Looking at the ultra-conventional career of Sherlock Holmes/Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr., it’s hard to imagine that this talented but timid McMoviestar was sired by a disreputable ultracool beatnik hepcat. Indeed, if not for the implication of the “Jr.” designation and the genetic necessity of fatherhood, the average moviegoer would have no idea that a Robert Downey, Sr. exists. But exist he does, and a strange life has he led. To those who know him at all, Downey is known as a director of obscure cult films and Hollywood flops (including his first Hollywood flop, the sacrilegious but Certified Weird vaudeville Jesus western Greasers’ Palace). But even before hitting the relative mainstream with his breakthrough film Putney Swope, a satire about a Black Power advocate who accidentally becomes head of a Madison Avenue advertising firm, the elder Downey had led a fascinating life. By age 29, Downey pere had lied about his age so he could enlist in the army, been court martialed, won a Golden Gloves amateur boxing championship, played semi-professional baseball, and written and directed his first underground movies, mostly shot in Manhattan without permits, guerrilla-style. “After being thrown out of the house, four schools, and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track,” said Downey.
To the extent you could say that Downey’s anarchic early films followed a pattern at all, that template was established in his first extended work, the 56-minute political satire Babo 73 (1964). The story follows Sandy Studsberry, the meek “President of the United Status” as he deals with an invasion from the Red Siamese and the antics of his own crazy cabinet, led by Chester Kitty-Litter. All the attributes of early Downey make their appearance here: absurd anything-can-happen plotting, amateur acting, dubbed audio, scenes filmed in public spaces, slapstick silliness, and a single color sequence. With the exception of a few routines addressing racism, Babo has little bite as a political satire; it’s goofy, not incisive, less in the spirit of than Stanley Kubrick‘s cynical hit Dr. Strangelove (released the same year) than the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Understandably, this broth concocted by an amateur chef is far thinner than the comedy stewed by Groucho and crew. Babo’s sets are minimal; the cabinet entertains (then shoots) Luxembourg’s ambassador while sitting on folding chairs on a beach, and at other times characters are filmed in public running up the steps of the Capitol or other national monuments to lend a sense that they really are politicos going about their business. Taylor Mead plays the prez as a sleepy-eyed spaz, and there are plenty of absurd moments: the cabinet pauses to do calisthenics in an empty field while a jugband medley of patriotic favorites plays on the soundtrack, Studsbury tries to talk his private secretary out of a trash can after he has a nervous breakdown, and a peace poet’s monologue about enrolling in a Negro College is interrupted by a parade of slaves. Although there are occasional clever bits—one of the cabinet members is dubbed “the fascist gun in the West” and President Studsbury is told he will be remembered as “a retarded Foster Dulles”—for the most part the improvised comedy falls flat and feels juvenile. Basically, it’s just “public figures” acting like clowns—and unscripted clowns, at that.
Babo had the rough edges of many independently made first features, and many directors would have called it quits and moved on to other endeavors after it failed to win any popular or critical notice. Fortunately, Downey persevered, and he got better. His second attempt, 1966’s Chafed Elbows, became an underground hit, even playing on a double bill alongside Kenneth Anger‘s seminal Scorpio Rising. Told almost entirely through cleverly animated and otherwise manipulated still photographs, with the dozens of characters voiced by only three actors, Elbows tells the story of Walter Dinsmore’s “annual breakdown,” during which he gives birth to ten dollar bills, dies, becomes a rock star, marries his mother, and goes on welfare. Elbows often feels like an old 1930s radio play full of recycled Marx Brothers’ routines (“I’ve never been so insulted!” “You’re young yet”)—if it had been written as an incest comedy by the members of Monty Python while stoned on hashish. Although it deals with “transgressive” subject matter like a mother-son love affair, political corruption (“I knew my rights as a citizen, so I gave him a $50 bill”), and murder (in the course of his breakdown Walter kills a cop, his female cousin, and his mother, although the last victim doesn’t stay dead), today it’s hard to see how any movie so lighthearted and absurd could have offended any but the most anal of bluenoses. Downey widens his satirical lens from Babo to take in not just politics, but bourgeois morality, psychiatry, the art world, and even other underground filmmakers (Walter gets an offer to act in “Smoke,” a proposed movie in which he will be filmed smoking on a park bench for seven hours). Ironically, despite the fact that it wanders all over the plot map, the results feel more focused than Babo, probably because Downey’s comic writing is sharper and more confident. He’ll go to any lengths to make a joke; Elbows has more groaners per minute than any of Downey’s other films. Parts will probably remind you of the silly yet hilarious spoofs of Jim Abrams and the Zuckers, e.g., when Walter comes across a man dragging his paintbrush down the middle of a street and asks him what he’s doing, the stranger shrugs and says, “You gotta draw the line somewhere.” Elbows always follows up its moral shocks with a redemptive laugh. The film’s philosophy is captured by a bedroom exchange between its romantic leads: “Don’t be absurd,” says Walter. “I can’t help it, it’s my nature,” responds Mom.
