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Life and Arts

DVD review: The early work of Robert Downey Sr.

Back in the late sixties, when Robert Downey Jr.was a toddler, his filmmaker father could get away with signing his movies “Robert Downey (a prince).” But ever since Junior hit the big time, Downey pere has had to put a “Sr.” after his name. Also, back then, the term “indie film” wasn’t much in use; non-Hollywood filmmaking in America was split between academia and what was called “underground cinema,” which existed mainly in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and a few other big cities.

Most underground cinema was non-narrative and often deadly serious and pretentious. So when Downey started making comedies that combined Groucho Marx-style dialogue, Richard Lester visual humor and a little too much sexual content to exist in the mainstream, they represented a welcome relief. Disc One in this new collection brings together his first three features, each of which is slightly under an hour — “Babo 73” (1964), “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “No More Excuses” (1968). “Chafed Elbows” (1969) — shot almost entirely on stills, ala Chris Marker’s classic “La Jetee” — is the funniest and made the most impact.

Disc two contains his crossover breakthrough, “Putney Swope,” an insane satire of advertising and the only film in the set to previously have been on DVD. Although this appears to be the same transfer, the commentary track and 16-minute interview from that 2006 edition unfortunately are omitted here.

Since “Swope,” Downey has made a number of studio films, including “Pound” (Jr.'s onscreen debut) and the outlandish “Greaser’s Palace” (essentially “El Topo” with jokes), which aren’t included. Also on this disc is the hour-long “Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight,” an uneven grab-bag of material that has — in different versions, starting in 1975 — also been shone as “Moment to Moment” and “Jive.”


It would be nice to see “Rented Lips” (1988) and a few other later Downey films arrive on home video one of these days.

“Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.” (Criterion Eclipse, DVD, 2 discs, $39.95)

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3)