Home Video Hovel: Greaser’s Palace, by David Bax
I mean, I guess Greaser’s Palace is a Western. What else would you call it? It takes place in a tiny, dusty town in what is clearly meant to be the old American Southwest. But then a character in a Harlem Renaissance era zoot suit and a wide brimmed hat literally parachutes into a scene and the viewer doesn’t know what to make of him any more than the half intrigued, half suspicious townsfolk do. So now the movie is what? Fantasy? Parody? No, director Robert Downey Sr. eventually reveals that he’s made a comedic satire that’s hilarious, ugly and beguiling.
Allan Arbus, best known from his recurring role as Major Freedman on TV’s M*A*S*H, stars as Jessy, the guy in the suit who fell from the sky. His appearance shakes things up, not just because of the manner of his arrival but because he quickly reveals that he’s the only guy around who’s not cowed by Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson), the cruel and corrupt local businessman and de facto mayor of the town. What begin as hints that Jessy is some sort of Christ figure become increasingly literal as he begins raising people from the dead and attracting followers.
One thing Downey presumably felt the gospel was lacking, though, is song and dance numbers. Jessy’s boogie woogie song, performed to an, at best, nonplussed audience at Greaser’s saloon, is so terrifically catchy, I’ve been humming it for weeks.
Still, I hope not to leave you with the impression that Greaser’s Palace is a delightful romp. Remember when I said it was ugly? A lot of the humor is crude and scatological; the violence is sudden and messy. It’s not always a pleasant sit but Downey employs these vulgarities to achieve his allegorical ends. The people of this town (and, in Downey’s view, those of the world he aims to portray) are all in need of a release from their base, somatic existences. Whether horny or constipated, they are all, in one way or another, blocked up. Downey’s willingness to embrace the grossest parts of humanity on the way to divinity are sure to be a turn-off to some. But the dark sense of humor (one woman is gut-shot in an early scene and literally spends the rest of the movie dying in agony; this is played for laughs) and the fantastical visual sense (again, a guy parachutes into the Old West) make it worth seeking out.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Scorpion Releasing’s Blu-ray is of poor quality. It’s not the transfer itself, which maintains good color and texture throughout. The problem seems to be, perhaps, in the encoding. It’s possible I got a bad copy but the audio kept clipping and I repeatedly had to take the disc out of the player and restart due to skipping issues. The packaging is of flimsy material too.
Special features include an interview with the director and liner notes by Jonathan Demme.