- Apr 24, 2006
- Charlotte, NC
- Real Name
- Matt Hough
Provocative is hardly an adequate word to describe the underground films of Robert Downey, Sr. Yes, the elder Downey who had success as an athlete (boxer, baseball player) in his youth became known as a playwright and an avant garde filmmaker using some of the same New York City talent pool as his fellow provocateur Andy Warhol. The five films in this latest Eclipse box set show his filmmaking technique maturing over the years, but they all remain angry bursts of rather bitter satire from someone for whom the word status quo is dirty and miserably wrong.
Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.: Eclipse Series 33
Babo 73/Chafed Elbows/No More Excuses/Putney Swope/Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
Directed by Robert Downey Sr.
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1/1.78:1
Running Time: 56/58/46/85/56 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Release Date: May 22, 2012
Review Date: May 20, 2012
Babo 73 – 3.5/5
The President of the “United Status” in 1973 is a nebbish named Sandy Studsbury (Taylor Mead) whose liberal-leaning left-hand man is Chester Kitty-Litter (James Antonio) and who’s hawkish right-hand man is the fiery Lawrence Silver-Sky (James Greene). They continually give him bad advice as he remains torn deciding what to do about the “Red Siamese” situation and other touchy, controversial subjects of the day.
Downey’s script manages to work in sour slams against political posturing, organized religion (Catholics take a particular beating), bigotry, and inert peace-keeping organizations. As a director, one must admire Downey’s gumption stealing shots on the White House grounds and in the streets where real-life military officers appear as if they’re taking part in his spoofing. And he doesn’t back away from fierce language either using both the “N-word” and the “F-word” whenever he wants to in order to make his points. And the eerie invasion suggested by his cryptic ending concludes the film on a highly uneasy note making the comic moments featuring his dunderheaded President and his hot-headed, ineffectual allies somewhat more alarming than funny in retrospect.
Chafed Elbows – 3/5
Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan) is a young man in search of his life’s dream. He lives (and sleeps) with his mother (Elsie Downey who plays all of the female roles in the movie), but his wanderings around Manhattan lead him to try acting, have him visiting a church, pop in to a courtroom, record a couple of hit tunes, and wind up at a bar mitzvah.
Downey’s very dry, often macabre humor will definitely not be for all tastes. He takes an unusual approach to the movie presenting Walter’s story sometimes (most of the time) in photos (with audio providing the narrative thrust) and sometimes in live action. There aren’t real jokes here but rather absurd situations that Walter finds himself in and manages to stumble and bumble his way through. The film’s high point is the recording sequence where Walter decked out a la Elvis in a leather jacket with adoring woman surrounding him belts out “Black Leather Negligee” and “She’s Mine,” both tunes rather fun and lively. Kudos to Elsie Downey (Robert’s wife at the time) who plays all of the women in Walter’s life.
No More Excuses – 2.5/5
This rather plotless and banal potpourri of late 1960s attitudes toward the sexual and moral revolution, the Vietnam war, and the generation gap might be seen as the anarchic, underground version of Laugh-In, only it doesn’t have nearly the laughs. There’s a long, unfunny diatribe by Alan Abel of SINA, an organization pushing to clothe all domesticated animals, that continually intrudes on the other running gags in the film. Beginning with an accusatory glimpse of authentic or movie studio footage of all of America’s wars from Vietnam back through time to Korea, the two world wars, and the Civil War, the film then takes a Civil War Union soldier (Robert Downey) and transports him through time to modern day New York as he wanders haplessly trying to make sense of what he sees (the film’s best laugh: he cheers when he finally stumbles onto Yankee Stadium thinking he’s about to be reunited with his comrades; he’s quickly kicked out). These scenes with him are intercut with interviews of real people at various singles bars around Manhattan expressing their opinions of their experiences. We also go back in time to the assassination of a bisexual President Garfield (Lawrence Wolf) who’s shot by Charles Guiteau (Prentice Wihite) while watching a present day rape in progress which turns into mutual lust and that then evolves into bestiality.
For all of its wide-reaching sequences that span centuries and feature a cross section of Americans, the film lacks a clear focus (Downey co-directed with Robert Soukis), and even at only 46 minutes, segments seem overdrawn and desperately seem to be attempting to shock and surprise. It’s daring in part to show an assassinated president as a rather limp-wristed, swishy homosexual in one sequence or to reveal the identities of the rapist and the interviewer in the capper to the film, but that doesn’t make it good, only audacious. Perhaps for Downey, that was enough.
Putney Swope – 3/5
When the head of a celebrated Madison Avenue ad agency drops dead, the other directors of the company must vote on who will be the next CEO. Since they can’t vote for themselves, they cast their secret ballots for the agency’s token black guy Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson) who then proceeds to kick them all out, bring in his own all black creative team (with one token white – played by George Morgan) and rename the company Truth and Soul, Inc. He initially refuses to do business with all manufacturers who make war toys, cigarettes, or alcohol, and fashions ads that stress truth amid acres of sex and profanity. The agency rakes in millions, but its success turns Putney into a martinet who eventually tires of the rat race and seeks to escape it.
