Before his son and namesake grew up to be the edgiest Hollywood actor of his generation, Robert Downey enjoyed a small measure of celebrity as the edgiest indie cine-satirist of his. Downey, whose early work is showcased this week at Anthology Film Archives, is the missing link between the “sick” cabaret humor of the early ’60s and the considerably wilder countercultural gross-out burlesques that John Waters began making as the decade ended.
The young Waters would certainly have been aware of Downey’s example. The filmmaker’s greatest hit—and lone crossover—was the Madison Avenue/Black Power send-up Putney Swope (1969), but the Anthology retro features Downey’s first hit, the ultra-low-budget Chafed Elbows (the first underground movie to receive extensive favorable notices from New York’s daily critics), which opened in an East Village hole-in-the-wall in early 1967 and, at one point moving west to Bleecker Street, ran for six months—its success echoing that of the underground’s other blockbuster, Andy Warhol’s 1966 Chelsea Girls. Blithely transgressive, Chafed Elbows is an episodic Candide story in which a bland young slacker (George Morgan) wanders through Manhattan mixing it up with downtown artists, midtown cops, and uptown sock-sniffers. It ends happily when he marries his mother (Elsie Downey), moves to Queens, and goes on welfare. More amusing than funny, the hero’s adventures are enlivened by random sight gags (a guy painting a boundary on the street remarks: “You got to draw the line somewhere”) and Off-Off-Broadway director Tom O’Horgan’s faux-pop songs (“Hey-hey-hey with your black negligee”).
Much of Chafed Elbows is a kind of filmed fumetti, composed of serial still photographs. Nothing if not pragmatic, Downey followed up on this success a year later with No More Excuses, cobbled together from earlier and unfinished films. These include his first film, Balls Bluff, in which he wanders New York dressed as a Civil War soldier; a deadpan TV presentation in which the head of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals argues in favor of clothing all creatures “more than four inches tall and six inches long”; a re-enactment of President Garfield’s assassination; outré footage from a softcore sex film (naked fatties dry-humping to the theme from “A Man and a Woman,” a woman in bed with a chimpanzee); and, most interestingly, outtakes from a TV documentary that Downey made on the then-new phenomenon of singles bars. The free-associational montage suggests a derelict tribute to Godard’s Masculin Féminin or a primitive precursor of Dusan Makavejev’s WR.
Babo 73, the freshest (which is to say, the most blatantly infantile) of Downey’s early films, was shot during the summer of 1964 and released in the midst of the autumn presidential campaign. The mode is a shambling, lackadaisical slapstick in which the Free World’s leaders wander aimlessly, constructing toy missiles and waving toy flags. Although it manages to incorporate an actual military parade and satirizes the notorious anti-Goldwater “Daisy” commercial, Babo 73‘s best joke is casting downtown celebrity Taylor Mead as America’s president—and feasting on his spastic antics. A diminutive waif with a cretinous gaze and a hilariously mush-mouthed, whining drawl, Mead was often compared to the silent comedian Harry Langdon, but he also personifies a degenerate ruling elite—of all the ’60s underground clowns, he had the most fun playing the East Village idiot.