As the 1960s drew to a close, so did the string of dark comedies; the real world was bleak enough, and audiences began to prize artificial optimism over satiric criticism. John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was seen at the time as aberrational; but by the end of the decade, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X had also been assassinated, and the public’s taste for “sick humor” started to wane. Simply surviving seemed a tough enough goal. Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), an updating of the Faust legend with Peter Cook as Satan and Dudley Moore as the hapless Stanley Moon, a short order cook, offered a graphic demonstration of the hopelessness of ambition. Stanley wants to be loved by Margaret (Eleanor Bron), a waitress at the Wimpy hamburger restaurant he works in, and Satan promises to help him in his quest with a series of seven wishes, but every time Stanley thinks up what he imagines to be a foolproof plan for romantic bliss, Satan can’t resist adding a little wrinkle to frustrate Stanley’s dreams.
For one wish, Stanley asks to be a pop star, and his wish is granted; shrieking a wanton ballad of unbridled lust, “Love Me,” on television, he seems to have attained Margaret’s love, until Satan, appearing in the role of a rival pop singer, begins intoning a dirge-like song of rejection (“You turn me off – go away – you disgust me – I’m not available”) that proves to be the next new trend in rock music, rendering Stanley’s pleading ballads obsolete. Stanley’s numerous other attempts to seduce Margaret, as an intellectual bachelor, and finally as a nun, also fail to work. In the end of the film, Stanley manages to escape from Satan’s clutches through a loophole in his contract, and is back at his old post, frying burgers, but this time, content with his lot. The film’s message is clear; one must be content with what one has, and not hope for more. Ambition, in a sense, is potentially disastrous.
Ambition also drives the crazed theatrical producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and the credulous accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) to concoct a fantastic swindle in Mel Brooks’ first film as a director, and one of his best, The Producers (1968). Bialystock, once the toast of Broadway, has been enduring a long run of flops, and is now reduced to sleeping with a string of elderly women for money to finance his increasingly impoverished lifestyle – and hopefully, his next play. But Leo comes up, albeit accidentally, with an even more ingenious scheme – deliberately produce a flop, oversell the production (ultimately, by 27,000%) to a group of unsuspecting investors, and then fly to Rio de Janeiro with the proceeds, because, as Leo points out, “no one audits a failure.” Casting about for the “right” property, the two men come upon the script for Springtime for Hitler, a play written by a psychotic former Nazi, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), who still dreams of restoring his beloved Führer’s reputation to its former “glory.”
Hiring an incompetent director, a drug-dazed actor for the role of Hitler, and even bribing the critics on opening night, Bialystock and Bloom (now “partners” in the spurious enterprise) are certain that the play will close immediately. But with the acid casualty Lorenzo St. DuBois, or LSD (Dick Shawn) as Hitler, camping it up on stage and improvising dialogue as he goes along, the audience, at first repelled, suddenly acclaims the play a riotous satire, “which will run for years.” Bialystock, Bloom and Liebkind then try to blow up the theater to prevent further performances of the musical, but are caught in the act, apprehended, and sent to prison. But, it seems, they haven’t learned from their mistakes. As the film ends, Bialystock and Bloom are mounting a new musical in prison, Prisoners of Love, and again overselling the production.
As with many of the films discussed in this essay, The Producers was only a modest hit when first released, as it managed to literally offend nearly every segment of the audience. Zero Mostel’s dalliances with a succession of aging dowagers is a start, but when you fold in a bimboesque “secretary” whom Bialystock hires to dance around the office just so he can ogle her, a series of deliberately insulting gay stereotypes (Christopher Hewitt as the inept director Robert De Bris, and Andréas Vontsinas as his equally flamboyant assistant Carmen Ghia), to say nothing of the central plot premise, a musical that seemingly glorifies Hitler and “the master race,” well, you’ve pretty much hit on all the bases.
Oddly enough, the film won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen – Mel Brooks, of course – but despite the film’s meager budget of less than a million dollars, the film failed to secure an effective release, and never reached a mass audience. Ironically, when Brooks adapted the film into a Broadway musical in 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the once “verboten” property suddenly became a smash hit; so much so that Brooks produced another film in 2005, based on the musical version of The Producers, directed by Susan Stroman, which also met with considerable commercial success. But neither project had the authentic bite of the original film.
