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June 14, 2018

Greaser's Palace


Robert Downey - 1972
Scorpion Releasing BD Region A

I wouldn't be surprised if a smart programmer at at revival house like the Castro in San Francisco has already booked this program, but for those who like to create their own double features at home, I recommend pairing this new blu-ray of Greaser's Palace with Steven Shainberg's Fur. The older film stars Allan Arbus in the lead role, while Fur is a fantasy biography of Arbus' former wife, photographer Diane Arbus, in part inspired by "Beauty and the Beast". And the beast opposite Nicole Kidman's beauty was played by Robert Downey, Jr. The seven year old Downey, Jr. also makes an appearance in his father's film.

A bit of background here - Robert Downey was what was known as an underground filmmaker, based in New York City in the Sixties. Several of those films have been issued as part of a set by Criterion. One of the early films, Chafed Elbows was successful enough for Downey to make his only film that was a critical and commercial hit on a national scale, Putney Swope, in 1969. The time was right for a satire on Madison Avenue and Black power. Pound, produced for United Artists, with live people as dogs in a, yes, pound, came and went. Neophyte producer Cyma Rubin was still hoping lightning would strike twice, with Downey given a budget of nearly a million dollars to write and direct Greaser's Palace. Keep in mind that Putney Swope was made on a budget reported at $120,000.

As it turned out Greaser's Palace had a polarizing response of those who loved it or hated it. The new blu-ray comes with notes by Jonathan Demme who connected with the absurd sense of humor. I also saw the film at the time of initial release, but save for a few moments find the film more funny peculiar, kind of like the friend or acquaintance that tells a story with a few forced chuckles, capping his conclusion with a line like, "I guess who had to be there". Downey's film is a parody of westerns mixed with some religious symbolism which may have worked on paper, but is only effective intermittently on screen.

The title is a play on Caesar's Palace, with a small western town run by Seaweedhead Greaser. The town's populace is primarily grizzled old men. The only woman is daughter Cholera, who provides entertainment with singing followed by briefly exposing her crotch to the appreciative audience. Jessy, parachuting into town wearing an anachronistic zoot suit and large pink fedora, may or may not be the messiah.

Among the better moments are when Jessy, played by Allan Arbus, comes to the shack of Herve Villechaize, a gay Mexican bandit wearing an oversized sombrero. There is something unexpectedly touching seeing Villechaize inch up next to Arbus with romantic longing. In a later scene, a pioneer woman, barely surviving an Indian attack, crawls across the desert, pulls an arrow out of her bleeding leg, only to have another arrow shot into the exact same spot.

The blu-ray comes with a short interview conducted by writer Rudy Wurlitzer with Downey, discussing the history of the film. One of interesting anecdotes is that some of the casting was done near the office of Jack Nicholson, resulting in the casting of Luana Anders as Cholera and a topless Toni Basil as an Indian girl. Another notable credit is that of Jack Nitzsche for the song lyrics and music, one of his first film scores, with songs that almost sound authentic for the era.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 14, 2018 10:10 AM