I first heard of Putney Swope when the post-Dissolve podcast The Next Picture Show covered it last year as a point of comparison for Sorry to Bother You, a film I enjoyed a great deal. It was an incredibly apt selection with plenty of thematic overlap between the two pictures, despite Boots Riley’s admission that he had never seen Putney Swope himself before writing his debut screenplay. Both films are absurdist workplace satires that traffic in broad comedic tones but are also potently weaponized against the horrors of corporate culture & Capitalism at large. More distinctly, they also both feature white actors overdubbing the vocal performances of their black stars as a means delivering that social & economic commentary. The major difference there is that Sorry to Bother You’s purpose for that vocal dub was pointed & purposeful, whereas Putney Swope’s use of the same device is much more wildly irresponsible.
The name Putney Swope belongs to a character played by Arnold Johnson, a fictional black man who becomes the head of a major advertising firm when its white figurehead dies in the middle of a boardroom meeting. This unexpected career advancement gives Swope the opportunity to shake up the very structure of American culture; he fires all of the white board members from the company, replacing them with politically radical black comrades who create a disruptive new wave of TV ad spots that subvert American ideals & economics on a fundamental level. The rise of the Truth & Soul ad agency is a brilliant wraparound narrative that allows the movie to basically function as a sketch comedy show, rolling full-length “ads” for products like airlines, breakfast cereal, and acne cream with Rejected-like premises that could never fly in real life. The sketches themselves (the only parts of the movie shot in color) are consistently funny and standout as clear highlights, with characters delivering lines like “I have a malignancy in my prostate, but when you’re in my arms it’s benign” as if it’s naturally the kind of thing you hear in TV commercials all the time. It’s the wraparound story that’s hit-or-miss as a successful satire, not least of all because Johnson’s vocal performance was overdubbed entirely by the film’s white director, Robert Downey, Sr.
According to Downey, the reason Johnson’s performance had to be overdubbed was because the inexperienced actor kept flubbing his lines. Why it had to be dubbed by a white man doing an exaggerated, deep voice that strays so uncomfortably close to vocal minstrelsy is another question entirely, a choice that undermines the film’s admirably radical leftist politics at every turn. The one element of Putney Swope that helps counterbalance Downey’s distancing-at-best vocal dub is that Swope is not the only black character in the film. The entire advertising agency being swapped out with black usurpers means that Swope’s status as The Black Man in the company doesn’t carry as much weight in its representation politics as the film initially suggest. You could even forgivingly frame the choice as unintended commentary on what it means for a white filmmaker to be writing dialogue for black characters to deliver onscreen, especially since Swope & his employees at Truth & Soul exist more as mouthpieces for leftist political statements then they do as real, fleshed out people. That interpretation would be meeting Downey more than halfway, however, as he really should have known better than to overdub Johnson himself in the first place without having a pointed satirical reason for doing so.
Holding this half-a-century-old comedic satire up to current political standards is a fool’s errand, for sure, but it ultimately can’t be helped. Stray political oversights like Putney’s white voice, casting little people as sight gags, and sidelining the women of Truth & Soul as sex objects are only frustrating because so much of the film’s incendiary political commentary isn’t outdated at all. Its swipes at the industry of War, the corrupting force of Capitalism, and the institutional perpetuation of racism in America still ring as true as anything you’ll see in Sorry to Bother You, but you have to strain to hear that echo over Downey’s booming vocal dub. As a low-budget D.I.Y. sketch comedy show, Putney Swope holds up remarkably well fifty years later; its commercials for Ethereal Cereal, a Ms. Redneck New Jersey beauty pageant, and the children’s game Cops & Demonstrators clear the way for other major satirical sketch comedy touchstones to follow, like The Groove Tube, Kentucky Fried Movie, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Saturday Night Live. It even directly inspired one of my favorite movie scenes of all time—the tense firecracker house party gag from Boogie Nights—which until now I had no idea was an homage. The only thing Putney Swope seeming didn’t inspire was Sorry to Bother You, a film that catches a lot of flak for being “messy“ but at least feels more generally considerate & purposeful in its satire than this ancient predecessor.
That’s how it feels now, anyway. Maybe in 50 years some major aspects of Sorry to Bother You will stand out as just as glaring of a misstep as Downey’s voice does here. It’s highly likely that its punching-up institutional satire will remain evergreen either way, unfortunately, considering that the power dynamics subverted by Putney Swope in its own time haven’t changed a lick since despite the other ways it may have soured.