In 1969, as the decade entered its final days, a young upstart in New York City decided that the time was ripe for a really offensive film, one that would truly knock down what little remained of the barriers to bad taste. Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, made for a mere $120,000, chronicled the rise to power of the eponymous title character, played by Arnold Johnson, as the “token black” on the board of an exquisitely corrupt advertising agency, who accidentally becomes Chairman of the Board when the former Chairman dies of a heart attack in the middle of a presentation to his staff. The other members of the board quickly vote on his successor, but since the bylaws prevent anyone for voting for himself, they all vote for Swope, whom they all figure no one else will endorse.
Swope immediately fires the entire board, with the exception of Nathan (Stan Gottlieb), an old timer he can easily manipulate, and hires his African-American friends as board members, renaming the agency the Truth and Soul Agency, or, as he puts it, “TS, baby!” At first, the new agency is shunned by advertisers, but Wing Soney (Tom Odachi) breaks the ice when he comes looking for someone to plug his new invention, the “Get Outta Here Mousetrap.” Swope immediately turns to Nathan, who delivers an impromptu pitch for a TV spot centering on Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, and then “knocking an Indian on his ass – then cut to a picture of a Get Outta Here Mousetrap, tell them how much it is and where to buy it, and that’s it.” Soney is amazed, reflexively asking, “who’s your shrink?” but then announces that he “digs it,” and signs on as a client. The resulting ad campaign is a huge success.
Soon, other manufacturers, such as Mr. Victrola Cola (Ed Gordon), are beating a path to Swope’s door. As he tells Swope, “I got this great window cleaner. Cleans good and doesn’t streak. Smells bad, though. Cleans good, but smells bad.” Swope has an instant and completely unscrupulous solution: “as a window cleaner, forget it. Put soybeans in it, and market it as a soft drink in the ghetto. We’ll put a picture of a rhythm and blues singer on the front and call it Victrola Cola.” And, of course, Swope’s plan works. Soon the Truth and Soul Agency is busy pitching breakfast cereal, in another innovative 30 second TV spot, featuring a 30s African-American man sitting at his kitchen table, wolfing down cereal. The narrator intones, in a voiceover, “Jim Keranga of Watts, California is eating a bowl of Ethereal Cereal, the heavenly breakfast. Jim, did you know that Ethereal has 25% more riboflavin than any other cereal on the market? Ethereal also packs the added punch of .002 ESP units of pectin!” Keranga considers this for a moment, and then says simply, “No shit!” as the commercial cuts to black. Then there’s the ad for Face Off Pimple Cream, featuring an interracial teenage romance set to this catchy jingle, sung by the young woman in the commercial:
“He gave me a soul kiss
It sure was grand
He gave me a dry hump
Behind the hot dog stand”
and ending with the catch phrase “he’s really out of sight … and so are his pimples.”
Soon Putney and his associates are rolling in cash, but Putney has had enough. Raiding the agency’s treasury, he is about to abscond with the payroll when he is intercepted by an employee known only as The Arab (Antonio Fargas, in an early role, before he went on to play Huggy Bear in the Starsky and Hutch television series), who knocks the suitcase of cash out of Swope’s hand, scattering it all over the firm’s gymnasium. In the end, no one gets the money, and Putney and the agency are shut down for good. Downey, a born rebel, started his career writing scripts for movies in the US Army’s stockade, where he was confined for “bad conduct.” At first, Downey wrote short plays, such as What Else is There (1960), in which, in Downey’s words, “the actors played [nuclear] missiles, in silos, ready to go off. It was kinda wild, pretty ahead of its time” (Dixon 2007: 121). From this, Downey progressed to Babo 73 (1964), a feature length comedy featuring veteran underground actor Taylor Mead as the President of the United Status (sic), which he shot on location in Washington, DC for fewer than $3,000. As Downey recalls,
“Tom O’Horgan, who later went on to do Hair, did the music. That was shot in 16mm, and we just basically went down to the White House and started shooting, with no press passes, permits, anything like that. Kennedy was in Europe, so nobody was too tight with the security. We were outside the White House mainly, ran around. We actually threw Taylor in with some real generals, and they of course were appalled by what we were trying to do.” (Dixon 2007: 122)
This led to Chafed Elbows (1966), Downey’s first film in 35mm, in which a mother and son fall in love, get married, go on welfare, and then the film turns into a musical. A solid commercial hit, Chafed Elbows led to Putney Swope, and Downey’s career as a radical satirist was born. Since then, he has been involved in a variety of other projects, but for many, the sheer nerve and intentional abrasiveness of his early films remains unique; indeed, Putney Swope was Downey’s biggest commercial success.