Less effective, but still interesting, is Downey’s third feature, No More Excuses. It’s a pastiche of recycled footage mixed with new material into a deranged farrago of comedy. The oldest (and oddest) bits came from Downey’s first short film, Balls Bluff, about a Civil War Union soldier (played by Downey) who inexplicably finds himself in modern day Manhattan. At one point, the soldier is escorted off the field of Yankee Stadium, a stunt that made the papers (still dressed in Union Army duds, Downey fishes a copy of the New York Post out of a trash can and reads the story about the “weirdo” who interrupted the Yanks game). Interspersed with this story is unused footage from a documentary Downey filmed for ABC news about the New York singles’ bar scene. Since that still wasn’t enough material to fill out a thin 46-minute feature, Dowey added three new sketches to the bizarre mix. The funniest involves a spokesman for the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, a group which advocates that “any domestic animal standing higher than four inches or longer than six” should be required to wear pants for decency’s sake. A second running thread involves assassin Charles Guiteau’s repeated bungled attempts to assassinate James Garfield. By far the most tasteless subplot revolves around a rapist who breaks into a woman’s apartment and finds a very willing victim; the rape scene is interrupted by an advertisement for hemorrhoid cream. In this case, Downey’s typically anarchic non-structure reflects the movie’s satirical theme, the tumultuous moral climate of the late 1960s. Obviously, Downey takes shots at the fuddy-duddy old guard with his ridiculous parody of the decency brigade, but he seems equally amused (and bemused) by the hedonistic singles, who come off as shallow and unbearably dopey. He doesn’t need to parody the younger generation, as they’re eager to hang themselves by their own rope: a young man answers his question “how do you feel about people who come to these bars just to get laid?” with “I think it’s beautiful; it’s a lot better than smoking LSD and sleeping in the floor and going around looking like rags.” And, it’s difficult to watch the zaftig lady cavorting in bed with a toe-sucking chimp without thinking that maybe the sexual revolution had gone too far; although, the spokesman from S.I.N.A. would be happy to see that the primate is wearing a diaper! Looking at the perverse but unerotic sexual imagery the film ends on, one can’t help but wonder if maybe when Downey looked at the sexual morality of 1968 New Yorkers, he felt a little like a bemused Civil War soldier who had just woken up in a bizarre future world.
For inexplicable reasons, Downey credited himself in his early films under the title “Robert Downey (a prince).” It was a weird signature for a weird guy, who would only get weirder as his career built towards the ridiculous and sacrilegious Greasers’ Palace. These first three films show a young auteur, warts and all, finding his footing and honing his skewed sense of satire. Downey would find a modicum of success the year after he made No More Excuses with the outrageous adverting spoof Putney Swope. Each of his first three movies runs under and hour and could be watched back-to-back-to-back almost as a single piece. The Eclipse series publishes them together on disc 1 of the 2 disc “Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr.” set (disc 2 contains Swope and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight, an experiment which outweirded all previous Downey attempts). No More Excuses had been seldom seen since its debut, and Eclipse restored the film from the only surviving print; it’s not the greatest movie of the 1960s but it would have been a shame to lose this piece of underground film history from one of cinema’s few true originals. Let’s just hope Jr. will be treating dad to a beer (or even two) with the advance he’ll see from Iron Man III. Sr.’s earned it; he’s truly a prince among men.