MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Robert Downey Jr. has been a busy actor recently. He's in four movies this year. But many people might not realize his father is also in the movie business. Robert Downey Sr. was a leading light in New York's underground film scene of the 1960s. Now, several of his early films have been restored with the help of a foundation headed by fellow director Martin Scorsese. Rick Karr has our story.
RICK KARR: Robert Downey Sr. is probably best known for his 1969 satire "Putney Swope."
(Soundbite of movie "Putney Swope")
Mr. RONNIE DYSON: (Singing) It started last weekend at the Yale-Howard game...
KARR: It sent up both Madison Avenue and American race relations.
(Soundbite of movie "Putney Swope")
Ms. SHELLEY PIMPTON: (Singing) You gave me a soul kiss, boy it sure was grand… Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY SR. (American Actor, Writer and Film Director): No, no, no. We were just out having fun doing this because we could. Here we were, writers and cameramen and stuff, saying, hey you've got a script? I've got a camera, let's go do something. That's all it was.
KARR: And that sense of, hey kids, let's put on a movie, comes through in the films recently restored by New York's Anthology Film Archives. Take Downey's biggest early underground hit, for example, an absurd comedy from 1966 called "Chafed Elbows." Its main character, Walter, wanders around New York City from one surreal encounter to another, cultivating his own nervous breakdown. At one point, an artist with a brush walks up to Walter on the street and paints something on his coat.
(Soundbite of movie "Chafed Elbows")
Mr. GEORGE MORGAN: (As Walter Dinsmore) What's going on?
Unidentified Man: I signed my initials on you. I call you man on street outside warehouse. As soon as you dry off, report to the Washington Square Gallery…
KARR: The initials the artist paints are 'A.W.' When I asked Downey whether that stands for Andy Warhol, he rolls his eyes like the answer is obvious. Back then, Downey says, everybody in New York seemed to know everyone else. Downey even worked with the young Woody Allen, and those interactions helped everyone's work.
Mr. DOWNEY: It was a small world, where everything collided. And people would help each other. You know, like you need a camera? Just get it back to me by Monday. Or editing room? You can use it Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, but don't be here Monday when we walk in, and leave me a hundred buck - that kind of thing.
KARR: The spirit of the random encounter is also at the center of another one of the restored films - another comedy, of sorts, from 1968 called "No More Excuses." It cuts back and forth between four storylines: one about the assassination of President James Garfield, another made up of documentary footage from New York's '60s singles scene, a third featuring a Civil War soldier lost in '60s New York, and the fourth featuring a very earnest moralizer.
(Soundbite of movie "No More Excuses")
Mr. ALAN ABEL (Vice President, Society for Indecency to Naked Animals): (As Himself) My name is Alan Abel, and I'm the vice president of SINA, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. Our organization is dedicated to the proposition that all animals should wear clothing for the sake of decency...
KARR: It's impossible to explain how it is that all of this nonsense just works. Downey and his collaborators manage to wring pathos and humor and even social comment that seems relevant today from the disparate stories. Anthology Film Archive's Andrew Lampert, who oversaw the restoration, says "No More Excuses" hadn't been shown for 40 years - which is a pity, he says, because it's truly a groundbreaking film. Even though Downey doesn't take the movie all that seriously, Lampert thinks it's as important as D.W. Griffith's masterpiece, "Intolerance."
Mr. ANDREW LAMPERT (Archivist, Anthology Film Archive): There are two films that both have multiple storylines and rather than being sort of smoothly interlaced, they just both hit the wall a million times over and just keep going. "No More Excuses" is as raucous a movie as you could imagine. I mean, you just keep waiting for the guy in the gorilla suit to come out but actually, it's a real gorilla, you know.
KARR: Lampert says Martin Scorsese's film foundation jumped at the chance to fund Anthology's restoration of "No More Excuses," "Chafed Elbows" and another lost Downey film, "Babo 73," which centers on a future, doltish president of the U.S. For his part, Downey says he's happy that his work has younger fans, especially those who were born after he made these films. He says their enthusiasm for his early work has inspired him, at age 71, to go to work on a new film.
Mr. DOWNEY: They've made me think about the time I have left on this planet, that I want to go back to that spirit of trying things and having fun and thinking about, you know, let's do something a little different than Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. Ugh, what a bore that is.
KARR: Downey won't say what his new film will be about. Until he finishes it, fans nationwide can urge their local art cinemas and screening rooms - those lucky enough to still have one - to get in touch with New York's Anthology Film Archives for one of the restored early movies. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.
BLOCK: And at our Web site, you can watch Robert Downey Jr. in a brief appearance in his father's 1975 film, "Moment to Moment." That's at npr.org.
(Soundbite of movie "Moment to Moment")
Mr. DYSON: (Singing) A pimple is simple if you treat your pimples right.
Ms. PIMPTON: (Singing) My man uses Face-Off. He's really out of sight, and so are his pimples.
BLOCK: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.
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