As we leave the decade, there’s one last film to consider; Kevin Billington’s British film The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970). Shot in 1969, Rimmer is perhaps the least familiar of all the films in this essay, but perhaps that’s because it’s so prescient, and so absolutely plausible. Peter Cook plays Michael Rimmer, a mysterious social climber with the power to easily manipulate all those around him to do exactly what he pleases. Walking in unannounced to a small, failing advertising agency, Rimmer soon becomes the managing director of the company, then smoothly insinuates himself into politics. With almost supernatural ease, he rises to the head of the Conservative government, and soon becomes the Prime Minister of Britain, using a variety of publicity ploys, duplicitous campaign tactics, and jingoistic sloganeering.
At the film’s end, Rimmer is poised to assume almost dictatorial powers over the remnants of the British Empire. Cook’s portrayal of Rimmer is cool, distanced, and soothingly sardonic, charming those whom he finds useful, and swiftly abandoning those below. Some have criticized Cook’s performance as being too detached and hollow, but I would argue that it captures the essence of political and social fraudulence; the hearty handshake that means nothing, the “sincere” smile that prefigures imminent personal betrayal, the lack of interest in others that marks a supreme narcissist, who is only interested in himself, and even more than that, in unchecked power.
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is thus a perfect film with which to conclude this essay; in its slick packaging, its bone dry humor, and the fact that it brought together rising talents – future Monty Python stars John Cleese and Graham Chapman collaborated on the film’s screenplay with Cook and Billington, and playwright Harold Pinter appeared in a significant supporting part – while also utilizing the talents of such gifted “dark” humor artistes as Dennis Price, Denholm Elliott and Arthur Lowe as members of the old guard, whom Rimmer easily leapfrogs over on his way to the top, the film is one of a kind. Kevin Billington, the film’s director, was more of a documentarist than a feature filmmaker, but he makes it work to his advantage, actually managing, in one scene, to use the real Number 10 Downing Street as a shooting location when Rimmer is installed as Prime Minister.
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is shot through with a sheen of glossy, fashion magazine color; the days of black and white are now firmly in the past. The 60s are over, the 70s are upon us. What will the films of the new decade say about our life? And what will we remember about the 60s as a whole? Perhaps it will be a curious mixture of hope and cynicism, fear and optimism, that always accompanies eras of dramatic change, when all the existing social codes and mores are called into question. The dark humored films of the 1960s gestured forwards towards an as yet undiscovered social order, while energetically lampooning, and thus rejecting, existing behavioral models. But when you knock down all the existing social structures, either through mockery, street theater, or political chase, what do you replace them with? With revolution comes change, and with change comes uncertainty, as the Watergate 1970s, which shook the foundation of the US political structure to the core, would soon demonstrate.
When these groundbreaking films were made, they projected an air of cheerful nihilism, as if the world they projected was simply too absurd to exist; in the 1970s, and beyond, that nihilism had become the stuff of everyday life. Despite their sardonic flair, the sick comedies of the 1960s offered by default a rather romantic vision of a world in which egalitarianism, hope, and the possibility of change still seemed possible. Now, that hope has vanished, and with it, the collective memory of these films, which hoped to bring about reform through withering social criticism. It didn’t work; the plutocrats won in the end. 1% of the population now famously control 99% of the world’s wealth. That’s a sort of dystopia that even these dark films couldn’t have imagined, as we move with uncertainty into the 21st century, our every movement monitored by surveillance cameras and tracking devices.
In retrospect, it seems that the darkest, most nihilistic films of the 1960s had their finger firmly on the pulse of the coming decade. We were leaving the known for the unknown, and as in the world of Michael Rimmer, superficial public impressions counted more than substance, style more than content, and everyone was now cast adrift in a world where all the old rules had been found hypocritical and therefore suspect, and were thus ridiculed, and abolished. The 60s’ most cynical films had thus accurately predicted the world we would now live in, our darkest, most paranoid dreams come true. But in the end, these films – as daring as they were at the time – paradoxically didn’t go far enough. Rather, they offer us a look back at our better selves, when the excesses these films imagined seemed simultaneously grotesque and remote. We could laugh about these shortcomings then; now, it’s just everyday life. And that’s the sickest joke of all.
This is the fourth and final part of “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s.” To: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University Press of Kentucky, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; revised 2nd edition published 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.
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The author wishes to sincerely thank Richard Graham of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Love Library for his invaluable assistance in the research for this article.