Wild Times

Robert Downey Sr. looks back on his anarchic underground comedies
by Ed Halter  posted September 8, 2008
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

Robert Downey: A Prince, Anthology Film Archives, September 12-18, 2008

If anyone wants to know where Robert Downey Jr. found the comedic chutzpah to don blackface in Tropic Thunder, the answer might lie not too far up his family tree. The actor’s father, filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., courted notoriety himself in the ’60s and ’70s with a string of taboo-busting movies like Sweet Smell of Sex (1965), race-relations spoof Putney Swope (1969), and Greaser’s Palace (1972), an oddball life-of-Christ parody set in the Old West. While these features cemented Downey in the cult-film pantheon, many of his shorter and more formally experimental comedies haven’t been widely available for years. Now, Anthology Film Archives has restored three of these rarely seen works from the 1960s—Babo 73 (1964), Chafed Elbows (1966), and No More Excuses (1968)—and will unveil them at a Downey mini-retro this month, along with the director’s own copy of Moment to Moment (1975), a remarkable, rapid-fire sketch medley that hasn’t been shown publicly since the 1970s.

Downey’s first long-form film, Babo 73 is a loopy, loose-ended political satire, set in a future nation called “United Status,” with Taylor Mead as president. Though trashed by most critics, Babo gained a few important admirers, including then-Village Voice columnist and avant-garde booster Jonas Mekas. In his influential Movie Journal column, Mekas later proclaimed Chafed Elbows “as good as anything done in the nouvelle vague,” dubbing Downey “the Lenny Bruce of the new cinema.” A strange and often hilarious blend of La Jetée and Mad Magazine, Chafed Elbows tells the story of a downtown schlemiel’s “annual January breakdown,” in which he literally gives birth to $1890, encounters a female sock fetishist in a Catholic church, and crashes a Long Island bar mitzvah. Told almost entirely with photo-roman-style still images, the film ends with a randy bout of mother-son incest. No More Excuses chaotically weaves together five different elements, all shot independently and later fused into one film, including the story of President Garfield’s assassin, candid footage of the Upper West Side’s raucous singles bar scene, a sex romp that ends with the erotic participation of a chimpanzee, and the tale of a Civil War soldier who hurtles forward in time to modern-day Manhattan. Downey’s first wife, Elsie, appears as all the female characters in both Elbows and Excuses, and their collaborative film Moment to Moment is structured around her considerable comedic skills, featuring her as an Afro-wigged dancer, the world’s fastest lady track star, and in one memorable semi-documentary moment, a voracious cocaine aficionado.

Downey spoke recently to Moving Image Source about the upcoming revival of his early films.

So what’s it like to see these old films again after so many years?

Well I figured they’d be gone. The only thing that saved Babo 73 was that one of the actors had a print in his closet for 40-something years. He found it just a couple of years ago. The guy called me and said, Do you want this? We were just having a good time with this stuff. As I look back on these things—I haven’t seen them in a long time—I’m so thankful that the stuff that I liked—and I did like these things, at first I didn’t know what I thought—that they’re in black-and-white. It’s a lot easier for me to look at my stuff that’s in black-and-white. Other than Greaser’s Palace, where the color is imperative. With the rest of the stuff, the color’s in the way, I think, when I had to use color. Because I had to, they wouldn’t give me the money unless I did.

Your first film, Balls Bluff, was a short you re-edited and put into No More Excuses. How did you first get it shown in New York?

That film was just about a guy waking up a hundred years later in New York from the Civil War. We took it over to the Charles Theater on Avenue B. The whole idea there was that if you brought a film in, it would get shown. It might not get shown for a couple of days. They’d just pile them up in the projection booth. So I had this thing and I just brought it in, and it was wild to see it up there as a film. And that was the end of it. When No More Excuses rolled around a few years after that I said, Why don’t I cut that in with the other four things I had?

In one sequence, you play the soldier and walk right onto the field at Yankee Stadium during a game. How’d they react to you doing that?

I had an actor who was going to do that but he said he wouldn’t walk on the field, so I did it. I didn’t mind. They grabbed me and took me downstairs and the cameramen ran off to the lab. The guys downstairs at Yankee Stadium said, Where’s your cameraman? This was going on for two hours—I thought I was going to be sent to Bellevue. Finally the guys walked in with the cameras and they grabbed the cameras and took the film out. Of course it was not the real film—that was already in the lab.

So was Jonas Mekas showing work at the Charles yet? Is that how you got hooked up with Taylor Mead—through the underground film scene?

I saw Taylor Mead in a film at the Charles called The Flower Thief, by Ron Rice, and I thought, wow, he is wild. When I was writing Babo 73, I wasn’t really thinking of him, but when it came time to do it, it was obvious, so I tracked him down. He was just fun to work with. And Jonas put that film on the map, because he wrote about it. We had a little press screening and everyone walked out of it except Jonas, I think, and a guy from The New Yorker, who liked it.

The original press release for Babo says “World’s Fair Employee Makes Feature Film in Spare Time.” Was that true?

