Mysticism in Film: ‘Greaser’s Palace’ (1971)

❉  Robert Downey Sr’s Greaser’s Palace is one hell of a bonkers movie.

If you had a triangle with El Topo (1970), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979) at its points, then Greaser’s Palace would be the shaded area in the middle. So, “What’s going down here?”

The titular palace is a saloon in a 19th century western town run by local big shot and murderous psychopath, Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson), where his daughter Cholera (Luana Anders) performs to the lecherous locals, and where his misfit son Lamy “Homo” (Michael Sullivan) generally makes a nuisance of himself, so much so that when the Holy Ghost (Ronald Nealy, playing the role with a sheet over his head like a kid on Halloween) burns him with a cigar causing him to interrupt Cholera’s opening number with his screams, the audience drag him outside where his father tells him to make for the border before shooting him dead and sending him off into the wilderness on the back of a donkey.

Yes. I did say the Holy Ghost. This is an acid western retelling of the Gospel. Sort of.

Jessy falls to Earth.

The townsfolk pay tribute to Greaser by handing him their taxes, and grovel before him to give their thanks. He responds by shooting a man who attempts to sing him a song, then makes his way to an outhouse on the roof terrace, where a 12-piece mariachi band, locked in the cage neighbouring the one in which Greaser keeps his mother, serenade him as he attempts to evacuate his bowels. The townspeople wait in anticipation below, but it’s to no avail. Greaser is permanently constipated.

While all this is going on, the Woman (Elsie Downey) is travelling through the countryside by covered wagon with her husband and son (a very young Robert Downey jr). They’re on their way to see Greaser for one last attempt to kick start her singing career before they buy a plot of land and start a homestead. But the dream is short lived; after bedding down for the night, the Woman wakes in the morning to find her family murdered, their throats slit, and she is forced to bury them. It’s quite a traumatic sequence, as is the murder–well, the first one–of the hapless Lamy by his own father, and the endless mood whiplash was likely a contributing factor to film’s failure at the box office. Things don’t much improve for the Woman, as she spends almost the entire movie crawling though an increasingly desolate landscape whilst continually being shot at by an unseen assassin, possibly Father (Woody Chambliss), a black-garbed, white-bearded preacher figure, who possess God-like omnipotence. At first, it comes across as cruel and shocking, but by the time, towards the end of the film, she’s pulling an arrow out of her thigh only for the wound to be immediately plugged by a second one, we’ve entered a state of nonchalant acceptance.

‘I can crawl again!’

Also arriving, though by much less conventional means is our hero, Jessy (Allan Arbus), a mysterious messianic figure who simply falls to Earth by modern-day parachute, and who walks with rhythm across the countryside wearing an anachronistic striped zoot suit, pink fedora, white gloves, Groucho Marx moustache and a magnificent jewfro. He’s on his way to Jerusalem to be an actor-singer. “It is written, that the agent Morris awaits me,” he says, in a dig to at the William Morris Agency, a gag that wouldn’t have been out of place in Downey’s earlier film Putney Swope (1968), which did for the advertising industry what Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) did for nuclear war. We’ll later discover that Morris is a space helmeted demonic figure who looks like a long-haired heroin addict in a pink blazer, platform shoes and no trousers.

As Jessy nears town, the Ghost leads the donkey baring Lamy’s lifeless body to him and announces “You’re on,” before buggering off to let the plot take its course. Jessy revives Lamy (“If ya’ feel, ya’ healed”) and Lamy awakens to announce that, “I was swimming with billions of babies in a rainbow, and they was naked, and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile.” He’ll repeat this vision of the afterlife with decreasing wonderment until finally telling his father that he doesn’t want to die anymore. Now with the Lazerus-like Lamy as his sidekick, Jessy attempts to head toward town, only for them both to spend the next 5 minutes trying and hilariously failing to mount the reluctant donkey.

‘You cwazy boy-eee!’ Jessy and Mr Spitunia share a moment.

In fact, the film is filled with extended gags and bizarre non sequiturs. When Jessy “cures” a disabled man, he throws his crutches away, falls to the ground and spends the rest of the film shouting, “I can crawl again!” There’s an Tarkovskian tracking shot of Greaser and his gang walking to nowhere in particular as a card sharp gets him to pick a card before spending several minutes repeatedly asking, “is this your card?” It never is. Herve Villechaize turns up at one point as Mr Spitunia, along with his bearded “wife,” to make increasingly creepy advances upon Jessy before grabbing him by the balls when he rejects them.

No wonder, then, that Jessy frequently asks the townspeople, “What’s going down here?!”

‘Oh Baby Jessy’s Back in Town!’ Jessy’s routine doesn’t go down well with the locals.

Jessy himself is a wonderfully bizarre figure, yet quite unlike those around him. He’s thoughtful, dignified and quietly bemused at the world in which he finds himself. His two big show pieces are performed with an almost oblivious self-confidence. The first, in which he leads the townspeople to the edge of a lake after reviving Lamy for a second time in full view of them, then proceeds to walk on water, is staged so matter-of-factly that it’s almost naturalistic. He parades around, bouncing ever so slightly and executing a clumsy forward flip like someone messing about on a giant waterbed. To top it off, he dives under the surface and emerges from the ground behind his audience as if nothing had happened. He’s like Bugs Bunny playing Jesus Christ. His second show piece, an anachronistic wacky rock ‘n’ roll musical number goes down like a lead balloon, but when he starts screaming in pain and stigmata appear on his palms, everyone applauds and Greaser declares, “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!” But just as Jesus preferred assembling flat packs, Jessy only wants to be a showman, not a messiah.

Completely wild and scattershot, Greaser’s Palace still manages to (sort of) come together in the end, becoming increasingly mystical in its final act. It’s a foregone conclusion, of course, that Jessy will end up getting crucified, but the manner in which it occurs is wholly unexpected. Like many of Downey Sr’s best works, it’s an absurdest satire populated with characters possessing names so ludicrous Thomas Pynchon would flinch, and filled with absurdist incidents so bizarre that working out what it all means becomes secondary to enjoying the surreal silliness of it all. This is, after all, a film in which the Devil goes by the name of Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana.

 About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.

 Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here:

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