By far the slickest and most professional looking of the films in this set, Putney Swope was one of the films that was embraced by millions of the Flower Power generation in midnight showings throughout the 1970s. Its satire plays rather flatly now with the ads (presented in color to contrast with the rest of the film’s black and white) not nearly as shocking as they once were (what’s one more orgy between friends?), and the profanity, drug use, nudity, sex scenes (in one scene featuring the President of the U.S. and his wife, both dwarfs, in bed), and themes of noble intentions deflating and power corrupting already old news in 1969. But there are moments to savor: Putney’s explaining to his token white why he can’t be paid equally with his black co-workers, a recurring gag with a photographer (Eric Krupnik) trying to land a gig by flipping through his portfolio, and every appearance by the rat-a-tat talker Antonio Fargas. Others buried in the large cast who get a few moments to shine: Allen Garfield and Allan Arbus, both of whom went on to greater appearances on film and television in the next decade.
Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight – 2/5
Downey famously bragged that this film had no beginning, middle, or end, and he’s right on all counts. It’s a meandering hodgepodge of clips featuring his wife Elsie in an array of different clothes and wigs and sporting different dialects (in one famous moment, she has a conversation with herself walking down a beach playing two different characters). She’s fairly versatile, but she’s no Meryl Streep-like chameleon. If you’ve watched the other films in this set, you’ll see his familiar stock company of actors turning up in a few random moments here and there. There are a few sight gags which are clever and work splendidly (a truck on a roof, men playing baseball mounted on horseback), and he even fits in his young daughter Allison and young son Robert Downey, Jr. at various intervals. But knowing how son Robert struggled with drug addiction during his young adult life, it’s hard to find much humor in the drug-themed sketches inserted in the movie, and much of the film just seems pointless and rather thrashing around to find something amusing to exploit. Also glimpsed in a few brief bits are renowned actors Seymour Cassel and Tom Aldredge, but their material is no stronger than anyone else’s in this most disappointing home movie-like effort.
Babo 73 – 2.5/5
The 1.33:1 aspect ratio is true to the original framing of the movie. Shot in 16mm, the film looks soft and much the worse for wear with lots of scratches and dust specks revealing the age of the material. Most of the film is in black and white which features a weakly inconsistent grayscale with dull gray black levels and occasionally blown out whites. There is a color sequence which looks dated in terms of contrast and sharpness, but color is richer than one might think with especially vivid greens and flesh tones which aren’t bad. The film has been divided into 11 chapters.
Chafed Elbows – 3/5
The theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is what is presented on the disc. Sharpness is a bit better here than in the previous film though the color sequences aren’t quite as appealing with the color timing a rusty brown. In the black and white rest of the film, blacks are a little darker though whites continue to get blown out occasionally. There are scratches and dust specks, too, but not to the extent as in Babo 73. There are 9 chapters on this transfer.
No More Excuses – 2/5
The only print of the movie in existence is the 16mm print used for this transfer (1.33:1 aspect ratio), but its quality is very inconsistent. Whites are often blown out, and scratches, damage, and dirt are present throughout. Black levels are fairly weak, too, and sharpness varies between poor to fair. There are 9 chapter divisions.
Putney Swope – 3.5/5
The film has been framed at 1.78:1 for this transfer (the credit sequence momentarily switches to 1.33:1) and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The clearest and cleanest of the films in the set, sharpness is usually excellent with only a few soft shots, and the grayscale is much more impressive than the earlier films even if whites continue to get blown out a bit. There are occasionally scratches and a bit of moiré can be glimpsed, but they’re both minor distractions. The movie has been divided into 13 chapters.
Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight – 2/5
The 1.33:1 aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced here, but the grayscale is one of the worst of all the films in the package. Contrast is so heavy that it occasionally blows out the picture or makes shadow detail next to impossible to discern with the crushed black levels. The image is mostly soft and rather unappealing though it does contain fewer scratches and dust specks than the earlier films in this set. The movie has been divided into 9 chapters.
Babo 73 – 3/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is serviceable. The film was post synched, so there is that arid nature about the recording quality, but apart from some late film sound artifacts (a scratchy soundtrack and some hiss), there isn’t much distraction from the audio.
Chafed Elbows – 3/5
Again, the Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack gets the job done unobtrusively, but sound can sometimes be a bit distorted when voices get raised or the music is pitched at a volume that isn’t particularly conducive to pleasant listening. No aural artifacts like crackle, hiss, or flutter were present.
No More Excuses – 3/5
The voiceover narration is clear and concise throughout, and spoken words in the interviews are also easily discernible. The music track borrows themes from James Bond movies, A Man and a Woman, and the theme song to The Monkees television show, and the music has decent fidelity. It's also a Dolby Digital 1.0 mix.
Putney Swope – 3.5/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 track here is quite good for its age and the film’s low production budget. Leading man Arnold Johnson’s entire performance was dubbed by director Robert Downey, and the substitution is unmistakable with the dry, airless ADR here. But music never overpowers the dialogue (the film is quite talky), and there aren’t any age-related defects like hiss or crackle to cause audio problems.
Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight – 2.5/5
Dialogue is easily discernible in this Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix, and the music score by Jack Nitzsche, David Sanborn, and Arica gives the film most of its entertainment value. There is some hiss present and occasional flutter can also be heard, but neither is overly distracting.
Criterion’s Eclipse line doesn’t offer bonus materials, but there are informative liner notes written by Michael Koresky in booklets contained in both slimline cases.
3/5 (not an average)
Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. presents five works by the rebel filmmaker that sometimes do not stand the test of time. Like many movies from the underground filmmaking era of the 1960s, the films sometimes sport crude technique, amateurish acting, and micro budget restrictions. And yet, there’s moxie displayed in the films that makes them historically interesting as well as occasionally funny and even endearing. Film enthusiasts and historians will no doubt enjoy the journey to a previous era which can be found in this latest Eclipse set.