[Laughs] Yeah, I was at the ’64 World’s Fair, working as a chemist, believe it or not, at the DuPont Pavilion. Then they put me in charge of the chemicals, which I knew nothing about. I had to go to Wilmington, Delaware, and learn the five tricks the actors did. So I had a couple of years out there when I could actually have a job and fool around with film.

Didn’t you also make commercials around this time?

Actually I did work at a place that was a production studio for commercials. On the strength of Chafed Elbows, this guy hired me to try experimental stuff. Slavko Vorkapich worked there too, because his son worked as a cameraman. We could kind of do what we wanted. Some guy came by one day and said, Could you make me something over the weekend about Preparation H? We’d like to try something different. So I made that with the line “No matter what your ethnic affliction use Preparation H and you can kiss your hemorrhoids goodbye.” Then we made another one for a look-younger cream, Alboline. We had a 120-year-old woman sit up in a coffin and every time she rubbed this stuff on her, she got 20 years younger, until she ended up a baby. Then it said, “Alboline: the look-younger cream. Good for diaper rash too.” That one they almost put on the air.

So how were your films shown theatrically? I noticed that there was a double feature of Chafed Elbows and No More Excuses at one point. Were you mixed in with things like the Kuchar brothers’ films or Andy Warhol?

Once in a while. Generally, Chafed Elbows was at a place called the Gate Theater, which was on Second Ave. Then somebody I knew at the Bleecker said, When Chafed Elbows is finished at the Gate, I want to put it with Scorpio Rising and make a double bill. and that’s what created a big audience, those two together. They ran a long time at the Bleecker.

Was Scorpio Rising new at the time?

Not really—I knew what it was already. I might have seen it at Jonas’s place.

That’s kind of a strange double bill.

Well, it worked out in a way. It got banned in Boston because of Scorpio, which helped it with bookings around the country at like colleges and stuff, but killed the theatrical. The double bill in New York must have gone 10 months—that was a big deal back then.

In No More Excuses you use this incredible footage of men and women in their twenties hanging out at singles bars, just there to get drunk and hook up. Where did you get that?

Somebody asked me to make a film for ABC about what’s going on in the singles bars. Because of Chafed Elbows they must have thought I knew something. So I just got a cameraman, and a friend of mine was an editor. We got paid, and then when we were finished with it, it only ended up like five minutes on ABC one night. We said, We have so much stuff, let’s throw some of it in, and then we decided to make this film No More Excuses with five strands intercutting with each other. It was just an experiment.

What type went to singles bars? They don’t seem like the kind of people you’d find downtown at the time.

I think from Jersey and Queens and Long Island. It’s all nonsense. Outrageous. There was just tons of people on that strip all the time.

Then you’ve got these scenes of a woman fooling around with a chimp in bed…

That was great. We had to hire him. In fact the trainer of the chimp, during the scene when the chimp is in bed with the couples, leans over to me and says, Do you want the chimp to really do anything? And I said no that’s fine. At that point somebody was removing the chimp’s underwear. It was just a funny moment.

The archivist at Anthology told me he was concerned the lab might not print that.

Well, back then one of the labs I was using, we found out later on, was printing pornography along with our films. All along I was worried that they’d be offended at our stuff. And they never were. Now I know why.

Could you tell me something about Moment to Moment? Was that also pieced together from different projects?

No, that’s something different. I had done a television special for Joseph Papp called Sticks and Bones, for CBS. It was based on a David Rabe play. Because Papp was putting Shakespeare on the air, he snuck that one in and they never read it. But when they saw it, they said, This is insane, we’re not doing this. So he went on their own network and called them cowards and they threw him off the air. But because it was about a returning POW and this was around 1973, the returning veterans from Vietnam heard about this thing, and there was an outcry. So they put it on, without any commercials.

So when that was over, he and I were talking once and I said, I bet I could make a film without a beginning or an end. Because Godard said that every film has a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order. So, I thought, why doesn’t someone really try that? Papp said, You’re crazy, but I’ll put some money up. So I started shooting it, and about two or three years later I finished. I would write stuff and we’d go shoot it and then I’d try to figure out what I should do next. It was a long haul and thank God the Telluride Film Festival finally took it and showed it at midnight. But that was the end of it really. I think it showed here in New York once at some festival. But it’s always been my son’s favorite film and he feels happy now that it’s going to show.

What’s it like to see all these old films together?

Well I was telling my wife, I was kind of amazed that when I went to the lab to see the three that have been restored, that there was laughter in the room from these technicians who worked on them. Because I just wouldn’t think anybody younger would appreciate this stuff. And I don’t remember that many laughs back then, even though people did sit through them. So I’m thrilled, and it’s made me realize I want to go back to black-and-white with my new stuff. Something about it that’s better for me, maybe better for anyone. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Courtesy of Robert Downey Sr. and Anthology Film Archives
George Morgan and Elsie Downey in Robert Downey Sr.'s Chafed Elbows
Photo Gallery: Wild Times


September 12-18, 2008 Robert Downey: A Prince


Ed Halter is an author, critic and curator whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Rhizome, The Believer and many other publications. He is former director of the New York Underground Film Festival and a founder of Light Industry, a new venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York.

More articles by Ed Halter
Author's Website: EdHalter.com