of the late 60s, and a "must see" for pseudo-intellectual university types in New York City. I had heard many positive things about it from people with tastes similar to my own, and I thought the premise was great!

Anyway, I was disappointed. My reaction to the film was exactly the same as Tuna's is today, except for the "terribly dated" part. I thought the satire was clumsy, the comic timing was off, the production value was nil, and there was nothing very funny in the black-and-white portion at all. There were a couple of funny moments in the faux commercials.

The cult status it once enjoyed seems unaccountable today. It's basically an underground film, not much slicker than a home movie, one of those "ya hadda be dere" films. It was celebrated by the counter culture because it was both weird and angry and thus caught the zeitgeist by being doubly anti-establishment: it rejected establishment cultural values in a form that rejected establishment filmmaking values.

Hmm, I wonder what happened to the girl who went with me that night.

Anyway, I still think the premise is great. Perhaps somebody will remake it. Maybe Downey JUNIOR.

The Critics Vote ...

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The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C-, but that's really its score as a cultural artifact. It is a worthwhile watch for those curious about or nostalgic for the anti-establishment view of politics and cinema in 1969. Rated solely as a film, with no context, it would be lower, because it's basically an amateurish mess roughly equivalent to cable access programming.

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